Rape accounts still surface from India’s partition 65 years on
War stories are often framed by convenient lines, two clear-cut sides, campaigns and directives. Partition in India reads very differently. In the aftermath of the 1947 declaration of Indian independence, the roughly drawn new state boundaries triggered what may have been the biggest migration in human history. Historical consensus supports a figure of 12 million people displaced, although the BBC suggests figures as high as 14.5 million people. An undeclared civil war erupted as communities of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs fought one another to establish their own identities in their redefined homelands. And, in the process, the Indian government estimates, 83,000 women were abused and abducted. Others put the number even higher.
“Rather than being raped and abandoned,” Yasmin Khan writes in The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, “tens of thousands of women were kept in the ‘other’ country, as permanent hostages, captives, or forced wives; they became simply known as ‘the abducted women.’” Why did men “keep the women they had attacked?” Khan asks. The underlying reason—whether men forced women into unpaid labor or took them as forced wives—was the “impulse to consume, transform, or eradicate the remnants of the other community,” she says.
The desire to shame and corrupt “rival” religious communities via sexualized violence, including rape and mutilation, is now being laid bare in the collection of testimonies published by historians and feminist scholars. Through these personal records brutal details are exposed. But many of these stories from 1947 have only recently surfaced, says Pippa Virdee, a professor of South Asian studies at DeMontfort University in the UK.
“Much of this has involved unearthing hidden histories and bringing women’s accounts into the mainstream of understanding partition,” she told WMC’s Women Under Siege.
The stories of what happened to women during partition are marked by a particular brutality, perhaps partially explained by the intensely political nature of the rift. Borders and Boundaries: How Women Experienced the Partition of India, by Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, opens with one woman’s testimony that recalls an especially gruesome detail: she saw patterns of tooth-marks disfiguring the skin of many rape victims. In Borders and Boundaries, the authors detail cases in which women’s bodies were tattooed with symbols of their attackers’ religions. Several attacks included men carving political slogans, such as “Pakistan Zindabad” (Pakistan forever) or “Jai Hind” (Long live India) into a woman’s skin—demonstrating the ways that women’s bodies formed living trophies of war.
Warring factions also mutilated women’s bodies as a way of asserting domination over the population. Menon and Bhasin write about the graphic testimony that a doctor in Sheikhupura, in Punjab, gave to the government’s fact-finding team. The doctor cited “amputation of breasts of women,” adding that “six such cases of chopped-off breasts were brought to the refugee cap and all of them proved fatal.”
In 1950, Menon and Bhasin write, the “official estimate” for numbers of abducted women stood at 50,000 Muslims in India and 33,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. But rehabilitation workers place these figures higher. Mridula Sarabhai, they write, a director of rehabilitation projects for abducted women, believed that as many as 125,000 Hindu and Sikh women were abducted in Pakistan.
Yet, as with other conflicts, exact numbers will never be known—especially due to the fact that migration during partition was chaotic, entirely unregulated. As Urvashi Butalia writes in The Others Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India: “People travelled in buses, in cars, by train, but mostly on foot in great columns called kafilas, which could stretch for dozens of miles.” These refugee marches comprised tens of thousands of people, sometimes up to nearly 400,000 individuals. Many women who were raped or abducted were reportedly taken during attacks on kafilas.
The accounts of rehabilitation camp workers are intrinsic to tracing secret, intimate patterns of violence. In Mool Suta Ukhadela, the biography of rehabilitation worker Kamlaben Patel, Patel reveals that the operation she worked with recovered 20,728 abducted women in the eight years following partition—a mere snapshot of the scale of abduction. In one incident Patel recounts, 600 women were returned to a Gujarati camp by Pakistani officials under the Inter-Dominion Agreement, a treatise for exchange of abductees. She describes the women as “broken” by repeated rape and starvation after being “used” by the Pakistani army.
The stories of these abductions and rapes caused panic; in many rural areas families reportedly killed their female children to save them from being defiled. Patel recounts numerous incidents of beheading, drowning, burning, and execution by the male head of family in order to “protect his women” from the threat of dishonor.
In 2013, the shame associated with sexualized violence in the region still resonates, continuing to conceal accounts on both sides. The collectors of testimonies have regardless sought them out in quiet corners of family homes, in between rinsing rice and making beds. Memories have been entrusted to them by beggars on street corners, by mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends. These stories have begun to form a visible monument to the victims and survivors of gender-based violence during partition. Yet as with so many of women’s experiences during war, there are, regardless, many stories from 1947 that will never be told.
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
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