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A Division of Hearts, Minds, Properties and... -Urvashi Butalia


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 been the one who walked across the border after she lost everything.

I would like to end by telling you another story of a similar kind from a different time, which has nothing at all to do with Partition but it speaks to the kind of thing I am trying to say. And that is a story from nineteenth-century Maharashtra, a story of a woman called Savitribai Phule. Some of you may have heard her name because you are all teachers and students. Savitribai opened one of the first schools in Maharashtra for women and children, particularly Dalit women and children. It was her school that enabled Dalit girls to get an education otherwise denied to them by the Brahmin community in Maharashtra because they were not seen as deserving of an education.

For this, Savitribai was the butt of many attacks in society. Every day, she would wear one saree and carry another. This is because when she walked to school, she would have things thrown at her—rubbish, keechar, rotten fruit, rotten vegetables, and so on—and by the time she reached school, her saree would be dirty. She would then change out of that into the other one, and continue with her teaching. To me, the history of Dalit oppression, and the history of women’s education, lies in that dirty saree. Just as a saree can be a tool, a weapon, or a way to explore history, so also a sarkari Class- IV employee’s uniform can be a way to explore history. It would be really interesting to choose, to find ways of reaching these histories which otherwise remain hidden from the mainstream discourse.

Question and Answer Session

Audience member 1.It is unfortunate that a person such as myself, a child of Partition (I was four years old then), had no idea about all this—the rehabilitation of the people who were affected by the Partition, how they were dealt with by the State. We began from a point of the State holding itself responsible for such people, to the point where we are today. How are we going to get back to the values we had? I know it’s a tough question, and a tricky one, but you could share some thoughts on this?

Butalia. I don’t have an answer. I think I was going to say, viciously, that you have to wait for the results of the election. But that’s not going to answer anything. I think the State itself has changed so much in the last so many years—distanced itself from its people and set itself up in a strange kind of way, as oppositional to its people. Rather than seeing the people as a part of the State, the people as those who empower the State, we are in a situation where the State is often hostile to its own people. For the State to go back to assuming the kinds of responsibilities it did at the time of Partition—I don’t know if that is possible. Also, I think we have to be appreciative and critical of the State at that time—it was a newly formed State, a very fragile and fledgling State at the time. It dealt with the problem of millions and millions and millions of refugees flowing in, and all their demands, etc.—sometimes in good ways and sometimes in ways that were very questionable. There was a split in the state’s attitude to women—in the way it saw women—all these things, and how they were similar or different across the border, are interesting aspects of Partition. The way, for example, the Indian State looked at housing was to replicate the patterns of social inequality that existed earlier. So housing for Dalits were seen to be separate from housing for upper-caste people. Why did the State not think of changing this division and try to integrate housing and hope that maybe that would make a difference? None of that happened. So, in a sense, I don’t know the answer to your question—whether we can go back to a ‘caring’ State—I don’t even know whether what we see as a ‘caring’ State was really a caring State. In some parts of the work it did, it was, and in others, it was actually, fairly, questionable.

Audience member 2. Ma’am, somewhere in your presentation you used the expression ‘Hindu women’. Did the State look at them as ‘Hindu women’ and ‘Muslim women’ at the time of rehabilitating them? These widows were widows, and they were women . . .

Butalia. Thank you for asking that. I think, in theory they were widows and it didn’t matter if they were Hindu or Muslim or Christian or anything. In practice, actually, they were all ‘Hindu women’—they were either Hindu or Sikh, and I am guessing it’s because the widows whom I met in the centres, the ones who were there in the dharnas and whose stories I heard, were mainly women from Punjab, who had crossed over into Punjab and then Delhi. There was an underlying assumption that the Indian State, which had declared itself a Secular State at that time, was much more supportive towards Hindu women than it was towards Muslim women—you see that in the way the State deals with abducted women. I didn’t address that at all because quite a lot of work has been done on it and I wanted to talk particularly about the silai centres.

The Indian State created an Ordinance first, and then enacted a Law which said that after the 1March 1947 (1 March was fixed as a date because March was when violence first broke out in the Punjab and Rawalpindi district), any woman seen to be living with a man of the opposite religion would be presumed to be an abducted woman. And if she was found, she would be brought back to her home. And the home, if the woman was Hindu, would be India; and if the woman was Muslim, it would be Pakistan. Regardless of the fact that the Muslim woman may have been somebody living in India, and may not have wanted to move to Pakistan, it was assumed that because she was Muslim, her home would be Pakistan. So the State’s approach to this issue was not entirely ‘secular’ in the way that the State’s self-imagination of secularity was. Somewhere, the bias of Hindu-Muslim crept in.

Audience member 3.My question is less about the silai centres and more about the sort of violence that was visited on women on both sides—you looked at the way these stories are preserved within families, and within the same generation of women who talked about it among themselves while they were alive. To what extent does that preserved collective memory shape the subsequent destiny of the political violence, the place of our community’s women and this threat that the other community is going to resmudge our community’s honour by visiting violence on our women, that has been revived since Muzaffarnagar again? To what extent can one look at this as a sort of legacy of Partition violence? No one, as far as I know at least, seems to have looked at later, subsequent, political violence in the light of that tremendous trauma in the midst of which these two nation-states were born. On the Pakistani side, we seem to know very little about how these things played out. Whether in terms of 1984 and 2002 (that you mentioned), or these prejudices that get passed down within communities—stories of families that were displaced, the violence that they faced, and the almost axiomatic prejudice that children seem to grow up with, especially, I suppose, in Punjab more than on the Bengal side—if you could speak a bit about the legacies of that violence in these two nation-states?

Butalia. As always, I don’t have a straight answer to that. I don’t think we can unproblematically draw an arc from Partition violence to the violence of ’84 to the violence of 2002 to the violence of the ’90s and so on, to all the sectarian violence that we see in our country—but I don’t think we can absent that arc either. I think in many ways the Partition violence becomes the reference point whenever we are looking at subsequent moments of violence in our country. So in ’84 for example, a lot of people would say, ‘It’s like Partition again’, and ‘We never expected that it would happen in our own country’, and so on. So also at other moments, the narratives that grow around the violence, depending on where they are coming from, selectively create or recreate the stories of Partition to justify a lot of the violence. If you remember, ____, who is in jail now—a strongly rightwing man who basically justified the anti-Muslim violence of the ’90s by saying: they did this to our women during Partition, and we are now doing it to them. So in a sense, connections are not absent, but I don’t think one can draw a kind of direct line from it, because the contexts and circumstances of each situation are specific and very different.

I think, there are strong connections in the kinds of violence that is visited on women, but those are also connections that link us to the histories of world—in all sorts of different histories where women become the target of sexual violence, in battles where that sexual violence comes to stand as a violation of the men of the other religion rather than ‘just an attack on the women’s bodies’. Because the woman’s body is the instrument that leads you to the honour of the men, and that seems to be a discourse that is understood by the opposing sides. There is quite a lot of new and interesting work on this now. It is not something specific to our countries, but is there everywhere. If you think of South Asia, that’s what happened in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, in Nepal as well.

What are its legacies, again, is difficult to say. You mentioned prejudice—I am constantly taken aback by the depth of the prejudice, the stereotyping, and the hatred for Muslims in our society. Somehow, growing up in secular India, the dream of a Secular India was in our bones—at least for people of my generation, the first generation after Partition. And we had never thought that we would see the day when the hatred would play itself out in the way it is now. I am constantly surprised by how deep it goes. I will cite a small instance. I do some teaching in Ashoka University, and I have a driver who comes to pick me up.We spend two hours together, we talk. I often take people to my class to give lectures to my students, and once I had invited a friend of mine, very active in the women’s movement, to come and speak. I picked her up, and,aswe were talking, the driver heard me addressing her as ‘Para’. The next week we were going to pick up somebody else, and he said ‘Ussi Madam ko pick up karna hai’, and I said ‘No, it’s somebody else’. And he said ‘Par woh to Mohammedan hai!’ I was a bit surprised and said ‘Toh kya hua?’He said, ‘Madam, woh toh bohot kattar hote hai!’So I said, ‘You know, Ashoke-ji, her mother is Christian, her father is Muslim, her husband is Hindu. She has a son who is a khichdi. What is this thing about being a kattar?’ And then I asked him: ‘Would you marry your son to a woman of another caste?’ And he said ‘Nahi nahi, kabhi nahi. ’So I said, ‘Phir kattar kaun hua? Aap ya woh?’But the prejudice was so deeply ingrained. These days, somehow, this thing is very present—I find it really worrying and despairing. If we could find the roots and if we could deal with it, maybe we would be dealing with something very crucial in our society. And I don’t know where it comes from.

At that time(of the Partition), some other prejudices played out—the notion of Muslim women being sexually active. So the fear that the sexuality of Hindu women who were abducted by Muslim men would be activated and they would go out of control. Because women’s sexuality is always suspect. By contrast:(the notion of) Hindu men being becharas and not at all aggressive in their sexuality, or in their attacks on women. At some point, I think, Guru Govind Singh decided ab Hinduon ko bhi meat khana chahiye. Humare Sikh aadmiyon ko bhi meat khana chahiyen. Pehle wo meat nahi khate the. Unhone kisi bhi Musalman ki camp ko dekh liya toh dekha ki waha pe bade bade maas ke tukrey kha rahe the. Toh unhone bhi meat khana shuru kar diya aur usse unki taqat badh gayi.. So the association of meat with muscle, of libido with the fear of your women going that way and becoming that—then there was a lot of talk about Hindu children getting abducted by Muslims. Why? Because Hindu children have very ‘good brains’, and so Muslims would abduct them so they could incorporate those brains in their society. Complete nonsense, but the weight of those things was really shocking. I have gone beyond your question, sorry.

Audience member 4. I think we all connected with your talk because it was heartfelt, it was raw, it was real. And, more importantly it was about women. And in spite of the fact that you spoke about the Partition, even in 2019, irrespective of how much the world has progressed, even today, the pride, honour, dignity of a woman lies in her genitals. Women still have no religion, no caste, nothing. I have two questions. You mentioned two terms—‘permanent liability’and ‘legitimate beneficiary’. After Partition, when the women—the widows and the so-called polluted women—came to India, what did the Government do for the women who were ‘polluted’, the women who were not accepted by their homes? The second:What about the widows who were disabled, who weren't in a position to work in silai centres or any kind of work—what happened to them?

Butalia. Thank you! The second part I don’t know, there hasn’t been much work on it. The opening up of Partition histories began with the histories of the most obvious things—histories of ordinary people, but focusing by and large on Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, and on Punjab. Over a period of time, as these histories have opened up more and more, and more people have started working on them, these layers are being removed and new things are coming up and new areas are being looked at. There is a lot of work on Partition in the East, and a lot of work on Partition in the North-East. For example, I read a paper by a young woman on the tribals of the Khasi hills, and how their lives were completely changed by the closure of the borders post-Partition. Because their livelihood was buying goods that came across the border and selling them in the market in the hills. Suddenly, those goods were stopped. They didn’t know what had happened—that Partition had taken place. Suddenly they were left without a livelihood. So in the Barak Valley, in the Jaintia hills, new layers are coming up. The questions of mental disabilities, yes—the work that I earlier mentioned,by a group of psychiatrists, is excellent. They (editors Alok Sarin, Sanjeev Jain)have recently produced a book called The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India,But there hasn’t been a great deal done on disability, so there isn’t much known about that.

Regarding the first question, I think the word ‘pollution’ should always be used within quotes, because it’s just a word that was put on. About 75,000–1,00,000 women had gone missing on both sides of the border, and it was assumed they had been abducted, possibly raped, and so on. So both the governments met to act upon the complaints that the families had filed, and then decided to, together, set up search committees that would go into each other’s territories to track down these women. So for example, a search committee might be made up of women social-workers, some police, some legal person, and might go into a village and just ask around if anybody had seen a particular woman in the vicinity, and so on. They had the power to go inside houses, pull out the woman and then take her away into a transit camp where, in theory, she would be kept in a ‘free atmosphere’. But it was never free. The woman could then make up her mind about whether she wanted to return home or stay with the abductor. Many women opted to stay with the abductors because, by then, they had children from them and they didn’t want to be dislocated again. Many also said, ‘You know, marriage is like an abduction for us anyway. So what’s the big deal if somebody has abducted us and married us? How is it going to be better at home?’

A special law had to be enacted because these committees didn’t have the right to go into somebody’s house and pull somebody out. Very often, the families of those women who were brought back refused to take them, because the women had now become ‘polluted’, she had children—how do you tell which blood is Muslim and which Hindu in the child’s body? So when their families refused to take them back, the women spent their lives inside ashrams or centres, like in Karnal, in Delhi (in Lajpat Nagar, there is the Kasturba Ashram), in Jalandhar, in Lucknow . . . These women spent their lives alone, abandoned. Several of them never spoke about what had happened to them. That is a history that has gone into a strange kind of silence.

I want to tell you, very briefly, one such story that I heard—an incredible and almost unbelievable story, of a woman I met in Karachi some years ago. She was in her mid-eighties, and her name is Shehnaz. She told me her story, or she and her family told me her story. So Shehnaz was sixteen years old, or thereabouts, at the time of Partition. Her entire extended family was fleeing from what became Pakistan, to what became India, when they were attacked, and six girls, including her, were abducted. She doesn’t know where her five friends went. The abductor who took her, married her later as many abductors did. They had five children. Her actual name was Gurbachan; when she was abducted and married, she changed her name, she became Shehnaz. Then around ’62 or ’63, things opened up a bit between India and Pakistan, and they heard through a visitor that her parents had survived the attack and now lived in Amritsar. So her husband—he may have been her abductor but he seemed to be a pretty decent fellow—said to her, ‘Would you like to go and visit your parents?’ She was keen. So the couple and their five children came to Amritsar. They found the parents. There was a reunion. The parents were delighted. Then the parents said,‘You can’t go back with this Muslim man. You have to stay here.’ They refused to let her return to Pakistan with her family. They told her she could keep the children if she wanted, but not the man. The man refused to leave his children behind. So he went back to Pakistan with their five children, but she stayed back. She became Gurbachan again, at the insistence of her parents. They married her to a widower who had a ten-year-old son. She looked after the boy. He grew up, went to the States and became a professor. She lost contact with her family in Pakistan.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, Afzal Khan, her husband, died. He had married another woman to look after her children. Gurbachan’s husband died too, and she moved to the States with her foster son. In the States, the son talking to his mother, discovered she had this history. He asked if she would like him to trace her family. And she said yes, that she had never slept a night in the last fifty years without counting the names of her five children on her five fingers—and she rattled off those names when I was talking to her. So the son put an advertisement in a Pakistan paper, first in English and then in Urdu, saying his mother sough ther children and described the whole story. The children—now in their fifties and sixties—read it and got in touch. And she went to Pakistan to meet them. When I met her, she was with them, and she decided to become Shehnaz again. She said, ‘This is my family. This is my life. This is where I am going to stay’. Whether she would be allowed to stay on (her visa was only for three months and she was hoping that the Pakistan government would, on compassionate grounds, give her a visa), I don’t know. I don’t know whether anything happened there. But this is the madness of the abducted woman. The statelessness, the search for home, the separation from family, the question of citizenship—this story has all of that. And I think these are really interesting stories to teach from.

Audience member 5.You spoke about how the State had a different attitude towards women who were widowed and women who were ‘polluted’. Was there a difference among the people of the country who were spread over a large subcontinent, towards the issue of Partition?How did the south of India respond to Partition, for instance? The migration did not affect them directly—so was there a difference in understanding the intensity of Partition? And if yes, does it influence the way or attitude with which we understand some conflicts of the contemporary period, which may be repercussions of the Partition?

Butalia. I think it was very different in different places, because the Partition also played out very differently. The migration in the east, for example, was not one large influx as it was in the west. So people came slowly, and the attitudes were different for the ‘receiving population’ (if you can call them so) and where they were leaving from.

By and large, what we know of the influx of refugees into Punjab and places like Delhi was that, in the beginning, people were extremely supportive, helpful, welcoming, because they were aware of the difficulties experienced by those who had come over. They were sympathetic, came out in large numbers to provide food, to give space in their homes, and so on. Over a period of time, some of this began to change as they felt that the refugees were getting too much attention, too many things from the State in terms of housing, job preferences, training, and so on. So they grew hostile. Among the refugees themselves too, there were hostilities. For example, there were a lot of people who were from rural communities in, say, Pakistan Punjab. When they moved across, they did not necessarily want to move into rural areas—they wanted to move into an urban area, especially because the younger generation did not want to continue with farming. They wanted to move into opportunities which could give them new jobs. So there were tensions even between and among refugees. Among women as well, as happens with any large influx of population. There was no one uniform reaction, but things which changed over a period of time.There are individual stories of people who continued to be helpful, supportive, but there are others of great enmity and hardships. All these form a part of the narrative. It’s not a singular story. But,by and large, the initial welcome did change over a period of time to some suspicion, some envy, some anger, some resentment.

Audience member 6.Movies always show the story of west Pakistan, but the separation took place in the east as well. You said that less movement and fewer things happened in the east— is it because the separation in east Pakistan already happened in 1905?

Butalia. I didn’t say nothing happened in the east. A lot happened in the east, but it happened at a different pace. From the west, the main mass migrations took place over about four months. This is not to say they did not continue after, but maybe not in such huge numbers. Over the years, people were coming across all the time and going from here to there. For example, in the ’70s, across the border in Rajasthan near Barmer, there were refugees coming, little by little, over a period of years from interior Pakistan, Baluchistan and so on. Coming in dribs and drabs, and settling in a sort of colony run by an organization called ‘Pak-Visthapit Sangh’. These are people whom the Indian state does not give full refugee status to, because they have not come in a flow of refugees but over a period of time. Even as recently as the ’70s, about a lakh of people crossed over. That was when the Bangladesh war took place, when they began to fear for their lives. They are still housed there. Some have managed to get citizenship, some haven’t. So it’s not as if the western move was all in one big chunk. The eastern border was not as rigid as the western. Another thing is the history you talked about, that was a previous partition, in 1905. Also, in the east, the connections were much stronger, people were going back and forth, the violence was not of the kind that was there in the west. The Communist Party was quite strong in Bengal, and they did help to deal with the violence in different ways. So it was not that things did not happen there, it was just different reasons, different contexts and a different pace. There is a lot of research now taking place which details the history of the Partition of the eastern border, which is also connected to the histories of 1971, when the border became much more rigid when Bangladesh was formed, and more recently, when they started putting fencing along the border.

I don’t think one can look at this or any kind of history without seeing the complexities and complications that are inside it.

Audience member 7. (student): Ma’am, how were the government assets divided between India and Pakistan?

Butalia. Short answer: I don’t know, I have not worked on it. I think it’s a very interesting area to explore, because it’s also about what one considers assets. So, for example, the armouries were all in the land that became Pakistan. What to do, how to make that division—that is something that people have worked a lot on but it has always remained a question. Our rivers are our assets—not government assets of course, but natural. There was a discussion and policies were put in place on how to divide up the river water—the Indus River Water Treaty particularly, is still being debated and still questioned. There were also things like: for the Sikhs, the key Gurdwaras—Panja Sahib, Nankana Sahib were all in Pakistan—so how do you deal with that?It has taken us almost 70 years to come up with a possible solution—which is to build the ‘Kartar Singh Corridor’ to allow people to go without visas and visit their sacred shrines. So all these are issues have actually remained. There has been some resolution, but that’s not the best kind of resolution. Because, in this case, the Sikh shrines would have to be looked after by Sikhs. So some Sikhs remained behind, to look after them. What happens to their families—do the families want to stay on as well, the second generation, the next generation? All these are really interesting issues about how a division takes place. So even though we make enemies out of each other today, even seventy years on we would have to have some very serious conversations about these divisions in order to make them functional, and those conversations will also be interesting to trace. You will see this in the libraries, in the museum this afternoon. The Chandigarh Museum, for example, houses some of the artefacts that were taken away and kept here for a long time—nobody really knew where they would go. All these things are questions that remain somewhat unresolved.

Audience member 9.What happened to the property of the widows in Pakistan who came to India?

Butalia. What happened to the properties on both sides for people who left their properties behind, is that they were taken over by the State and distributed to the incoming refugees. For a while they were kept back, in case the people came back, in case they came to take their things. But if they didn’t come back, then their properties were taken over by the State and distributed to people coming in, on both sides, not only in Pakistan but also in India. Say, if one or two or three of your family members had chosen to stay behind and stayed on in that property, then the other family members who came across here didn’t receive compensation in exchange for that property because the property still belonged to you and somebody of yours was occupying and using it.


URVASHI BUTALIA co-founded Kali for Women in 1984 and in 2003 founded Zubaan. She has a long involvement in the women’s movement in India, and is a well-known writer, both in academia and in the literary world. She has several works to her credit, key among which is her path-breaking study of Partition, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India which won the Oral History Book Association Award and the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture.

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