In “Women,” the fourth chapter of her The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia attempts a focus on the misadventures of the feminine gender during and after the Partition. It is actually a mise en abîme, within a book, which is already mostly a representation of women and their centrality in that event. “Women” must therefore offer more than a single account of women. Instead of giving us to read the narrative of a “normal” victim of the Partition – a woman, abducted, probably raped, and forced to live a new life on the other side of the border – Butalia preferred to share the story of Damyanti Sahgal. Damyanti was not one of these women. She was mostly known as a major actor in the operations of recovery for abducted women. Urvashi’s conscious choice of Damyanti is an interesting one. Damyanti’s story is like a “meta-story”, a story made of the stories of other women. These particular stories are mediated by an agent, but this agent is Damyanti, who, as a woman, satisfies the careful methodology of Butalia, her conscious effort to bring these stories from the viewpoints of “the smaller, often invisible, players” (Butalia 1998:11). “I have deliberately chosen Damyanti’s narrative as the thread that weaves together this long chapter on the histories of women’s abduction and rape during Partition” (Butalia 1998: 114). Once again, History is told through histories, or rather, History is made by histories. One history, “small” histories, speak for all.
During the Partition, a number of women were abducted, sold from hand to hand, often violated, and finally forcefully married to a man of the other religion. To face this devastation, which became a main part of the political agenda of leaders of both Pakistan and India, authorities decided to attempt a major recovery operation. On December 6, 1947, the Inter-Dominion Treaty was signed. Until its end in 1956, around 30,000 women were recovered. Abduction appears as yet another burden on the subjected destiny of many women, but a particular phenomenon came to complicate the situation: certain women refused to be rescued. “Many women protested. They refused to go back” (Butalia 1998,147). These women had lived extremely complex and painful lives, between grieves and new beginnings. They decided that they would, for once, be in control of their fates. But even this, Urvashi Butalia recognizes, was denied. This is a paradox: political authorities, driven by an increasing concern for women, wanted to “empower” them by giving them their “real” life back, but this choice was not optional. Every inter-religious marriage celebrated as early as March 1947 was considered to be illegitimate, hereafter unrecognized by the state and operations were started to find the concerned women. Even though the track was often intricate, numbers of women were “rescued.” “Despite the women’s reluctance (…) to leave, considerable pressure, sometimes even force, was brought to bear on them to ‘convince’ them to do so.” (Butalia 1998:151). New policies tried to fight against the dominant violence of abduction and forced marriages, but the means of this fight was also violence, and the victims of this violence were, again, the very same women.
Present and future: two closed doors; their life thereafter would simply be a long present. Partition was an event of history, complex to the point of leading some of its protagonists to fall out of history. Their time had stopped. They ended stuck in an eternal present.
Numbers of these women were led to transitory camps, until they would get in contact with their “real” family. Damyanti Sahgal herself mentions how these camps became, for many of them, nothing but their new life. The internal deficient organizations of tasks and professions, kept them as completely dependant and subsidiary to men. But there was a more tragic issue. Certain families refused to have their daughter back, now that she had been “dirtied” by members of the other religion. “Their families, who had earlier filed reports and urged the government to recover their women, were now no longer willing to take them back.” (Butalia 1998: 159). Worse, if the woman had had a child during the period of abduction, her chances would be close to none to be accepted again. “Impurity” could be faked, excuses and lies could be found, but the bearing of a child implied sexual intercourses with a man of the other religion. Their “choice” was rather terrible: leaving their child and joining the family, or staying with the child in an ashram, for the rest of their life (Butalia, 1998: 161). For women still pregnant, mass abortions (safaya) were conducted, even though illegal (Butalia, 1998: 161). Butalia, a feminist herself, who would certainly have defended the recovery of such women, could only recognize the difficulty of the problem. In her words, these women were the victims of a “double dislocation”: “… the only people who had suffered a double dislocation, as a result of Partition” (Butalia, 1998:163). Two dislocations, two life chapters that these women had to close. Or perhaps three. There was no possible return to their past, whether the past prior to Partition or the one initiated by the abduction, but access to any future was also denied to them. Present and future: two closed doors; their life thereafter would simply be a long present. Partition was an event of history, complex to the point of leading some of its protagonists to fall out of history. Their time had stopped. They ended stuck in an eternal present.
Image courtesy: India Partition