This is the story of my paternal grandmother, based on eyewitness accounts. Sujangarh in Churu district of Rajasthan now has a population of more than 1.5 lakh and since 1947, there has been no incident of Hindu-Muslim riots/animosity in spite of many provocations.

March 1947 was an extraordinary time throughout India. The atmosphere was tense with anticipation and speculation, after almost a century and a half; the British rule was about to end.

But to the residents of Bikaner, or other similar princely States, the ruler was a Maharaja. To them the presence of the British was represented only by the British Resident, who acted as a liaison between the princely State and the government in Delhi and the other was circulation of the British currency.

In princely States, for both the rulers and the people, independence had a very different and more complex meaning.

Maharaj Sardul Singh Ji, ruler of Bikaner, was the first and foremost ruler who agreed to merge his State with independent India. It was a triumph for both, the foresightedness of the Maharaj and the negotiating skills of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — first Home Minister of independent India.

Sujangarh was a small town in 1947 with hardly a population of 30,000, 20% of them Muslim. It bore the burnt of Partition and its aftermath as hordes of Hindu refugees from the Sindh province, that had fallen within the boundaries of Pakistan, flooded Sujangarh.

Though Sardul Singh and his able administration guaranteed the safety of the Muslim population, some families crossed over to Pakistan. In Sujangarh, life was calm on the surface but an undercurrent of tension and uncertainty prevailed. With the influx of Sindhi Hindu refugees, who brought with them horrendous stories of carnage, butchery and brutality, the Hindus and Muslims, who had been living like brothers for centuries, suddenly became pawns in the game of political machinations.

Our sprawling haveli, located on the station road of the town, had Bisayati Muslims as neighbours in the north. They were living in mud and straw huts, doing petty hawking trade and manual work. There were other Muslim communities such as Chhippas, Nilgars, Bhattis, Mohils, Kayamkhanis and Lakharg residing in their own mohallas and mostly settled in the eastern or southern part of the town.

Local miscreants, with help from the Sindhi refugees, hatched a plan for revenge — the Bisayati Muslims were their target as they were vulnerable more than other Muslims. In the dark pitch of night, the criminals entered the Bisayati busti and torched the huts and burnt their wherewithal. And there was a shrill cry Bachhao! Help! from the men, women and children. They ran helter-skelter for protection. Finally, they knocked on the gates of our haveli for protection and help.

Kesar Devi Sethia, affectionately called Maaji Sahib, who saw the carnage from her room, came down to the main gates and ordered Thakur Sawai Singh and Thakur Jeewan Khan — guards of the haveli — to let them in; all Bisayatis with their terror-stricken families were housed in the huge ghumarias (a basement storehouse) and subsequently the gates were closed.

A menacing crowd, wielding arms and burning torches, was pushing the gates. Maaji Sahib calmly argued with it but to no avail. The crowd threatened to break open the gate and kill everyone inside. However, Maaji Sahib told them firmly that these Bisayatis were like her children and sarnagat, and she was their protector. Finally, she ordered both Thakurs to shoot anyone who dared cross the gate.

However, this did not halt the clamour for blood and revenge. Maaji Sahib, then, unsheathed her sword and, like the protecting goddess Durga, challenged the crowd, saying that they had to kill her first before attacking any person within the haveli gates. She ordered both guards to first fire in the air and, if anyone dared cross the gates, shoot him dead. Once a few shots were fired in the air, the marauding men took to their heels.

Till dawn, in spite of umpteen threats, she stood there like a rock and did not budge from her resolve and adhered to the dharma of sarnagat, the most important trait of a Kshatriya.

About 150 people were housed, fed and looked after well for more than a month. The Bisayati Muslims enjoyed the hospitality and benevolence of Maaji Sahib. They were free to offer regular prayers and perform rituals. Even a few children were born and marriages formalised (as Bisayatis had the custom of child marriage). The entire expense was borne by Maaji Sahib.

Once the situation calmed down and normality returned, the refugees left the haveli with a heavy heart. Maaji Sahib helped them with cash and kind to rebuild their life.

The Bisayati Muslims always remembered the kindness and protection provided by Maaji Sahib and, as a mark of respect and gratitude, would bring the tazias to the haveli during Muharram. Their sentiments were always respected and reciprocated.

Generations have passed but this incident of bravery and adherence to dharma is etched in their memory. Their descendents still follow the custom of bringing the tazias to the gates of the haveli.

(The writer’s email is umraosinghsethia@hotmail.com)

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