Kamla Patel (1912-92) came from a middle-class family. She became a disciple of Gandhi and spent many years in Sabarmati ashram where Mridula was a frequent visitor. That’s where they met. The one thing the two women shared with passion was veneration for Gandhi and what he stood for. The most important lesson they learnt from him was that once you are convinced your cause is just, then fight for it without fear of consequences: fear is cowardly, fear is sinful.
Mridula was a born leader. Being the eldest, her siblings looked up to her. She grew up knowing how to organise and give orders. Everyone in the family called her Boss. Bossy she was—with no small talk or banter. She cut her hair short, wore no cosmetics or jewellery. When she joined the freedom movement, she took to wearing Punjabi style salwar-kameez. After Independence and the partition of the country, she realised there was more work to do and moved to Delhi. Gossip-mongers said she had developed a Nehru fixation. The most important work on hand was the rehabilitation of millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees forced to flee from Western Pakistan. And the most humanitarian task requiring immediate action was rescuing women abducted on either side of the border and restoring them to their families. In a speech delivered on December 7, 1947, Gandhiji brought up the matter in his usual matter-of-fact manner of speaking. He said it was reported at a joint Indo-Pak meeting held in Lahore that the number of abducted women was 12,000 for Muslim women abducted on this side and over twice that number of Hindu and Sikh women abducted in Pakistan. His figures were undoubtedly underestimates. But how were these women to be located and taken out of the clutches of their abductors and given the freedom to choose their destinies? From the Indian side, Mridula Sarabhai was chosen to lead the operations. In her turn, she chose Kamla Patel to be her principal aide and posted her at Lahore.
The atmosphere on either side of the border was full of hate and distrust. Though Muslims had asked for dividing the country, they felt more aggrieved than non-Muslims. Their hatred was further inflamed by the ongoing war in Kashmir. The Pakistan government and the army continued to let in frontier tribesmen to infiltrate Kashmir which they did in the thousands, pillaging, looting, raping women—including nuns—as they advanced towards Srinagar. Then the Indian air force and the army pounced on them and drove them back with great slaughter. What Pakistani authorities believed would fall into their hands like a ripe apple turned out to be a scorpion. They had more reason to hate India. Soon after came the annexation of Hyderabad. Indians called it "police action"; Pakistan saw it as yet another example of Hindu perfidy to extinguish a Muslim dynasty. How could they trust any Indian?
The most tragic part of the operation to rescue abducted women was the way Punjabis looked down upon them as cattle or household chattels to be looted, sexually abused, shared with friends, sold or discarded. Police, civilian authorities and the general public connived with the abductors to frustrate the efforts of do-gooders who came to rescue them. Everyone lied, everyone believed that murdering innocent people in cold blood and raping their women were acts of heroism: indeed human beings had become sub-human species worse than beasts.
Kamla Patel put down her experiences of shuttling between Lahore, Amritsar and Jalandhar, going into remote Pakistani villages looking for lost women and the walls of resistance she had to break through. Wherever she went, there was grave danger to her life. There were cases where underage Muslim girls had willingly eloped with Hindu boys and Hindu girls run off with their Muslim lovers: such liaisons were not acceptable to their parents. Most heart-rending were cases of women with babies born out of wedlock or still in their wombs. Who did these women and their children belong to? Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims? To India or Pakistan?
Kamla Patel’s experiences were first published in Gujarati under the title Mool Sotan Ukhdelan and was received well enough to be translated and published in English to reach wider audiences. Mridula’s younger sister Gira Sarabhai made funds available from the family’s charitable trust to make this possible. Unfortunately, like Gandhiji’s speeches which were short on oratory but came from the heart, Kamla Patel’s text has no literary flourishes but also comes from her heart. Despite being cliche-ridden, choppy and repetitive, it is worth reading because it reminds us of the darkest period of our recent history. It is a timely reminder that we have yet to purge ourselves of communal venom, which was evident in the anti-Muslim riots in the home state of Mridula Sarabhai and Kamla Patel.