August 09, 2020
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An Exchange Of Women

Abduction, forcible recovery, silence: the tragic irony of Partition's unsung

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An Exchange Of Women

THE weak, they say, have the purest sense of history because they know anything can happen. When we set out in 1986 to see how a cataclysmic event played itself out in the lives of ordinary people, we decided to focus on those most vulnerable to, and farthest removed from, the making of history: women, especially those destituted as a consequence of Partition. History has never been so silent as it has been on the subject of these women. What did Independence mean to women who suffered its most violent consequences? What was nation to them? Homeland? Religion? Freedom itself? Where did they find their place in this land of redrawn boundaries? Widows from 1947 are still to be found in ashrams and permanent liability homes in Karnal, Delhi, Rohtak, Jalandhar, Amritsar... It is from them and from scores of others that we heard about much that has remained hidden from history.

After the exchange of populations came the exchange of women. Having agreed to an apportioning of assets and a division of the armed forces, civil services and the CID, India and Pakistan entered into an inter-dominion agreement on December 6, 1947, to recover all women and girls who had been abducted in either country and restore them to their families: Hindu and Sikh women from Pakistan, Muslim women from India. In four years, 30,000 women were recovered. The job was assigned to the local police, assisted by one AIG, two DSPS, 5 inspectors, 10 SIs, 6 ASIS and social workers.

How they were recovered is another story. In the turmoil of Partition and the confusion of migration and relocation, how were missing women to be traced? Some estimates put the number of women who had been picked up by all three communities at 10 times the official figure of 12,500 in 1948. Ads were placed in papers giving details of missing women. These were then taken up by social workers on both sides of the border in Punjab, and verifications made. Social workers used all sorts of ruses to find out where the abducted women were, sometimes disguising themselves as bangle-sellers, or fruit-vendors. No captor was willing to give up his claims: we heard that women were spirited away, hidden in tandoors, disguised as sisters and mothers--but never voluntarily given up. One liaison officer, who worked in Lyallpur for nine months before formal treaties were drawn up by India and Pakistan, told us: "I would slap the women and tell them I'd shoot them if they didn't tell me whether there was a Hindu woman in the neighbourhood. They would tell me because they were helpless-their men were not around at the time." He claimed to have 'recovered' 800-900 women from Lyallpur alone this way.

Many women resisted being uprooted again. They hid, fasted, escaped in ingenious ways--and abused the social workers roundly. One of them shouted: "Is this the freedom Jawaharlal won? Shame on him!" They were afraid of being rejected by their families, unwilling to leave their children behind--this is what the Indian government required of all children born of Muslim father--and in no frame of mind for another upheaval. But India and Pakistan had an agreement, and the women had to be reclaimed, regardless. Kamlaben Patel, a social worker told us: "Identification was done according to the countries they belonged to. This one is Indian, this one Pakistani." Partition was connected with Islam and the demand for a separate homeland. Since this label was attached, how could the women be free from it?

In a curious twist, the governments themselves became abductors. The women were given no choice regarding where they wanted to live or with whom; and no right to decide the fate of their children. Worse, the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Bill, was enacted, denying them their rights as citizens--it remained in force till 1956.

"The policy of abduction as a part of the retaliatory programme has given a setback to the basic ideals of a secular state," said Mridula Sarabhai. Recovered women were seen as missing members of a community, not as adult citizens of a country. The State assumed the role of a parent patriarch and relocated the women where they 'rightfully belonged'. The only response to forcible abduction, it seemed, was forcible recovery. Since such marriages had been declared illegal, the only way to reconstitute the legitimate family was by dismembering the illegal one and removing the women from its offending embrace. Women thus became repositories not only of family and community honour, but of national honour as well. Pakistan, by extension, became the abducting nation that divided the country and violated India's women. As one MP put it: "As descendants of Ram we have to bring back every Sita that (sic) is alive."

But what of the Sitas themselves? It is unlikely that we will ever know what abduction and recovery meant to them. For society--and history-still insists upon silence. Yet, society and State--virtually to a man--placed upon these women the special burden of their own attempt to renegotiate their post-Partition identity, 'honourably'.

(Ritu Menon is a publisher for Kali For Women and Kamla Bhasin is a social activist.)

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