Honouring Individual Memories Of The Partition

Systematic violence against women was the most heart-wrenching aspect of the 1947 Partition. This piece is a collection of stories of partition narrated by women and children who lived through it.

People travelling in a train during the India-Pakistan Partition, 1947

In the summer of 1946, most likely in late August, my little sister was born in a hospital in Old Delhi. As my father and I (who was five then) were going to the hospital one evening to see the baby and my mother, we were accosted by a group of men who told us curtly to return home forthwith as there was going to be “trouble” in the area. 

We hurried back home and I remember experiencing fear and confusion about what was happening. It has remained in my memory as an inexplicable incident because I grew up staying with the memory of violence in Delhi, including our neighbourhood, only around August-September 1947. So then, why did I have this memory of an incident in 1946, when I was only five? 

The Partition took place in August 1947 and so did much of the violence in Delhi, which I remember all too well. I remember passing the refugee camps in 1948-49 in Purana Quila and Humayun's tomb along with other memories of the violence. I wondered if I was confused about the dates and years of my memories but it could not be since my sister was definitely born in 1946. It was only when I discovered that there was considerable violence that preceded the actual Partition that my memory of 1946 fell into place. There was violence in Delhi even in 1946 as the idea of Partition had already been born by then, as had the political mobilisation that preceded the Partition leading to killings in Calcutta and Noakhali, and in Delhi, too. 

In many ways, the memories of the five- and six-year-old me have stayed with me and shaped my own sense of what Independence had brought along with it—terrible, inexplicable violence. It was inexplicable then, when I was a child, and remains somewhat inexplicable even now. 

Perhaps it was that sense of the child’s inability to understand the violence that has drawn me to write about Partition through the memories of the child/young survivor of the Partition (although I was never in any personal danger and suffered no dislocation or trauma in any direct sense). Today, decades after Partition, children are, in a sense, the only bearers of memory of the Partition.  Soon, they will be gone too, and will no longer be able to tell their stories as witnesses of the Partition violence and the massive dislocation in the sub-continent. 

We need to find ways of simply honouring the individual memories and stories of the narrators and what the Partition meant to the individuals who lived through it. That is the very least we can do. 


Gender identities may have played a role in the way the young adolescent, almost adult women and men recollected accounts of the Partition. This happened in many ways and went far beyond, though not excluding, the concern about the safety of women in times of distress and the violence unleashed by one community upon another through abductions of women, which feminists have highlighted for us some decades ago, almost making these abductions function as synecdoches for the Partition itself. 

In the interviews I/we have collected, gender is in a sense written into the narratives of both men and women and would require deeper analysis. For the moment, I will pick up on a few narratives that will exemplify the manner in which we may widen the way we think about the Partition as a deeply gendered moment in our recent history, leaving for us a complex legacy that haunts the sub-continent.

I will begin with the account of the Partition given to us by Kanta Arora (name changed), a Hindu girl of about 15 in 1947. She lived with her widowed mother and siblings in Multan; the family had lands there and in Bahawalpur state. In the summer of 1947, Kanta was in an inter-college at Lahore, living in the hostel. Before the tension began, there were no differences between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs but about six months before the Partition, signs of cliques began to appear among the girls and verbal confrontations started between them. Refugees from the villages around Multan started to pour into the city and you could see them at the railway station. 

In March, serious rioting began in Lahore and it was not safe to stay in the hostel anymore. Kanta went to Delhi in March by plane but she returned after about 20 days when it looked like things were settling down so that she could take her exams. The plan was to pack and shift to Delhi and wait to find out which areas would fall on which side of Punjab, which was to be partitioned. 

As Kanta and her family waited, she practiced rifle shooting and sword fencing in preparation for possible attacks against her by unknown men. She also studied hard in preparation for her exams.

One day, Kanta’s mother came up to her and asked her what she was studying. When she was told she was studying English literature, the mother responded with acute political sense: “History padho! Jab raj badalta hai to kya hota hai. English nahi kaam karegi is time” (There is no point in studying English at times like this. study history instead to understand what happens when power changes hands).

On her part, the mother began to plan for bad times. She recovered all the monies that she had lent out, took out all her jewellery and certificates from the bank and transferred everything to the PNB in Dalhousie where they were going for the summer. And saying, “who can take away the earth bound in chains” implying perhaps that the lands they could do nothing about, they left for Dalhousie in the early summer of 1947. When Partition was announced, mother wanted to go back to retrieve her other things but was dissuaded from doing so. Finally, after a few months, they went to Amritsar and from there to Delhi. The train took four days to get to Delhi with frequent halts as there were many dead bodies on the track. 


Kanta’s other relatives left behind on the other side were rescued by Muslim neighbours who were aware of plans to abduct the girls. They were given burqas to wear to disguise their real identities and escaped from the looming danger with the help of neighbours. 

Finally, they went by train from Lyallpur and ultimately by plane to get to this side of the border. Kanta’s family had gone to Delhi but since there were killings in Delhi too they went away to Bombay. Finally, when things settled down, Kanta’s mother came to Delhi to file claims against the property left behind. She had safeguarded all the documents through her journey from Multan, to Lahore, to Dalhousie, to Delhi, and finally to Bombay. Thanks to this woman who headed her household, and meticulously planned her moves, having learnt her lessons in history well, the storms unleashed by the Partition were tided over as best as possible.


During the course of collecting accounts of the Partition, I came across an unexpected bit of information, almost told in passing. Confronted by the knowledge that violent mobs were on the rampage, seeking to kill everyone in sight fleeing parents sometimes had to leave very young children behind as they ran to save their own lives. In one account, a family toyed with the idea that they too should leave the littlest of those fleeing behind but the mother would not agree. Here is what child said years later:

“I travelled with my father, mother and 13-day-old brother on a bus. Whatever belongings we were carrying, we were asked to shift it onto a truck and we were left with nothing by the end. When we came near Lahore, we learnt that many people had thrown their kids into the river fearing whether they would be able to provide for them or not. My father also suggested we do the same to my little brother but my mother refused.”


Other mothers may have complied and been traumatised by the forced choice they all made. 

There were other traumatic moments, of young children having to save themselves when their younger siblings got killed as in this account of the then seven-year-old Himmat Singh recounted in 2017: “All of a sudden we got to know that the Muslims were going to raid us. We hid in a house. At midnight, they attacked us. Everybody got separated. My three-year-old sister, who was with me, got left behind and was killed. I couldn’t go back for her else I would have been killed too. We assembled in a school later and stayed for a week. Information of incessant slaughtering reached us and we decided to leave. There was hope that we might come back to our home in Pakistan after the tension died down.”


One piece of writing that has engaged with children is the eye witness account provided by Anis Kidwai in his book In Freedom’s Shade of the violence that engulfed Delhi in 1947, a violence that has remained somewhat less than it should have been. It was Anis’s work in hospitals and refugee camps in Delhi that describes the tragedy that children faced, often orphaned as a consequence of the killing. Sometimes they strayed into the camps, occasionally they found a father or a brother and could be restored to them. At other times they ended up in orphanages. Perhaps I can end this necessarily unfinished account with two extracts from Anis’s book that provide us with a tiny glimpse of what children witnessed when these were reported in the time of trauma: 
Among the children who had no one to go was a girl Rasheeda whose arm had been cut off. Now loneliness pained her most. One day she handed Anis a dirty set of playing cards saying in a sad voice laced with yearning: “Can you give this to Rasheed for me?”  


Anis comments:

Two innocent hearts were longing for each other and this tiny little girl was expressing her love for her dear friend. Where the cards came from no one knows but Rasheed and she used to play with them. Now Rasheed was gone, what use did she have for them? These love laden gifts, the sole means of amusement, this sum total of her wealth in her brief life, she now offered to her friend.”

From another account in Anis’ book we learn of a little girl who in a sense found her own way to refuse an identity that might mark her as a target by one community or other. When asked her name she would say Haseena Sita. Her father's name too was a Hindu name and a Muslim name, so too the mother. Intrigued and confused, Anis took the little girl to Bapu saying: “Bapu she will cause a Hindu-Muslim riot”. Bapu too asked her what her name was. Again she said with great composure, Haseena Sita. 


After a week or so of staying with Anis, Sita Haseena went to the Kasturba Gandhi School in Mehrauli for children. Did little Sita Haseena work through the trauma of seeing people from both communities maimed, wounded and even killed by finding her own solution to the problem of hatred between communities. She was both a Hindu and a Muslim, and thus perhaps a bridge to a future without hatred or violence; Sita Haseena had intuitively found another way of being.  

(Summarised from a longer essay, partly published).