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The 1947 Partition Archive Survivors and their Memories

Oral history with Suri Sehgal, 2016 October 23.

purl.stanford.edu/sy901vw6188
Title:
Oral history with Suri Sehgal, 2016 October 23.
Author:
Sehgal, Suri, 1934, Cornell, Marly, Pradeepan, Raja, and Singh, Kavleen
Author (no Collectors):
Sehgal, Suri, 1934, Cornell, Marly, Pradeepan, Raja, and Singh, Kavleen
Description:
Suri Sehgal was born May 16, 1934, in the town of Guliana in a region of the Punjab that is now Pakistan. He was the second son and fifth of eight children of his Sikh mother and Hindu father. The Sehgal family was prominent in the area, owning many businesses and agricultural lands in a religiously diverse but harmonious community made up predominantly of Hindus and Muslims who celebrated each other's religious festivals together and enjoyed friendships.The Sehgal family lived as a large extended household occupying three houses on the same street with a palatial residential kothi nearby surrounded by Jaman trees, vegetable gardens, and flowers where Suri and his cousins and friends often played. The kothi had extra living space, prayer rooms, and huts for visiting holy men.Suri's mother's family lived comfortably in the nearby town of Arah where they had a large haveli, similar to the kothi, where Suri's physician grandfather provided free medical care to the poor. Suri naturally absorbed the philanthropic worldview of his parents and grandparents on both sides who were committed to helping the poor and less fortunate, as well as assisting in the affairs of their community.Suri's father, Shahji Sehgal, was a community organizer and associate of Mohatma Gandhi in the Indian National Congress working for the freedom of India from British rule. Shahji was away from home quite a bit as a result of this work and was once jailed with his uncle. Suri enjoyed a happy childhood sandwiched between three older and three younger sisters. He was not fond of school. His first appreciation for learning came when his family spent several months at a Palampur hill station in 1944 and he enrolled for a time in a Roman Catholic mission school. There he felt academically challenged for the first time.By age thirteen in 1947, Suri and his family lived in the town of Lalamusa near a railway station. By then, some members of his mother's family who had been living in Lahore had begun relocating as violence escalated between Hindus and Muslims. One Sikh uncle who was a police officer in Lahore had been transferred to Delhi before riots broke out. While the movement toward independence was being brokered, violence was erupting in various cities in the Punjab.The Sehgals were not too concerned at first. They firmly believed that people of differing views and religions could live together in harmony. On the morning of August 14, Suri's father was one of several speakers talking about hope for the future at the flag-raising celebration at the railway station. But that night a nearby school was torched and Suri's home in Lalamusa was under police guard due to danger from a mob.By the next day, with the arrival of a British commander and Hindu soldiers, the Sehgal home became the center of a refugee camp. The mass exodus continued in both directions as Muslims left their homes in India to come to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan fled to India. For the next few weeks, Suri helped his family host as many as forty people at a time on cots in their home as people sought safety in the camp.Suri's father, convinced by the mounting violence, particularly against women and girls, wanted to ensure the safety of his daughters. A Muslim friend gave Shahji a tip that a refugee train headed for India was due early the next day. Shahji wanted 15-year-old Shakuntla, almost 14-year-old Padma, and 11-year-old Santosh on that train accompanied by Suri's twenty-five-year-old brother Kedar.Suri was enlisted to help carry the girls' suitcases to the train station. But when they arrived, the train was already overloaded with people on the roof and stuffed into all the compartments. The two eldest sisters ran into one compartment and Kedar ran into another. Young Santosh found room in a rear car. As the train began to pull away, Suri's desperate father pushed him onto the train behind his little sister to accompany and protect her.The train stopped several times, sometimes unexpectedly. Shouting and screams could be heard at night, and food and water were scarce. The train turned south after reaching Lahore and came across the border into India at Ferozpur. The Sehgal children saw scores of dead and mutilated bodies all along the tracks.Once in India, the five Sehgals took a train to Meerut where the girls could stay for a short time with a young woman who had stayed for a time at the Sehgal's home in the refugee camp. From there, Kedar went to the border town of Amritsar to see if his parents and other sisters had also escaped. Suri went to Delhi to find his Sikh uncle, Gurdit Singh, who worked for the police "somewhere in Delhi."Over the next few weeks, Suri was joined by an eighteen-year-old family friend, Gurbaksh Singh, who had arrived in Delhi on an earlier train. As Suri searched for his uncle and Gurbaksh sought employment, the boys did the best they could while living on the streets. They witnessed a horrific mob killing of two Muslim men. Each evening Suri went to the K. K. Birla house where Gandhi came out on the grounds to talk about peace and unity and read from various scriptures. Suri was small and scooted up to the front and sit at Gandhiji's feet.After a series of what Suri considers true miracles, his family was reunited by the end of 1947 in Amritsar and, despite the surrounding dangers, not one family member had been harmed or killed during their Partition experiences. Suri and his sisters were already enrolled in school and the family was busy resettling themselves by the time the heartbreaking news came that Gandhiji was assassinated in January 1948.Over the next decade, the Sehgal family continued to reestablish their business and community associations (having lost everything they owned in the Punjab). Suri helped his father in business while in high school and went to college and graduate school for botany, earning honors. In 1959 he came to the US to obtain a PhD in plant genetics at Harvard University.While at Harvard he met his future wife, Edda Jeglinsky, who had migrated to the US from Germany and was living as an aupair in the home of a Harvard professor at the time, Henry Kissinger. Edda had a similar childhood refugee story. Her family had to escape their country of origin, German Silesia (now part of Poland), at the end of World War Two when she was three years old.Suri's first job after graduate school was with a regional seed company in Iowa. Edda joined him there and the two were married in 1964. They decided to become American citizens. For the next 24 years, Suri was a primary player in the seed company into an international success. Suri and Edda raised four children and two nephews and welcomed scores of relatives immigrating to the US, helping them get settled and assisting in the educations of many.In 1988, Suri and Edda, started a seed business in India called Proagro while Suri continued to work as a consultant in the global seed industry in Germany and Belgium. In 1998, when Proagro sold for a substantial amount, Suri and Edda shared their new wealth with all the employees, set some aside for their retirement, and used the bulk of the millions to create two philanthropic organizations with the intention of making a positive difference in the lives of the poor in rural India: Sehgal (family) Foundation (in 1998) and S M Sehgal Foundation in India (in 1999). Edda Sehgal is also a trustee of both foundations. Suri wanted to give back to his country of origin for the many benefits he gained, not the least of which was his early education.The S M Sehgal Foundation in Gurgaon, India, has been serving as a catalyst in partnership with communities to bring development to rural communities with programs in water management, agricultural development, and rural governance, with heavy emphasis on the empowerment of women. Their programs and innovations as well as their community radio station have received multiple awards as they continue to address many of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals. Suri has received several awards for social justice and philanthropy.He feels strongly that people who have migrated from India to the US and elsewhere and have been successful in their lives should feel a sense of responsibility to give back in some way to the country of their origin.At age eighty-two, Suri serves as the chairman and trustee of Sehgal (family) Foundation and S M Sehgal Foundation in India. Edda Sehgal is also a trustee of both foundations, which they founded together in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Sehgal is chairman of two seed companies. Misr Hytech Seed International S.A.E. in Cairo and Hytech India in Hyderabad. He is a Trustee Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. He is active in his local community in Captiva, Florida, serving on the environmental committee of the local yacht club.Suri and Edda continue to spend part of each year in India at Sehgal Foundation, visit their seed businesses in India and Egypt, and visit their relatives around the world.Suri's message to current and future generations is to try to make a positive and sustainable difference in the world—be of service to others whenever possible. His hope has always been that every person who comes in contact with him would be better for their association. Though he and Edda founded two charitable foundations, Suri does not believe in charity as such. The key to helping the less fortunate is empowerment—and the key to putting the power in empowerment is to create and rekindle hope. He says that "of course everyone needs a source of income, but making money must not be the key goal." Just as it works in business, if you focus on the fundamental needs in life and try to add value in all situations, the rest will come naturally. He feels very fortunate that he and his family survived Partition without harm or death and were safely reunited. They only spent about 2 days in the refugee camp before many friends came to help them. Suri credits the profound legacy of generosity created by his family that inspired many others to want to give back to the Sehgals. He has learned over and over that if you do good to other people and have that spirit of 'let me be helpful,' this pays off richly in the long run.
Topic:
History and History
Language:
English
Physical Description:
5 video files
Publication Info:
Captiva (Fla.)
Imprint:
Captiva (Fla.), October 23, 2016
Genre:
Filmed interviews
Identifier:
partitionArchive_2580