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'Grown men were crying in fear, hiding under the seats... for many years after this I was afraid I might be shot'

 

By Malachi O'Doherty

As one of Northern Ireland's leading entrepreneurs, Lord Rana saw his businesses attacked 16 times during the Troubles, but his first experience of coming under fire was as a terrified nine-year-old on a train on the India/Pakistan border 70 years ago this week.

A child on a train hears bullets rattle along the carriage exterior. He sees things he has never seen before, adults afraid, weeping and crouching in terror.

They are afraid because they know things the child does not know; that trains like this, carrying Hindu refugees to India, have arrived with every passenger dead.

The child who fled Pakistan after the partition of India 70 years ago this week was among millions who were suddenly rushing to either side of the new border.

He came close to being one among the million who died in that calamitous upheaval in those first weeks after independence was won by India and Pakistan.

But this child now lives in Belfast, where there are other stories about partition and sectarian violence, though none of them on the scale he knew before he came here.

He is Lord Diljit Rana, widely known for his hotels and other business ventures.

But his first acquaintance with chaos and terror was 5,000 miles away.

As in Belfast, some of those who suffered attack were the least bigoted; people who thought they would be safe in another community because that was where their friends were.

Rana says: "My father Paras had lived among Muslims for nearly 15 years, so he decided not to leave."

He knew his history, which recorded that Hindus had previously lived under Muslim rule for centuries and, after that, under British rule.

"So, he believed he could live in Pakistan. 'We are going to stay,' he said. Some of our neighbours had left by then. I knew that, but I did not fully comprehend the implications.

"But then, in the first week of September, he was attacked after being caught up in communal riots in the city.

"He was healthy and athletic and was very lucky to escape.

"But what really shocked him was that he knew at least one of the Muslim assailants."

So much for the assumption that he would be safe.

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Diljit Ranas parents Paras and Jawala

"I have a very vivid recollection of my father coming home after that incident very shaken. He said to my mother Jawala: 'Let's go, let's go, let's go', and they packed up one suitcase, leaving everything else they possessed in the house.

"I remember my father locking up the house and giving the keys to a friend, who was a Muslim, and telling him that as soon as things settled down, we'd be back."

But they would not be back.

They travelled first to a refugee camp on a tonga - what used to be called a jaunting car - with their luggage bundled round them.

His mother was pregnant. He had his ninth birthday in the camp, in a tent, with no running water or sewage facilities, and basic food.

But they were still in Pakistan and needed to get to India to be sure of being safe. It was difficult to leave because of the huge crush of refugees at the railway station, but Diljit's father decided to try to take his family on board a train to Ferozepur.

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Diljit Ranas with his father in 1982

The train was attacked twice, though he doesn't know if anyone died. He remembers the patter of the bullets striking the bodywork near him.

"I was amazed at the sight of grown men crying in fear, hiding under the seats. I had never seen anything like that before. For many years after this I was afraid I might be shot."

There was more than one attack on the train.

"One night the train was stopped on a river bridge. The idea was to kill us and throw us in the river," he explains.

"The driver was a Muslim, so he ran off, leaving the train there.

"One of the army guards, a Hindu, was very vigilant, so he threw up a flare to light up the night sky and saw the driver running away. He ordered him back and put him in the engine room at gunpoint, with two soldiers guarding him."

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Muslim refugees flee from New Delhi to Pakistan in 1947

That journey took two days rather than the normal 12 hours, and the terrified refugees would not drink the water that was available to them

"At every station there were rumours that the water had been poisoned, so we didn't drink it, and we had no food either.

"I cried for water. This was in September, so it was hot, in the mid-30s. My mother was distressed."

There was support for refugees in Ferozepur, but they could not stay there.

They travelled on to Jalandhar, where they hoped that one of his father's relations, a captain in the Indian army, could put them up, but he was away.

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Major TJ Monaghan (left) and Pvt H Farabrother of the Inniskilling Regiment survey the wreckage after riots in Amritsar in India

They continued their journey to Hebowal, his father's ancestral village, but even though they were now in India the ordeal wasn't over.

"Our journey was complicated by floods, which washed away many bridges. The train came up to a point and the railway track was just hanging in the air. There was a choice: either you walk across those railway sleepers, or you are lowered down and waded across the river."

Because Diljit's mother was pregnant and could not be lowered on a rope, they walked across the unsupported railway line.

"We were high over the water, perhaps 50 feet. It was like a rope bridge. We were afraid, but you don't think when you don't have a choice. My father was helpless.

"We had been warned not to drink the river water because dead cattle and people had been washed away, but we ignored all that and did drink it, because we were thirsty."

Today Lord Rana is a wealthy entrepreneur with a property portfolio and hotels, including the Crowne Plaza.

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Diljit Ranas father

He is helping to develop a university in the Punjab through The Lord Rana Foundation Charitable Trust.

But before he had anything he was a refugee, fleeing under fire.

He came to Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s, 20 years after the horror of that train ride and before the Troubles started. His life has since been shaped by local violence as he sought to build his portfolio.

He has endured 16 bomb attacks on his restaurants and hotels, two of them on the same day.

His father, who had brought his family through fire and flood out of Pakistan, followed him on that dangerous journey.

When Lord Rana and his family were held up and robbed at gunpoint in their Belfast home, Rana senior was upstairs in bed, dying of cancer.

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