The “chief sufferers” of Partition, according to Mohandas Gandhi, were women. As the subcontinent descended into chaos, women of all religious communities become prime targets in the war for honor and land. Across the Punjab, tens of thousands of women and girls were assaulted, abducted and trafficked across the border. In response, the governments of India and ¬Pakistan worked together to recover them – with mixed, and tragic, results.
The “chief sufferers” of Partition, according to Mohandas Gandhi, were women. As the subcontinent descended into chaos, women of all three religious communities become prime targets in the war for honor and land. Across the Punjab, tens of thousands of women and girls were assaulted, abducted and trafficked across the border. In response, the governments of India and Pakistan worked together to recover them – with mixed, and tragic, results.
Akbar, M.J. Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. 2011.
Tharoor, Shashi. Nehru: The Invention of India. 2003.
Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India. 2017.
Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. 2007.
Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World. 2018.
Sarila, Narendra Singh. The Shadow of the Great Game. 2005.
Charles Rivers Editors. The Punjab. 2018.
Charles Rivers Editors. British India. 2017.
Puri, Kavita. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories. 2019.
Malhotra, Aanchal. Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects From A Continent Divided. 2017.
Von Tunzelmann, Alex. Indian Summer. 2007.
Zakaria, Anam. The Footprints of Partition. 2015.
Ahmed Akbar. Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity. 1997.
Urvashi, Butalia. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. 1998.
White-Spunner, Barney. Partition. 2017.
Lawrence, James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. 1997.
Hamdani, Yasser Latif. Jinnah: A Life. 2020.
Fischer, Louis. Gandhi. 1950.
Kidwai, Anis. In Freedom’s Shade. 2011.
Saxena, Chandni. “ON RELIGION AND ITS IMPLICATIONS ON WOMEN DURING PARTITION OF INDIA.” 2014.
“India: A People Partitioned” Broadcast on the BBC World Service, 1997. Compiled and presented by Andrew Whitehead, producer Zina Rohan
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---- ---INTRO -- ---- -----
Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network; and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to Part 5 of a multi-part series on the Partition of India.
If you’re still with me at this point, I just want to take a moment and say thank you. I know this has been an uncharacteristically long series, and I appreciate your patience as we take the time to explore all the nooks and crannies of this topic.
But if you’re starting to get a little Partition fatigue – I totally understand. And don’t worry; after we’ve concluded this series, we’ll return to the typical Conflicted format – the two-parters, the one-parters, that kind of stuff. As they say, sometimes less is more. Very soon, we will leave India – and maybe even the 20thcentury – behind in search of other interesting and unexpected topics.
But with all that said, let’s turn our attention back to the subject at hand.
In the previous episode, Unholy Rush, we experienced Partition through the eyes of the people who lived it. The people who suffered unimaginable violence and fled for their lives toward hazy and uncertain futures.
We cobbled together a mosaic of firsthand accounts, and through that cracked and splintered lens, we began to get a glimpse of what it might have been like to live through this thing. We met Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. We met victims of violence and perpetrators of it. Gang leaders, goondas, refugees and relief workers.
But we also stayed tightly tethered to our core cast of characters; in particular, the Lady Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. In the capital of Delhi, Edwina and Nehru risked their lives day after day trying to curb the violence. Nehru, unable to legislate the problems into submission, ran into the streets and confronted the violent mobs with little more than a hot temper and a stiff upper lip. Edwina, meanwhile, organized and directed thousands of relief workers to provide food and shelter to the tsunami if refugees washing across Northern India.
The impact of Partition on the subcontinent was so incalculably vast, that we could spend months, years, chronicling every story and every anecdote from the time – but in today’s episode I want to turn our attention towards a very specific, and often overlooked aspect of the Partition crisis.
The violence in 1947 touched millions of people. Old and young, Hindus and Muslim, rich and poor. But one group of South Asians was particularly and acutely affected by the upheaval:
As 12 million human beings surged back and forth across the subcontinent in great, churning rivers of misery, women in particular found themselves in the crosshairs of some of the worst violence the 20th century had ever seen. As one academic put it, Partition was “indeed tough, very tough for men. But it was barbaric for women.” Another writer phrased it in an even more chilling way: “A whole generation of women was destroyed by Partition.”
Mohandas Gandhi himself said that women were the “chief sufferers” in 1947.
The reasons for this are myriad and complicated and fascinating, and we will explore all of it. But I do want to stress, that this episode will not be a non-stop horror-show of doom and gloom. When talking about atrocity in history, there’s always a temptation to linger to the point of excess on the most lurid parts. To seek shock value over substance.
That’s not what we’re gonna do here today.
We’re going to tell a story. One of sadness and violence and heartbreak, yes. But also one of bravery, resiliency and hope. Women went through incomprehensible experiences during Partition – and their stories deserve to be continually told, revisited, and analyzed.
But it all serves as a frustrating reminder, that all over the world, from Mumbai to Mississippi, women are often the first casualties of political and social tension. When factions clash and ideologies collide, women’s bodies often become the literal and figurative battleground on which those conflicts are waged.
So - this episode is dedicated not only to the women in India and Pakistan who struggled and suffered and died in 1947, but also the millions upon millions of women who are struggling here at home in the western hemisphere. Clawing and gasping and fighting for the simple and fundamental right to bodily autonomy.
Welcome to the Partition of India – Part 5: A Crisis Made Flesh
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It’s September of 1947.
We’re in a government office in Delhi, India.
Outside the window, the capital is in crisis.
If satellite imaging had existed in 1947, the city would’ve looked like an open wound. Fires were burning, pouring twisted pillars of smoke and smog into the air. At street level, you could barely hear yourself think above the screaming, the shouting, the gunshots and the sirens.
The nation of India was barely a month old, and already it seemed to be coming to an end. As one eyewitness put it: “Telephone lines down, the postal system in disarray, trains cancelled, bridges destroyed and streets filled with people writhing, crawling, being trampled underfoot, being looted and murdered, and dying, dying like flies.”
Inside the government office, sits the Prime Minister of India, he’s stewing - thrumming with nervous, furious energy. After 30 years in politics, after countless long years of striving for freedom from the British Empire, Jawaharlal Nehru felt like a failure. After all this time, he finally had real power in his hands – and yet he did not know what to do.
As Nehru said at the time: “Life here continues to be nightmarish”.
Ancient religious hatred was coursing through the country’s young veins like a toxin. Religion; that superstitious relic that made men into beasts and women into slaves. Nehru fumed at the outrage of it all. The refugees pouring into Punjab brought new stories every day, each more horrifying than the last. Tales of Hindus butchering Muslims. Of Muslims butchering Sikhs. And of Sikhs descending on villages with military efficiency to wipe entire families out.
Religion was to blame - yes. Since his youth, Jawaharlal had hated its influence over his people, had resented its stranglehold over society…and yet, it was also the force that animated the best man he knew. His great mentor, Mohandas Gandhi, was the most religious man he had ever met - and also the most ethical, the most moral, the most righteous.
Perhaps, the roots of the crisis went deeper than faith.
After years of steady polarization and tension, the dam had finally broken. As one academic described:
“Such a plural society may apparently remain peaceful for long periods of time – each group silently accepting, tolerating, and sometimes ignoring but still being deeply aware of the growing socio-economic cleavages among themselves. Under stress, such societies may suddenly implode.”
Whatever was happening to India, Jawaharlal Nehru felt powerless to stop it. All he could do was drive around at night, alone, unable to sleep, seeking out mobs to confront and gangsters to chastise. He tried to help however he could, as Alex von Tunzelmann writes:
“He set up a city of tents in his garden and filled that and his house with refugees, including two Muslim children he had personally rescued from a roof in Old Delhi while a riot raged below. Every day, he walked in the streets and listened to people tell him their sorrows. “I know, I know, mere bhai [my brother], it is my sorrow too,” he replied.”
On the rare occasions where he could stand to be in his office, he looked through papers and reports, conferring with his aides and advisors. A sea of documents, detailing innumerable problems and difficulties – death by a thousand paper cuts.
But one day in September, a different sort of document came across Nehru’s desk. It was a 14-page report from a close friend, a fellow Congress politician named Mridula Sarabhai.
Sarabhai and Nehru went way back. They’d come up together in the heady, hopeful days of the early Independence movement. Both were acolytes of Gandhi, and both were devastated by what was happening to India. Shortly after Independence Day, Sarabhai had rushed to the Punjab to see what was happening there with her own eyes – and what she found there, horrified her.
She returned to Delhi and typed up a report for Nehru – 14 pages in all.
As Nehru read through the pages, the contours of a new and terrible problem began to form. Something that he had failed to anticipate. According to this report, all across the Punjab, tens of thousands of women had gone missing. Young women, old women, little girls and teenagers – all gone. Vanished with barely a trace.
A passage from a book by the writer and activist Urvashi Butalia:
“We had thought, said Faryad, a carpenter from Delhi, “that once independence came, the streets of Delhi would be paved with gold, awash with milk, instead all we saw were rivers of blood.’ Still less could anyone have foreseen that WOMEN would become so significant, so central, and indeed so problematic.”
In newspapers and police precincts across the Punjab list of names were being written. Endless columns of names. Sikh women, Hindu women, Muslim women. All gone, all missing. On and on and on. And with every passing day, every passing hour, the lists were getting longer.
The 14-page report Nehru was reading described kidnappings and abductions, human trafficking and rape. Sexual violence on a biblical scale. The Punjab had become a crucible of suffering for women. As Nehru continued to read through Sarabhai’s report, his blood began to boil.
In the chaos of the mass migration and the growing refugee crisis in the Punjab, women of every religious community were being targeted. Emboldened by the absence of the police, and encouraged by deep-seated grievance, men were stealing women from their homes and spiriting them away across either side of the border, where their families and friends could never find them, much less recover them. It was a crisis that crossed all divisions, affected every community. As one writer put it:
“Men of all three religions delighted in their momentary sense of power over vulnerable women.”
In the gloom of his office, Nehru reached the end of the report.
Something obviously had to be done – but how? The resources of the new nation were stretched thin. The army was in the midst of a paralyzing reorganization, the police were overwhelmed, and the government employees were working themselves to the point of exhaustion. He could barely keep order in the capital itself. And the British Army? Well ,they were long gone. As the writer Declan Walsh describes:
“Whatever happened, the British were determined to stay out of it. Thousands of British troops stationed in India were packed onto steamships headed for Europe; those left behind were ordered to avoid any trouble unless British lives were at risk.”
But still – something had to be done. Tens of thousands of women had been tortured and taken. At this very moment, many were being hurt, over and over again. Someone had to save them. Someone had to get them back.
Later that month, Nehru flew to Karachi. To the capital of Pakistan.
Tensions were already high between the two nations; and thus far, every attempt at collaboration or cooperation had been strained at best, combative at worst. Partition had not only cleaved the subcontinent in terms of geography and politics, but in terms of resources as well. As historian Andrew Lownie describes:
“The Indian Independence Bill created two separate Cabinets and administrations for the two countries. All the government posts, including the police, army, judiciary, postal system and civil service, would have to be split between the two countries and their assets divided – but for Pakistan it was the greater challenge, as everything had to be created from scratch. There were almost a million people working on Indian railways, with over 150,000 who wanted to transfer between the countries. There was no way this could be done in the time available. Apart from dividing human resources, there was all the equipment that had to be split, down to who received the last trombone in the Lahore police band.”
But on this issue – the problem of abducted women – the governments of Pakistan and India were united. And so, in September of 1947, the two nations agreed to work together to recover the missing women, and return them to the country in which they belonged. By December, they had an agreement it in writing. According to Urvashi Butalia:
“Seized by the problem of the large numbers of abducted women, the Indian and Pakistani governments arrived at an agreement: The Inter-Dominion Treaty of December 6th, 1947, to recover as many abducted women as could be found. The operation came to be known as the Central Recovery Operation”
And so, a joint task force was formed.
A small army of social workers, assisted by local police, set out into the Punjab to track down these missing women. They had unprecedented, unilateral authority; the ability to cross borders, venture into either nation, and seek out their quarry. They visited homes and villages, apartment blocks and farmhouses – and in those places, they began to discover the true, terrifying scope of what was happening to women in India in 1947.
Religion – as Nehru suspected – was at the root of the problem. But that was a gross oversimplification. Beneath the surface, it was an issue of identity. Of opposing communities, who wanted to hurt each other, not only physically, but symbolically. As MJ Akbar writes:
“A war over symbols began the moment India became free.”
And to these communities, the ultimate symbol of the health, vitality and honor of their people, was their women. As militias and gangs descended upon towns and villages in the Punjab, they extracted terrible costs. Houses were burned, fortunes were stolen, livestock were slaughtered. But the ultimate wound they could inflict, the one that cut the opposing religion the most deeply, was to violate their women. As Barney White-Spunner writes:
“Rape was a common instrument of coercion: It was a way of humiliating husbands, fathers, and brothers which both demonstrated their powerlessness and, given local custom, violated their property.”
In the eyes of these communities, you could rob a man, beat him, take away everything he had, even kill him - but if you really wanted to hurt him and the community he was a part of? The simplest and most irrevocable way to do that was to violate his wife. Or his daughters. Or his mother. As Yasmin Khan writes:
“Women feared for themselves and their own bodies. Their brothers, fathers and husbands feared for the shame and honour of their family and the wider community.
The women themselves now became mere shell-like repositories of the new national identities when attacks on them – or threat of attacks – were used to prise families from their homes, to punish, mark out and terrify.”
Indian and Pakistani women became physical manifestations for the honor of their communities. They became parcels of land to conquer and defile. And like an ancient army sowing salt over the fields of a defeated rival, men of each religion sought to destroy these women forever, not only in the eyes of their families, but in their own. As the Indian writer Urvashi Butalia writes:
‘Their bodies became the battleground on which these men of these two newly formed nations fought their battle.”
As Yasmin Khan writes, Partition marked:
“the terrible beginnings of an era when women became the repositories of national identities and their bodies were used to demarcate possession of land and space.”
Even before Partition, the threat of sexual violence was palpable. It loomed over Indian women like a cloud. Always there. Always at the edges of their peripherals. A glance, a stare, a comment. But by 1947 the religious hatred was at stratospheric levels. As one woman remembered:
‘We had become enemies all of a sudden. I still don’t understand; despite having lived through it, I cannot explain exactly what happened at that time. It was as though we were living through some awful dream…’
This was something new, something different. As Yasmin Khan put it:
“The violence which preceded Partition was grave, widespread and lethal. After 15 August 1947, it took on a new ferocity, intensity and callousness.”
And while men and boys were cut and stabbed, shot and beaten, drowned and dismembered, the woman of those communities became the most tempting targets for partisan mobs and roving gangs. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims considered themselves fundamentally different from one another, yet there was a chilling same-ness to the way the attackers treated women. As one historian wrote:
“Ironically, the misogyny and patriarchal values that cut across North Indian society at the time meant that Indian and Pakistani men had much more in common in their attitudes and actions than they ever would have admitted.”
On academic attempted to deconstruct the psychology that fueled the tidal wave of reciprocal sexual violence:
“It was perhaps, their extended and inflated male egos which made them do this. It is “my” religion that is being attacked, “my” women has been defiled, “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 my its honor will be forever gone. This would perhaps and partly explain why some men who led an otherwise peaceful life, killed scores of people and later wondered how they could do so. They felt their anger brewing up inside them at the sight of all the mayhem around them and when these emotions of anger and helplessness were whipped up by some speech or sight of brutality by others, religion was forgotten and pure animal instincts came to the fore. This was one way they could quench their manhood. In this whirlwind of emotions, women were the easy targets as they carried the honor of the enemy community and could also be easily overpowered.”
Sexual violence became, as Yasmin Khan writes: “a weapon, a sport, and a punishment.”
In the city of Amritsar, Muslim women were paraded through the streets, “stripped just like bananas peeled”, according to the journalist Shorish Kashmiri.
In Lahore, mobs broke into homes and apartments, searching for women to use or kidnap or kill As a Hindu woman named Durga Rani remembered:
The Muslims used to announce that they would take away our daughters. They would force their way into homes and pick up young girls and women. Ten or twenty of them would enter, tie up the men folk and take the women.”
Out in the country, women and girls were simply picked off and stolen from the long refugee caravans winding across the plains. As one survivor recalled:
‘When we were travelling in a caravan we had some people who had guns, four or five guns among us … but women or children would trail behind, after all, travelling 150 miles some people would get tired, they never rejoined us so we believe somebody kidnapped them and took them away’.
The worst part, was that the attackers were not always strangers. A Sikh tea merchant named Niranjan Singh remembered his 18-year-old daughter being carried away by, according to one historian, “a man to whom he had been serving tea for fifteen years.”
The joint task force that was formed in the fall of 1947 to find and recover these women were faced with a monumental task. And as the longer they searched, and the more stories they uncovered, the more complicated and twisted the issue became.
It was, as the writer Kavita Daiya put it, “a crisis made flesh”.
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
It’s late October, 1947.
We’re in the Indian capital city of Delhi, standing in front of a house.
By the standards of the time and place, this house is huge. It has two stories, 10 bedrooms, gleaming white columns, and a spacious, sprawling green. This place is easily one of the largest, and nicest, residences in the capital.
And yet, on this October afternoon, the house feels tiny. Cramped. Claustrophobic.
Hundreds of people are packed into its courtyards, its hallways, its waiting rooms, drawing rooms and bedrooms. To a visitor, it must have seemed like the entire city of Delhi was crammed into this house. According to one eyewitness, the place was “teeming with people, its galleries choked by the incessant traffic.”
All of them – young and old, rich and poor, Muslim and Hindu – are waiting to catch a glimpse, a glance, a fleeting look at the person who lives in this house.
This place was the temporary home of the most famous person in India - if not Asia - if not the world. This was the home of the Mahatma - Mohandas Gandhi.
In 1947, Gandhi was more myth than man. A towering folk hero who commanded the attention of governments worldwide and the adoration of millions at home. In the mind’s eye of many Indians, Gandhi was still the wiry and impish activist of the 20s and 30s. A spry and sinewy champion of Indian independence, throwing salt in the eye of the evil imperialist overlords.
But in 1947, if you stood in line at the house in Delhi, if you waited all morning, pushed and jockeyed and squeezed your way into the house for one of Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings, you would’ve seen a very different picture.
The Mahatma was old and withered. A creaking bundle of sharp angles and gentle gestures. The year that an independent India had been born, Gandhi had turned 78, and he looked his age. But behind the wrinkles and the toothless gums, he was the same man he had always been. His sparkling wit, his radiant intellect, and his iron moral code were all intact. Even at five foot five, the gravitational pull of his personality was colossal. And on that October afternoon, hundreds of people were hoping to catch a glimpse of it.
One of those people was a 41-year-old woman named Anis Kidwai.
People went to see Gandhi for many reasons. Some people went to him for guidance, for purpose, for comfort – some just went to bathe in the glow of his celebrity, to claim that they’d actually seen him in person.
But Anis was in Delhi to see Gandhi for a very real, very personal reason. She had recently suffered a terrible tragedy, what she called: “the greatest injury of my life, a wound after which neither grief nor pain could touch me again”. And she hoped that the Mahatma could steady her spinning compass.
A few months earlier, Anis had been content. Happy, even. She had managed to find something precious, something that most people spend their entire lives looking for. She had a person that she loved – a husband, named Shafi.
Shafi was a government administrator in a city in northern India, and when Partition cleaved the subcontinent in two, he insisted on staying at his post to help mitigate the suffering as best he could. But Shafi would not risk the safety of his wife, Anis, and so he sent her away to be with family. The only proof of his own safety came in the form of letters, which Anis anxiously tore open every time they arrived.
The letters painted a grim, but familiar, picture:
‘I am sitting in my office, writing to you. I hear from the road below the noise of the crowd, the sounds of gunfire, the shrieks of the suffering and the wounded. Houses are burning, shops are being looted, all in broad daylight, as the police just watch.’
But still, Anis remembered, her husband Shafi would not leave his post:
“To flee from danger, to retreat in the face of opposition, to betray his conscience under the threat of bodily harm or any other adversity, stood in complete contradiction to his character. He believed that India was his home, his nation, [..]. He had the same right to reside on this piece of land, the same freedom to roam across it, the same facility to undertake business and industry on it, as was invested in any other citizen.
But Shafi was a Muslim, and at that time, Muslims in northern India were not safe. Especially Muslims with high-profile government jobs. And on October 7th, 1947, Shafi was stabbed to death in broad daylight. Just like that, in the space of a breath and the flash of a blade, he was gone. When Anis received the news, she crumbled:
“My shattered heart imploded.”
She could not help but think about how alone her husband had felt, besieged, hated, doing what he believed was right:
“Only Allah can know the torment in which he spent the remaining four or five days of his life. Alone, all alone, surrounded by enemies, menacing telephone calls, threatening letters. Alone, and at every moment,
Anis, however, managed to steady herself. If only for the sake of her sanity:
For a moment, I was ablaze in a passion for vengeance but soon I regained control. Where thousands have lost their lives, he was just one. Was it not solace enough that he had died unsullied? He did not take another’s life; he did not commit cruelty; he was not responsible for the destruction of another. Whatever God and faith asked of him, he submitted; whatever his dues in service of humanity, he settled. Somebody once asked us, ‘Why was there no demand from you or your family for a proper inquiry and a search for the murderers?’ What could I possibly say? I no longer had any demands or desires. I could never regain what I had lost. There was no turning back the clock. The wound in my heart would fester forever and no spring would ever brighten the wilderness of my life.
But still, the wound festered, and Anis went to Delhi in search of a cure:
I was going to this city to drown the greatest sorrow of my life, in the hope that in the deluge that washed over us, I would sight some distant shore upon which I may anchor my future.
She sought a balm for her broken heart. She hoped, she prayed, that the Mahatma would give it to her. Gandhi was a Hindu, yes, but he embraced all religions. He was of every faith, every heart, every mind. And so, Anis called for permission to see the Mahatma. She arrived at the gleaming white house in Delhi, passed through the teeming crowds, and entered into Gandhi’s room.
Gandhi had been briefed on Anis’s situation, the nature of her suffering. And when she stood before him, she broke down:
I tried desperately to stay composed but, on seeing him, the dam broke. My tears flowed with the abandon of a distressed girl when she sees her mother approaching. I could not utter a single word. Gandhiji was the first to speak, ‘I understand. It is for her that I have been waiting since morning. Come, sit.’
Initially, Anis was struck by the juxtaposition between Gandhi’s physical fragility and his spiritual health:
This man, so puny, a bag of bones, but imbued with stupendous inner strength, patience and endurance, so tireless in his ability and desire to serve—where did he come from? And now, when twenty-seven years of work was perishing, when the edifice he had so painstakingly erected was crumbling, how could he continue to be a beacon in this pitch darkness? For how long?
But still, he managed to give her something that day. This old, trembling man, had the ability to give her what she needed. As Anis remembered:
Speaking softly, he said, ‘Do not weep. He is not dead, he is alive. He was martyred while doing his duty. How many can hope for so fortunate a death? Such people never die.’
Gandhi told Anis that the best cure for her grief was to dedicate her life to helping others, in whatever way she could. Hearing that encouragement from the Mahatma was exactly what she needed. Her spinning compass slowed and steadied. As she remembered:
Had Bapu (that’s a common honorific for Gandhi; it means “father”) not supported me, I would still be standing distressed at the crossroads, unmoving, uncertain where to go.
Anis’ newfound sense of purpose led her to the refugee camps in Delhi, where hundreds of thousands of people, fleeing the Partition violence in the Punjab, had settled in some of the most squalid conditions imaginable. As Anis recalled:
As far as the eye could see, tents and tin-roofed shelters were crowded together. In their midst was a ceaseless traffic of naked children, disheveled women, bareheaded girls and men burning in defiance and humiliation.
Anis did lots of things in the camp to help refugees. She brought them water, organized food and assisted in education. But sometimes the simplest and most powerful thing you could do was just sit down and talk to someone. Let them pour their sorrows into a sympathetic ear. And as Anis listened, one theme kept cropping up in story after story: Missing women.
“Since the very beginning of my work in the camps, I’d heard the sanctuary seekers [at Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb] weeping over their missing daughters and wives, either snatched from them or separated in their flight from violence.”
Countless women had been abducted and taken across the border, coerced into forced marriages, converted, or simply trafficked into slavery. Their families had no idea how to find them or rescue them. They had no resources, no contacts, and no friends. So Anis started making a list of these women’s names – a “meticulous record” as she called it. And the longer she worked in the camp, the more stories she heard, the longer the list got. She wanted to find these women, to help them…but how?
For every woman who had been abducted, there were many more who had simply been assaulted or used, and then left behind. Those women had made their way to these refugee camps too, and they bore the scars of their experiences, both physical and psychological.
As one refugee remembered:
‘There was this girl…. ‘This girl was probably just fifteen or sixteen years old but she was expecting a child and would just continue to sit in a corner all day with a vacant stare, not saying a word. The girl, it appeared, would suddenly sometimes become aware of her circumstances. Knowledge would dawn on her that, amidst the riots, it had happened to her [that she had been gang-raped] and this child she was carrying was the result.
There were many women who existed in a kind of trance. Unable to forget, unable to heal. As one historian wrote:
They were ‘dejected and mentally disturbed, They sat in the corner with their faces covered and shrieked or fainted whenever the shadow of a man fell on them”
Other women bore more obvious, external proof of their assault. Some women and girls had been branded or cut during their assaults. Symbols of the other religion were carved into their skin – tridents for Hinduism, and sickle moons for Islam. National slogans were common brands too – Pakistan Zindabad, or Pakistan Murdabad (Long live Pakistan or Death to Pakistan, respectively). These men – these rapists - were claiming territory in the name of religion, planting a flag, in the form of a blade.
Some of these rapists went even further, carving their names into the women’s skin, so they could never forget who had done this horrible thing to them. So their families and husbands and brothers, would always see the scar, and always remember. Other rapists went so far as to carve the day, month, and year of the attack into their victim’s skin. So that every time they caught sight of the might, while they were cooking, or bathing, or just out in public, they would be transported back to that moment.
When blades weren’t handy, some attackers used more primitive methods. As a woman named Durga Rani remembered, upon finding a few abandoned women on the side of the road: “They had teeth marks all over them.”
As Urvashi Butalia writes: “All kinds of humiliations were heaped upon them. And it was just part of this whole thing of treating women as property and as chattel.’
For women who survived these attacks - and many did not - the worst thing was not the attack itself but the shame and isolation that accompanied it. As the writer Ahmed Akbar describes:
“The woman is made to suffer twice: first from the brutality of the rape itself and then from the horror of her family. It is a double burden. It violates the woman and it also alienates her from her own society as she is considered ‘impure’.
As one academic put it:
“This was an act which, in a single blow, destroyed the self-esteem of a woman, the honor of the community and the prestige of the family.”
As women traveled across Northern India in the mass migrations, or simply hunkered down and waited for the storms to pass, many would do anything – absolutely anything – to avoid being violated in this way. As Alex Von Tunzelmann writes:
“It was constantly suggested that the high point of female heroism was to commit suicide rather than face the “dishonor” of rape, as if the shame and guilt for the crime would fall on the victim rather than on the perpetrator.
It was, she continues, “the notion that a woman’s chastity was worth more than her life.”
This concept, this idea of ‘death before dishonor’, was drummed into the heads of many Indian women from birth. As one elderly Indian woman confided to a younger relative in an interview:
‘In those days of riots, we were told that it was better to sacrifice yourself than have your character tarnished—if it ever came to that.‘ Beta, I want to explain this to you but I cannot find the right words.’ ‘The kind of things we were told to do to protect our reputation, the kind of things women did to protect themselves in those days … those days were most unfortunate for women. Many jumped into wells, many were killed or wounded, their breasts were cut off and they were left to bleed to death, some were dragged away and abducted, forced to marry or convert … too many acts of savage violence against women. Izzat, my child, honour. Always protect your izzat, no matter what. That is what we were taught.’
Another old woman told a journalist:
“In our community girls were given training of some kind to protect themselves during the riots.’ One - We were told to keep mirchi powder on us at all times and to fling it into the eyes of our assailant. Oh yes, it’s very spicy chili, so it stings!’. ‘And two, to keep a small knife or blade to use either on our attacker or on ourselves.”
And this was not simply homespun advice passed quietly from mothers to daughters. It was taught in some schools. One woman remembered that, as a little girl during Partition, she took classes that dealt with this very issue:
“These were not your regular self-defense classes. Rather, they were lessons in how to defend yourself from the enemy—by taking your own life! We were given these ruler-like things with red ink on one end, and whenever the instructors made a noise, we were supposed to cut ourselves, or at least place the ruler with the red ink where we would need to cut ourselves if we were ever harmed. Then these ladies would come around and review the red marks and say, “Nah puttar, zara oopar kari, a little higher, a little to the side,” telling us where the right artery was that we needed to cut to die immediately.
‘They told us again and again in those classes that if something were to happen to us, our families would no longer accept us. “Tussi wapas nahi ja paoge,” they would say. “You will never be able to go home again.”
The idea that women, threatened with the possibility of rape, should kill themselves was so ubiquitous, so woven into the fabric of North Indian culture at that time, that even Mohandas Gandhi subscribed to the view. His advice to Hindu women on the matter was severe and reductive and uncharacteristically heartless. According to Hajari Nisid:
He wanted them to commit suicide rather than submit to their Muslim ravishers: they should “learn how to die before a hair of their head could be injured.” Perhaps they could “suffocate themselves or . . . bite their tongues to end their lives,” he advised. Told that such methods were impracticable, the Mahatma suggested the next day that they drink poison instead. “His was not an idle idea. He meant all he had said,” reads Gandhi’s own transcript of his comments. Such talk kept emotions running high among Hindus.”
Faced with advice like that, girls and teens and women began to internalize this idea. And accept it as absolutely necessary. As the little girl in those ‘suicide classes’ remembered:
After I began taking those classes, I also started sleeping with a knife under my pillow—one of Daddy’s fancy Burmese ones. The training put me in such an inexplicably traumatic state that one time, on a particularly hot night when we were sleeping out in the open aangan, two cats began howling and fighting, and I got up and brought the knife close to me. I thought that they were rioters, I thought they had come for me—and Mummy shouted from her bed that they were just cats. She got up and calmed me down, but I could have stabbed myself that night. Easily. I had taken out the knife and placed it where they had taught me the artery was…’
That little girl was lucky – she was never in a position where she had to actually contemplate the terrible choice. But many thousands of women did, and many thousands carried through on the act.
The first big wake-up call that this was happening, actually took place a few months before Partition, back in March. Last episode, we briefly discussed the March riots in Punjab in which Muslim mobs attacked Sikh communities. During those riots, there was an infamous event that took place in the village of Thoa Kalsa.
The women of the village, upon hearing about an impending Muslim attack, jumped one-by-one, into the well in the town. From their perspective, it was better to drown, to die, than risk the possibility of being raped. The only survivors left to tell the tale, were the women who had jumped in last. As a woman named Besant Kaur remembered:
“Then all of us jumped into that well, some 100…girls and boys. All of us. Even boys, not only children, but grown-up boys. I also went in, I took my two children, and then we jumped in – I had some jewellery on me, things in my ears, on my wrists, and I had fourteen rupees on me. I took all that and threw it in the well, and then jumped in, but…it’s like when you put rotis into a tandoor, and if it is too full, the ones near the top, they don’t cook, they have to be taken out. So the well filled up, and we could not drown….the children survived.”
Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin, Rameshwari, visited the site two weeks later and described what she saw, peering down into the well:
“The bodies of those beautiful women had become swollen and floated up to the surface of the water. Their colorful clothes and long, black hair could be seen clearly. Two or three women still had [the bodies of] infants clinging to their breasts.”
The mass suicide at Thoa Kalsa was one of the most dramatic examples of the “death before dishonor” phenomenon, and to this day it is spoken of with a kind of hushed reverence. There have been movies made about this incident, and in each one, the death of these women is depicted as a kind of martyrdom; a noble - AND necessary – sacrifice.
The impression is created that these women – and by extent all the women who killed themselves during Partition – did so clear-eyed, willingly, and with a sort of meditative calm. But when you dig a little deeper, it starts to become clear that these suicides were essentially enforced by the weight of community and familial expectation. As one academic put it:
“The lines between choice and coercion must have been more blurred than these accounts reflect. […] Where in their decision did “choice” begin and “coercion” end.”
“When vials of poison or kirpans were handed to them, when pyres were ignited, when fathers with tear-filled eyes implored them to die or when wells or rivers were pointed to so that they could drown in them, there was hardly anything voluntary about these deaths.”
And when the women did not have the strength or means to kill themselves, the men in their lives did it for them. As Barney White Spunner writes:
“The story of a Sikh woman from West Punjab, Prakshavanti, was typical. Muslim goondas attacked her village. Her husband rushed her and her young son to the safety of the local rice mill but the goondas pursued them. Thinking she was sure to be raped, her husband tried to kill her. He slashed her with his sword, but only succeeded in inflicting a deep gash in her jaw. She passed out. When she came round her husband and son had been sliced up, and she had been routinely raped. Some months later, she gave birth to a daughter.”
That man was unsuccessful, but other husbands, and brothers, and uncles, and grandfathers were extremely effective. There’s a story about a doctor in Amritsar, one Virsa Singh, who became the de facto executioner for his community. According to one writer:
“Virsa Singh claimed he had shot 50 women personally. First, he shot his own wife because the Muslims came to get her. Once he had done this all the women in the neighborhood gathered around saying ‘brother kill me first’. Some would push their daughters forward saying ‘Shoot her, put a bullet through her now.” He says he just kept shooting and shooting. ‘They kept bringing them forward, I kept shooting them. There was shooting all around. At least 50 or 60 women I shot - My wife, my mother, my daughter…”
Other men, on rare occasions, chose to follow their women into death. There’s a story about a Sikh man, who when faced with a kind of ultimatum, chose to snuff his entire family out in a theatrical display of violence. As one academic describes:
“He had six daughters, all of them very good looking. He was well-to-do and also had very good relations with his Muslim neighbors. They told him to give his daughter is in marriage to their sons that way they would all then be related and his family safety assured. They could continue to live in the village without fear. He kept listening to them and nodding, seeming to agree. That evening he got all his family members together and decapitated each one of them with his sword, killing 13 people in all. He then lit their pyre, climbed on the roof of his house, and cried out “Bring on the marriage parties! You can bring your grooms now! Take my daughters away, they are ready for their marriage!” And so saying, he killed himself too.”
Once again, one cannot help but desperately grasp for some kind of explanation for this behavior, this worldview, this logic that seems insane on its face. Another man who had killed his wives and daughters tried to explain his thinking to an interviewer. As the journalist wrote:
“I used to talk to him about it, ask him how he had killed like this. He would say, “How could I see my wife, my daughters fall into the hands of the Muslims? I recalled Sikh history, the bravery of our people - I wasn’t a murderer, I was their savior.” I said to him, “That this must be a terrible burden for you to bear.” He said, “Not at all, no burden.” He subsequently remarried, had children and wrote a book about it all.
There are countless stories like this.
Of men killing the women they claimed to love, armored in the rationale that they were saving them from a fate worse than death. But it begs the question, were they protecting the women’s honor? Or their own? Was it even these women’s choice to make? The short answer…is no.
These women, it seemed, were property. Like a table, or a chair, or a truck. Mine, not yours. Ours not theirs. A woman’s intrinsic value, or lack thereof, was completely defined by the men in ger life.
And like a retreating army breaks a tractor, or destroys a tool, or salts a field so that the enemy cannot use it, these men killed their own wives and daughters so that they would not be “corrupted” or taken, or converted.
The stories are myriad.
We could fill hours and hours, episode after episode, with horrifying anecdotes, but an ugly thread runs through it all. As one academic put it: “in each case however, the common factor was the dispensability of women.”
---- --- MUSIC BREAK -- ---- ---- -----
It’s October 1947.
We’re in a small village in Pakistan, not far from the border with India.
A young man named Akhtar Hussein, a Muslim, is walking through the town, looking at the houses, the barns, the wells, the outhouses. His eyes crawl and search and probe over every surface of the town – every nook and cranny. Akhtar is not from this village, and it becomes clear to the suspicious residents, that he is looking for something.
They were right.
The truth was, Akhtar was not his name at all. Nor was he a Muslim. It was a cover name, a fake identity, to help him gain access to remote places like this. The man’s real name was Kharaiti Lal – and he was part of the joint Recovery Operation to track down and rescue the tens of thousands of women who had been abducted during the Partition chaos.
As the tides of people gushed back and forth across the border in the fall of 1947, opportunistic men lay in wait, snatching young girls and women from the peripheries of the refugee columns; It could happen at any time – if you fell behind, got lost, or even stopped to use the bathroom, you might find yourself tied up, gagged, and thrown over someone’s shoulder. Like hyenas picking off the weakest members of the herd, predatory men gorged themselves in the Punjabi countryside.
Once they were taken, the women were assaulted, or sold, or married off. They disappeared into an abyss of strange people and strange places, with little hope of ever being reunited with their families. Many were forced to convert to another religion, or marry the same men who had raped them days earlier. Their situation, it appeared, was hopeless. Their fate sealed.
Or at least it would have been, were it not for people like Kharaiti Lal, a.k.a Akhtar Hussein. Kharaiti had realized that he would have a very hard time finding kidnapped Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan unless he could move freely throughout the country, and so he adopted a Muslim alias and cultivated close ties with the Pakistani police. When he got a tip about a missing girl from a grieving father or a panicked husband or an inconsolable mother, he would track the lead down as best he could, arriving at the villages where they might be.
The cloak & dagger theatrics were an underhanded, but necessary, part of the job. Social workers and volunteers like Kharaiti had to resort to, according to one historian:
“all kinds of subterfuge to find abducted women. Often the local police, meant to be accompanying and helping in the tracking down of women, would send ahead a warning and the women would be hidden away. Imaginative social workers countered this in a variety of ways – by adopting disguises, false names, acting secretly and on their own, or just storming their way into homes where they suspected abducted women were being held.”
Today, Kharaiti Lal was prepared to storm through this entire village if necessary. But as he was walking past one farm, something caught his eye. He saw a man sitting on top of a large pot in the center of the yard. Kharaiti stopped, and when he looked closer, he could see the pot was covering a small hole in the ground. He asked the man what he was keeping in the hole. The man, scowled and replied, “pigeons”. He told Kharaiti not to touch the pot, or the pigeons would escape.
Something seemed off to Kharaiti – something about it didn’t feel right. So he forced his way toward the pot, lifted it, and peered down into the hole. Looking up at him, were three young girls, scared out of their minds. When Kharaiti looked back at the farmer, he saw that the man was aiming a rusty old pistol at him. The man said that he would shoot. Kharaiti, like some kind of Indian Clint Eastwood, replied that even if the man did pull the trigger, he probably couldn’t hit him.
His bluff called, the farmer threw the pistol into the dirt. Inside the house, Kharaiti found three more girls – six in all.
That dramatic anecdote comes from a 1997 BBC radio program by historian Andrew Whitehead. It almost sounds like an episode of CSI: Partition, which is a show I would absolutely watch. Jokes aside, Kharaiti managed to save those six girls, but not all of the stories from the recovery operation were such clear-cut tales of good and evil.
Back in Delhi, the widowed social worker who we met earlier, Anis Kidwai, continued to witness the problem from her own unique vantage point in the refugee camps. Since her transformative meeting with the Mahatma, she had rediscovered a sense of purpose, but Anis still did not feel like she was doing enough:
“I made acquaintances in the police. I gave the officers the names of abducted women I had recorded in my notebook. More girls were recovered but our successes were insignificant in the light of the enormity of the problem.”
As she attempted to comfort the recovered women, she felt like her words were completely inadequate. That she was unsuited to the task. She remembered, regretfully:
“The girls would bring with them grief-laden hearts and disturbed minds. There was no one here to vent one’s feelings on, no one to unburden one’s heart to, nothing to do. Besides aimlessly skipping around all day, bickering and weeping over their misfortune, these girls had nothing else to occupy them.”
“None of us had the ability to understand the psychology of these women nor did we try. The few sentences that are spouted at such occasions proved totally ineffective, and often we ended up saying very unpleasant things to them.’
But despite the inadequacy of her therapeutic skills, some of the stories genuinely moved Anis, and she could not help but admire the resiliency of some of these girls:
“I can never forget the three adolescent girls from Najafgarh. One was rescued and sent to me by a Swami disciple of Bapu and Mr Nayyar, veteran Congressi and a member of the Provincial Committee. That proud daughter of a Pathan said, ‘My two girlfriends were so lucky—Heaven gave them the chance and they finished the job. I didn’t get the chance or I too would have done exactly the same.’
She narrated her tale [this is the little girl speaking to Anis]: ‘The three of us were taken to the same village. The other two girls were both with the same man, I was with another. Although a close watch was always kept on us, we managed to get a few moments together and then we would whisper to each other what we could do to free ourselves. One day, my two friends managed to secrete [steal] a sickle and later that night, when the [man] Jat began to snore, they placed the sickle on his throat and pressed it down.’
Just imagine the scene: these pre-teen girls plot a murder, over many months; their hands aren’t strong enough, so they press down on the sickle together with all their might. But at the loud gurgling sounds from the Jat’s throat their control deserts them and they run for their lives. The sounds alert others in the house and they give chase. How far could those frail legs carry the girls? They are soon caught and fall prey to the maddened crowd. Yet, the only regret their friend has is that she couldn’t do the same.
As a woman, I can only pray that each one of India’s and Pakistan’s daughters is exactly like them.”
But not all the tales were so inspiring. Hearing story after story, account after account, Anis became aware of a startling new wrinkle in the Partition ordeal. A tangled web of opportunism, corruption and human trafficking. To her disgust, she discovered that the military and police of both nations were often complicit and even active participants in the epidemic of sexual assault. She called it a “conspiracy that transcended borders”:
“The stories of distressed girls from East Punjab and wrecked women from this side of the border were identical: the flight with family and neighbours from village to camp; on the police’s orders, the beginning of the journey in a convoy to Pakistan; ambush on the way; abduction of all young women during the attack; division of these spoils among attackers, police and army. The conspiracy transcended borders.
Despite the violence, it was rare for any young girl to be killed, though they were injured at times. The ‘hot stuff’ would be distributed between army and police, the ‘substandard’ falling to the share of the attackers. Then these girls would be passed from one hand to a second to a third, so they would have been bought and sold four or five times by the time they came to be the pride of some hotel or reached a safehouse to be the dalliances of policemen.
As each girl was unaware of the conspiracy, she would think of this man, charging into the melee and gathering her into his strong arms, as her angel of mercy. When that good soul gently proffered his scarf to cover her body stripped bare by attackers, all ghastly memories of her mother’s carcass with its throat slit open, her father’s blood-bathed body, her husband’s still-writhing corpse, would be driven from her mind, and she would be melt with gratitude for her savior.
A long time would pass before she would understand that this man was not the blameless one among the looters or the decent one among the policemen, that all of them practised the same ‘heroism’. […] By the time this secret was revealed, the waters would have risen above the head. It would be too late for her to run from him—she was going to be a mother, or she had already been sold to other men three or four times over. Having countenanced so many men, what face could India’s daughter show her parents or her husband?”
But nevertheless, the recovery operation dragged on - for weeks, for months, for years. 1947 became 1948, 1948 became 1949 – and for ten long years the governments of India and Pakistan tried to find these women, with middling success. But even in this rare display of national cooperation, that innate sense of distrust between the two countries was palpable.
And this brings us to one the greatest and most terrible failures of the Recovery Operation.
As India and Pakistan embarked on their joint recovery operation, they agreed that any woman living among a religious majority that was not her own – MUST have been taken by force. The union between a Hindu woman and Muslim man in Pakistan, or between a Muslim woman and a Sikh man in India, was – by definition – illegitimate. Why else would they be together? The decree was retroactive, as Urvashi Butalia writes:
Thus, after March 1, 1947, any woman who was seen to be living with, in the company of, or in a relationship with a man of the other religion would be presumed to have been abducted, taken by force. After this date, all marriages or conversions that had taken place would be seen as forced, as not recognized by either of the two governments. No matter what the woman said, how much she protested, no matter that there was the odd ‘real” relationship, the women had no choice in the matter.”
As it happened, not all the women rescued by the Recovery Operation wanted to be rescued. As Butalia continues:
“The affair was a complicated one: How to decided who had been abducted and who had not? What if a woman had gone of her own free will? These were things that took thought, that needed considerations” -
Some were just scared, according to Anis Kidwai:
How was she to know whether her self-professed rescuer was friend or foe? What if the rescuers were also traffickers? Until now, whichever strange man had taken her, had sold her. The fact that the rescuer wore a police uniform was no guarantee either.
Others were angry and resentful of the family who had failed to protect them. According to Anis Kidwa:
I also met some young girls who angrily scorned the offer of return to husbands who had proven so cowardly that they just turned tail and ran, leaving the honour of their family, the mother of their children at the mob’s mercy. These women would go mad with anger, ‘You ask us to go back to those impotents? We kept on crying out to them to help us—In Allah’s name, save us! Why are you running away? Why don’t you strike these scoundrels? Wait! Take me along! But for each one, his life was most dear. There was no love for us.”
Some women decided that their lives had actually improved after being kidnapped and raped. Here’s Butalia again:
“There were some women who had been born into poor homes and had not seen anything other than poverty. A half full stomach and rags on your body. And now they had fallen into the hands of men who bought them silken salvars and net dupattas, who taught them the pleasures of cold ice cream and hot coffee, who took them to the cinema. Why should they leave such men and go back to covering their bodies with rags and slaving in the hot sun in the fields? If she leaves this smart, uniformed man, she will probably end up with a peasant in rags, in the filth, with a danda on her shoulder. And so they are happy to forget the frightening pas, or the equally uncertain and fearful future, and live only for the present.”
Anis Kidwai could only comment: “We found that most abducted girls didn’t want to return.” Again, Anis regretted her inability to say the right thing:
The activists had to reassure the women, support them, build trust, and gently try to turn their hearts towards accepting the idea of return. But I’m sorry to report that we were all unequipped, incompetent. None of us had any understanding of psychology, nor did we try to gain it. We would just parrot the few catchphrases that were habitually used in such circumstances, and when they proved ineffectual (as they often did), we would berate the girls.
But oftentimes, the real reason the women did not want to return was brutally simple. It was shame. Deep, burning, lifelong shame. Many of these women, especially Hindu women, assumed that their families would not want them back after having been “polluted” by a member of the enemy religion. And more often than not, they were right. As Yasmin Khan writes:
Their families said, “How can we keep them now? Better that they are dead.” Many of them were so young – 18, 15, 14 years old – what remained of them now? Their “character” was now spoilt.’ As vessels of the honour of the whole community, the shame and horror fell on everybody associated with the girls: these were not individual tragedies.
Another academic explained:
“Marriage and conversion [to the other religion] was a symbolic death for any Hindu or Sikh girl.”
Mohandas Gandhi, infuriated and saddened by the situation, had sharp words for those families who refused to take back their abducted women:
‘I hear,’ Gandhi said, ‘Hindus are not willing to accept back the recovered women because they say that they have become impure. I feel this is a matter of great shame. These women are as pure as the girls sitting by my side. And if any of those recovered women should come to me, then I will give them as much respect and honour as I accord to these young maidens.’
One elderly woman remembered:
And the saddest thing was that many of these women refused to go back to their families across the border for fear of no longer being accepted. ‘This was their life now, for better or for worse. These women, when asked why they thought their families would no longer welcome them, said that they had now become, sort of, like … half Muslims: “Even though we may hold Hindu gods in our hearts, on the surface we too have become Muslims.”
But there was another reason many abducted women didn’t want to be rescued. In the aftermath of their rape, many had become pregnant. They had carried those children to term, given birth to them, and were raising them. But those children were technically citizens of the countries they had been born in. If the woman wanted to go home, she would not be able to take her child with her. As Urvashi Butalia writes:
The child born of a mixed union was a constant reminder of the violation of the woman, of the fact that she had had sex with a man of the other religion. So women were given a choice: keep your children with you, and stay, in all probability in an ashram all your life, or give them up and go back to your old family.”
One academic echoed the point: “These women were made to feel that through their bodies, they had turned traitors.”
And Urvashi Butalia continues:
“The women had to be brought back, they had to be ‘purified’ (and this meant they had to be separated from their children, the ‘illegitimate’ products of their illegitimate unions […] Only then would moral order be restored and the nation made whole again, and only then, would the emasculated, weakened manhood of the Hindu male be vindicated. If Partition was a loss of itself to the other, a metaphorical violation and rape of the body of its motherland, the recovery of women was its opposite.”
And so, many women were dragged, kicking and screaming back across the border to a family who did not want them. “Forcible recovery”, the Indian government called it. Torn away from their new life, and rejected by their old home, they were forced to exist in a permanent state of emotional limbo. All across India, facilities were created to house these recovered women, who had no real home to go back to.
In the end, it was just another, different kind of violation. In a horrible irony, by attempting to help these women reclaim their dignity, the governments of India and Pakistan trampled over their autonomy all over again. As the writer Kavita Daiya puts it:
Abducted women were represented as properties belonging to particular national (configured as religious) communities. This determined that all abducted women should be “rescued” or “returned” to their rightful “owners” (namely, the nation, which coincided with the dominant ethnic community.”
Urvashi Butalia expressed it a little more viscerally:
“The woman as a person did not count, her wishes were of little consequence, she had no right to resist, defy, nor even to appeal, for the Act denied even that basic freedom. Not only was she forcibly recovered, but if she disputed her recovery…she had no recourse.”
And so, what began as an earnest and noble mission to rescue women, the “chief sufferers” of Partition as Gandhi put it, devolved into a territorial reclamation of “national property”.
As one victim put it:
“What of a woman? It is her lot to be used, either by her own men or by others.”
Urvashi Butalia sums it all up:
“The recovery operation for abducted women continued for nine years after Partition, though recoveries began to drop off after the initial few years. In all, some 30,000 women were recovered, about 22,000 Muslim women from India, and about 8,000 Hindu and Sikh women from Pakistan.”
As we bring this episode to a close, I have to admit, that I tried and tried and tried to find some kind of positive anecdote to end on. Some kind of cathartic story that would wrap up Part 5 with a glimmer of hope or positivity. But I couldn’t find anything that made sense. I couldn’t find anything that felt like anything less than a dishonest candy coating to make the medicine go down a little easier.
And that same lack of closure, that sense of shellshocked dissatisfaction, was acutely felt by the social worker Anis Kidwai, who we’ve spent so much time with this episode. At the end of the day, after the Partition violence had died down, all she could do was hope that people would remember, if nothing else:
Somehow, that evil time is now past. A bloody saga has been writ on the pages of history, a terrible tale that will beckon the youth to it hereafter. The government, political leaders and intelligentsia ask us to let bygones be bygones, but I cannot understand how people can escape these memories when all around them are strewn the signs of what took place.
Today, so many of us have heaved a sigh of relief, ‘Whatever it was, thankfully it’s over and we can live in peace again!’ I fear this is self-delusion. We may not be free of that cycle of action and reaction. We also have to serve the sentence for our crimes. The bitterness in the hearts and minds of our offspring has upset the peace of their families; if we aren’t careful, this generation may raze even the ruins of humanity that still stand.
--- OUTRO -----
Well guys, that is all the time we have for today.
Considering the heaviness of this topic, I wanted to keep it mercifully short. But it was an aspect of the Partition story that I just couldn’t pass over with a throwaway comment or a shock-value account. We needed to really dig into it, and I’m glad we did. Hopefully you are too.
In the next episode, we will reach the end of our story on the Partition of India. In Part 6, we will turn our attention back to the core cast of characters that have served as narrative ballasts for us this entire time.
We’ll check back in with Muhammed Ali Jinnah, as he reflects on the consequences of his long campaign for Pakistan. We’ll spend time with the Mountbattens, as they prepare to say goodbye to the subcontinent - and to their friend Jawaharlal Nehru.
And of course, as promised, we will end our story with a heavy focus on Mohandas Gandhi. We’ll experience the Partition crisis of 1947 through his eyes, and explore the extraordinary lengths he went to in the vain attempt to make it stop.
And so, goodbye for now. As always, thank you for spending your valuable time with me, and I hope you have an awesome day.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.