Partition through the eyes of women
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New Delhi: Things change their meanings depending on who is looking, from where and in what context. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin describes humans as being “the witness and the judge”—which means that we both see and assess. And it is this witnessing and judging that leads to different interpretations of the same event from different people.
In August 1947, the British left India, and the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nations: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. This led to one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan and millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Most part of the recorded history of India’s Partition has stories of suffering of men, women, children, of how the event shook the lives of all those who lived through it. But Partition, like wars and other forms of violence do, affected women differently than it affected men—mostly because of the specific roles and responsibilities attached with the specific gender. To recreate just these experiences, a photo exhibition being held at India Habitat Centre (ICH) from 14 to 18 August is trying to bring out the social history of Partition through the eyes of women.
This exhibit titled Women during the Partition, in IHC’s Convention Centre foyer is put together by The 1947 Partition Archive, a non-profit NGO working to institutionalize the people’s history of Partition through documenting, preserving and sharing eyewitness accounts. “Through the very nature of the archival image, we learn about the circumstances of their migrations, we learn of family education, the plight of refugees, and most importantly the notion of hope,” the descriptor in the first photograph, introducing the series, states.
Across two walls in the foyer are a series of photographs of nine women—arranged in such a way that for every woman, there is an enlarged, black and white picture from the past on the left, and on the right there is a small recent photograph along with snippets from personal stories.
The picture of Narinder Kaur Oberoi, who was six during Partition, summarizes the atmosphere of utter chaos then: “I recall a very troubled (sic troubling) incident where a neighbour of ours had killed his daughter because he feared she would be killed or raped on their way to the border.”
In their paper, Unveiling the Layers: A Journey into the Covertures of Women Partition Survivors, published in the Delhi University Journal of Undergraduate Research and Innovation, Neenu Kumar, Punita Gupta and Neena Pandey write, “Partition, as a whole, affected the social lives of everyone. However, it affected the women contrastively. Women were not the ones who were deciding their fate, their killing or living or migrating. Women faced violence at various levels; communal, at family level and at the macro level. They were being abducted, kidnapped, raped, killed. They were forced to commit suicide in order to protect the family honour. Furthermore, in the name of recovery, they were disowned by their families, their children were deprived of basic rights as they were considered illegal and wrong,”
The story of Hamida Bano Begum (born in 1936) describes her vivid memories of crossing the newly made border, and what she witnessed there: "We heard stories of massacres along the way, but didn’t witness any violence. The one incident I can never forget happened right after we crossed the Ravi River – while walking, we saw in front of us in the distance, a bare leafless tree from which hung the bodies of five dead men.”
Mamoona Mustansar’s story on the wall begins with the killing of her maternal grandparents in a small village called Mukhtisar, during Partition riots. She says: My mother would often sit by the door in anticipation for her deceased parents and sometimes, she’d even send my uncle to search for them in the caravans of people who arrived safe and sound. This longing eventually became a permanent feature in my mother’s life, she never quite came to terms with it.”
In Urvashi Butalia’s chapter “Gender and Nation: Some Reflections from India” which was part of the 2004 book From Gender to Nation (edited by Rada Iveković, Julie Mostov), she explains: When women narrate the nation, they do so rather differently than men. In men’s narratives of the nation, women are often seen as symbols of national and family honour. In women’s narratives, the concerns are often different: the need to keep the family together, to contain grief, to put closures on unexplained deaths, to try and somehow contain the violence that such a situation inevitably unleashes.”
In most pictures, the words, “family”, “parents” and “father” appear. For instance, the story of Gopi Bhatia (born in 1933) says: “My parents decided it was best if we leave, planning the move to be only temporary, as we were sure we’d return after the riots died down.”