Punjabi Lehar: Pakistan YouTuber reunites families split by partition
By Shumaila Jaffery
A YouTube channel that connects Indians and Pakistanis who were separated by the 1947 partition has gained hundreds of thousands of followers from both countries.
Nasir Dhillon, 38, started Punjabi Lehar in 2016 with a friend - since then, he says the channel has helped hundreds of people reunite with their loved ones, often virtually, across the border.
When the British left India in 1947, they divided the territory into two independent countries - India and Pakistan. The partition was a deeply traumatic event that set off a wave of religious violence. About 12 million people became refugees and between 500,000 and a million people were killed.
The neighbouring countries share a tense relationship, which makes it difficult for Indians and Pakistanis to travel across the border.
Mr Dhillon, who is a Muslim, says he was inspired to start Punjabi Lehar because of his own family's partition experience - his grandfather and father had moved to Pakistan from Amritsar in India's Punjab state.
"They had a good life in Pakistan, but always yearned to go back to their village in Amritsar," he says.
But they died before that wish could be fulfilled, something Mr Dhillon still feels guilty about.
Punjabi Lehar hit headlines in India in January 2022 when a video of an emotional reunion between two brothers after 74 years went viral. One of the brothers, Sikka Khan, had remained in India with their mother while the other brother, Sadiq Khan, ended up in Pakistan with their father after partition.
They found each other after a man from Sikka Khan's village spotted an appeal made by Sadiq through a video posted on Punjabi Lehar.
"There is no bigger virtue than reuniting loved ones," Mr Dhillon says.
Before starting the channel, Mr Dhillon would often visit Nankana Sahib - the birth place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Here, he became friends with Bhupinder Singh Lovely, a Pakistani Sikh, who later co-founded Punjabi Lehar with him.
At Nankana Sahib, Mr Dhillon and Mr Lovely met several people whose family members had gone missing during the partition.
"In the beginning, we didn't really have a strategy. We would note down the details of people looking for family members and post them on our social media accounts," he says.
This led to a few successful reunions, with the videos getting praise and attention on social media.
That's how they decided to create a YouTube channel specifically for connecting people separated by the partition.
The channel now has more than 600,000 subscribers. Mr Dhillon says they are flooded with requests from people in India and Pakistan to find lost family members.
"People also approach us to find their ancestral houses or gurdwaras (the Sikh place of worship)," he says.
Punjabi Lehar doesn't have a team but Mr Dhillon and Mr Lovely have now built up a network of contacts and activists in both countries, which helps them track people.
While virtual reunions are still easier, they have been able to organise more physical meetings after the Kartarpur Sahib corridor was inaugurated on both sides of the border in 2019. The corridor is a visa-free crossing that allows Indian pilgrims to visit the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara - the final resting place of Guru Nanak - in Pakistan.
Mr Dhillon believes that the corridor's inauguration is the best thing to have happened to those who got separated from their loved ones during the partition.
"Many people looking for separated family members are in their seventies now. They had given up hope of meeting them, but the Kartarpur corridor is making reunions possible," he says. The Khan brothers also met there in January.
Mr Dhillon says reuniting people is a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
"I have heard from my elders that people are remembered by the legacies they leave behind. I do it for the sake of my elders, for my redemption as well as theirs," he says.
But Mr Dhillon himself has one wish he is waiting to be fulfilled - to visit the village in Amritsar that his grandfather loved so much. He had applied for a visa once, but his request was rejected.
"I have not given up. I still hope that I will be able to go there one day."
India, the world's largest democracy, is celebrating 75 years of independence from British rule. This is the sixth story in the BBC's special series on this milestone.
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