Famous historian E.H. Carr in his book ‘What is History’ remarked: “Suffering is indigenous in history; every great period in history has its casualties as well as victories”. The same was the case with the partition of India. No doubt it was a moment of rejoicing victory as India got independence after about 200 years of foreign rule, but along with this celebration came many tragedies. In the discourse on partition, violence must be the central point. Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. As many as 14-16 million people may have been eventually displaced, travelling on foot, in bullock carts, and by train.
The partition can be looked at from two ways. One is the celebration of freedom and the other of sufferings (violence). For the northern part of India which remained the centre of violence, partition doesn’t mean freedom but a memory of violence. The events that occurred at the time of partition still haunt the people of the sub-continent. G.D. Khosla was the first to record the violent events that occurred at the time of partition. In his book ‘Stern Reckoning: A survey of events leading up to and following the partition of India’ (1949) he described partition as ‘an event of unprecedented magnitude and horror’. He said that ‘humanity had never witnessed human hatred like this’. According to him, ‘partition has, is and will remain a term for an event which always reminds of violence, mass tragedy.’ Salman Rushdie in his ‘Midnight’s Children’ described partition as “of horrible proportions and one of the century’s greatest tragedies.’ Ranabir Samaddar described partition as a concentrated metaphor for violence. According to him, “Partition is synonymous with violence, fear, domination, separation”. Across South Asia, partition is viewed as an epic tragedy.
For one, India’s partition was uniquely tragic, no matter from which side of the border one looked at it. In his book ‘The great divide: Britain-India-Pakistan’ H.V Hodson says that almost a million people were killed in the riots that followed the event of partition. It is commonly agreed upon that over a million people lost their lives during the exodus. Penderal Moon while quoting official figures estimated that Hindus and Sikhs lost property of around 4 thousand crores and Muslims left behind property of Rs 44 crore in India. We can say that the bitter truth of partition essentially lays in the violence rather than the achievements of freedom.
Women and Partition
When it comes to war, women have always been the victims. As far the partition of India is concerned, it is estimated that 7,50,00 to 10,00,000 women were abducted, raped, or molested. In the events that occurred after the partition, abducting a woman from another religion became the standard way of taking revenge from other religious communities. Unfortunately, the violence against women in the riots of the partition remains the least researched area.
The abduction of women became the weapon of men. Women’s bodies were made passive witnesses, private parts of women were tattooed with the religious figures’ community symbols. A woman’s body became a site where one group tried to prove its religious supremacy over the other. The violent acts on women’s bodies were not targeted at them as individuals. Women’s mutilated and raped bodies were a way to send out a threat to the men of the religious group to which the women belonged.
Jisha Menon in ‘The Performance of Nationalism: India, Pakistan, and the Memory of Partition’ explains the relevance of the female body in communal conflict. She states, ‘The female body served as the terrain through which to exchange dramatic acts of violence. The gendered violence of the Partition thus positioned women between symbolic abstraction and embodiment.’ Menon and Bhasin in their book ‘Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition’ claim that the official number of abducted women stood at 50,000 for Muslim women kidnapped by Hindu and Sikh men on their way to Pakistan, while 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women were abducted as they attempted to migrate to India. It is also very likely that the actual numbers are a lot higher than the official estimates.
This ethnic genocide witnessed 2 kinds of gender-based violence. The violence against women not only came from other communities but also within their communities. Violence by their own community /family took the shape of honour killings or suicides. The narratives of such trauma and violence have been effectively addressed through films and documentaries. “Khamosh Pani” and “Pinjar” are worth mentioning. ‘Veero’ in Khamosh Pani and ‘Puro’ in Pinjar are such examples of abducted women who were married to their abductors. Veero in Khamosh Pani is the best example of violence against women within their community. Veero was urged by her father to commit suicide by jumping in a well. So, Khamosh Pani carries the silence of women who must disown their identity to survive in the new nation-state.
Saadat Hasan Manto in his story “Khol Do” talks about the violence, the brutality, that women faced. This story is significant because it emphasizes that women faced danger from all sides. Sakina trusts the men from her community and goes with them willingly—she does not expect them to violate her because of their shared community. Yet they leave her in a condition worse than they found her, close to death. It is symbolic of the ways that communal identity put women in harm’s way during Partition: if she had not identified with the same community as the perpetrators of violence, she might have been safer. “Khol Do” is also significant because it demonstrates how women during the time were forced to accept their fate— and since even their so-called protectors could act violently against them, these women had very little agency or security.
Besides these two kinds of gender-based violence, another psychological trauma that the women faced was State violation against women. Abducted women had no say and they were later brought back to their original land. Both India and Pakistan authorities used the term “Recovery Operation” thus showing to what extent they were objectified.
Thus, the impact of a cataclysmic process like a partition on women was much more dramatic and enduring than that on men.
—The writer is a Junior Research Fellow at Dept of Political Science, Kashmir University. [email protected]