End of silence: A woman’s narrative of the 1947 Partition
He told all the women that should the train be stopped and boarded by rioting mobs, they should commit suicide.
Many of us born to families who migrated across borders during partition grew up hearing whispers of events from that time. The end of the British Raj in India saw the subcontinent dissected into two – Pakistan and India.
This led to the largest migration in history and caused widespread communal violence. My nani (maternal grandmother) narrated tragedies of madness raging the land without adequate police or troops to maintain law and order.
One of my nani’s friends narrated how her father had told all the women in their family that should the train they were on be stopped and boarded by rioting mobs, they should commit suicide. She was proud of the fact that they had agreed to the idea of group suicide, although luckily, no such need presented itself.
I was shocked. Why did they agree to it in the first place? When I expressed my astonishment to their plan, I was told that it was better to die than be dishonoured.
Reading about the Partition, I am overwhelmed by the intensity of the violence but I am even more astounded by how much of it was directed towards women. Thousands of women were abducted, raped, mutilated, used as slaves and discarded. Considering the extent of the violence, what is truly dumbfounding is how little has been written about it. It is as if the women did not matter enough for people to even bear witness to the cruelty they suffered and suffer they did; Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women, they all suffered.
The women themselves do not like to narrate or talk of what they experienced. Truth is that most of those who were abducted were also later abandoned by their families. A woman’s rape means dishonour to her kin. Her presence is a reminder of her shame. It is apparently easier to shun her and pretend she never existed.
Most of these women never had the chance to tell their stories but even the ones who did chose to let silence take over instead.
“Even when women survivors narrated Partition stories to their families, there were pauses in the narrative. As they began sharing their stories with scholars, women did not reveal any incidents of sexual violence they personally experienced.”
The governments of the two countries came to an agreement that abducted persons should be recovered. India’s Abducted Persons Act of 1949 stated that:
“‘Abducted person’ means a male child of under the age of 16 years or a female of whatever age who is, or immediately before the first day of March, 1947, was a Muslim (Pakistan’s Law stated Hindu or Sikh) and who on or after that day or before the first day of January, 1949, was separated from his or her family and is found to be living with or in control of any other individual or family, and in the latter case includes a child born to any such female after the said date.”
Where men over the age of 16 were given the option to choose whether they wanted to remain where they were, the women had the decision forced upon them by the state. They had to leave any children they may have had and if they were pregnant, even though abortions were illegal in both countries, their pregnancies were aborted.
In many instances, the families who these women were being returned to did not want them. Gandhi even felt the need to give a speech addressing this problem.
“Thousands of Hindu and Sikh girls have been abducted by the Muslims and Muslim women have been abducted by the Hindu and Sikh. Where are these women at present? We have no clue as to where they are at the moment. Those who met in Lahore have decided that all abducted women – Hindu, Sikh and Muslims – should be recovered. I have received a long list of Muslim women who have been abducted from Kashmir and the state of Patiala. Many of them belong to wealthy, good families.
If these women are recovered, there should be no problem in them being accepted by their families. However, it is doubtful that our Hindus and Sikhs will accept their abducted women and treat them with respect. They may have been forced to marry someone and may have even converted to Islam.
Despite this, in my opinion, they should not be considered as Muslims at all. I would be happy to keep these women with me and treat them with respect. At heart, they are pure. However, because they fell into the hands of evil men, I would only have compassion for them and would have no reason to despise them. Society must gracefully accept them.”
It is interesting that Gandhi felt that Muslim families would treat these women better in comparison to their Hindu and Sikh counterparts. But I am sure that Gandhi was largely mistaken in his assumption. Societies do not always behave with grace.