DAY TWO: All in the mind? Neglected experiences of violence during Partition

For day two of our 16 Days of Activism 2022, we return to the theme of sexual violence during Partition, rape as a weapon of war, displacement and forced migration that Butalia’s blog opened with. Pallavi Chakravarty’s piece on neglected experiences of violence adds further to Butalia’s opening piece.

Pallavi Chakravarty

The photo above (which is also the featured image for this post) is from Jugantor newspaper (1952). It reflects the dilemma of migrants in the wake of novel means of restricting influx on one side (passport in this context) and pushing out of minorities from the other side. Interestingly it is the body of the woman who is personifying all refugees here and men who are representing bureaucratic, political and social guardians.


Rape, abduction, and branding or mutilation of female genitals have been means often used as a ‘weapon of war’.

Looking at the South Asian context, it is in the violence accompanying the division of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 where this ‘weapon of war’ was mastered and used on an unprecedented scale. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women seemed to have only two options before them: violation of their ‘honour’ at the hands of the ‘other’, which was considered a cause of shame and insult to the family, community and nation; and shockingly, ‘honour killing’ at the hands of their own family members, which was hailed as an act of martyrdom. Thus, ‘honour’ was interpreted as being embodied upon the unviolated body of the woman and the violation of the same supposedly brought dishonour to the family, community and nation. What being violated meant to the woman herself held much less significance.

Even today, oral testimonies show how stories of women jumping into the wells or ‘willingly’ offering to be slain by the knives of father, brother and other males of the same community are told and retold with pride by the male survivors of partition violence while the narratives of the women who were abducted and later restored by an arrangement between the two states (India and Pakistan)[1] are silenced or even forgotten.

Through the Recovery and Restoration Act (1949), both the states added further violence  by making it compulsory for women to be ‘restored’ to their family of origin if found in the home of the other community, irrespective of their own will.

This caused dual displacement for the abducted women who may have been resigned to their fate or who knew that they would not be welcomed back home because they had been violated -  that too by the other community.

Violence upon the bodies of the women was more commonplace in the western border of the subcontinent. But India was also divided on its eastern border and here the level of violence was ostensibly lower. This was largely due to the presence of Mahatma Gandhi here on the eve of partition thereafter it became possible for the two warring communities, Hindus and Muslims, to live together peacefully a little longer. Consequently, there was no large scale mass displacement here; rather, migration occurred in phases like the ebb and flow of the tide.

The violence at the eastern border was not always so explicit and direct. In fact, it was often dismissed as mere ‘psychological fear’, thereby denying it any degree of seriousness by the State and host community. Yet hereto, the threat to the honour of their women was the biggest concern for Hindu women coming from East Pakistan as refugees. Certain incidents narrated by them highlight this fear in clearer terms. To cite one example: one of them told Hiranmoy Bandyopadhyay,  Rehabilitation Commissioner for West Bengal, that when the women went to take a bath in the pond, some Muslim men would often remark, ‘Pak Pak Pakistan, Hindur Bhatar Mussolman [This is Pakistan, the husband of a Hindu will be a Mussalman]’. Another refugee said that one of the Muslims called out to the ladies in the pond: ‘E bibi, bela je bede cholo. Aar deri keno? Ebar ghore cholo. [Oh Bibi, it is evening now, why delay any further, lets go home.]’[2] 

        Upon hearing such incidents, Bandyopadhyay noted that while fear was a genuine factor for migration, it was still all in the mind, i.e. psychological—‘manoshik nipiron’. However, what seemed ‘psychological’ to the distant government and the people of West Bengal, as well as the rest of India, was an everyday reality lived by Hindu women in East Pakistan.

         Asoka Gupta and her husband Saibal Kumar Gupta [3]recorded testimonies of many East Bengal refugees on their own initiative for the purpose of submitting these eyewitness accounts to the enquiry commission set up by the Government of West Bengal in the aftermath of the 1964 Calcutta riots. These include a few testimonies of refugee women as well, who spoke of the gruesome violence they were either themselves exposed to, or which they had heard of. Bhatarani Ghosh stated that her parents, brother and sister were killed by the Muslims of their village (she names them as well) who later occupied their home. When her husband tried to oppose this forcible occupation of their home, he was threatened with dire consequences. In the face of such mounting pressure, they left their village and crossed over to India. Other accounts by refugee men and women identified abduction of women as one key factor that compelled migration to India. These accounts show how insecure the Hindus felt in East Pakistan, and yet their real fears were dismissed as a mere psychological construct.

       It is my argument that when the State recognizes what it regards as ‘real’ violence, it also recognizes the victims of such violence as its direct responsibility. It then extends far-reaching help to these victims. The State recognized mass abductions, sexual violation and forcible conversion as ‘real’ violence. Only those women who were exposed to such violence became the immediate responsibility of the State. [4] Thus, many women coming from East Pakistan would have to face further hardships for they were not always seen as victims of  ‘real’ violence.     

Independence and Partition were marred by violence and women bore the major brunt of it. Undoubtedly, once they migrated to the host country (India or Pakistan), their immediate care and rehabilitation became a task of absolute importance. But in many ways, the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘psychological’ forms of violence left its mark on patterns of migration and final rehabilitation. Thus it can be argued that the  impact of the differing experiences of violence on migration and consequently upon relief and rehabilitation measures for refugees coming into India through its eastern and western borders of India was profound. 


[1] The Recovery and Restoration of the Abducted Persons Act (1948): An act which allowed for an elaborate machinery to operate between the two States, India and Pakistan, to recover women of all age and boys upto age 16 if found in the homes of the other community and to restore them to their original family/community, whether willing or unwilling.

[2] Hiranmoy Bandyopadhyay, Udvastu, Calcutta: Bangiya Sahitya Samsad (1970) p. 16

[3] Saibal Kumar Gupta, Civil Servant and officer in charge of rehabilitation of Bengali refugees in Dandakaranya (Chattisgarh, India) and his wife Asoka Gupta, a social worker who and looked specially into the rehabilitation of refugee women.

[4] She was a prominent Social Worker and was made the Head of the Women’s Section of the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation for the partition-refugees.

Author’s Bio

Pallavi Chakravarty is Assistant Professor at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. She is currently Junior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi (July 2021-23).

She has obtained her doctoral degree from the Department of History, University of Delhi (2013) and her doctoral thesis made a comparison of the rehabilitation policies of the Indian state vis-à-vis the partition-refugees coming into the two cities: Delhi and Kolkata, from West and East Pakistan respectively. It is now published as a monograph, Boundaries and Belongings: Rehabilitation of the Partition Refugee in India, 1947-71, New Delhi: Primus Books (2022). Her main areas of research are: partition studies, refugee studies, oral history methodology. 

Cover of Boundaries and Belongings: Rehabilitation of the Partition Refugee in India, 1947-71, New Delhi: Primus Books (2022).

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