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YouTube videos are helping reunite loved ones separated by the India-Pakistan border

Friends Nasir Dhillon (left) and Papinder Singh run a YouTube channel, Punjabi Lehar, that tries to heal the wounds of Partition through reuniting loved ones separated when British-ruled India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan, 75 years ago.
Diaa Hadid
/
NPR
Friends Nasir Dhillon (left) and Papinder Singh run a YouTube channel, Punjabi Lehar, that tries to heal the wounds of Partition through reuniting loved ones separated when British-ruled India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan, 75 years ago.

BUREWALA, Pakistan — In a YouTube video watched hundreds of thousands of times, an elderly man with a long gray beard and black turban hugs his sister for the first time since she was separated from her family, 75 years ago.

They met in May at a border crossing between India and Pakistan. Mumtaz Bibi, wearing a pink headscarf, is a Pakistani Muslim. Her brothers Gurmukh Singh and Baldev Singh, who were both there at the border to meet her, are Indian Sikhs.

The event that separated her from the family in 1947 was one of cataclysmic proportions: the Partition of British-ruled India into two new states — independent India and Pakistan, the latter created as a homeland for Muslims.

The Partition sparked one of the biggest migrations of the 20th century, with an estimated 10 million people fleeing across the newly drawn borders: Hindus and Sikhs to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. Perhaps a million were killed.

Families like the Singhs' were torn apart. As Mumtaz Bibi's father fled to India, his wife — Mumtaz's Bibi's mother — was killed, and Mumtaz Bibi, then just a baby, was assumed by her father to have died with her mother. But a Muslim couple found her lying next to her dead mother and raised her as their own.

The Pakistani men who reunited Mumtaz Bibi with her brothers are Papinder Singh and Nasir Dhillon. They're friends who've gained a reputation for finding loved ones lost during Partition.

"We are trying to connect loved ones before it's too late," says Singh. "We want to bring peace to people who've held this pain in their hearts for 75 years."

An unlikely friendship helps heal the wounds of Partition

To do that, Singh and Dhillon, both in their mid-30s, have been creating videos that go viral. For the past six years, they've produced the videos in a makeshift studio in Dhillon's garage in a half-built gated community in the industrial city of Faisalabad, where he runs a real estate company. They upload the videos to their YouTube channel, Punjabi Lehar, which has some 600,000 subscribers and more than 97 million views.

Shahid Masih and his father, Rafik, hold up a picture of Rafik's uncle and his wife, whose descendants they met in February at a border crossing after decades of separation. The reunion was arranged by Papinder Singh. Rafik's father, Iqbal, who hoped to meet the children and grandchildren of his Indian siblings, passed away before the reunion occurred.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
/
NPR
Shahid Masih and his father, Rafik, hold up a picture of Rafik's uncle and his wife, whose descendants they met in February at a border crossing after decades of separation. The reunion was arranged by Papinder Singh. Rafik's father, Iqbal, who hoped to meet the children and grandchildren of his Indian siblings, passed away before the reunion occurred.

The videos feature people talking about how they lost family members during the chaos of Partition. In some lucky cases, viewers help track down missing loved ones. Singh and Dhillon also call on their own network of contacts in India, built through years of investigations.

Singh says the videos go viral because many Pakistanis and Indians want to heal the wounds of Partition. The comments left on the YouTube channel from Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs reflect that desire.

"My message to all the Punjabis on the other side of the border that we are one and that our ancestors were one," wrote one person with the username Muhammad Bin Ali, commenting on a video showing two brothers reuniting. "There is certainly more that joins us than ... differentiates us. This is high time for us to join hands."

Singh's favorite video shows two childhood friends, one Sikh and the other Muslim, meeting for the first time since Partition. In a scene watched some 2 million times, the two men embrace in a bear hug.

The video is a message, Singh says: "The Partition happened, but we can move on and show each other love."

And that message is reflected in Singh and Dhillon's own unlikely friendship.

Singh is from Pakistan's Sikh minority; Dhillon is from the Muslim majority. They met when Dhillon was a police officer who helped Singh, a fabric trader at the time, recover stolen stock. They discovered that they both shared an interest in Partition history in Punjab, a region that was split between Pakistan and India and saw some of the worst Partition-related violence.

A Pakistani woman searches for her brother, who went missing in 1947

With every video that goes viral, more hopeful families get in touch. Right now, they're working on the case of Sharifa Bibi. She guesses she's more than 80 years old, and Dhillon and Singh have produced a video to help her find her brother, who was named Mohammed Tufail.

He got lost when Sharifa Bibi's family was fleeing to Pakistan from their Punjabi village of Badhni Kalan, on the Indian side of the border. Their mother was holding Mohammed Tufail's hand but let go when rioters demanded the gold ring off her finger.

"He must have got scared and run away," said Sharifa Bibi, who could not recall her brother's age but guessed he was around 5 or 6 at the time. "My relatives looked for him, even in the canal where the rioters tossed the bodies of dead Muslims."

She says her mother never recovered.

Sharifa Bibi sits with her son Altaf Hussain, who is helping her find her brother Mohammed Tufail, who was lost during the chaos of Partition in 1947.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
/
NPR
Sharifa Bibi sits with her son Altaf Hussain, who is helping her find her brother Mohammed Tufail, who was lost during the chaos of Partition in 1947.

"My mother was always crying for her lost son," she says.

And he was crying for her.

A man who they believe was Mohammed Tufail tried — as the family eventually learned — to find them in and around the town of Burewala, in Pakistan's Punjab province, where they had resettled and built a new life.

The mystery of Mohammed Tufail

To help shed light on this man, Sharifa Bibi and her family members take NPR reporters through cornfields to a village near Burewala to meet a former horse-and-cart driver named Mohammed Asghar. He guesses he's around 65 years old. He has been part of Sharifa Bibi's life for more than three decades.

After greetings are exchanged, the first thing Asghar says is, "Sharifa Bibi looks just like her brother."

Mohammed Asghar embraces Sharifa Bibi at his home in a village near Burewala, Pakistan. It's unusual for an elderly man and elderly woman who are not related to each other to embrace as Asghar and Sharifa Bibi do. But Asghar has taken on a role as an honorary brother to Sharifa Bibi since meeting an Indian man 35 years ago who they believe was her long-lost brother.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
/
NPR
Mohammed Asghar embraces Sharifa Bibi at his home in a village near Burewala, Pakistan. It's unusual for an elderly man and elderly woman who are not related to each other to embrace as Asghar and Sharifa Bibi do. But Asghar has taken on a role as an honorary brother to Sharifa Bibi since meeting an Indian man 35 years ago who they believe was her long-lost brother.

Then he explains how he knows this: About 35 years ago, he says, as he waited for customers outside the British-built Burewala train station, he met a man from India who was asking whether anybody knew his family.

"He cried to me that he lost his family in Partition and that he was adopted by a rich Hindu couple," Asghar says, sitting outside his small homestead, where his friends have gathered around and pulled up plastic chairs and a charpoy — a woven daybed — near a cow pen.

An auto rickshaw idles up the road from the Burewala train station, where the man who Sharifa Bibi believes was her brother likely visited twice — once as a child and again as an adult — to try to find his family. On his second attempt, 35 years ago, he met horse-and-cart driver Mohammed Asghar, who introduced the man to area residents and helped spread the word of the man's search for his family.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
/
NPR
An auto rickshaw idles up the road from the Burewala train station, where the man who Sharifa Bibi believes was her brother likely visited twice — once as a child and again as an adult — to try to find his family. On his second attempt, 35 years ago, he met horse-and-cart driver Mohammed Asghar, who introduced the man to area residents and helped spread the word of the man's search for his family.

Asghar says the man told him his name was Ranjeet but that he was born a Muslim and believed his family had settled in this area.

Asghar took pity on the man and invited him home. For about two weeks, he took the man around in his horse cart, and they clip-clopped from village to village.

"We went to all the village mosques and told people: There is a man here from India and he is looking for his family. He lost them in Partition. Did anybody here lose a son? About a dozen families came forward — but they said no, this isn't our boy."

Asghar recalls that Ranjeet had a distinctive birthmark on his forehead and a partly damaged foot, which helped families rule him out as their relative. Eventually, the man lost hope and packed his bags.

A house under construction in the village of Mohammed Asghar, who helped an Indian visitor named Ranjeet look for his family 35 years ago. Asghar believes the man was Sharifa Bibi's brother.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
/
NPR
A house under construction in the village of Mohammed Asghar, who helped an Indian visitor named Ranjeet look for his family 35 years ago. Asghar believes the man was Sharifa Bibi's brother.

But before leaving, he shared information on how he could be located, should anyone from his long-lost family want to do so.

"Ranjeet told me: I work as a vet at the Delhi Race Club," Asghar says. "If you come to India, just wait till 2 p.m. when I finish work and meet me at the gate."

Sharifa Bibi heard about this Indian visitor around that same time, from a woman attending a religious celebration at her home.

"The woman told me: He's staying with a horse-and-cart driver," she recalls.

Sharifa Bibi tracked down Asghar and rushed over to meet him with her parents. But by then, the man named Ranjeet had already left.

Sharifa Bibi's mother collapsed. She saw some socks on the floor. Ranjeet had left them behind.

"She snatched them and said, 'Did these belong to my son?' Then she buried her face in them," she says. "My father did too, and they wept."

But for the first time in decades, they also had hope.

Sharifa Bibi sits in the garden of Mohammed Asghar's home, listening to how a man who she believes was her brother came to Pakistan decades ago, trying to find her and the rest of his family.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
/
NPR
Sharifa Bibi sits in the garden of Mohammed Asghar's home, listening to how a man who she believes was her brother came to Pakistan decades ago, trying to find her and the rest of his family.

"My mother swelled with hope. It was as if her breasts filled with milk again," Sharifa Bibi says.

Efforts continue to find Sharifa Bibi's brother

It's not easy for Pakistanis and Indians to obtain visas to travel across the border, but Sharifa Bibi's sister and the sister's husband went to India around 1990 and made their way to the Delhi Race Club to try to find Ranjeet. As Pakistanis in India, Sharifa Bibi says, they were treated with suspicion. Sharifa Bibi says the people her sister and brother-in-law encountered at the race club told them that Ranjeet had gone to Mumbai for a work visit. No, they didn't know when he'd be back.

"When my sister returned empty-handed, my parents were broken," she says. "They died a few years later, crying over their son."

When NPR visited the Delhi Race Club twice in the spring, its employees — everyone from office clerks to tea servers and other staff, all the way up to the club's president — were eager to try to help solve the mystery of Sharifa Bibi's brother.

It touched something in them, they all said.

A trainer works with a horse at the Delhi Race Club in New Delhi, India, in 2014.
Manish Swarup / AP
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AP
A trainer works with a horse at the Delhi Race Club in New Delhi, India, in 2014.

"So many families relate to this! I myself was born in Delhi after my parents moved from Pakistan," says Sudheer Uppal, 73, the club's president. Uppal's family had been part of a Hindu minority in a mostly Muslim area of what is now Pakistan. At Partition, they crossed into India.

"Only later did I understand what they'd been through," he says.

Clerks opened up personnel files dating back to the club's founding in 1940, but they yielded nothing matching the information that NPR had for Sharifa Bibi's brother.

On both sides of the border, NPR reporters continued to search for clues that could lead to Mohammed Tufail. Indian police offered to show NPR decades-old records of Indian citizens who crossed the border into Pakistan — but as it turned out, his entry and exit would never have been officially recorded. Asghar says that Ranjeet crossed into Pakistan illegally, with the help of a smuggler in the nearby Pakistani town of Kasur — something that was common at that time.

NPR reporters also crisscrossed Delhi's Chandni Chowk area in two separate visits this spring, asking for anyone who might have known Mohammed Tufail there. Sharifa Bibi's family believes — based on what Asghar and another Burewala-area resident told them — that her brother lived there and had a favorite dhaba, or cafe, called Pehlewan. At least 15 similarly named dhabas are in the area. But no one seemed to know him.

Sharifa Bibi's family believes that her missing brother once lived in Chandni Chowk, a neighborhood in Old Delhi.
Lauren Frayer / NPR
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NPR
Sharifa Bibi's family believes that her missing brother once lived in Chandni Chowk, a neighborhood in Old Delhi.

And an NPR reporter tweeted a callout for information from the public, with video of Sharifa Bibi pleading for help finding her brother. It resulted in no promising leads.

A plea to a long-lost brother

Since Ranjeet's appearance 35 years ago in Burewala, Asghar has stepped into the role of Sharifa Bibi's older brother. He attended her children's weddings as an honorary uncle. When he and Sharifa Bibi meet now, they tightly embrace, something rare between an unrelated man and woman of their generation in Pakistan.

On the day of NPR's visit, Asghar shares something that Sharifa Bibi has never heard before: The trip Ranjeet made to Pakistan 35 years ago was not the first time that he had tried to find his family in Burewala.

Ranjeet told Asghar that after he'd let go of his mother's hand all those years ago, during the chaos of Partition, "he followed other Muslims fleeing to Pakistan," Asghar says. "They came to this train station. He slept here for a few nights."

The Burewala train station on a recent day.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
/
NPR
The Burewala train station on a recent day.

Asghar says Ranjeet told him he'd remembered the name of the station. He remembered a water pump where he washed and drank. But he couldn't remember how he ended up back in India as a child — and didn't even know how he ended up as the son of a wealthy Hindu couple.

On hearing this, Sharifa Bibi is overcome and faints. Her son races toward her with a glass of water to help revive her.

"My brother cried for us, and we cried for him," she weeps. "Are you listening, brother? If you are listening, please come and see me."

Diaa Hadid and Abdul Sattar reported from Pakistan. Lauren Frayer and Raksha Kumar reported from India.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Abdul Sattar
Raksha Kumar