In 1947 during the Partition related violence, unlike men, female migrants who crossed the Radcliffe line braved multiple dangers like rape, killing and abduction by men from the ‘other’ community. They had a burden to protect the ‘honour’ of their family by remaining ‘chaste’ and free from any allegation of such ‘violation’. Many girls were killed by their parents or brothers and some of them even committed suicide to protect the ‘honour’ of family. Due to the fear of being outcast, in most cases the abducted girls preferred to remain with their abductors instead of re-uniting with their family members. Women faced all such ordeals with almost no role in decision making regarding the vivisection of India and related consequences. It was a group of men who decided to divide India, to shed violence on members of the ‘other’ communities, and, at the family level, to migrate to uncharted territory. Therefore Partition history is mainly dominated by history from which women are missing, although many women scholars have written about their side of the story.
Many scholars like Ismat Chugtai, Krishna Sobti, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Urvashi Butalia and Devika Chawla, among others have presented the women’s side of the story. Reena Nanda has effectively presented her mother’s story in pre-Partition Punjab and in Independent India. Reena’s maternal family reluctantly moved from Quetta (Balochistan, Pakistan) to Delhi during the Partition related violence in the province in 1947.
Nanda finds that pre-Partition Punjab had a syncretic culture where despite religious differences, most of the people followed similar cultural traits and practices. Because of historical reasons, bonding was particularly strong between the Hindus and the Sikhs. As the founder of the Sikh religion Guru Nanak was the Hindu Khatri, a custom of bringing up an eldest son of a Hindu family into Sikhism was followed by most of the Hindu households. However, an attack was made on this age old custom by Arya Samajists who were for practising a puritanical form of Hinduism (p. 27). In reaction to the Arya Samajists, the Akalis retorted ‘Ham Hindu Nahi Hain’ (we are not Hindus) in a pamphlet authored by Sardar Kahan Singh. Further, giving a legal shape to it, in the Gurudwara Act of 1925, it was ruled that all images of Hindu gods be removed from the precincts of the Gurudwaras. The Vedic Marriage Ceremony was replaced by a ritual involving the circumambulation of the Holy Book of the Sikhs (p. 27). However all such developments had little impact on the everyday life of the common people.
As an example of the syncretic culture, in Reena’s family both Hindu and Sikh religious practices coexisted. However, her maternal grandfather, Sawan Mal Malik was an agnostic and represented the Punjabi traits of sceptical, heterodoxical, and anti-establishmentarian sentiments (p. 39). He worked at the Residency of the Agent to the Governor General. He had many Pathan friends whose homes he visited frequently. At their home Sawan Mal was comfortable with following the custom of squatting on the Dastarkhwan around the large communal tray, from which everyone ate together (p. 48).
Sawan Mal was progressive for his time. Despite reservations from the female members of the house, he decided to admit his daughter Shakunt into Saraswati College in Lahore where she stayed with her aunt
( p. 97) and later, for her BA from the famous Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore (p. 108). Swan Mal’s encouragement to Shakunt was seen by the women folk of the family as a sheer example of his ‘madness’ (p. 108).
For Shakunt, ‘the four years (1937-1941) at Kinnaird were a treasured memory which, like jewels, was retrieved frequently and mulled over’ (p. 119). The College taught Shakunt impeccable manners, elegance, and style. On her return to Quetta where the family was back after a period of stay in Jhang, Shakunt was accepted by the English elite ladies. She left the college with a confused identity—partly Punjabi and partly English—a strange hybrid (p. 122). Later Shakunt was married to an Army officer and moved to Delhi. In March1945, Reena was born at her parents’ house in Quetta (p. 126).
On 14 August 1947, in a celebration of Independence Day of Pakistan, members of the All India Muslim League in Quetta launched an attack on non-Muslims of the city (p. 131). In many such attacks, Reena was protected by Sawan Mal’s friend Noor Ahmed Khan. Eventually, the violent ambience compelled the family to migrate to Delhi. However, Sawan Mal refused to leave Quetta and opted for the Pakistan Civil Service, convinced that the violence was temporary, and peace will prevail soon (p. 131). It did not happen, and finally in April 1948 Sawan Mal too joined his family never to return to Quetta (p. 139).
The migrants from now Pakistan to Delhi faced all forms of ordeals. Most of them had nothing with them so they had to build everything from zero. More than economic it was cultural and emotional displacement for them. They could not establish any sort of bonding with their new surroundings. Shakunt missed the melting pot culture of Quetta. During her last days, (she died when she was 90 years old), she spoke more frequently about Jhang (p. 152). She continued to weave her stories of Quetta, Lahore, and Jhang. She used to attend the Kinnaird College alumni reunions in Delhi where nostalgic memories of the college were shared with other members. In 1991, as a part of the Kinnaird alumni union, Shakunt visited Lahore and Islamabad.
On selectivity of memory, Reena, correctly says that it is multi-layered. The point is what one chooses to remember: narratives of violence and brutality or of love and humanity. Both are valid (p. 163). However, more than one’s choice the selectivity depends on what one is asked to choose or made to know. In the case of India and Pakistan, most of the Partition debates and memories related to it have been forced on people by the respective states.
On the issue of Partition monuments, Reena asks: ‘Should we commemorate terrible massacres and the bestiality of humankind? Or the older pluralist, multi-religious, multi-cultural way of living together, a civilization that my family and millions of other refugees mourned’ (p. 164). Reena writes that the best monument to Partition would be to spread narratives of friendships and bonds for future generations of Pakistanis and Indians (p. 165). In both India and Pakistan, third generation migrants are already active and telling us stories of their forefathers. They are also trying to locate their ancestor’s home to discover their roots. Unlike in the past, through social media, people from the two countries are much more linked now though sometimes the same media vitiates the relationship.
Amit Ranjan, PhD, is a Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.
“Many scholars like Ismat Chugtai, Krishna Sobti, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Urvashi Butalia and Devika Chawla, among others have presented the women’s side of the story.”