How a Hindu and a Sikh Saved the Life of a Future Muslim President of India

[Note: If it had not been for two concerned and sympathetic strangers, one Hindu and another Sikh, Jamia Millia Islamia’s then vice-chancellor and later president of India, Dr. Zakir Husain (1897-1969) would have been murdered in August 1947 during the carnage resulting from partition of India. Years later, he described the incident in a letter to his friend, which is reproduced here in a translation by C.M. Naim.]


You asked me to tell you what happened at the Jalandhar railway station in 1947. What can I say? To put it briefly, it was an opportunity to escape from life’s prison, but it too came to nothing.

I can’t recall the exact dates but it was in August. Some days after Independence had been proclaimed, I decided to go to Kashmir. I had not been feeling well for several weeks. My heart was not in my work anymore. I couldn’t sleep well at night. The doctors told me that I needed complete rest for some days. But how could I rest? Where would I find it? Several friends offered to make some arrangement for me, but I didn’t feel like troubling them. Finally, a friend wrote from Kashmir that he had rented a houseboat for me, and that I’d have total privacy on it if I could bring a servant along. The emphasis on privacy was because, at the time, I had become something of a misanthrope due to my ill health. And so it was that I set out for Kashmir accompanied by only an old servant.

The Delhi railway station appeared rather deserted when we arrived there. A friend from Jamia had come along to see me off, and he went about making enquiries. On coming back, he said, ‘They say your train will terminate at Jalandhar. There is some trouble beyond it.’ I replied that in that case I’d stay in Jalandhar for a few days since I knew some people there. The poor man, not wishing to argue with me, let me continue with my journey.

When the train left the station, I was alone in my compartment. I spread out my bedroll and lay down with a book. It was broad daylight, but I soon dozed off. A few stations before Ludhiana some armed men entered my compartment. They were somewhat surprised when they saw me. As they talked among themselves, I began to feel a little disconcerted. Then, at another station, a Muslim gentleman I knew came over from his compartment next door. That good man was so drunk that I couldn’t bear to talk to him, but still he sat down beside me. When he found out that I was going to Kashmir, he said, ‘There is no way you can go beyond Jalandhar. You must get down there and stay with me. My mother makes excellent Urad daal. I’ll have her make it for you. We’ll also invite the local leader of the Muslim League — the two of you will argue and I’ll listen and enjoy.’ His proposal didn’t make me very happy, but a Hindu co-traveller who had overheard him, said, ‘If you wish to go to Kashmir you should change trains at Ludhiana. There is a train from there to Ferozepur. It leaves around this time.’

At Ludhiana I got down from the train. The scene around me was very disturbing. A milling crowd. Harassed and bewildered faces. Many persons armed with pistols, others with swords. I walked across the bridge and went into the station master’s office. When asked about the train to Ferozepur, the good man nonchalantly replied. ‘It has been cancelled starting today. You should go to Jalandhar. They’ll take care of you there.’ When he spoke, he knew what was happening in Jalandhar, and how Muslim passengers were being killed at the railway station. Only much later did I realise what he had meant when he said that they would take care of me at Jalandhar.

Feeling very disappointed, I returned to my train.

My Muslim friend was standing outside his compartment, drinking something. He rushed over to me and said, ‘I’m not feeling well. Dysentery. I just took my medicine.’ Now I discovered that he had with him his son, a boy of about twelve. When the train started, he left the boy in his compartment and joined me in mine. He then went on babbling about God knows what.

Soon we arrived at Jalandhar. The platform was totally deserted except for a contingent of army men who seemed to have taken control of the place. When we got down, my confused friend declared, ‘There must be a strike of the coolies. I know the Superintendant of Police here; he is a friend of mine. He lives quite near by. I’ll go and send for his car. You stay here with the baggage.’

So, together with my servant and my friend’s son, I stayed with the baggage. Barely a few minutes had passed when some five or six men gathered near us. Big burly men who looked like wrestlers—with thick moustaches, bare heads, and lungis worn in the Punjabi manner. After whispering among themselves for a while they stepped closer and said, ‘Come, we’ll carry your bags for you.’ I replied, ‘My friend has gone outside. He’ll be back shortly, then we’ll go.’ In my innocence I had concluded that perhaps there actually was a strike by the porters, and that these men were volunteers of the local Seva Samiti who had come to help the passengers. At my response they showed some hesitation, but only for a moment; then their leader said in Punjabi, ‘Saamaan chuko,’ which probably means ‘Pick up the baggage.’

The men picked up our things and were about to move towards the exit when my friend returned. ‘Where are you carrying our baggage?’ he demanded. ‘There is something awful going on outside. The telephone line has been cut. I couldn’t get my friend’s car.’

‘Your baggage must go,’ the leader replied firmly.

When he heard those words, my inebriated friend, losing any awareness of our situation, slapped the man across the face. I was repulsed by what he did, but it also removed every veil from my eyes. In a flash the leader pulled out a huge knife from his waist and also made a gesture to some of the army men hovering near by. Two of them immediately leveled their rifles at my friend. The leader then put away his knife. Now it became clear to me: we were this burly man’s captives, and the soldiers on the platform followed his orders.

This was the scene now: the men carrying our baggage strode ahead while we trailed after them surrounded by our captors. The leader stepped close to me again and told me to hand over to him whatever money I had. I replied I had no money on me, that all my money was in my suitcase. He said, ‘That we already have.’ By now the men with the baggage had exited and were no longer in my sight. We had barely walked fifteen yards, but it felt [as if] I had walked many miles.

As our small group reached the gate, a Hindu gentleman suddenly grabbed my arm, exclaiming, ‘Doctor Sahib! Where are you going?’

‘I’m following my baggage,’ I replied. ‘It’s already outside.’

‘It’s Doomsday out there,’ he shouted. ‘No, you come with me.’

I don’t exaggerate when I say that he forcibly pulled me out of my group and dragged me into the station master’s office nearby. The SM was a Sikh. The Hindu gentleman told him who I was, but that good man didn’t utter a word in response. Then my Hindu benefactor, Kundan Lal Kapur Sahib, pushed me into a chair and rushed outside himself.

No sooner had Kapur Sahib stepped out that two Sikh malangs, with double-edged swords in hand, came and stood outside the office door, one on each side, glaring at me fiercely. Whenever our eyes met, they gestured to me to come out. But I followed Ghalib in that regard and: “baiThaa rahaa agarche ishaare huaa kiye” (‘remained glued to my seat despite all the gestures’).

Then I saw that Kapur Sahib had returned and was standing outside the door, animatedly talking to a Sikh officer of the army. Eventually the two came into the SM’s office, and the Sikh officer said to me, ‘Doctor Sahib, please come with me.’

I had seen how the soldiers had behaved just a few minutes earlier, and so I thought that now their officer had come to do the job more properly. But a few more words from him convinced me that he wanted only to help me. I told him I’d appreciate it if he could locate my servant and my friend and his son who had been taken outside with our baggage. He ordered two of his own Sikh troops to stand guard over me and himself went out to search. Returning a short while later with my three companions, he said, ‘I shall not look for your bags. It may put you at risk. I only want to get you out of here quickly and to some safe place.’ I told him I agreed with him. And so we stepped out of the station master’s office, with him leading the way.

Ah, the ‘colourful’ scene outside! Hundreds of armed men were milling around in front of the station building. One of the men was in shiny white clothes; he appeared to be their leader. There were several trucks standing nearby, loaded with fuel wood — I guess, to burn the corpses right away, for I could see some smouldering heaps of ashes here and there.

A portion of the crowd surged toward us, led by that white-garbed man. Our benefactor, Captain Gurudhyan Singh, raised his Sten gun and told the crowd not to come any nearer. The crowd stopped, but its leader shouted, ‘Why did you come here to get him?’

‘I didn’t come here to get him,’ the Captain replied, ‘I came here on another task. But when I learned who this man was I decided to take him away with me.’

‘No, give him to us.’

‘Don’t you feel ashamed as a Sikh when you ask another Sikh to betray these decent people?’

‘All right,’ the leader then said, ‘you go ahead and fulfil your promise. But then drop them off at the main intersection.’

‘No,’ the Captain replied, ‘I’ll drop them wherever I choose.’

We had kept walking during this exchange and now reached the Captain’s station-wagon. He told us to get in and himself escorted the leader back to his crowd. In that brief interval, the driver of the car, a Baluchi Muslim, told me, ‘He is all right, this man. He will not betray you.’ One loses all senses when fear takes over, for I heard what the man said but I felt as if it had nothing to do with me. Then Gurudhyan Singh came running back, jumped into the car with us, and ordered the driver to drive away fast.

My friend was no longer inebriated; in fact, he was now so scared that he appeared more witless than I did. As we drove along, he started muttering, ‘Where are you taking me? My house is in the other direction. Turn the car around. I want to know how my poor mother is.’ Gurudhyan Singh said to him, ‘Bhai Sahib, I don’t know you. I’m taking the Doctor Sahib with me. If you wish to come along, do so, otherwise I’ll drop you right here by the road.’ ‘Yes, yes, drop me here,’ my friend replied, but I intervened and told his son to hold on to him. We had gone a little distance further when my friend again spoke up, ‘All right, drop me here. That’s my friend’s house over there.’

Gurudhyan Singh knew the house. It belonged to Mr. Bedi who was at the time the Session Judge at Jalandhar. So he said, ‘Fine, you can get down here.’ But again I told the boy to stay where he was. He did. His father, however, stepped out of the car and went off toward the house. As it happened, we had stopped at the back of the house. The captain turned to me and said, ‘God knows if that man would reach where he’s going, for there seem to be some snipers around. They’re shooting from those upper-storey windows.’ He then had the car turned around and taken to the front gate of the house.

My friend, however, had reached safely and was then telling Bedi Sahib about my situation. Bedi Sahib knew me well. He had even visited the Jamia once, when he had spent quite a bit of time observing our projects. Hearing the sound of the car, he came running out to us and began insisting that I should stay with him. Gurudhyan Singh responded, ‘Bedi Sahib, friendship is nice, but do you have any way to keep him safe here?’ Bedi Sahib replied, ‘I have a unit from the army lodged here. He’ll be quite safe with me.’ It was then that Gurudhyan Singh left me, my servant, and the boy with Bedi Sahib and took his leave.

Both Bedi Sahib and his wife took great care of us, and urged us to stay with them as long as we wished. My friend, however, started clamouring to be taken to his own house. Finally, Bedi Sahib put him in his own car and sent him away, accompanied by three soldiers. My friend’s son didn’t go. He knew Bedi Sahib, and the latter insisted that our friend should leave him behind.

I saw some horrific sights from the roof of Bedi Sahib’s house. Houses were in flames everywhere. Even a few of the mansions near his place were burning. Deeply ashamed of what was happening, Bedi Sahib felt truly heartsick, but he didn’t know what to do. Pointing to a mansion nearby, he said, ‘A police officer now lives in it. A Deputy Superintendant of Police! He arrived here from Lahore just two days ago. His brother was slain there. His own house was plundered. When he reached here he had nothing, not even a pair of clothes. Yesterday he took the charge of his duties here. Now he lives in that mansion and watches these burning houses as so many fireworks.’

As I watched all that, even my slow brain finally grasped the reality. The next morning, when Bedi Sahib again told me to stay with him as long as I wished, I said, ‘Please Bedi Sahib, if it’s at all possible, get me back to Delhi.’ ‘In that case,’ he replied, ‘we must hurry. You must go back today. Otherwise, who knows how far worse things might get?’ I immediately agreed. Bedi Sahib then arranged for me to be escorted by some soldiers to the Jalandhar Cantonment railway station — not the City station where the previous day an interesting incident was left unfinished. My servant, it turned out, had some money with him, enough for our fares, so I didn’t have to borrow any from Bedi Sahib. We boarded the train, while our escort stood guard on the platform outside our compartment.

Finally, our train started. It was entirely filled with people who had come fleeing from Lahore and the towns near it after the carnage there. I shuddered as I listened to them talk. One had a sister killed. Another had lost his father. A third’s brother had been butchered. Someone’s wife had been abducted. As I listened to them, I wondered: why don’t they kill me? One of them mentioned that Professor Brij Narain had been killed in Lahore. He was a well-known economist. And a supporter of Pakistan too. I knew him personally as a generous and learned man. It occurred to me that I’d have no reasonable ground to object if one of the people attacked me to avenge Professor Brij Narain’s murder.

[Refugees fleeing on a train during partition of India in 1947 (Photo via Dawn)
[Refugees fleeing on a train during partition of India in 1947 (Photo via Dawn)]
Soon the train reached Ludhiana. The scene at the railway station was horrific. There was no killing going on, but the enraged and panicky crowd milling on the platform was enough to make you pray for God’s mercy. After a few minutes my servant whispered to me, ‘Miyan, those men we met in Jalandhar yesterday, they’re here on the platform. They have seen you, and are now talking among themselves.’ I could only assume that they were plotting to finish today what they couldn’t the day before. However, just then a train arrived from Delhi; those men boarded it and went back to Jalandhar.

I guess their practice was to examine the trains coming from Delhi at Ludhiana, and make note of all the Muslim passengers. Then at Jalandhar they ‘welcomed’ them properly, ‘assisted’ them with their baggage, and once they were outside, made all ‘necessary arrangements’ for them.

Our train stayed at the Ludhiana station for another hour. Several earlier trains going to Delhi had been attacked, and so the station master had requisitioned a unit from the army to act as our escort. We were told that we must wait for the soldiers to arrive from Ambala. I can’t tell you how long that one hour seemed. All around us in the compartment were grief-stricken people, sobbing and weeping as they shared the horrors they had experienced. And when they recognised someone in the crowd on the platform they shouted: did you see our mother? Any news of my sister? Did your brother manage to escape? The answers shouted back only added to their pain.

Suddenly a young man entered the compartment, came over to me and asked, ‘Are you Dr. Zakir Husain?’ I told myself, ‘The summons have come,’ but to him I said, ‘Yes, I’m he.’ He then bent down and touched my feet. ‘Bhai,’ I exclaimed, ‘what are you doing?’ He replied, ‘But, sir, you’re my teacher.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘but I don’t know you.’ He said, ‘It’s true you don’t know me, but you’re my teacher’s teacher. I studied with Surya Kant Shastri-ji, and he was a student of yours. He often spoke to us about you.’

Then he said, ‘You’re doing something awfully risky travelling in this train. It’s filled with people fleeing away from Punjab.’ ‘Bhai,’ I replied, ‘I have to go to Delhi, and this is the only train that goes there. I came to Jalandhar yesterday; now I must get back.’

I then asked him to tell me about himself. He had been a lecturer in a college. His house was attacked in the riots, and he had barely managed to escape with only a bundle in his hand — a bundle of the examination copies he had been grading. His affection and kindness greatly moved me. I regret that I can’t recall his name now. He never got in touch with me later to assert any claim on me. Anyway, he instructed two of his youthful companions to sit with me, and told me not to step out of the compartment for any reason. ‘Just tell these boys if you need anything to eat or drink. They’ll go and get it for you. We don’t know when the train will start again, and right now things are very bad on the platform.’ One of the two youths who kept me company was named Chabra. He presently works in some government office here in Delhi and has stayed in regular touch with me.

Finally, by God’s grace, our train started again, and eventually we reached Delhi. Me and my servant, with nothing but a durrie [=a light rug] and an empty lota [=a water-vessel] between the two of us.

The letter has grown long. I don’t know what moved you to ask me about that incident, but I didn’t feel like writing about it briefly to you. When I recall the incident, or someone reminds me of it, I truly am amazed at my own stupidity. But then I don’t feel any regrets either. Perhaps I much more prefer putting my trust in others through stupidity, than trying to be smart and suspecting their intentions.

What I saw in Delhi after I returned made insignificant what I had witnessed at Jalandhar. Such wretched scenes of meanness, barbarism, and ruthlessness that they left you stunned. But with the passage of time, all those experiences have faded. Now I only remember this: Kapur Sahib, a Hindu unknown to me, learned somehow who I was; he then spoke to a Sikh army officer, another stranger to me, who put his own life at risk to save mine; Bedi Sahib, who looked after me like a brother; and then that young student and his friends who escorted me back to Delhi.

I escaped death, but I can’t decide whether I’m happy about it or ashamed.

I received the gift of life a second time, but I didn’t make any use of it. My sense of shame at that is far greater. Please pray that I live the rest of this life properly, and that my end be well. I have narrated in full that incident for you alone. It would be best if you kept it to yourself.

Dr. Zakir Hussain Mausoleum


[Translated by C. M. Naim., Professor Emeritus, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago. This copy of the letter, obtained from, was first published in the Outlook India magazine titled, “A Day In August, 1947” dated Oct. 29, 2004.]

[Translator’s Note: The letter has been reproduced in full in the biography Shahid-i-Justuju, by Ziaul Hasan Faruqi, and in the collection of letters Zakir Sahib Ke Khat, Vol. III, edited by Mukhtaruddin Ahmad. The original is preserved in the Maulana Azad Library at Aligarh Muslim University.]

[C.M Naim’s Note: In 1947, Dr Zakir Husain (1897-1969) was heading the Jamia Millia Islamiya in Delhi. A diabetic, his health had been giving him much trouble for some months, but as usual he had not curtailed his activities. Emotionally too it was a most taxing time for him. Some sense of how deeply anguished he felt can be had from his concluding remarks at the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the Jamia in November 1946. With Jawaharlal Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad on one side and M. A. Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan on the other — the four sitting on the same stage perhaps for the first and only time — Dr Zakir Husain said:

The “Poet of India” [Rabindranath Tagore] said, ‘Every child born in the world brings a message for us that God has not completely despaired of Man.’ We are educationists; as demanded by our work, we learn to respect every child. How can we communicate to you what we feel when we hear that even innocent children are not safe in this raging storm of barbarity? Has our land’s Man so given up on himself that he wishes to crush even these innocent unopened buds? For God’s sake, come together and find a way to extinguish this fire of mutual hatred. This is no time to argue who lit the fire, or how it was lit. The fire already rages around us. You must first extinguish it. It is no longer an issue of the survival of any one qaum. The choice now is between civilized humanity and barbaric bestiality. For God’s sake, do not let the foundations of our civilized life be dug up and cast to winds.

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