In post-partition India, the influx of refugees was a challenge faced by the modern Indian nation. In order to deal with refugee women, the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation had a special Women’s Section which categorised some women as ‘attached’ and others as ‘unattached’.
It also sought to ‘recover’ Hindu women who were abducted. This raises several questions such as, who was an unattached woman in post- partition India and what is meant by recovery of women? How did the modern Indian state treat these unattached and recovered women?
In her work Citizen Refugee: Forging the Indian Nation After Partition, Uditi sen writes, “Refugee women occupy a contradictory position within partition history.”
The Indian nation considered the heteronormative patriarchial unit of a nuclear family as the generic blueprint for an ideal Indian family where women were ‘attached’ to their male relations and relatives.
During migration, apart from these generic units of a nuclear Indian family, there were a variety of other categories such as single women, widowed women, divorcees, illegitimate children without fathers, sex workers, and unmarried women with children who were called ‘war babies’.
These categories fell under the umbrella term of “Unattached Women” by the Indian state which sought different provisions and schemes in order to give them refuge according to their own understanding of what would help these “unattached women.”
In post-partition India, the state took the responsibility of being a provider and the refugees gained the status of children. This dynamic was highlighted even more in the case of ‘unattached women.’
Another project of the Indian state after partition was that of ‘recovery’ of Indian women across the border who have been abducted or married into their families. Ritu Menon writes in No Woman’s Land, “Recognising the enormity of the problem, the two governments entered into an Inter- Dominion Agreement in November 1947 to recover as many women as possible, as speedily as possible, from each country and restore them to their families.”
The two governments are India and Pakistan who bore this responsibility without taking into account the consent of women if they want to return or not. In her Partition Memoir, Torn From The Roots, Kamlaben Patel writes about her experiences as a social worker under the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation.
There was a separate Women’s Section in the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation headed by Rameshwari Nehru and Mridulala Sarabhai. Kambalen Patel worked closely with Mridulaben and was in charge of handling many disputed cases.
She talks about differing narratives of abducted women unwilling to return and the forcible transfer of women without any consent. Echoing Uditi Sen’s argument mentioned above, Kambalen questions the inter-dominion policies regarding women and children. “But nowhere in those rules was there any provision made for the recovered women and children to decide their own futures,” she writes.
Moreover, even children who were born during this partition period were initially to remain with their fathers and be separated from their mothers who would rightfully belong to the country of their religion. In her memoir, Kambalen writes, “In the beginning, a problem arose as to what was to be done about those children who were born after Partition.”
She goes on to talk about the same unit of patriarchal laws governing a nuclear family as mentioned above. Bringing into account the Indian state’s policy regarding children she says, “To Pakistani authorities, it did not matter much whether Muslim women returned to Pakistan along with their children or not, but for the government of India it was a complex problem. In Indian society, a child born to a Hindu mother by a Muslim father was hardly acceptable, and if the relatives of the women did not accept such women and children, the problem of rehabilitation would be huge.”
The Indian state thus bore the double burden of rehabilitating the unprecedented refugee influx wherein “unattached women” became a subdivision, as well as matters such as the recovery of abducted women and children where the state becomes the provider similar to a patriarch who decides for women. It is mentioned many times in Kamlaben Patel’s memoir that the right to make an individual decision that vests solely with the women was scrapped and instead considered a matter of national importance handled at inter-dominion levels between India and Pakistan.
The plight of women who bore children in Pakistan after partition and were “recovered” is described in the memoir as, “These poor women were always faced with this dilemma- on the one hand they were ready to go back with their relatives, and on the other hand they were unable to abandon their children.” In most of the cases women had to abandon their children in the care of refugee camps which were already overcrowded with refugees and were extremely unsanitary and deprived of basic amenities.
It was not possible to provide abandoned children with enough nutrition for their growth and many of them died in such conditions. Amritsar camp was one of the camps reserved for such children (who were merely two to twelve months old) which was later shifted to Kamla Nehru Hospital in Allahabad. Kamlaben narrates the story of these post-partition babies left by their mothers. They will not be accepted by their family and relatives because most of them were unmarried and unwilling to leave the children with their fathers in Pakistan.
This discourse on refugee women in post-partition India is overshadowed by stereotypical narrations of violence and bloodshed. Partition is approached with a teleological lens and is seen as an event in isolation only through the lenses of trauma and loss. This prevents any engagement with several other potential sites of exploration which can be brought forth by looking at the testimonies of the oppressed.
Partition memoirs such as Anis Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade, Kamlaben Patel’s Torn From the Roots, as well as Ritu Menon’s edited anthology called No Woman’s Land are some such testimonial works that are exceptional in shifting this one-dimensional perspective regarding partition.
Arifa Banu is currently doing her Masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has written several research papers on Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Indian Literature. Her research interests are South Asian Literature, Posthumanism, and Dalit Literature. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook