First Hand Account of Delhi During Partition in 1947

Author: Major General SS Chhachhi, SM (Retd)

Period: July 2013 - September 2013

First Hand Account of Delhi During Partition in 1947

Major General SS Chhachhi, SM (Retd)*

At the time of Partition in 1947, I was Second-in-Command of 8 Engineering and Maintenance Company, Bengal Sappers, which was the only Engineering Unit in Delhi, in what later became the Delhi and East Punjab Command. Our charter in Delhi was to look after the essential services of the city. We had detachments at all the major installations, such as Water Supply, Sewage Stations and Electric Supply Stations. Small detachments were assigned to each location and we had the facilities to move around all over the city of Delhi.

                As the partition of the country began, in Aug 1947, huge numbers of refugees began to come to Delhi from across the new border, and in Delhi, large number of Muslims wishing to cross to the other side were gathered in camps. Both these groups of people required substantial welfare support, which was also provided by us.

                As news of attacks on the trains built up, we then needed to provide support for the troops attached to the refugee trains for their protection. To carry out this task, we created sandbag ‘sangars’ on the train flats on which the troops could ride and repel the attacks. Within the city, Paharganj area was overtaken by internecine violence and many buildings were burnt. These had to be demolished, to ensure safety, so that they did not collapse on top of people. We carried out these demolitions in the midst of the riot situation.

                Another really unpleasant job also came into our charge. About 2,000 people had been massacred in the city. The bodies had to be disposed off. We used bulldozers and dug mass graves in Azadpur where these unfortunate people were buried. Strangely enough, at the same time, Delhi got floods. We were able to commandeer ‘six wheel-drive’ amphibious vehicles (DUKW’s known as Ducks) from the local ordinance depot and used them to help the affected people. At the other edge of the city, in Gurgaon, a group of Meos, Muslim tribals, were stranded without any water. We supplied water to them, ensuring their survival.

                Perhaps the most memorable task I performed was in Jan 1948. Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated at the Birla House. We were ordered to provide a vehicle to carry his body to the cremation grounds. We prepared a vehicle overnight and reached the Birla House early in the morning. A long discussion ensued between Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel, who could not decide whether the Mahatma’s body should face the front or the rear of the vehicle. Finally, it was decided that the body should face forward. We built a sloping platform for this.

                I then drove the vehicle. I had already placed 50 men with ropes attached to the front of the vehicle. This proved to be fortuitous, as the vehicle refused to start! At my signal, they pulled on the ropes, and the vehicle started. I drove the cortege up to the India Gate until, overwhelmed by emotion, I handed over to another driver.

                There are many other incidents which I will not mention in detail here – such as providing support to the infantry troops who were under attack from Muslims holed up in Delhi Gate (on seeing a bullock cart full of dead bodies), while going to the Unit HQ in the Cantonment, etc. However, I will recount an amusing situation that arose at the Viceregal Lodge during this period. The entire staff at the Mountbatten residence had gone on strike. We were asked to supply semi-skilled Sappers to help out. They did so well that Lady Mountbatten told me that she would rather have my men than her regular staff!


* Major General SS Chhachhi, SM (Retd) was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers (Bengal Sappers) on 14 Oct 1944. He retired as Chief Engineer, HQ Western Command on 7 May 1979.

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLIII, No. 593, July-September 2013.


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