An excerpt from the book, Partition Voices by Kavita Puri.

One of the hardest stories to tell is also one of the most shameful aspects of what happened during partition: how men of all religions targeted women and children of the ‘other’ religion to rape and abduct them. Women of all ages, class, caste and ethnic groups were victims. Some women were forced into marriage and made to convert. Bodies were branded with nationalist slogans. This happened on a huge scale. It is estimated that around 75,000 mainly women and children were kidnapped and raped.

Urvashi Butalia in the seminal book, The Other Side of Silence, was one of the first to document so extensively the experience of women during partition. When we met in London she told me how women became property to be fought over and exchanged. It became a show of masculinity and manhood to pick up the ‘other’s’ woman, the other’s property, to violate her. ‘Their bodies became the battleground on which these men of these two newly formed nations fought their battle. So it wasn’t only that they were raped and abducted … They had marks of the other religion tattooed and stamped on their bodies. Their breasts were cut off, all kinds of humiliations were heaped upon them. And it was just part of this whole thing of treating women as property and as chattel.’

Women of all ages, class, caste and ethnic groups were victims. Some women were forced into marriage and made to convert. Bodies were branded with nationalist slogans.

As early as September 1947 the prime ministers of India and Pakistan, in a rare show of unity, met at Lahore and issued a joint declaration. ‘Both the Central Governments and the Governments of East and West Punjab wish to make it clear that forced conversions and marriages will not be recognised. Further, that women and girls who have been abducted must be restored to their families, and every effort must be made by the Governments and the officers concerned to trace and recover such women and girls.’ Later that year both governments agreed through the Inter-Dominion Treaty ‘Central Recovery Operation’, comprising women social workers and police, to set up machinery to rescue abducted women and girls from each other’s territories, ensuring they would be brought back, if necessary by force, to their ‘own’ homes. As Butalia emphasises, this meant the place of their religion.

In 1949 the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act, passed by India and Pakistan, stated that any conversions and marriages after 1 March 1947 would not be recognised, and also that these individuals were considered ‘abducted persons’.

Gurbakhsh Garcha had strong memories, as a child growing up in a small mixed village in the Punjab, of the young Muslim woman who was abducted by an elderly Sikh and forced to eat pig fat. He was enormously relieved to hear later that she had been rescued by Pakistani police; she had seemed so unhappy. However, difficult as it is to imagine, not all women wanted to be repatriated. Some, like Gurbakhsh’s aunt (who he says willingly converted), would no doubt have refused to go with the Pakistani authorities, as she grew to love the Sikh man whom she saw as her saviour, who had protected her after all her family had been slaughtered.

The recovery operation continued for nine years after partition. In all 30,000 women were removed on both sides (22,000 Muslim women and 8,000 Hindu and Sikh women were recovered).

Other women had been left behind and their husbands and children had fled for a new country. Some of these women had children of their own with their new ‘husband’. Would they have to abandon these children too, only to be taken to a new country, and for their first husband to reject them? If a woman was found to be pregnant by the ‘other’, they had to give up their child for adoption or have an abortion. In India, abortion was illegal at the time, but the government financed mass abortions specifically for this purpose.

Gandhi and Nehru made appeals to families to reassure them that the women who had been raped and kidnapped remained ‘pure’. ‘I hear,’ Gandhi said, ‘Hindus are not willing to accept back the recovered women because they say that they have become impure. I feel this is a matter of great shame. These women are as pure as the girls sitting by my side. And if any of those recovered women should come to me, then I will give them as much respect and honour as I accord to these young maidens.’ Butalia says the accounts suggest the issue of ‘purity’ held more importance within India, to Hindus and Sikhs, ‘perhaps because the Hindu religion places such great emphasis on purity and pollution’.

The recovery operation continued for nine years after partition. In all 30,000 women were removed on both sides (22,000 Muslim women and 8,000 Hindu and Sikh women were recovered). As time went on, Butalia observes, the process became more difficult: ‘The greatest hurdle in the way of forcible recovery was the women’s reluctance to leave their children.’

In India, ashrams were set up across northern India to house women whose families could not accept them, were destitute or orphans. Astonishingly, some women were still living in ashrams as late as 1997. In an extraordinary interview for the BBC World Service series India: A People Partitioned, Andrew Whitehead spoke to a woman who lived in the Gandhi Vanita Ashram in Jalandhar, Indian Punjab. She was a Hindu brought up in Pakistan. She arrived at their door as a twenty-year-old woman, pregnant and alone. Her son and husband had been butchered while they were hiding in a paper mill in Sheikhpura. At the time of the interview, in 1997, she had been living there for fifty years.

Swaran Singh Rayit saw two or three women near the transit camp near his Punjabi village being taken away, and remarked how no one, not even the authorities, did anything to protect them. He stopped, not wanting to say anymore.

Understandably, the experience of women is a difficult story to tell through direct first-person testimony. When we were looking for interviewees, overwhelmingly those who would volunteer were men. Looking back over their testimonies, the stories of women are always there, albeit in the background. Many were reticent to go into details of sexual violence, about what they saw, or what they knew may have been going on. I think they were also mindful of the invisible mores that govern the British South Asian community. I am a British Asian woman who could be their daughter or granddaughter; such things would not usually be discussed openly.

Swaran Singh Rayit saw two or three women near the transit camp near his Punjabi village being taken away, and remarked how no one, not even the authorities, did anything to protect them. He stopped, not wanting to say anymore. Another interviewee, Iftkahr Ahmed, remembers walking across Delhi in a group when young Muslim girls were picked up and taken off. He still remembers their cries and those of their parents. These are told almost as incidental stories from that time. In the recounting, it was one of the many horrific things that happened. Khurshid Sultana, a schoolgirl in Delhi whose story we shall come to, spoke of hearing that her friend had been abducted and kept by her schoolteacher – but it was never mentioned before the interview, and barely came out during it; I needed to go back gently over the incident once it had been disclosed as an aside, to understand what had happened.

There was naturally fear amongst families of all religions that their women who upheld the honour within the communities would be disrespected – by being kidnapped, impregnated or physically disfigured by men of the ‘other’ religion.

These stories, the experiences of women and children, the rape and abductions have not emerged in the individuals’ own words in Britain. They may never now be told. This is hardly surprising. There was and is huge amount of shame attached to sexual violence within the British South Asian community, especially among that generation. Of those who migrated to the UK after independence we may never know the extent of the sexual violence they experienced during partition. Silence has pervaded so many partition memories, but these will always be the hardest silences to break, if they will ever break. I feel we have to respect this silence.

There was naturally fear amongst families of all religions that their women who upheld the honour within the communities would be disrespected – by being kidnapped, impregnated or physically disfigured by men of the ‘other’ religion. To protect them against such ‘dishonour’, violence would be committed within families. Female family members would be killed by brothers, fathers and uncles to save them from being violated.

There are well-documented cases such as those in March 1947 around the villages of the district of Rawalpindi, in the Punjab. When partition became a reality, Sikh villagers came under attack by Muslims. This was said to be in retaliation for Hindu attacks on Muslims in Bihar. In the village of Thoa Khalsa, it was reported that around ninety women jumped into a well and drowned themselves. They martyred themselves so as not to stain their honour, that of the family, and their religion. Three survived as there was not enough water in the well to drown them all.

Image Credits: Bloomsbury Publishing/Kavita Puri

Excerpted with permission from Partition Voices by Kavita Puri, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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