Displacement and trauma suffered by women during Partition of India post colonisation


The paper seeks to bring out the plight of displacement and the theme of silence and trauma suffered by women during the Partition of India post colonisation, through a literary analysis of female narratives, as documented in archives on the internet and texts by noted authors.

Chapter 1 is a brief history of the Partition of India and how colonisation led to the division of the subcontinent and provoked the massive transfers of population and mass scale atrocities both in the eastern and western parts of the British Indian Empire.

Chapter 2 deals with a general overview of the role women had to play during the Partition. This chapter also expresses views by women partition experts such as, Urvashi Butalia, Jasodhara Bagchi, Attia Hossain, Bapsi Sidhwa, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin.

In Chapter 3, I have analysed certain female narratives which Urvashi Butalia’s phenomenal book, The Other Side Of Silence, has archived, to highlight the sufferings of women during the Partition of the Punjab Province.

Chapter 4 deals with experiences of women during the Partition of Bengal through certain interviews documented in The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India edited by Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta.

Chapter 5 concludes the paper, analysing the similarities and dissimilarities in the experiences of women during the Partition of Bengal and Punjab, and associates such experiences to the comments made by women partition experts on the role played by women during the Partition of the British Indian Empire.


The Independence of India from a two hundred year old British colonial rule, preceded by years of freedom struggle, and the Partition of India, which was declared and carried out in a matter of three months by the colonial masters, was an epoch making chapter in the history of India, to say the least.

Whether the partition of these countries was the right thing to do is still under debate. However, the impractical and furious pace of the Partition is without a doubt, the fault of the colonial rulers. The fate of twelve million people was written off as Mountbatten decisively declared that he was to take no responsibility of law and order post colonisation. Uncertainty of their fate was a major cause of violence among the communities. Mountbatten declared the exact boundaries of divided India only after India was independent. To make matters more complicated and problematic, Cycil Radcliffe, a man with no experience in the Indian subcontinent had single-handedly chalked out the borders of the country, without any understanding, whatsoever, of the extent to which lives were being affected due to British politics. India and Pakistan, newly born nations, were left to fend for themselves. Britain’s hurried retreat brought untold misery to the people, as the newly born nations spiralled into chaos. Men, women and children were hacked to pieces and this was allowed because there was complete collapse in state machinery. Boundary issues, left unresolved by the British, have caused two wars and continuing strife between India and Pakistan.

This paper focusses on thewomen’s side of the story, which is marked by brutality. The Partition was an aftermath of colonisation and women were victimised during the Partition. Urvashi Butalia offers a striking example from the rhetoric of one newspaper: “One issue of the Organizer (August 14, 1947) [Pakistan’s Independence Day] had a front page illustration of Mother India, the map of the country, with a woman lying on it, one limb cut off and severed with Nehru holding the bloody knife.” In the first chapter, I have emphasised on the subtle and explicit ways the colonisers were responsible for the Partition of India andfor the days and years of atrocities, poverty, illiteracy and the lack of basic human rights post-colonisation and Partition. The chapters following the first analyse female narratives, mostly tales of horror and sorrow, but some of triumph, during the days of Partition.

Chapter 1

The announcement of independence by the British Raj for India and Pakistan served almost like an anaesthetic given to the country for the bloody surgery that was the Partition of India. The 1947 Partition or The Great Divide caused one of the largest human convulsions in history. According to staggering statistics, twelve million people were displaced; a million had died; seventy-five thousand women were abducted and raped; families were divided; properties lost and homes destroyed.

A popular reason for the division of colonial India into two separate states is that the partition was the result of conflict between the nation’s elites. The “Indian National Congress” formed in 1885 and the “Muslim League” founded in 1906 were pivotal to the 1947 Partition. The secular Indian Union and the smaller Muslim state of Pakistan were formed mainly because the Muslim League, under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had demanded an independent Muslim state with a majority of Muslims. This demand was propelled by the fact that there weremajor religious and social differences between Hindus and Muslims in India. The Muslims were apprehensive of an India, free from the British rule, with Hindus as a majority and how this governance would interfere with the Muslim ways of living as dictated by the Holy Quran.

The British too were great proponents of the divide and rule policy and banked on India’s diversity in terms of caste, creed and religion to bring about the divide. The policy was first implemented in the army where the Indian sepoys were precious to the British army and maintaining the loyalty of the army was of utmost importance. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a great lesson and according to Neil Stewart, in his essay, “Imperialism and the Indian Army,” the Mutiny had been made easy for the fact that caste arid religious differences had been smoothened away. A pro-British Muslim commentator on the Mutiny recorded as follows what had taken place:

“Government certainly did put the two antagonistic races in the same regiments, but consistent intercourse had done its work, and the two races in regiments had become one. It is but natural and to be expected that a feeling of fellowship and brotherhood must spring up between men of a regiment, constantly brought together as they are. They consider themselves as one body, and thus it was that the differences which exist between Hindus and Mohammedans had, in these regiments, been almost entirely smoothed away.

“If a portion of a regiment engaged in anything, all the rest joined. If separate regiments of Hindus and separate regiments of Mohammedans had been raised, this feeling of brotherhood would not have arisen.” (The Causes of the Indian Revolt. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Calcutta, 1873)

Separate regiments of Hindus and Muslims were required to curb feelings of brotherhood. Stewart writes that there were many who saw that the British rule depended upon maintaining the existing divisions among the Indians. One of the most brilliant and able British soldiers in India, General Sir Charles Napier, wrote only a few years before the Mutiny, “The moment these brave and able natives learn how to combine, they will rush on us simultaneously and the game will be up.”

Communal distinction in the army served as a microcosm of the consistent policy which has been applied to the whole of India. This had successfully held the country under European rule for close on two hundred years. The encouragement of communal distinction in the army paralleled the encouragement of communal distinction among civilians. The terrible massacres of Bengal, Bihar and the Punjab had been the result of “the great system of ‘divide et impera’.

The British observed the social discord present among Hindus and Muslims and played it to their advantage. They watched as neighbours refrained from sharing water or food with each other or even eating together because of religious differences. Intermarriage was strictly prohibited, religious beliefs were at odds with each other and this fuelled the intolerance. Jinnah felt that the Muslims in India would soon be degraded to the position of the lowest caste- ‘Shudras’. He went on to say that he would “never allow Muslims to be slaves of Hindus.” According to Jinnah, Pakistan, the idea of which was first proposed by philosopher Allama Iqbal in the 1930 convention of the Muslim League, was a place that would celebrate “spiritual, cultural and economic life in consonance with our own ideals, and according to the genius of our own people.”

Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, however, dreamed of a united India. Nayantara Sahgal, Nehru’s niece, shares her opinion on the Partition of India during an interview with BBC thus: “The whole idea that India should be divided was based on a fantastic notion that religion constitutes nationality. While I was growing up, the entire national movement, which had cut across religion, region, caste, class, it had been a truly unifying experience. So, for a person like me, it was an absurd idea that India should be divided. It made no sense of any kind.”

Simultaneously, in the 1937 session of the Hindu Mahasabha, held at Ahmedabad, Veer Savarkar, in his presidential address asserted, “India cannot be assumed today to be Unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main —the Hindus and the Muslims.”

In March 1946, the Cabinet Mission arrived to negotiate between the Congress and the Muslim League. Jinnah had at first accepted a united India provided it had weak central powers. Jawaharlal Nehru was strongly in favour of the unity of India but being a socialist and believer in a strong central state, refused any such concessions to the Muslim League.

With the collapse of negotiations, Jinnah called for Direct Action in Calcutta, a stronghold of the Muslim League, demanding the free state of Pakistan on August 16th, 1947, also known as Direct Action Day and the day of the Great Calcutta Killings. Thousands of Muslims gathered in the center of the city to demand a separate homeland. As the crowds dispersed, radical elements headed for the Hindu parts of the city. Local gangsters hijacked the demonstration and agitated the mob which turned violent. The city erupted in communal violence. The Muslim’s slaughtering of Hindus turned to Hindus to slaughter Muslims.

Around five thousand people were killed in three days of rioting. But the British, with one eye on leaving India, ordered the troops to stay in their barracks until it was too late. “For three days, there was no sign of authority on the streets and anybody could murder anybody,” says an eyewitness, Golak B. Majumdar, who was then a student. The Calcutta killings shattered the hopes of a united India. After this incident, the violence spread. Had the British allowed the troops to maintain law and order, perhaps some of this could have been averted. In Bihar, Hindus massacred Muslims, in Noakhali, Bengal; it was Hindus who were mostly under attack.

The Noakhali Carnage was the revenge Muslims took in October 1946 after the 1946 Calcutta riots on Direct Action day in March of the same year where ten thousand Muslims had allegedly been killed. On 16/10/1946, The Statesman reported:

“In an area of about 200 sq. miles the inhabitants surrounded by riotous mobs, are being massacred, their houses being burnt, their womenfolk being forcibly carried away and thousands being subjected to forcible conversion. Thousands of hooligans attacked the villages, compelled them (Hindus) to slaughter their cattle and eat. All places of worship in affected villages have been desecrated. The District Magistrate and the Police Superintendent of Noakhali took no step to prevent it.” “The severed head of Rajendra Lal Roy, (a Bengali intellectual living in Karpara village), was gifted to Gulam Sarowar (Muslim League leader and ex MLA) in a silver plate. At Gulam’s order his two trusted lieutenants took the two beautiful daughters of Mr. Roy as the booty.”

Only the youngest brother of Mr. Roy, Professor M.L. Roy escaped the carnage as he was in a Kolkata college and said: “Muslims wanted to convert whole Noakhali into Islam so they targeted first the Hindu leaders who could offer some resistance. The cause of death of my entire family is only due to it”

The massacre of the Hindu population started on 10 October, on the day of Kojagari Lakshmi Puja, and continued unabated for about a week. It is estimated that a minimum of more than 5,000 Hindus were killed, hundreds of Hindu women were raped and thousands of Hindu men and women were forcibly converted to Islam. Around 50,000 to 75,000 survivors were sheltered in temporary relief camps in Comilla, Chandpur, Agartala and other places. Around 50,000 Hindus remained marooned in the affected areas under the strict surveillance of the Muslims, where the administration had no say. In some areas, Hindus had to obtain permits from the Muslim leaders in order to travel outside their villages. The forcibly converted Hindus were coerced to give written declarations that they had converted to Islam of their own free will. Sometimes they were confined in others’ houses and only allowed to be in their own house when an official party came for inspection. The Hindus were forced to pay subscriptions to the Muslim League and jiziyah, the protection tax paid by zimmis in an Islamic state.

After Direct Action Day, the Partition of India was inevitable. Even Gandhi failed to keep India unified. In February, 1947, the British Government made a dramatic declaration. They would leave India by June, 1948. However, they did not know how to give India to the Indians. Therefore, they came up with a radical solution- to appoint a new Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. In March, 1947, the decisive leader, Mountbatten, arrived in India, with the air of getting a deal and getting Britain out, before India imploded.

As the Partition became a reality, the political tensions between the Muslim League, the Indian National Congress and the new viceroy seeped down to a local level. Punjab was worse affected. The Sikhs feared being ruled by Muslims as there was a possibility of Punjab going to Pakistan since it was a Muslim majority. In March, 1947 Sikh villages near Rawalpindi came under attack. Bir Bahadur Singh recalls the incident tearfully. The biggest fear the Sikhs had was that, their women would be taken away, converted and raped. “There was a Muslim called Golaan Rasool who demanded a girl. He said, give us one girl and I’ll make them go away.” The women of the village went into hiding. Bir Bahadur Singh’s father decided to act to save the honour of the village. “The girls were aged between ten and forty and were very pretty.” He breaks down here, now an old man, he was a mere teenager then, watching on as women were reduced to their honour and dehumanised. “First he called my sister, his daughter, and said, ‘Maan, beti, come here.’ My sister, Maan Kaur, was two years older than me; she was eighteen or nineteen years old. She sat down and my father raised his sword but it did not strike properly. God knows what happened. My sister lifted her braid over her head, and my father angrily pulled her head scarf back and brought down his sword and her head rolled away.” His uncle and brother started beheading as well. “All you could hear was the cut cut cut sounds.” The silence of these women tears through the air in a blood curling, mute scream. “Believe me, even after 60 years, I still remember that nobody made a sound,” says an emotional and aged Bir Bahadur Singh.

Such scenes were repeated throughout Western Punjab through March and April, 1947, while those in powered looked on, as India burnt. To get the British out quickly and restore peace, Nehru had to compromise. He abandoned his dream of a united India and accepted Partition. On the night of June 3rd, 1947, Mountbatten, Jinnah and Nehru, broadcasted the news that India would be divided in two. “It was like a dream come true,” says Roehad Khan, Pakistani politician and former civil servant. “I remember I gave a sigh of relief,” says Golak B Majumdar, a common man, “because we do not want to live with the Muslims anymore.” The Partition deal involved giving those provinces with a Muslim majority to Pakistan and those with a Hindu majority to India. However, Nehru and Mountbatten insisted that Punjab and Bengal would be treated differently. Jinnah was forced to accept that both these provinces would be cut in half; divided between India and Pakistan.

The next day at a press conference, Mountbatten expressed shocking news. Britain would not be leaving in June 1948, as had been planned, but on August 15, 1947, in three months’ time. When asked why the date was brought forward by almost a year, Mountbatten asked why they should wait as waiting would mean that he should be held responsible for law and order. Prem Chopra, reporter of the All India radio then, says that this decision had made the pace of the Partition furious and impossible to moderate. The Viceroy’s daughter, Lady Pamela Hicks however, said that it was much too late as when Mountbatten had assumed power, India was already in a volcanic position.

With three months to go however, no decision had been made on where the border of India and Pakistan would lie. A new boundary would have to be urgently drawn up and the man chosen for the task had never been east of Paris- the British barrister, Cyril Radcliffe. On July 8th, Radcliffe arrived to India, with Partition only 36 days away. While separating Bengal and Punjab, Radcliffewould not only consider which religion was a majority in each individual district but also railway, canal and irrigation channels.

With tension increasing, the British Government played another move to increase the plight of Indians. They decided to send the remaining troops back home. With just over a month to Partition, tension on the streets of India, especially Lahore, was increasing. The date itself became a driver.

“The atmosphere deteriorated,” says Zahoor-Ud-Din, a wrestler in Lahore. “The boys from here would cut to pieces anyone they caught and put the bodies in a sack. The local Muslim boys would then take the bodies and burn them.” There was no authority to stop anyone. Despite such violence, the British presence was minimal. John Moores, a British soldier and a small group of Gherkas were some of the few left behind and they did what they could. But it was like a bush fire, very difficult to control.

Meanwhile, the series of decisions regarding the line of Partition was on the lonely shoulder of Cyril Radcliffe, who had no time to see what was happening in the lands he was dissecting. Mayhem ensued. “I ran after this Muslim and killed him. My sword was a curved one. It used to look magnificent. It used to feel good. They had killed so many of our people. We used to shout war-cries and chop people’s heads off. We would cheer each other up and shout, ‘Be strong!’ I have lost count of how many I killed,” says an anonymous, old Sikh man.

Small contingents of British led troops guarded the country sides trying to stop the violence. But by then, there were just too few to make a difference. People were desperate for help but no one came to their aid. “The wells were full of bodies when we arrived to a village. A woman who had been pregnant was carved open completely and her breasts were cut off. Awful, awful atrocities,” says John Moores. Area after area was set on fire and people fled from their homes, leaving everything.

On August 9th, Radcliffe had finished drawing up the border but Mountbatten decided to keep it a secret, till after Independence, so the British would not be blamed for any ensuing violence. The delay prolonged the uncertainty, that some belief increased the loss of life. “Nobody in India will love me for my award about the Punjab and Bengal and there will be roughly eighty million with a grievance who will be looking for me. I have worked and travelled and sweated-oh I have sweated the whole time,” Radcliffe wrote to his nephew. He left India on 13thAugust, never to return and deeply conscious that his acts would generate controversy, conflict and the loss of human life.

On August 14th, 1947, Pakistan came to birth. Nobody except Mountbatten and Radcliffe knew where the new border was, however. The next day, India became independent. With the celebrations over, Mountbatten finally announced the new border. It sliced through the previously united provinces of Bengal and Punjab. Lahore was given to Pakistan. Millions were now on the move to get to the right side of the border according to religion.

My late grandmother, Mrs. Ava Ganguly, used to talk about how her family and she had left acres of land in Dhaka, her childhood home, drowning utensils in ponds so they may someday perhaps be able to come back and retrieve them. Dhaka was her “desh” or homeland till the day she passed away. In the end, she had forgotten many things, but not the memory of her lost home in Ichapura, Munshiganj; Dhaka.

There were no amenities for the refugees. They formed human caravans called kafilas and moved because they had been ordered to do so. They walked for miles, barefoot. Disease, starvation, thirst, looting, murder, abduction and rape were rampant. Millions of people formed the columns of refugees with minimal troops at their aid. At first, people left their belongings and continued on in their journey. Later, babies were abandoned as well. Tens and thousands of people were boarded on special refugee trains which were more like steel coal wagons and many reached the destinations with not a soul alive; attacked, slaughtered and chopped.

There had been very little planning for the transport of refugees or their protection. Most British troops were sent home while Indian and Pakistani forces were in complete disarray. The Indian army was being split and the soldiers and their families were victims of the Partition as well. Satish Gujal, a well-known painter and victim of the Partition recalls how a Muslim girl’s school had been raided and all the girls had been brought out, stripped and taken in a procession to a point where they were being systematically raped. “I looked at the faces of those who were watching this in search of compassion. I found none.”

The British had helped divide India and had left at the time when two nations had just been formed, leaving the nations in complete chaos. India and Pakistan had been birthed over millions of dead bodies, only to live in animosity from then till now.

Chapter 2

The women of a nation are symbols of the motherland. They also represent the primordial connection to the nation as they are agents of reproduction. During the communal riots in India, before and during the 1947 Partition, one community’s power over the other could not be shown completely unless the women of the community were overtaken and reduced to objects of abuse. A woman’s individuality was erased; their identities as mothers were prioritised, and they were treated as objects to successfully break the motherland. It was integral for the Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus of the time, to take ownership of women in their fight over the ownership of their birthplace. Women were branded, like cattle, with political slogans, such as “Pakistan Zindabad,” or “Jai Hind”- testimonies to the fact that a woman’s body served as trophies of war.

The Indian government claimed that thirty-three thousand Hindu and Sikh women were abducted and the Pakistani government claimed that fifty thousand Muslim women were abducted during the riots.

I would like to begin citing views of partition experts regarding the role of women during the mass exodus by expressing the view of Urvashi Butalia in her essay, “Community, State and Gender: On Woman’s Agency during Partition.” Here, Butalia problematises the role women played both as victims and as individuals with agency, sometimes, even, victimisers themselves. Butalia begins by saying that the reason the female narratives of the time are shrouded in silence is because history, like all other disciplines, is patriarchal in nature and therefore, marginalised women. History is a man’s story.

Many feminists, Butalia says, asserts that women were mostly at the receiving end of communal strife and essentially non-violent. It was the woman’s home that was being uprooted, her family being violated, her man being killed, and after all such atrocities, it was she who was responsible for building up the community again. Believing in this statement, Butalia had participated in a fact finding operation on the Hindu-Muslim riots in Bhagalpur where she found evidence which problematised women as only victims. “In one instance of the killing of 55 Muslims in urban Bhagalpur, a Hindu woman had tried to protect them, but had been stopped by her neighbours (all women) from giving water to the dying and wounded, even though they begged for it.” In another instance, Butalia heard that while men broke down houses after an orgy of killing, the women carried away the bricks, assisted them, and washed away the blood. A third instance took place in a largely Muslim village where a group of women almost turned violent when they suspected that Butalia was a Hindu.

Though women were, beyond a doubt, at the receiving end of great atrocities, Butalia asks if we, as feminists, can see such agency illustrated above, as unproblematic and empowering. Were these women, she asks, not allying themselves with the interests of the community, however patriarchal, male-cantered and oppressive it may have been? If so, were these women themselves not reinforcing patriarchies within their communities?

Jashodhara Bagchi, in her essay, “Freedom in an Idiom of Loss,” comments on the nationalistic obsession with preserving the honour of the community through the glorification of sati and jauhar. She says that though in Bengal women were not exchanged in lieu of property and chattel, “moral regulation or rather, a hypocritical obsession with women’s sexual purity marked the patriarchal foundation of the hegemonic class in India.” A woman’s body was like a pawn in the game of nation building. The defilement of communal honour through the violence of female sexuality, she says, resonates through the entire process of nation building.

In her essay, “Deep Roots” from from the collection Distant Traveller, Attia Hosain talks about the plight of Partition and the memories of a lost home. “Together with the raising of flags and celebrations came the enforced migrations of more millions than ever before, of massacres and infinite loss. That we were in London did not lessen the anguish, it sharpened it.” Hosain and her husband were in London at the time of Partition and she was unable to accept the division of India. They chose to be citizens of Britain, a neutral area, but the pain of a divided homeland lingered on. She felt maimed by the sense of lost identity and home, beautifully depicted in Sunlight on a Broken Column where the protagonist too escapes to the hills, leaving her childhood home, but returns one last time as she acknowledges the nostalgia of a lived space.

Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India shows women in several roles though it has the recurring theme of oppression suffered by women during the Partition of India, regardless of class, caste, age and religion. Like Butalia, Sidhwa does not claim that women were without agency. Lenny, the protagonist, shows narrative agency while Ayah has sexual agency overthe male community. Lenny’s mother and Godmother, upper class, educated women, are proactive and exert influence over the community. However, the victimisation of women and the rape of a symbolic and second mother, the ayah, is akin to the cracking of the motherland into two.

Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin perceive certain features of “communal” crimes against women in the chapter, “Honourably Dead” from their work, Borders and Boundaries. The brutality and the extreme sexual violence and their collective nature are analysed. The range of sexual violation women were subjected to- “stripping; parading naked; mutilating and disfiguring; tattooing or branding thebreasts and genitalia with triumphal slogans; amputating breasts; knifing open the womb; raping, of course; killingfetuses”- shows that women were subjected to male constructions of their own honour. A woman’s sexuality symbolised manhood; it was the property of man and any damage done to it had to be avenge. “Each one of the violent acts mentioned above has specific symbolic meaning and physical consequences, and all of them treat women’s bodies as territory to be conquered, claimed or marked by the assailant. Some acts are simultaneous or continuous (they may begin with stripping and culminate in raping, branding or tattooing); they may take place in public—market-places, temples or gurudwaras, the latter two signifying the simultaneous violation of women and sacred space—or privately, but with families as witness. Tattooing and branding the body with “Pakistan, Zindabad!” or “Hindustan, Zindabad!” not only mark the woman for life; they never allow her (or her family and community) the possibility of forgetting her humiliation. In the deep horror of its continuous and forever present recall of brutality, this particular violation has few parallels. In the context of Partition, it engraved the division of India into India and Pakistan on the women of both religious communities in a way that they became the respective countries, indelibly imprinted by the Other. Marking the breasts and genitalia with symbols like the crescent moon or trident makes permanent the sexual appropriation of the woman, and symbolically extends this violation to future generations whoare thus metaphorically stigmatised. Amputating her breasts at once desexualises a woman and negates her as wife and mother; no longer a nurturer (if she survives, that is) she remains a permanently inauspicious figure, almost as undesirable as a barren woman. Sudhir Kakar, in his exploration of how communities fantasize violence, says that sexual mutilation figures prominently: the castration of males and 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 nurturing.” Such acts of violence are narrated extensively in this paper and the symbolism behind it is important to understand the psyche behind subjecting women to such inhuman treatment.

I would like to end this chapter with one final quote, by Kamla Bhasin, which condemns the act of valuing a woman’s honor more than her identity as an individual.

“When I’m raped, people say that I’ve lost my honour. How did I lose my honour? My honour is not in my vagina. It is a patriarchal idea that rape will defile the honour of my community. I’d like to tell everyone, why did you place your community’s honour in a woman’s vagina? We never did that. It is the rapist who loses his honour, we don’t.”

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