Her voice – Post-partition India 1947

Two new nations were conceived on the 14th & 15th of August 1947. India was instantaneously released from the British and divided at the same time. The division is one in which cost the lives of over one million people, and the displacement of over ten million people.

More often than not, women’s voices go unheard when we recall history. The Partition of India and Pakistan was also a time where the voices of women were absent. Historically, and some would argue even presently, women become the objects of study opposed to the subject.

This piece does not intend to determine who was right and who was wrong during the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition. This piece intends to provide a voice to the countless women, who gave their lives and their identity in the name of honour. This piece is a reflection of voices from Hindu, Sikh and Muslim women.

According to Menon & Bhasin (1998) [who conducted an oral history of the experiences of women during the Partition] “In the villages of Head Junnu, Hindus threw their young daughters into wells, dug trenches and buried them alive. Some were burnt to death; some were made to touch electric wires to prevent the Muslims from touching them. We saw many who had been raped and disfigured, their faces and breasts scarred, and then abandoned…. Their families said, “How can we keep them now? Better that they are dead.

What we often fail to see is that women are frequently put into very conflicting positions during war. Women are expected to safeguard their bodies and protect the nation by doing so. The type of violence that is enacted upon women during wartime is often in the form of sexual assault. It is argued that men rape the ‘enemies’ women to assert their identity and concurrently humiliate the ‘enemy’ by dishonouring their women.

Moreover, Pandey (1994) describes the story of the mass suicides of 90 women from Thoa Khalsa; who jumped into a well on 15th of March 1947. This specific incident is an example of the conflicting positions women were up against, and ultimately left them to their demise. However, Menon & Bhasin state that many women during Partition, were in fact forced to commit suicide to avoid sexual violence (to preserve their chastity, individual, family and national honour.) While interviewing men (whose female family members had claimed their lives during partition), they observed that the men would recount with pride how their women “preferred to commit suicide, than be raped by the enemy.” However, many women they interviewed also recounted the vials of poison, kerosene doused quilts being ignited for them to jump into, or wells being pointed out for them to drown in – Can this hardly be claimed as suicide?

Even in present day, women are expected to go to great lengths to protect these concepts of honour and shame, to the brink of death.

After the Partition violence had settled, both newly independent governments of India and Pakistan were bombarded with missing women’s reports. Given the immensity of the complaints, the two governments entered into an agreement in November 1947 to recover women from both countries and reunite them with their families. Officially it has been stated that approximately 50,000 Muslim women were abducted in India, and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan. It was estimated that by December 1949, there was 12,552 recovered women in India and 6,272 in Pakistan. However, unofficially it is argued that the numbers are ten times the official recovered figures provided in 1949.

During Menon & Bhasin (1998) fieldwork they had come across an Ashram in Karnal Mahila, which fifty years later still had seven widows who had lived together after Partition. Below is an excerpt of the interview with Gyan Devi, 1997, [one of the seven widows] “I have been in the Ashram for 32 years now. In my village…We all lived so peacefully, god knows how the differences (between Hindus and Muslims) came. Now look at the problems between Hindus and Sikhs – we all practiced Sikhism although we were Hindu. It was all one. Now they are saying, these are Hindus, these are Sikhs…

Menon & Bhasin (1998) also spoke with social workers who worked in the rehabilitation and recovery of women in India. Krishna Thapar [who worked at the Gandhi Vanita Ashram for 18 years and then later worked for the Punjab Government.] Thapar discusses her perspective on the violence that had ensued during partition “You see, we didn’t do less to the Muslims – we had also become such brutes. Everyone was trying to be crueler to the other. Someone slapped first, someone else did in response, but all of them slapped. There was no difference. We all lost our humanity.” She goes on to say “Eighty percent of the motivation was political according to me; about 20 per cent was economic. To say it was due to religion is not correct; it is an uneducated way of thinking.”

Bibi Inder Kaur gives her position on how the Partition affected men and women differently. She states “You see…men…either they were killed or they escaped. Both ways they were…spared. If they died the problems died with them; if they survived they were resettled, they earned their daily bread and carried on. But the women were left behind and treated like outcastes, often raped and brutalised – I mean if she came, she came with a guilty conscience, with the stigma of having been ‘soiled.’ When the Pakistani’s did send some young girls back they were never able to resettle here. Many were sent back forcibly, they didn’t want to come, they had married there, they had children…Many young Muslim boys had married Hindu girls, honourably – there was no future for them here.  Then the government arranged mass marriages for many of the women who did return – well that’s also like being raped, isn’t it?

I have spent several months immersed in readings, documents, biographies, and writings of the women who lived and survived partition. I was deeply saddened to hear what they had gone through, but also at the very thought of their voices going unheard. This reminded me of my grandmother, who never spoke of Partition. I vaguely recall a time; when I was in my teens and we were visiting India. We were driving through Sirhand, Punjab and we decided to stop off at a Masjid. I remember my grandmother pleading with us to not get out of the car, as we would be harmed. We did so anyway. I recall the Imam and his wife greeting us as we got out of the car, showing us around, and offering us lunch and tea. He noticed my grandmother refusing to leave the car, so he sent lunch and tea over to her. Which, I recall she promptly refused. My mother apologized on her behalf, and I recall him saying “It is ok, I understand.” The Imam seemed to have understood her pain and was not angered by her refusal to enter the Masjid. There were no other words spoken of that day, or why my grandmother reacted the way she did.  In fact, my grandmother, nor my mother or my grandfather ever spoke of the brutality behind Partition.

This silence could be due to many reasons; my lack of understanding at that age or perhaps they wanted me to be free from the thought of such inhumane violence; they wanted me to keep love in my heart opposed to hate, or perhaps because my grandmother did not want to be reminded of that period of time. Sadly, by the time I was at an age to understand the world and ask her questions my grandmother suffered from dementia and recently passed. One of my greatest regrets is never having the maturity or the understanding of offering to hear her voice. Whether, she would have taken me up on that offer is another story. But I never gave her the option.

All I can offer now is my regret, and I hope that those of you who do have your grandparents in your life that you lend your ear and hear their story.

I dedicate this piece to my grandmother Surjit Kaur Grewal, and all the other women whose voices may go unheard.

“Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries – slave of prejudice…slave of religious fantacism…slave of barbarity and inhumanity.” – Saadat Hasan Manto

Sunny Mangat

Twitter: @mangat_sunny


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