In August 1947, the British left the Indian subcontinent after centuries, partitioning it into two independent nation states: India, which would have a Hindu majority; and Pakistan, which would have a Muslim majority.
Millions of Muslims abandoned their homes, possessions, and livelihoods to travel to Pakistan (which was then divided into West and East; East Pakistan gained independence in the 1970s and became Bangladesh). Millions of Hindus and Sikhs made the same agonising decisions and dangerous journeys in the opposite direction, to India. It is thought that around 12 million people were displaced.
This is a part of the world that has always been multicultural and multireligious; Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other religious groups had existed side by side for thousands of years. But Partition unleashed terrifying violence from both sides. It is estimated that between one and two million people died, in a brutal mutual genocide. Amid this chaos, tens of thousands of women were raped, abducted, and brutalised – a hidden history that has only recently come to light.
In the 70 years that have passed, the legacy of Partition is ever-present, perhaps most obviously in repeated wars and cross-border tension between India and Pakistan. Yet, until recently, there has not been much emphasis on sharing stories of this cultural trauma; many of those who were there rarely talk about their experiences. My grandmother married my grandfather soon after Partition, and moved to his home town of Karachi – situated in a region that had become part of Pakistan – leaving her family behind in an area that would remain part of India. She is now 93, and recently told me for the first time about her relief work in refugee camps set up in and around Karachi to support those who had travelled from India, leaving everything they owned behind. She described women giving birth in crowded accommodation, sharing huts with 10 other people. They were in a desperate situation; but they were the ones who had made it to the other side.
My grandmother described women giving birth in crowded accommodation, sharing huts with 10 other people. They were in a desperate situation
Urvashi Butalia, Indian feminist historian and author of The Other Side of Silence, has written about the gendered impact of Partition, and the need for a true engagement with this history: “Women were raped, kidnapped, abducted, forcibly impregnated by men of the ‘other’ religion, thousands of families were split apart, homes burnt down and destroyed, villages abandoned. Refugee camps became part of the landscape of most major cities in the north, but, a half century later, there is still no memorial, no memory, no recall, except what is guarded, and now rapidly dying, in families and collective memory.”
In particular, the brutality exacted upon women during Partition is still being reckoned with. According to the Indian government, 83,000 women were raped, abused or abducted, but some historians suspect that the true number is much higher. Many women were also physically mutilated; an indicator of how violent the forming of these two nations was. Shame around sexual violence is universal, but is particularly acute in South Asia, where a high premium is placed on a woman’s purity. In fact, this emphasis on “honour” and purity might be one reason why sexualised violence was so widespread; in the eyes of the perpetrator, raping a woman shames and corrupts not just that individual but her whole community.
The stories of the horrifying ordeals some women experienced are still coming to light, through the work of historians like Butalia gathering personal testimonies. In Borders and Bodies: How Women Experienced the Partition of India, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin describe cases where women were tattooed with symbols of their attackers’ religions, or where political slogans were carved onto their skin: the marks of war literally etched onto women’s bodies.
Of course, as in any violent crisis, there were many moments of pure humanity too, including touching instances of female solidarity. In a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary, Partition Voices, one contributor recalled a Muslim woman stumbling into a Sikh village as she tried to reach Pakistan with her baby. She was lost and alone. Sikhs in the area had been massacring Muslims; but local women – who were also Sikh – took the Muslim woman in and protected her until she was well enough to continue her journey.
Given the difficulty of discussing sexual violence, added to a long-standing reluctance to dwell on Partition, it is perhaps little surprise that many of these stories are barely shared. There are thousands of women, old now, who will have borne these terrible memories in silence. But as the last generation with vivid recollections of this period die out, it is vital to collect their voices and take discussion of the impact this seismic event had on women outside the realm of academia, so we can ensure that history does not repeat itself.