~ by Andrew Whitehead (host of radio series ‘India: a people partitioned’ on the BBC World Service)
“The women on both sides suffered so much,” says Sheila Sen Gupta. “I think it’s terrible. It is something beyond conception.
We talk a lot about partition, partition, partition. We talk about all the property lost. Nobody talks about the plight of the women”.
It is the greatest taboo surrounding partition. Everyone knows about the rioting, the brutality, the train massacres, the forced migrations. But the extent of the sexual violence has been concealed behind a veil of silence and shame.
The best figures available suggest that about 100,000 women were abducted, mainly in Punjab. How many more were raped and killed, or casually cast aside, God only knows.
It’s not hard to find veterans of the partition violence who admit sometimes with remorse, sometimes with an obscene pride that, yes, they rioted, and perhaps even killed. No one will admit to rape. Yet in 1947, there were tens of thousands of rapists Hindu, Muslim and Sikh exacting what they saw as communal vengeance, or taking advantage of the breakdown of order to brutalise and humiliate women.
Sheila Sen Gupta witnessed something of the agony of the women victims of partition when she worked with Mridula Sarabhai in locating and exchanging women who had been abducted. Khorshed Mehta served as a medical welfare worker in 1947, meeting the refugee trains as they arrived from Punjab at Old Delhi Station. She reckons that almost half the women she helped as they arrived, near destitute, had been assaulted.
“The main aim,” she recalls with a shudder, “was to rescue the women and see that they didn’t go astray. All these brothel people would wait at the platform trying to grab them. We had to make sure they were not taken away.” “First, we had to take women to the camp. A doctor had to examine them. Some old women were among those raped. It’s hard to believe. But they told me: in front of my children, I was raped. Young girls were not spared at all. They were raped very brutally. Some children came with no parents. They were howling, crying. Those aged 13 and 14 were the most at risk. Many people came from brothel houses for them. We never let them.”
Urvashi Butalia, a founder of the Kali for Women publishing house in Delhi and author of “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India”, says women were most at risk while on the move. “When people started to move, either on foot or by train or in buses, that’s when women were abducted. In the big caravans, they would get left behind. They couldn’t keep up. They had children to look after. Even to use the toilet, women had to go off on their own. They would be abducted from the edges of these big columns. They would be pulled off trains.”
And what befell such women? “Many of them were raped,” says Urvashi Butalia. “Some were killed. Some were sold into prostitution. Some were sold from hand to hand. Some were taken as wives and married by conversion. And some just disappeared.”
Both new governments strove to protect their women, to retrieve those abducted, and to help those left alone by the turmoil of partition. The Gandhi Vanita Ashram, a sanctuary in the centre of Jallandhar, was set up right after partition to help these women. Half a century on, some in the ashram are still living a life blighted by the violence they were subjected to.
“Please be patient,” insists Parkashwanti, now in her seventies, and one of the veterans of the Vanita Eshram. “I’ll tell my story as quickly as I can, but I’ve waited so long to share it, please listen.”
The tale she relates is so shocking it numbs the mind and freezes the emotions. She, her husband and son, Hindus living in a part of Punjab which is now Pakistan, took refuge from Muslim rioters in a rice mill. Their besiegers took all their possessions. Fearful that his wife would be raped, Parkashwanti’s husband tried to kill her with a sword. She points to a deep gash in her jaw a wound inflicted 50 years ago.
When she came round, she was surrounded by Muslim men, and her husband and young son were dead. Some months later, she gave birth to a daughter. She managed to make her way to Amritsar, and has been living in an ashram ever since.
Even as Indian and Pakistani troops went to war in Kashmir, the two governments agreed on a scheme for exchanging abducted women. Sheila Sen Gupta used to walk around areas of Delhi such as Bhogal, befriending local women, and finding out where abducted Muslim girls were kept.
Kharaiti Lal operated on the other side of the line. He was part of the team evacuating those stranded in Pakistan’s Punjab, and trying to locate kidnapped girls. “There was one village I went to. There was a pot lying over a hole in the ground. A Muslim man said to me: don’t move that pot, my pigeons will escape. But I did move it. There were three young girls down there.”
For many of these abducted women, rescue was not the end of their ordeal. Thousands were rejected by their husbands and families, and had little option but to live out their lives in ashrams. The retrieval of women went on for almost a decade. Once located, any woman whose family was in the other country had no option but to be repatriated. Even if they were travelling to a country they had never seen. Even if they had found a measure of happiness with their abductors. They could not take their children with them. Their own preferences were of no consequence.
Sheila Sen Gupta was uncomfortable about this policy. “After five or six years, when Mridula Sarabhai insisted that some Muslim girl had to go back, I used to tell her: “Why are you insisting on this? She lost everything once. Now she’s settled down, with a husband and children. She doesn’t want to go.” But Sarabhai said: `That is the policy, and it’s not your place to question it’.”
One Punjabi refugee, Amrita Pritam, was moved to write one of the most powerful poems, An Ode to Waris Shah. It was written on a scrap of paper as she travelled by train across north India. `Even the air was weeping/ the sound of the wind was like somebody wailing/and I could think only of our beloved poet, Waris Shah.’
“It’s so painful to remember,” she says. “Human beings are still not mature enough. They are just like animals. Why attack women? Why rape them? Isn’t it an insult to their own bodies? But they don’t realise it!”