Posted by Ambika Tandon
The partition of India was accompanied by horrific violence, arguably making it one of the most violent yet significant events in South Asian history in the 20th Century. This is now common knowledge, with its inclusion in history textbooks, and a plethora of articles and books on the genocidal nature of Partition. However, this wasn’t always so. In the decades following Partition, right until the anti-Sikh riots in parts of North India in 1984, it wasn’t widely discussed, and its expression was marginalised in national historiography and other popular modes of documentation.
Primary modes of understanding the event shifted from merely the political to the experiences of the masses, through oral testimonies – which were collected and disseminated through texts such as Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence(1998) based on the experiences of women across Punjab. Amidst this historical silence, there were very few writers who were able to render the pain of the Partition into powerful narratives. One of the most celebrated of these is Saadat Hasan Manto, whose short stories represented the overarching societal breakdown in the Partition, that resulted in widespread massacres and rapes across Punjab, Bengal, and other parts of North India.
Manto’s anachronistically progressive works also detailed the forms of violence that affected women specifically, including sexual assault on both sides of the border – which was perceived as a threat to the ‘honour’ of the woman and her community, and led to large-scale suicides in order to prevent this ‘dishonour’. See here for a longer discussion on the spectrum of violence undergone by females in Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities.
Khol Do (Open It), is one such story that has been described as paralleling fictionally the depths of human depravity that were also witnessed during the 2012 gang rape in Delhi. The short story is told through the perspective of Sirajuddin, whose daughter, Sakina, goes missing when the train they were travelling on is attacked by rioters.
Sirajuddin asks some social workers in Pakistan to form a search party for his daughter. It turns out that upon finding her, the men go on to rape her themselves, and leaving her to die near the refugee camp Sirajuddin is staying in. The concluding scene, wherein Sakina lays barely conscious in the doctor’s office, opening her salwar, expecting to be raped again, is particularly evocative of the trauma of victims whose perpetrators were men within their own communities as often as those of others.
Author Tarun Saint commends Manto’s work for dealing with ‘anxiety of representation’ that surrounded the ‘grey zone’ of the Partition, as communities played interchanging roles, shifting from victim to perpetrator. The complete effacement of all moral structures due to created a situation of utter panic and chaos, which further exacerbated the ongoing rioting. Khol Do challenges the linear narratives of inter-faith violence along which Partition is mostly understood. By questioning the institution of social work, which was central to the project of nationalist mobilisation, Manto depicts the futility of nationalist ideology, on either sides of the border, the very basis of which lies in hypermasculinity.
perpetrators were men within their own communities as often as those of others.
Historical structures of patriarchy took on jingoistic, religious, and eventually violent manifestations in the absence and even complicity of state machinery. Butalia, in her novel, takes the example of Montogomery, a tahsildar of Dipalpur, who kept an abducted woman with himself for about eight months, to assert that, “abduction by people in positions of authority happened on both sides.”
The South Asian female body becomes easily available to re-inscribe the metaphor of the community and national because it is always-already inscribed with patriarchal markers of shame and honour. Abundant examples of attaching the values of ‘honour and purity’ to upper class, upper caste Hindu females can be found across the political sphere in India even today, with similar parallels among upper class, upper caste Muslims in Pakistan.
These exclusions along lines of class and caste have unfortunately been replicated in the literature that deals with the experience of Partition. Most narratives of trauma and marginalisation, that continue to be recorded today through initiatives such as 1947 Partition Archive, disproportionately represent the experiences of upper class, upper caste women, leaving subaltern groups, such as lower caste females, sex workers, trans communities, outside the sphere of discussion. This historical narrative of trauma and marginalisation, while itself non-linear and complex, remains woefully incomplete.
Ambika is interested in intersectional feminist literature and research. She fills up the meaninglessness of life with travelling and chocolate. She can be followed on Facebook.
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