A parting of unsweet sorrow

Borders and Boundaries
September 11, 1998

During the partition of India in 1947, about eight to ten million people crossed over from Punjab and Bengal -the largest peace-time mass migration in history - and about 500,000 to a million perished. It has often puzzled me why an event as traumatic and brutal as this has not received the same kind of attention that has burgeoned into "Holocaust studies". The vast majority of writings on the Partition have fallen squarely into the arena of political history on the one hand, or fiction on the other, and there have been relatively few works of social history that have attempted to tackle the subject. Borders and Boundaries should be welcomed not for this reason alone, but also for the fact that, aside from Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence, published shortly after this book, almost no books concentrate solely, or largely, on the experiences of women.

The authors seek to examine the Partition through interviews with women who lived through and survived it, many of whom have witnessed or indeed been subjected to horrendous violence in the forms of murder, rape, and forced migration. Torn from their homes, and torn apart from their families, these women have painstakingly stitched together their lives over the last 50 years. Uncovering memories which may have been suppressed and hidden for sound reasons is a difficult operation, and trespassing across the border into these women's sorrows demands a tough combination of dispassionate observation and sympathy, of open hearts as well as open minds. Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin are neither fearful angels nor headstrong fools, and they tread a careful line between public history and private lives in this valuable blend of oral history and feminist analysis.

The book is organised around six key themes: violence, abduction and recovery, widowhood, rehabilitation, rebuilding, and belonging. In the first instance, the authors focus upon the specific types of violence women were subjected to during and after Partition. Many were Hindu women raped and killed by Muslims - and vice versa. What is more shocking is the extent of execution of women by their own menfolk - brothers, fathers, husbands and sons - in order to protect their "honour". The stories of women committing mass suicide throwing themselves off buildings or into wells are shocking in themselves, yet Menon and Bhasin manage to portray these women not only as victims of a patriarchal system but also in the moments of resistance, both large and small, as fighting for a measure of dignity and choice in impossible circumstances.

In the years following Partition, the retrieval of abducted women was high on the political agenda for both new nations. By July 1949, Mridula Sarabhai was in sole charge of the Indian government's Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation. Largely through her efforts, the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act was passed in 1949, against the wishes of many women (such as Rameshwari Nehru and Kamlaben Patel) and men (including Nehru himself), who argued against enforced repatriation and saw the Act as a gross violation of the human rights of the very women whom it purported to protect. Hindu women, for example, who were settled and married in their new Muslim homes, were forced to return to India without their children (deemed to be Muslim, because of their father) and were often rejected by their natal families, who saw them as "impure" or "defiled" by their contact with Muslims. Today, with India torn from within in Kashmir and throughout the north-east, with the BJP stoking the fires of communal unrest around the rebuilding of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, and with nuclear taunts being hurled across the border with Pakistan, it is clear that even after half a century, the lessons drawn from women's experiences of Partition have yet to be learnt.

Anita Roy is commissioning editor for cultural studies, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India.

Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition

Editor - Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin
ISBN - 81 86706 00 3
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - $50.00
Pages - 4

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