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Violence, Women and Partition

The Partition of India in 1947, accompanied by bloodshed, mass migration, religious bigotry

and hatred still remains the saddest event of the history of the subcontinent. The event not

only divided the country geographically but also it resulted in the division of shared culture,

history, languages and memories among different communities. The division was solely done

on the basis of religious differences and the violence generated among communities was

grotesque. Documented in the form of numerical data and ‘facts’ in official documents,

museums and archives, the violent aspect of partition is lost in the political histories and

nationalist discourses on both sides of the border. Thus, it becomes important to address the

issue of violence which led to the brutal murder of thousands of men, countless cases of rape,

abduction and butchering of women and children during the years of Partition.

Bisham Sahani writes, “Barbarism is not a permanent feature of human conduct. It depends

on a number of circumstances, which somehow incite man's basic instincts. Under certain

circumstances, men lose all sense of decency and proportion, and indulge in butchery...”

The decisions made by the elite political class, not only forced millions of people into exile

but also inadvertently incited communal violence in regions such as Bihar, Bengal, Sindh and

Punjab. However, as we find out, it was the women that experienced partition at its worst. As

oral histories and personal narratives continue to emerge, the revelations bring out the stark

and grim details of the violence meted upon women’s bodies. The gender differences, highly

influenced by religion and social stereotypes made partition a living hell for women.
Ayesha Jalal writes, “Men of all three religions (Hinduism, Islam and Sikh) delighted in their

momentary sense of power over vulnerable women”. The religious ritualistic practises

among these three communities not only created social stratification but also it leads to a

practice of selective exclusion among them. Religion also culturally dilienates women,

relegating them to a subordinate status than men and treats them as second-class citizens not

allowing them to gain ascendency over the patriarchal biases. It reduces them into bodies

which become a site of exploitation while representing the honour of the family and the

community at large. Chandni Saxena writes, “..women, during the partition of India, became

bearers of their religion, its honour and sanctity and the social custom within the boundaries

of their respective communities. They were subjected to such ethnic violence which not only

violated their religious community but also sought to 'cleanse' a particular area from the

residuals of the warring community”.

Accounts of violence on women vary; from women being raped, abducted to mass killings

and suicides in order to save their ‘honour’. The act of rape which in one single instant, as

Saxena argues, “destroyed the self-esteem of a woman, the honour of the community and the

prestige of the family” is an overt expression of male identity and humiliates the other

community by “dishonouring” its women was overtly done during partition. The protagonist

in the story ​A Leaf in the Storm by Lalitha Ananthrajan, Jyoti who has been ‘reclaimed’ from

an obscure village in western Punjab is pregnant with a child of one of the men who raped

her. Though unmarried, she is tainted by the fact that she carries the child of her abductor

who belongs from the other community. Exchanged like a commodity, she was brought into

the refugee camp to this side of the border. “The exchange took place on the border, black
bundles of rags crawled up and down, like ghosts let loose from the sepulchers. She was the

last to come. She halted. She wasn’t too sure…”

Kamala Patel, a contemporary social worker who was a major force in the recovery and

rehabilitation of women wrote, “it is not possible to put into words the anguish and sufferings

of these abducted women. After having led a full happy life with their families, they had been

forced to live a life full of fear with those who had massacred their husbands, brothers or

fathers. As if this was not enough, as they belonged to different religion, they had to suffer

with bowed heads the way they were looked down upon by their abductors and their families.

And despite these, they had to serve these people and be at their beck and call. There was no

one there whom an abducted women can call her own, in whom she could confide her misery,

and somewhat lighten her burden. There was no way of redressing their grievances or

appealing for help through legal means, courts or the government. There was not even a faint

ray of hope on the horizon for her to be free of her imprisoned status”.

Jyoti, though rescued from her abductors finds herself in a spot due to her pregnancy and she

wishes to kill her child. She urges the doctor, “Tell me, are you able to destroy something you

think must be preserved? Now, this life bred of damnation - conceived in consequence of

inhuman rape and ignorance - tell me doctor, can you destroy this, save another life…? Can

you do that?”. Being pregnant and unmarried, she considers herself a sinner and seeks to find

liberation through the death of the illegitimate child. However, the maternal instinct refrains

her from this violent act and she practices her agency and preserves the child. Urvashi Butalia

writes, “The women's fear was real. Their non- acceptance by Hindu families became a major

problem: suddenly the state, so quick to come forward with its 'recovery' was at a loss to
know what to do for the re-integration of these women into the new nation, which became, in

the eyes of the state, synonymous almost with their families”.

The text is replete with instances of violence which describe the gruesome aspect of partition.

Her journey towards India when she is raped is described in the following way, “From among

the bundles of hay fifteen women were dragged out. One by one, those flowers fell…”

The violation of Jyoti and other women isn’t described in graphic terms. The author uses the

metaphor of fallen flowers to evoke the horrific imagery of the rape and sexual exploitation

of women. And the result of rape, her pregnancy which she terms “symbolized everything

womanhood and humanity found despicable in nature” draws on her “life-blood”. The

self-assertive girl who once challenged the patriarchal notions of the society, spurning

marriage thus faces a series of violent acts ushered upon her by the men in the name of

religion, which start from her rape and go on until the birth of her child. Language, in the

story, falls short in describing the extent of physical, emotional and sexual exploitation of the

body of the female protagonist. However, the story of other women such as the officer’s wife

from Sindh who was violated in front of her husband’s ripped corpse narrate the horrors of

partition. Reclaimed from their exploiters, these women spent their entire lives in refugee

camps since they were not accepted into the mainstream society. Thus, the violence against

continued, albeit in a different manner in the form of non-acceptance.

Recent studies on partition such as Urvashi Butalia’s ​The Other Side of Silence and Kamla

Bhasin’s and Ritu Menon’s Borders and Boundaries have led to the emergence of personal

histories narrated in the form of oral tradition by the first and second generation partition

exiles. Focusing on women’s histories they unfold the manifold horrors of violence suffered
by women on both sides of the border during partition. Not only rape but also symbolic

branding, mutilation of breasts and cutting up of other body organs were means to defile

women’s bodies, thus in a larger way undermine the other religious community. Sudhir

Kakkar writes that the amputation of breasts “incorporate the (more or less conscious) wish to

wipe the enemy off the face of the earth by eliminating the means of reproduction and


Another form of violence meted upon women was their deliberate killing in order to save

their honour by the family members which was later on glorified along with the

self-immolation and other ways of suicide by women themselves. Urvashi Butalia, in her

book ​The Other Side of Silence gives various such accounts of families where young girls

were killed by their fathers and brothers in order to save their ‘honour’. The account of

Basant Kaur is given here - “​And then I met Bir Bahadur Singh 's mother Basant Kaur.

Basant Kaur, a tall strapping woman in her mid-sixties had been present in her village, Thoa

Khalsa in March 1947 when the decision was taken that the women would jump into a well.

She watched more than ninety women throw themselves into a well for fear of the Muslims.

She too jumped in but survived because there was not enough water in the well to drown

them all”.

Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin describe this phenomenon in the following way, “​So powerful

and general was the belief that safeguarding a woman's honour is essential to upholding

male and community honour that a whole new order of violence came into play, by men

against their own kinswomen; and by women against their daughters and sisters and their

own selves”.
Thus, in the process of partition, women were reduced to mere objects whose agency was

trampled down upon men, their bodies converted into a site of exploitation and degradation

of moral and social values. The situation of women can be summed up in Chandni Saxena's

words, “Once the violence started, they were nothing but basic female bodies who suffered

the pain and trauma inflicted by their male abductors… Even the retribution theory does not

seem to stand its grounds. They attacked the women of other religion not just to avenge the

abduction or defiling of their own womenfolk. It was perhaps, more öf their extended and

inflated male egos which made them to do so. Us "my" religion which has been attacked,

"my" woman who has been defiled, and "my" community which has been made to look down

upon. Therefore, "I" have to avenge it and if "I" fail to do so, "my" manhood and its honour

will forever be gone”.

In the end, a Punjabi folk song tradition sums it up, “Puttar, Aurat da ki ai, au tan varti jaandi

ai hameshą , bhanve apne hon, bhanve paraye”. (My son, what do you make of a woman?

It's her lot to be used, either by her own men or by others.)

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