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Partition: the price of freedom and the price paid by women August 6, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : D'Costa, Bina, India, Pakistan , trackback

Bina D’Costa

The dawn of freedom from colonial rule in the subcontinent has forever been marked by the agony of Partition.  The bloodshed, sweat of terror and the tears of helplessness made the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan simultaneously the most signifying and the most traumatic moment in South Asia’s history.  What has often been forgotten, however, is the price paid by women and children.

Partition was about two specific incisions.  Firstly, the territorial incision emerged from a political conflict over the ownership of a state – a conflict about who ought to acquire the moral and legitimate authority over the entire population and colonised territory left by the British Raj. Secondly, the creation of Pakistan was a partition not simply of the subcontinent but also of the Indian Muslim community itself.

british india map

Map of British India just prior to Partition.

Cyril Radcliffe’s awards of the division of Punjab and Bengal were announced on 16 August, 1947. Within a week, about one million Hindus and Sikhs had crossed from West to East Punjab.  In the week following, another two and a half million had gathered in the refugee camps in West Punjab.  By 6 November 1947, nearly 29,000 refugees had been carried by air in both directions and 673 refugee trains were run between 23 August and 6 November, transporting more than two million refugees inside India and across the border in Pakistan.  Of these, 1,362,000 were non-Muslims and 939,000 were Muslims.

News of riots and violence during this colossal chaos created even more violence, which was organised and systematic.  Now infamously termed as ‘August Anarchy’ (Swarna Aiyar 1998), the train massacres that occurred in every refugee train in Punjab between 9 August and 30 September killed thousands of people.  By the time the Partition exodus was over, it was estimated that almost 5.5 million Hindus and Sikhs crossed over from West Pakistan to the new India and nearly 5.8 million Muslims travelled in the opposite direction (D. A. Low 1998).  Estimates of the dead vary from 200,000 (the contemporary British figure) to two million (a later Indian speculation), but it is now widely accepted that nearly a million people died during Partition of India (Urvashi Butalia, 1998).

The effect on women and children

In addition to widespread killing, the Partition riots are also the story of the rape, abduction and widowhood of thousands of women on both sides of the newly formed borders.  Incomplete and unreliable data make it hard to come up with the exact number of women and girls abducted during the Partition riots.  The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan (Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, 1998).

Indian and Pakistani authorities used the term ‘recovery operation’ to describe the carrying out of plans to return abducted women to their own states, communities and families.   While the term ‘recovery’ appears to have negative connotations today, when women’s human rights are celebrated if not always upheld, soon after Partition, the Indian and Pakistani states decided that this was the most appropriate phrase for an ‘operation’ where women were not given any rights or choices to decide about their own future.

Through the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation in India and its Women’s Section, under Rameshwari Nehru, between December 1947 and December 1949, from Pakistan 6,000 women were ‘recovered’ and 12,000 from India.  Most ‘recoveries’ were made from East and West Punjab, followed by Jammu, Kashmir and Patiala.  Approximately 30,000 Muslim and non-Muslim women were recovered by both countries over an eight-year period.  The total number of Muslim women recovered was significantly higher – 20,728 as against 9,032 non-Muslims.  While most ‘recoveries’ occurred between 1947-52, women were being returned as late as 1956.

Indian Official and historical accounts of Partition see the event as an outcome of high politics, an unfortunate result of sectarian and separatist beliefs, and as a heartbreaking cost of freedom.  Pakistani scholars also point to the inevitability of Partition, with little or no regret about the split with ‘Hindu’ India. They have looked at the causes and consequences of the division of the country, analysed the details of the many ‘mistakes’ and ‘miscalculations’ made, and examined the genesis of the call for a Muslim homeland.  However, the micro-narratives on the margins of the nation in both India and Pakistan, and the fractured realties, indicate that Partition is also a gendered narrative of nation building.

Recent considerations of how such accounts are to be written, of the place of personal testimony and of bearing witness, of the desirability of reconstructing biographies or trusting memory or the collective re-telling of tragedy, have highlighted the importance of each of these aspects in presenting an alternative construction of what took place.  Before this, we had little idea about the lived experiences of the gendered narrative of Partition, for example.  There have been some fragmentary and depressing references to women being treated like criminals or contaminated in the transit camps set up as temporary shelters for them before they were sent home to their respective countries.  During the mid-1990s, some scholars focusing on India’s experiences – eg, Aparna Basu (1997), Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin (1996, 1998), Urvashi Butalia (1995, 1998) and Andrew Major (1998) – started finding documents that opened a whole new series of investigations into the human rights abuses of the abducted and ‘recovered’ women and children.

The feminist historiography on gendered experiences of Partition offers two important insights.  Firstly, the ritualised violence inscribed on bodies by members of the ‘enemy’ community as a sign of conquest and humiliation of the Other; secondly, how both men and women from one’s own community perpetrated sacrificial violence in the name of honour.

The oral history projects also demonstrate how the ‘recovery’ operation was framed by both India and Pakistan and how through this, women suffered a second trauma inflicted by their ‘own’ state, community and family.  Abducted by members of the ‘enemy’ community, yet ‘recovered’ by the state of which women were considered citizens, they were forced to leave behind the ‘post-abduction’ children with their fathers, who in many instances were the perpetrators of violence.  The social workers (such as Mridula Sarabhai, Kamlaben Patel and Anis Kidwai) and the law enforcement agencies acted as agents of the state and on numerous occasions had to forcibly bring back the women, who did not want to leave behind their children or who by the time of the ‘recovery’ had settled in their new lives.

The state was eager to control women’s sexuality by exercising its rights over the body, religion, family life and, most importantly, motherhood.  The discourse of morality, the nation building process and the euphoria over the success of the anti-colonial movement offered limited space for ordinary women (or men) to express their grievances.  Moreover, it was impossible to challenge the political elite, who were in control of the nation-state.  Women had little control over their lives.  In most instances, this compromised women’s agency and right to make their own choices.  The state devised policies based on the national idea of how women’s interests should be perceived, and no departure from this was acceptable.

The trauma of Partition continues.  Women as ‘site of memory’ and ‘site of violence’ repeatedly serve as the primary target of any communal violence in the Indian subcontinent.  The recent stories about riots in Gujarat or the attack on the Hindu community immediately after the election in October 2002 in Bangladesh are two vivid examples of this continuation.  Women’s token status in the communal riots is an attack on the opponent through an elaborate inscription of women as the embodiment of the nation and sacred space.


1. Luna Purification - August 6, 2009

Thank you for your hard work on this. This is very informative and useful for the generations that have luckily escaped this era. Much of the trauma that women have endured as a result of partition, communal riot and the associated political and social atrocities is either forgotten or not fully understood, excpet only by the ones who have been directly impacted by it. We do see a lot of this historical past being captured in books and movies, but I wonder what meaning they embody for the younger generation. Surely they do not need to re-live the past but we all do need to understand the history and the struggles of the past of a certain generation so that we can understand our common cultural traits (in South Asia), value and appreciate our freedom as well as national and cultural identity.
Thank you for sharing your work here with us.

2. Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt - August 6, 2009

Thanks for reminding us of partition. The realities of it & the far-reaching effects – were recently brought home to me. The Bethune college in Calcutta, celebrating its 200th year, asked us for a photograph of Kumudini Das, my mother’s grandmother, who was the principal of that college in 1890s. When asked, my mother said that they had to leave their house in the Park Circus area of Calcutta during the riots within a matter of minutes. As they left through the back door, leaving all their belongings in the house, the rioters broke in through the front door. Eventually the house was taken over by the army and it took them five years to move back into the house from their temporary ‘shelter’. When they went back, they walked into an empty house that had been stripped off – no one knew whether by the rioters or by the army personnel. The fact is that they lost the physical evidences of the family’s history and all the memorabilia that contain these stories such as the faces of ancestors long gone.
Thought I’d share this with you and others.

3. anup - August 7, 2009

Thanks for the article.

However, I find it puzzling that towards the end of the article, you have completely skipped another event of similar magnitude in terms of the devastation of lives of human beings (and of course women). The event of course is the Formation of Bangladesh which though not very recent is certainly recent than the Partition.

This link below describes the atrocities committed against both the genders in 1971 during the event.


4. Thanawat Pimoljinda - August 17, 2009

I think that contents contained in this essay are useful for understanding the history of South Asia. But what you should have mentioned in this essay — perhaps in a clear form of comparison — is the case of the confrontation over the territory of Kashmir. That is because both countries — India and Pakistan — had also fought three grand scale wars that were in 1947, 1956 and 1971, and numerous small-scale confrontations over the territory since the two countries became sovereign states. This, I thought, also has far-reaching effects upon women’s human rights. What should also be mentioned in this essay is the role of international organizations in regard to human rights abuse.

Thanawat Pimoljinda

5. Joyoti Sen - December 21, 2011

Partition could have been avoided had Nehru and Jinnah so wished.
A united South Asia would have been a powerful South Asia .