“Please give me a visa. I want to go to my brother as soon as possible,” says Sikka Khan. A frail man in his 70s, Sikka has spent his entire life waiting for the moment when he met his elder brother this sunny Monday at Kartarpur Gurdwara. Now, every day of being apart is tough.
Sitting at the house of Jagsir Singh in Phulewal village of Bathinda district, surrounded by listeners who can’t have enough of this lost-and-found Partition story, Sikka says: “This village has always supported me. I have lived a good life here. I love them and they love me. But I also want to live with my brother. I hope the Pakistan government gives me a visa… I will keep coming back for a few months every year. This is how I want to spend the rest of my life.”
Seventy-four years after the border split the two Punjabs, leaving Sikka and his mother on one side and his elder brother Sadiq Khan and father in the Pakistani part – never to be together again – all it took for the search to end was a video shared on social media. A day after a YouTuber in Pakistan, Nasir Dhillon, uploaded Sadiq’s appeal, he got a call from a rural medical practitioner from Sikka’s village. It took two more years though for the brothers to finally meet, overcoming the paperwork.
Dhillon runs a YouTube channel called Punjabi Lehar with more than five lakh subscribers in the two Punjabs, focusing on Partition stories, and the shared Punjabi culture and heritage.
Dhillon was passing through village Bogran in Pakistan’s Faisalabad district as part of his work in 2019 when he heard the story of Sadiq, who is in his 80s. About how, in the summer of 1947, he and his father left his maternal home in what would become Indian Punjab, without his younger brother and mother, and found themselves in two different countries.
“Sadiq believed strongly that his brother was still alive, and requested me to help him,” says Dhillon. The YouTuber made a video and shared it on social media, asking for information on Sadiq’s family.
Within a day, he was contacted by Jagsir Singh, the rural medical practitioner and dairy owner from Phulewal. He said the man Sadiq was looking for was Habib alias Sikka Khan, who lived in their village.
Singh says Sikka Khan and his relatives were among the Muslim families the village sheltered during Partition. “Sikka and his mother were guests at the village at the time. His maternal grandparents’ family still lives in Phulewal.” There are seven Muslim families in the village in all.
The brothers lost both parents soon after. Sikka told Sadiq how their mother killed herself when he was 4. Sadiq said their father Wali got separated from the rest of the family in the mayhem after Partition and they never found him.
Singh says the mother could not bear the pain of the loss of her husband and elder son. “She lost her mental balance, and committed suicide by jumping into a canal. Sikka was brought up by his maternal grandparents.”
Sikka made a living working as a farm labourer with a Sikh family. Most Muslim families in the village raise livestock for a living, having sold their lands. While many have taken on Sikh names, and some wear turbans, they continue to practise Islam.
Singh says the village is very fond of Sikka, a hardworking man who has never been any trouble for anyone. “As he never married, he treated the whole village as his family.”
Just about two at the time of Partition, Sikka says he kept trying to find any clue that could lead him to his brother and father. “A Muslim man in a neighbouring village had family in Pakistan and he would go there. He once gave me an address saying it was of my brother. I found someone to write a letter in Urdu and sent it. But I never got a response. Then I came to know the address was wrong.”
Soon after Dhillon’s video put them in touch, Sadiq and Sikka saw each other for the first time in 70 years on a video-conference call. They exchanged photos. However, their wait to meet kept getting extended.
“The two didn’t have passports, so first we arranged those. Then, neither could get a visa. After that came Covid-19 and the borders were closed. Finally, the reopening of the Kartarpur Corridor in November presented an opportunity. We decided to arrange the meeting of the two there,” says Dhillon. The corridor allows pilgrims from India access without visa to the shrine, but they have to return from there.
Singh says they had also applied for a visa for Sikka to travel with the Sikh jatha that goes to Pakistan on the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. “He got the visa but we came to know of it late and he couldn’t go.”
The whole Phulewal village joined in the celebration when Sikka finally left for Kartarpur Gurdwara. “Many gave me money as I was leaving. Around 15 of them went with me,” says Sikka.
Phulewal feels as if it is part of a movie script, laughs Singh. “Our village protected the Muslim families here. We have new pride in what our elders did.”
In the video of the union that has since gone viral, the two brothers can be seen making their way uncertainly towards each other, before collapsing into each other’s arms and breaking down in loud sobs. “See, I told you we would meet,” Sikka tells Sadiq.
Dhillon says: “Every person who was present on the sacred land of Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib had tears when they saw the two.”
Sikka says Phulewal ensured he never missed having a family of own, till now. “My brother has a big family. He has children and grandchildren. Around 50 of them came to the gurdwara. I want to spend time with them. We had very little time at the Kartarpur shrine… send me to them,” he appeals again.
Hard of hearing, Sadiq tells The Indian Express over the phone from Pakistan that he can’t wait to have his younger brother with him. Barely a boy of 10 when they were all together last, he recalls them living in Kokari village near Jagraon. “I found him at this age, but I am glad I did. I want him to come to me. I request the government to give him a visa.”
They talk now almost every day. In a phone call on Thursday, Sadiq suggested to Sikka that he get married now. Both had a hearty laugh.