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Mourning The Forgotten Women Of India’s Violent Partition

By Dipsikha Thakur

June is Immigrant Heritage Month, a time when we celebrate people who have left their countries of origin for new opportunities: work, family, safety, refuge. But late June also hurtles towards July, and then August, and the anniversary — this year, the 69th — of the brutality that surrounded India’s independence and subsequent separation from Pakistan along religious lines. We rarely think of the people displaced during Partition as immigrants; after all, when new borders are drawn, sometimes you end up in another country without leaving your home. But 69 years ago, people — especially women — who moved across those new lines were subject to unimaginable violence, violence as horrifying as any faced by other, more far-flung refugees. Violence that is all but swept under the rug today. This Immigrant Heritage Month, it’s time for me to celebrate — and to mourn — the forgotten women of my country who suffered for their immigration, even though they never left the Subcontinent.

The year: 1947. Month: July. A clueless Oxonian lawyer reaches Delhi. His name is Cyril Radcliffe and he is here to draw up the borders between India and Pakistan, which must be in place before the British government can transfer power to its former colony. Armed with little knowledge and several incomplete maps, he draws up the borders — borders that cut through villages, plots of farmland, even houses. The provinces of Punjab and Bengal suffer most brutally from this haphazard partitioning. Even if Radcliffe had drawn his borders with more care, the population distribution in those areas would have prevented him from splitting them neatly between Muslim-majority and Hindu-majority areas, the flawed metric for separating Indian territory from Pakistani.

Horrified by the results of his work, Radcliffe leaves Delhi on August 15 and refuses his salary, but the worst is yet to come.

August 16, 1947: also known as the Day of the Great Killings. More than 4,000 people are slaughtered in Calcutta. In the following week, along the so-called Radcliffe Line, the tension breaks into full-scale rioting.

People leave their homes to settle in the “correct” country — Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus to India. These are decisions sometimes made at the very last minute, when the dream of secular existence and choice in the matter have disappeared behind threats and the sight of corpses. But they find themselves uncertain about where they should go, and which land belongs to whom. In the confusion and the resulting clash, it becomes clear that there are acres and acres of farmland, houses, money, cattle, and most importantly, women ready for taking.

The dislocation in Punjab is best described by writer Ishtiaq Ahmed: “In an area measuring about 200 miles (320 km) by 150 miles (240 km), roughly the size of Scotland, with some 17,000 towns and villages, five million Muslims were trekking from east to west, and five million Hindus and Sikhs trekking in the opposite direction. Many of them never made it to their destinations.”

And women suffered most in this slaughterhouse-circus that was “choosing one’s nation.” Urvashi Butalia, a feminist historian of the Partition, described the violent treatment of women during the upheaval: “Some 75,000 women were raped, kidnapped, abducted, forcibly impregnated by men of the ‘other’ religion, thousands of families were split apart, homes burnt down and destroyed, villages abandoned. Refugee camps became part of the landscape of most major cities in the north, but, a half century later, there is still no memorial, no memory, no recall, except what is guarded, and now rapidly dying, in families and collective memory.”

There were rumors about dismembered bodies, trains loaded with heaps of breasts, screams from mosques and temples. And women weren’t only brutalized — they were encouraged to commit suicide, because death was better than being raped by someone of the “wrong” religion. Both communities asked women to kill themselves before they were “sullied” — before their reproductive capacity was given to the enemy. The logic was simple: kill oneself for patriarchy, pro patria.

Butalia explores the dishonor Indian and Pakistani communities associated with rape in her 1998 book The Other Side of Silence. Somewhere between being a memoir, history, and testimonial, it is a book most safely captured by the umbrella term “non-fiction.” The narrative moves between Butalia’s account of interviewing survivors of Partition (including her own family), and first-person accounts from her interviewees.

One of the men she interviewed was Bir Bahadur Singh, survivor of the riots in Thoa Khalsa in Punjab. Bir Bahadur Singh justifies what Butalia calls the “mass ‘suicide’” of ninety women in his village: “Mostly our family women died, and then the ones who jumped into the well. But the others were saved. Because the [Muslims] saw that they were killing themselves. The ones who sacrificed … if the women of our family had not been killed, and those who jumped into the well had not taken their own lives, the ones who were left alive, would not have been alive today.” In other words, the heroic sacrifice of some women made it possible for others to continue living “honorably.” As Butaliya points out in her commentary, being alive has less to do with surviving and more with avoiding the fate of being “raped, perhaps abducted and further violated, almost certainly converted” by Muslim aggressors. This could not happen because the suicides convinced the rioters to stay away from the women of Singh’s community.

Bir Bahadur Singh’s testimonial is preceded by that of his mother, Basant Kaur, who managed to survive but watched most of her family die through mutually assisted suicides, including her husband killing her daughter. Kaur identifies as being the youngest and only surviving woman of her generation in her family: “I was the youngest […] now I sit at home and my children are out working and I keep telling these stories … they are stories after all … and you tell them and tell them until you lose consciousness.” Yet Bir Bahadur Singh, in his own testimony, never refers to his living mother, but talks in detail about the consensual beheading of his sister by her father and other suicides in glorifying terms. Basant Kaur’s story of survival is ignored by her community, including her own children, in favour of the women who killed themselves to escape violation. These “honorable” martyrs are considered more valuable as symbols in their death than they would have been alive. Basant Kaur, in escaping death, has become erased from history.

Erasure, however, was only one form of violence done to the survivors. A year of gaining independence, India and Pakistan decided to “recover“ women who had been kidnapped during Partition. In India, the Abducted Person (Recovery and Restoration) bill was introduced. And until 1956, it had no clause for women who did not want to go back — those who had settled into a fragile peace with their new families. In many cases, a relationship that began with rape and abduction had eventually eased into a stable marriage of sorts, especially with the arrival of children and the onset of convenient amnesia about the beginnings. These women now found themselves chased down by a Recovery Committee and forcibly returned to their biological families.

On paper, this may sound like some kind of proprietorial approximation of justice. Justice as exchange and return of goods, that is. In practice, Hindu families (with their own rapists and hidden crimes) suddenly found their daughters returned to them as Muslim wives and mothers, and vice versa. An embarrassment to the everyone around them, the women were abandoned again. And the children of born out of such relationships found themselves more orphaned than ever.

Delhi is, in many ways, a migrant city. It has been worn down, sacked, rioted out, taken over and remade far too many times for there to be a truly “local” population. Besides, what is local anyway? People who fled the erstwhile Indian cities on the wrong side of border often found their new city alienating and strange. The complexity of the dislocation and the many layers of betrayal, trauma, grudging re-adjustment and lack of belonging matches (indeed, exceeds) that of the people who left India to settle in the U.S. and the U.K. in the ’70s. And yet, because of the circus of legal demarcations of identity, we have neither the scope to celebrate the traditions these migrations have produced, nor the grace to mourn the enormous violence suffered on the way. Without that designation — ”diaspora” — there is a corresponding loss of vocabulary to grapple with the struggles, crises, and paradoxes of changes in identity. With it, of course, comes both oblivion of the specifics and an intense memory of the general communal hatred, passed down through the generations. Thus, the riots have repeated themselves endlessly: 1983, 1984, 1991, 1992, 2002, and 2013, just to remember some of the most brutal years.

Like all societies that have survived extreme violence, present-day India lives with amnesia about many of the women we would have known as our grandmothers, great-aunts, teachers and neighbors who are present. Their families have erased them from the stories. Our textbooks do not mention them when we learn our history, and the state certainly doesn’t spend much time mourning them. And like many other societies shaped by violence, we also live with the uneasy, chilling knowledge that many men who lived among us and continue to do so were the rapists, the abductors, the killers during 1947.

It is perhaps time, then, that we talk about this particular heritage of trauma, guilt, displacement, and pain. While most of our families have some history of perpetration, suffering, or simply horror, it is only the plight of men that ever gets commemorated. The women who were forced to kill themselves, or forced to live and be sorry for it, have had little remembrance from outside the circle of conscientious feminist historians. It’s time to remember them more widely and vow not to let it repeat itself.


Lead image: Biswajit Das/flickr