Partition, which was not only amongst the most violent events in the history of the Indian subcontinent claiming more than a million lives, remains the largest instance of forced and coerced migration in global history. Nearly five million Hindus crossed India’s eastern border with East Pakistan into the new State of West Bengal and into the States of Assam and Tripura between 1946 and 1964. About a million and a half Muslims left West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Tripura for East Pakistan.
As is overwhelmingly remembered, women of all ages became specific targets of violence of Partition. Imaginations of the refugee woman carry this history of trauma in many iterations. In other instances, the citation of gender violence becomes an opportunity to further patriarchal prerogatives. The book under review suggests that the overwhelmingly gendered form of Partition violence can only be explained in its connection with forms of cultural nationalism and a shaping of the gendered discourse of the nation in the subcontinent. In her book, Chakraborty focuses on three major texts of Bengal Partition that offer us the imaginary of the refugee woman. The insightful selection of these texts allows us to see how a different way of imagining woman was being shaped in the decades immediately after Partition. The author successfully demonstrates how the figuration of the refugee woman in these texts intervenes in the dominant discursive formulation of woman as the nation/community/collective. These texts are Jyotirmoyee Devi’s novel, Epar Ganga, Opar Ganga (The River Churning: A Partition Novel, 1967), Ritwik Ghatak’s film, Meghe Dhaka Tara (Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), and Sabitri Roy’s novel, Swaralipi (The Notations, 1952).
Many of the refugees had bhadralok status and enjoyed class and caste privileges. Some of them became economically successful even after migration; however, they could not get rid of the pejorative term Bangal. And a refugee woman was doubly marginalized both as a refugee and as a woman. Nation is the most central and normative collective in the given juncture in history, and it is also central in this book. Gender is integral to a nation’s conception as an ‘imagined community’. As feminist scholarship has well established, all nations and all nationalisms are gendered; the people who imagine the nation and the people who are imagined as the nation are also gendered. Although women are instrumental to the process of nation-founding and nation-making, and particularly vulnerable when such nations and their imaginations are contested, historically they are seldom included in the imagined community as the prototype of the national subject or the citizen, fully or equally with men.
The author’s understanding of community is also close to that of Gyanendra Pandey, who argues that communities are ‘constructed…through a language of violence’. When we assess both community and nation as collectives from the perspective of women subjects, the patriarchal character of both becomes apparent. In the given context, the state also displays this patriarchal structure. Nevertheless, the state cannot be dismissed off-hand for a feminist project, not only because the liberal promise of the state for women far exceeds that of the nation, but also because there is no political alternative available to the state. The state is often, at least potentially, the only guarantor of women as right-bearing individuals.
If the Partition of Punjab was ‘a one-time event’, the Partition of Bengal was ‘a continuing process’. No traumatic event of the nature of the Partition finds closure in the psyche of the people affected, as it is true for Punjab too. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the genocidal violence and the forced migration that were part of the Punjab Partition were more or less restricted to the immediate three years after the Partition. In contrast, the refugees from the East did not come all at once but trickled into India continuously for decades after the Partition; the trickle sometimes becoming waves. What makes Chakraborty’s work so significant is that she, with a multidisciplinary approach, tries to understand such variations in the movement of population in the context of various historical events. She is not exclusively interested in the Partition as an ‘extraordinary event’. She is intriguingly committed to link that phenomenon with the historical process, and with the everyday lives of the refugees in general and women refugees in particular. For this integrationist and comprehensive approach, the book under review has the potentiality to be appreciated by a larger audience across disciplines.
Most of the texts or cultural products (film) selected by the author are implicitly or explicitly influenced by the Left ideology which was gathering momentum during that period in West Bengal and a few other places in India. Ritwik Ghatak may not have been a regular party member but it was difficult to deny his ‘non-party Bolshevik’ status. In that environment there was an effort to create characters that were distanced from religious identity. On the one hand, this was an effort to forget the trauma of Partition, which was based on distinct religious identity. On the other hand, the Communist party, which dreamt of an egalitarian society idealized the refugee woman as the working lady if not always the working class lady who was capable of earning her own bread. But was it always possible for the refugee woman to forget her religious identity in the context of the continual impact of Partition-related trauma? Could the party woman, who often was a refugee woman, overcome the patriarchal syndrome within the framework of the Communist party? To seek an answer the readers should allow themselves to be escorted by the author through her chosen novels and film. We can wind up by citing one example: The Partition victim Sutara, at the very end of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s novel rejects Aziz, though she was loved by Aziz’s family. Sutara accepts Promode, a Hindu, though she was considered as an outcaste by a section of the Hindu community. Indeed it was a difficult negotiation of post-Partition Hindu national identity for the refugee woman. This book, which is a significant contribution to Partition studies, enables us to understand the link between Partition and the growth and sustenance of communal forces in India.
Amit Dey is Professor of History, University of Calcutta, Kolkata.