Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

A transcript of the above talk can be found below.

I am going to speak a little bit about the story of a uniform. I have been working on Partition for many years now, and I find the more you open up this history, the more there is to learn from it. Over the years, as I have collected histories of Partition, most of them, in fact all the ones I have been interested in, are to do with people who lived through that time. I would like to speak to you about some of these today.

So, when I began to look at Partition 25 years ago, several questions occurred to me. For example, why is it that the history we learnt in school and university never told us how people had lived through this traumatic time? Nor discussed the long-term impact of what they had seen and experienced? As we know, traumatic histories leave their mark, not only on those who live through them but also on the generations that follow. But in India and Pakistan, until recently, we have hardly acknowledged the trauma of these histories, let alone begun to examine their legacies. In the process of tracing the histories of people, I came across many things that provided very interesting leads to study this complex subject.

I should say that I am not by discipline a trained historian . . . I am a sort of interloper, a writer who strayed into the field of history. Over the years, as some histories, such as those of violence and mass migration have begun to open up, there has been a fair amount of work on them, so I shan’t speak about them. Instead, I would like to turn to some questions that relate to the theme of ‘Shared Histories’, but I want to understand the theme in a slightly different way. I will be speaking mainly about the history in India, and I have no doubt that the sort of things I am describing were also mirrored across the border. I want to look at the idea of Shared Histories not only as histories shared between India and Pakistan but also as histories that we can share with each other. So I want to begin with some questions.

When a country splits into two, how does that separation take place? Who gets what, who goes where? Where do you draw the boundaries? Before Partition, India and the country that became Pakistan were connected by railway lines and roads—what happens to those? We shared five rivers—what happened to those? There is a shared history there for us, waiting to be explored. Undivided India had a single currency. The printing of currency notes is not easy; they have to be printed in secure presses, and they are carefully designed—whose face goes on them, etc. How do you print new currency overnight? This was a big problem for India and Pakistan. India had currency notes, Pakistan did not. But an economy can’t function without money, so for quite a while after Pakistan had become a separate country, it had to function with Indian currency, until new notes would be designed, new printing presses set up and then new notes printed. Suppose you lived in Lahore, and you decided to migrate to Delhi, but your bank account was in Lahore—what would happen to your money? Where would you keep your pensions, the bank accounts, the administrative files, the job records, and so on and so on? These are the nuts and bolts of separation, and we tend not to think of them because it is as if the process of separation somehow magically does itself.

I have been very troubled by these questions. I found answers to some of them, and they were both tragic and amusing. For example, every citizen had, in theory, the right to choose the country they wanted to belong to and live in. And because the two governments did not really know who would go where, they decided that every government file that existed in every government ministry would be copied, so that both the countries would have a copy of each file. How do you do this at a time when there are no scanners or mobile-phone cameras, not even microfilms and micrographs? So: people were employed tosit inside the ministries for hours on end and copy each file by hand! I had some amusing moments imagining those people, mostly men I am guessing, sitting in the forty-degree heat inside the Delhi ministries, writing out a copy of each file, then getting fed up after page twenty and deciding to not copy the next twenty! Yet that incomplete or badly copied or partly copied file becomes a record on which people’s lives are premised.

How were libraries divided? How were museums and hospitals and mental homes divided? There is a group of psychiatrists based in Ludhiana and Delhi who have done some fascinating work on how mental hospitals, for example, negotiated the division of patients. How, when that division became imminent, certain kinds of illnesses mysteriously attacked only patients of a certain religion. Also: how were orphanages divided? Who was to know which religion the child in the orphanage belonged to, and where he or she would be sent? So, today, I would like to trace for you the history of one such institution. My particular interest is in the histories of women, and these institutions were set up to take care of the needs of women, more specifically widowed women. All of these institutions are now closed, or have transformed into something else. In Delhi, and I imagine in several other cities, there are institutions called ITIs where young girls are trained in different kinds of skills. These are the ones that were originally set up for the widows—now transformed.

In 1989, there were about 300 women who sat on a dharna outside the home of the then-Home Minister, Buta Singh. A majority of them were in their seventies, and all were survivors of Partition. All of them were widows, having lost their husbands in the Partition violence. They came to Buta Singh’s house day after day and sat there shouting slogans, talking, eating their lunch together—in-between, one or other of them would go off to pick up their grandchildren from school and bring them back to the dharna. Then grandmothers and children would sit together and continue to protest and shout slogans. It was the most unusual dharna I had ever seen. The women had a very simple demand: an increase in the widow’s pension that the government had given them post-Partition. A very small, very modest increase—200 rupees a month over what they were already getting. The total amount that it would cost the government was only a few lakhs a year, because many of the widows had already died by then. The number at the dharnawere small, and of course, they were older women—the government banked upon the fact that they would all die off within a certain number of years. Eventually, they won their battle and got the increase, and that was very important to them.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with that hit song from a Bollywood film, ‘Sadda haq etthe rakh’. Long before that song became famous, and long before Ranbir Kapoor, I think, sang it to death, it was these widows who sat outside Buta Singh’s house and coined this slogan: Sadda haq etthe rakh. I remember this well, because I then worked with an organization called People’s Union for Democratic Rights, and when we prepared a report on the lives of these women, and were thinking of what to call it, we called it ‘Sadda haq etthe rakh’.

The Partition also meant the creation of new institutions. And the ways in which these were conceptualized and actualized tell us how they thought about the State and the ways in which the State thought about its citizens. So this is what I would like to discuss today.

By now we have some familiarity with the fact of mass rape and abduction of women during the violence of Partition. The Indian and Pakistani states found their own ways of dealing with women who had lived through rape, and I won’t go into that here. But I do want to say that the State’s attitude to women who had been raped, and those who had been widowed, was quite different. Although the Indian government went out to ‘rescue’ and ‘recover’ abducted women, no one knew quite what to do with them once they had been found, because they were, in the eyes of society, women who had been polluted with sexual contact with ‘the other’. The widows, however, had the State’s full sympathy, and the State assumed the responsibility of rehabilitating them and housing them as it did for all its other citizens. The numbers of widows were quite large, about 75,000 in Delhi itself. There were widows who came from different parts of what became Pakistan, who also sat in dharna outside Buta Singh’s house.

In the early days, the government instituted a number of relief measures for the number of refugees who flowed in, setting up camps, relief centres and so on. Widows formed a category which required special attention. Not only were they alone or with small children but they were also unused to dealing with the public world. So once the government understood this, they set up a women’s section in the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, with Rameshwary Nehru as its honorary director. The section was charged with specific responsibilities: to organize relief for women and children. And they created a new category only for widows, unattached women and children. By the end of March the following year, some women’s homes had been set up in Delhi, in east Punjab, in Kurukshetra, in Jalandhar and Amritsar. In an attempt to make the women self-reliant, they were taught a variety of trades, anda number of voluntary organizations, such as the Kasturba Gandhi Trust, the RSS, some Christian missionary organizations, the United Council for Relief and Welfare, the Tata Institute of Social Studies, all joined in to help these women. Finally, a year into Partition, the government came up with an idea that worked: paying special attention to widows as unattached women and providing them with employment by setting up—and these are the institutions I wanted to talk about—‘silai centres’. These were set up across North India, became very popular, and women in these centres were able to earn an income.

How were they set up? Before I describe the silai centres, I want to say that the rehabilitation of widows and single women was based on an interesting premise. As citizens of India, all displaced people who had been forced to flee from Pakistan had arrived to claim maintenance and compensation from the State. And indeed, a massive relief and rehabilitation effort, whatever its problems, was mounted by the state,which shows that the state was well aware of that responsibility. As a task however, this was something that had to be time-bound. So once people’s claims had been settled and they had been provided economic help to get them back on their feet, they were left on their own to rebuild their lives.

With the widows, this was not the case. The State in its wisdom decided that because these women were unattached, they could not necessarily make their way in life on their own and would therefore become the State’s permanent responsibility. The vocabulary is interesting, because they did not say ‘permanent responsibility’. They had a lot of discussion about the psychological rehabilitation of widows because they were alone and needed to be taken care of and brought back psychologically on the right path. The state said they were a ‘permanent liability’ (and I am very interested in the use of the term liability). That is why, of course, when the women said, ‘We want a pension’, they got a pension. The state also decided that these women had to be treated as war widows. Rameshwary Nehru for example, said that because the struggle that the women had been inadvertently a part of could well be regarded as a war, they had to be classed into the category of war-widows and treated as such. The State wanted to assume responsibility of their social and economic rehabilitation as well as for their ‘moral well-being’. So, in some ways, the women were bound to the permanency of widowhood, because if they had wanted to move on(they were all young women at that time), and maybe have a relationship with somebody else, they would no longer be the legitimate beneficiaries of the State’s largesse.

So: what did the State do? It set up these silai centres; but some work also had to be generated for the women. I said to you when we started that I am going to tell you the story of a uniform. So an engineered solution was found. The women were trained to stitch—because these were silai centres and had sewing machines. What did they stitch? They stitched uniforms for all the government employees who were required to wear uniforms. These were Class IV employees, like peons, drivers, office boys, and so on, all of whom were required to wear uniforms. Masterjis were employed as cutters in some of the central silai centres. They would cut the cloth—because women were not allowed to actually cut the fabric—in a pattern, and that would be sent to the silai centres where the women would stitch it up.There are some fascinating discussions about how the women would stitch the uniforms and give them a personalized shape. Say, the uniforms of a particular ministry were being stitched ata particular centre. Then, once they had received the cut cloth from the masterji, the men who were meant to wear those uniforms would come and get the little pin and tuck and so on to suit their particular physical frame, and so the uniforms were appropriately stitched for them. There are also fascinating discussions about what kind of material worked better, what kind of colour worked better, whether the pant should be terrycot, whether the shirt should be something else. The women were paid per piece. They were thus able to earn an income which may seem paltry to us today but at that time was apparently quite substantial: between 12 to 20 rupees per month. They were also given some compensation in terms of land and home, in Delhi particularly. There is a street in Lajpat Nagar with really small houses on small plots of land; they have grown vertically because there is no space to grow horizontally.

It’s a really interesting history, and there wasa lot of discussion, as I said, on the colour, the material, the style of the uniform, etc. Of course, we know how important a uniform is in our culture—the whole notion of getting a job where one can wear a vardi and where one can be seen as an official is really important. It changes who you are, it changes how you look and feel, not only in the eyes of the world but also, really importantly, in the eyes of the family. Just as the work gave women some dignity, the uniforms they stitched gave the men and women who wore them a sense of dignity.

What’s interesting for me is how these new institutions—these silai centres—were set up and then linked to an existing institution, if one can call it that—the government office. Together they provided a livelihood to a particular sector of our society—widows who, especially in Hindu societies, and by and large in Indian societies, are generally ignored and ostracized as being outside the pale of our social life. And here it was the government who took these women on as its permanent liability. Once they became too old to work, when their eyesight began to fail, or when mobility became a problem, the government fulfilled its responsibility and gave them a pension that saw them through till the end of their days. This is how the State dealt with the widow.Otherwise an unacceptable figure, the widow became more acceptable because it was presumed that she was chaste. Unlike the abducted women who had been raped, and who had had sexual congress with men of other religions, these women were safe and looking after them was useful to the State in economic terms. It also made the State look good. And it was important for the women—for them to be seen as agents with economic worth.

It was this same sense of dignity and worth that led 300 women to sit in dharna in 1989. More than four decades after Partition, these women remained the responsibility of the State and they saw themselves as such. After all, they said, we are its children and if the parent does not look after the child when the child needs looking after, who will? By the time the strike took place, several of them had managed to build small houses, their children had grown up, some children had moved out, some had done the opposite—married and brought their wives home to stay. Once the only breadwinners, these widows now found themselves in the unenviable position of being dependent on their sons, sometimes their daughters. Their agitation demanded, therefore, two things that would enable them to hold on to a sense of dignity—the non-closure of their silai centres, which was inevitable as their numbers had depleted and other claims were being made on that space; and an increase in their pension. As one of them told us: it doesn’t matter that the amount is small, at least those kambakhts (their children) will not be able to laud it over us. In the end, after several days of dharna, one of the women said: ‘I walked all the way from Pakistan. I will walk here every day if I have to, until our demands are met.’

Was there something similar on the other side of the border? I don’t know. The answer is yes, more than no. The question of what to do with women who were rendered homeless, those who became widows, those who were abducted, was a major one in post-Partition years. And as I said, a great deal of work has been done on how abducted women were dealt with, the kind of institutions that were set to house them when they were rescued and recovered. These included transit camps, ashrams and other places where many of these women lived all their lives. Because when they were been rescued and returned to their ‘homes’, their families refused to take them back. So they spent their lives in the ashrams, often alone. For widows, different kinds of institutions were set up which worked to give them economic stability, and the treatment given to them was premised on the fact that the State needed to act like a parent. It was important that widows were able to become bread-winners for their families, that they were able to step out of their homes and begin to earn—all these helped to change their lives and give them dignity.

In subsequent moments of trauma in our society, such as in 1984, such as in 2002, the State has not dealt with women, and especially widowed women, in this way. My purpose in putting this story before you, therefore, is really to look at just one set of institutions—the silai centres—and through their histories trace the State’s attitude to one segment of its citizens—widowed women—and show how, even in these micro-histories, there are rich themes to explore for teaching. There’s a story of grandmothers here. Imagine how interesting it would be for us to know that our grandmothers were the ones who walked across all the way and that it was their effort, their work, that changed our lives. There is a history also in the uniform that the government peon wears. A history in the grandmother at home who may well have