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Muted Voices and Gendered Memories: Some notes of violent uprooting from partitioned Assam

By Binayak Dutta

Some introductory thoughts

Attempts at writing of violence in India are fraught with grave risks. On the one hand, there are fears of rekindling old wounds, while on the other, such scholarship is often suspect of subverting the unifying strains of the Indian nation state.[i] But there is no denying that partition and accompanied violence were an integral part of the birth pangs of the Indian nation. Contrary to dominant perceptions, colonial southern Assam had its own share of partition history reflected in partition of land, violence, and displacement of people, who fell on the wrong side of the borders. Within this narrative, though women were the worst victims of partition violence, their experiences have rarely found visibility. The idea of this piece is to recover some stray experiences of women in this partition politics and weave them into the larger partition narrative of Assam to indicate the possibility of a comprehensive study of this nature in future.

Not long ago, Geraldine Forbes in her texts has highlighted the necessity of recovering the voices of women in public life and politics by a creative use of their memoirs and oral narratives.[ii] Partition narratives of India and Assam can only acquire a totality if it can accommodate the ‘inner terrain of the female psyche’[iii] within the “larger meta-narratives of decolonization and nation building.” Narratives on women in partition from Assam suffer from multiple challenges. While Assam has only been a recent engagement in Indian partition discourse, academic engagement with partition within Assam has also been few and far between. In an area of peripheral engagement within Indian partition discourse, women are conspicuous by their absence for both History and Nation are dominant patriarchal preserves. For the Sylheti women, partition was a moment of displacement and not of freedom. The location of this absence is central to give the history of decolonization in Assam a semblance of totality. This article is an attempt to recover some of these women’s voices from the moment of partition in Assam – an event that articulates itself through a political process called a referendum, and its aftermath. Muted reminiscences by women, who were affected by the politics of partition and who subsequently came to be displaced from their ancestral homes lend credence to the assertion that limited partition narratives from northeast India, especially Assam hitherto, have only dealt with the political dimension of the event and only the story of men. 

Reflecting on post-referendum politics and women

When the results were announced, it was clear that the Muslim League won the contest. Victory in the referendum was interpreted as an opportunity for intimidation of Hindus, who were the obvious minorities in Pakistan. This volatile political situation was more precarious for women. Personal notes maintained by female Congress workers from Sylhet open tremendous possibilities to understand the internal political and social tension and the politics and process of displacement from Sylhet in post-partition days. Suhasini Das, one of the most articulate grassroots political workers, noted in her dairy, dt. 19.7.1947, that, “the law and order situation was worsening. The exuberance of the Muslim League at the creation of Pakistan sounded like threats to the minority community.”[iv] As has been observed in the context of the Punjab partition, women’s question has traditionally formed the dominant part of Punjab displacement and rehabilitation narratives and scholars have worked through women’s experiences to lend comprehensive character to the history of partition in the Punjab.[v] Unfortunately despite engaging with similar prototypes in East and West Bengal,[vi] no such systematic exercise seemed to be forthcoming from Assam and northeast India. A similar exercise could also be worthwhile to recover post-partition experiences in East Pakistan through the voice of bhadralok women in Assam – though that could only be the beginning of a sustained enquiry, considering that women as an academic category are differentiated by lines of caste and class. Most of the Hindus of Sylhet could neither identify with the League slogan of “Allah-ho-Akbar” nor could they sympathize with the League vision of Pakistan and the situation became more critical as threats came home as intimidation and violence became rampant during the Referendum. It continued even after the referendum. As the tension and violence grew, apprehensions overwhelmed the minorities and protection of women came to occupy the core of their concern. Suhasini Das observed, in her notes dt. 14.7.1947, that:

…at night I talked to the neigbours. They were all worried that the League could be planning some mischief. They were especially worried about protection of their womenfolk.[vii]

In a patriarchial society, to which Sylhet was no exception in 1947, the role and status of women were constructed in a typical way. Respectability of families and their patriarchs was chained to the inviolability of women of the households, which in turn was chained to the ability of the women to retain their sexual purity viz-a-viz men outside the family and community. Thus women became the repository of family and community honour. Violation of her body was a symbolic violation and dis-honour for the family and community. Displacement of women from post Referendum Sylhet was not just a relocation of the body; it was integral to safeguard family honour.

Some stories from the Sylhet Partition

Partition of India was a major upheaval that affected the lives of millions in the east and rendered almost 60 million displaced. Despite its magnitude, the stories of displacement of ordinary people have not received adequate attention in historical research on northeast India. While few scholars like Anindita Dasgupta[viii] and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee[ix] have recovered few experiences, many more people remain as yet un-tapped. Such voices need to be acknowledged as storehouse of tales, which seek to narrate the history of community and family displacements from East Pakistan and their migration and settlements in India. Such narratives are significant in their own ways as they could alter perspectives of Indian partition studies itself. Suhasini Das’ observation, “How could anyone happily leave behind his home where his forefathers had lived for years?”[x] could be a suitable entry point to interrogate the lives of  women, who were born in the district of Sylhet but who were forced to relocate themselves to the post-colonial Indian district of Assam post-partition as a result of violent experiences, post-decolonization. In the context of the history of Indian decolonisation, these narratives could unfold political claims in post-colonial India where utmost importance is attached to violent experiences for constituting claims for citizenship, rehabilitation, and participation in national identity in Assam.

It is therefore important to recover the stories of displacement and refugee-hood from Sylhet to understand the nature of partition violence and violation in Assam. While tales of violence and perceptions of security became the core concerns guiding displacement of the minorities from Sylhet, it is important to understand that the idea of violence itself in historical studies has undergone a transformation. Violence today is not understood as only an external act of physical harm and violation. It is to be understood in more subtle terms as encompassing both psychological and perceived acts of violence and violation. It is also important to contextualize this threat in the background of the philosophy of the state of Pakistan as an Islamic state. The League activists began to believe that Pakistan was an exclusive zone for the Muslims where the others had no place.[xi] The predominance of this sentiment in the post-Referendum days in Sylhet is borne out in Suhasini Das’ account, when she noted:

The Muslim League was going about telling people that only Muslims would be welcome in the new nation. The others were dispensable.[xii]

Paliye ashte hoyechilo’ or ‘we had to flee to India’ is what Labangalata Purkayastha, from Gobindopur, Sylhet, had to say about her coming to India. The situation was grim. Armed bands moved about the interior of Sylhet threatening vengeance on those “who might have voted against joining East Bengal.”[xiii] In another part of Sylhet, Hashirani Choudhury, a newly-wed, expecting her first child, was clandestinely shifted from her parental home of Jinarpur, in Habiganj Sub Division, to Shillong, her marital home to save her from possible assault. Recounting the situation, Hashirani Choudhury said:

Soon after the Referendum, Muslim villagers went into frenzy. Threat, intimidation, and violence had increased. When the results were announced, I remember that our neighbors were overcome with excitement and exultation. But frenzy soon gave way to threat. In my paternal village of Jinarpur, Muslim League volunteers came to my house and threatened us. Capture the Hindu women, they shouted. Capture the Hindu fields, they cried. My father, who was a Zamindar, decided to shift me out of his home and send me to my in-laws’ house at Shillong in the cover of night.[xiv]

The situation was even more precarious for women folk, who were married and whose lives oscillated between the two men who controlled their lives. Fathers, who had married daughters living with them at Sylhet, felt that it was better to shift them out of their homes to the safe house of their husband outside Sylhet. The displaced women hardly had any choice about their uprooting from their ancestral homes and residences. It was as if politics of the day conspired with the men folk to displace the women, who were robbed of any control over their own lives and render them voiceless. For Bani Choudhury, the wife of Sudhir Choudhury, a police officer serving in Assam, her decision to relocate to Shillong to her father-in-law’s house, was also guided by violence over which she had no control.

I was in my house at Jinda Bazar. My husband who was with the Syl Force was on duty. The atmosphere was charged and the campaign was high-pitched. In the evening of the first day of the voting that I was told that my husband had fired on a group of League supporters and our house at Sylhet would be attacked. I was a newly-wed wife and I was hurriedly sent off to Shillong, the next day.[xv]

Such narratives serve multiple purposes. The stories of threat of violation and violence from Sylhet in the life of protagonists such as Hashi Rani and Bani Choudhury, on the one hand, help us to understand the impact of partition in the lives of women, who ordinarily were not part of politics. On the other hand, it helps us to develop a grassroots perspective of the political situation in Sylhet, of the time, as corroborated by archival sources. The Dawn in its August 27 & 28 August, 1947 edition wrote, “Reports of unrest and lawlessness are reaching Shillong from Habiganj Sub-Division of Sylhet district.”[xvi] This tension forced the Hindu families to repatriate their womenfolk from their ancestral ‘bhite bari’ to safer locations. Labangalata Purkayastha, a partition displaced, who I had an opportunity to meet at Guwahati recounted:

Muslim League supporting Zamindars used to openly move around, threatening to evict Hindu who dared to vote against the League. It is as a result of such threats and intimidation that I had to flee to Shillong.[xvii]

Though displacement was a painful process, both for those who left and those who remained at Sylhet, for the displaced women like Labangalata Purkayastha, Hashi Rani, and Bani Choudhury, their decision to displace themselves was invariably dictated by various conflicting forces of patriarchal society over which they had little control. Though they shifted to Shillong, the distance between their homes of Sylhet and Shillong were more psychological than geographical. The unfamiliarity of their route, the clandestine nature of their movement, and the involuntary nature of their displacement was vivid tales of vulnerability of women in patriarchal society during times of conflict.

In lieu of a Conclusion

This article is an attempt at re-writing the history of partition in Assam of which Sylhet, as the site which links Assam with the partition politics of India in 1947, forms the core. It is intended to be a story with a difference, as developing an understanding of displacement and re-settlement is at the core of the project of citizen-making. In this sense, displacement of women in post-colonial Assam could be a unique site to reconfigure the citizenship debates in contemporary politics and give the history of peopling in Assam a semblance of totality. Due to the highly ethnicized nature of society, partition continues to be a live issue in the lives of the people of Assam. The ongoing exercise of finalizing the National Register of Citizens for Assam has granted a new lease of life to the displacement histories of the past through debates on the cut-off years, experience of violence and the logic of displacement. There is a need to understand post-partition problems of minority management both in Pakistan and India and the inability of the states to complete the process of rehabilitation of partition displaced even after seventy years of partition. Women question is central to this discourse. This is something that the state of Assam, as yet, has been unable to come to terms with.

Photo source: Here

Notes and References

[i]N. Bhattacharyaa, ‘Predicaments of Secular Histories’, Public Culture, 2008 20(1): 57-73.

[ii]Ibid, pp. 143-154.

[iii] Sukrita Paul Kumar, ‘Remembering Women: Partition Gender and Re-orientation’, in Women Studies in India: Contours of Change, ed. Malashri Lal and S. Paul Kumar,Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, 2002.

[iv]  Suhasini Das inJ. Bagchi and S Dasgupta, Trauma and the Triumph, Kolkata: Stree, 2003, pp.168-177.

[v] See scholarship in texts such Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence, also see R. Menon and K. Bhasin,Borders and Boundaries, See articles such as Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, ‘Recovery, Rupture, Resistance The Indian State and abduction of Women’ EPW, 24th  April, 1993; The  most recent scholarship in this series is by Nonica Datta, Violence, Martyrdom and Partition  A Daughter’s Testimony, New Delhi, 2009.

[vi]Scholarly studies such as Joshodhara Bagchi and Subho Ranjan Das Gupta edited, ‘The Trauma and the Triumph Gender and Partition in Eastern India’, or ‘Coming out of Partition: Refugee women of Bengal’ by Gargi Chakraborty are a few representatives of this genre.

[vii] Bagchi and Dasgupta, opcit

[viii] Anindita Dasgupta, (2001) Denial and resistance: Sylhet Partition ‘refugees’ in Assam, Contemporary South Asia, 10:3, 343-360.

[ix] Nabanipa Bhattacharjee (2012): ‘We are with culture but without geography’: locating Sylheti identity in contemporary India, South Asian history and Culture,3:2,215-235.

[x] Bagchi and Dasgupta, opcit.

[xi] Bidyut Chakraborty, opcit, p.335

[xii] Suhasini Das, opcit. p.169

[xiii] Bidyut Chakraborty: ‘Hut and the Axe’ Indian Economic and Social History Review,Vol. XXXIX: No. 4 December 2002, pp. 317-350.

[xiv] My interface with Late Hashirani Choudhury dated 11. 06.08 at Shillong

[xv] My interface with Late Bani Choudhury dt. 12.09.2005 at Shillong

[xvi]Dawn, 27th Aug, 1947, NMML.

[xvii] My Interface with Smti Labangalata Purkayastha, dated. 21.02. 06

Dr. Binayak Dutta teaches Modern India in the Department of History, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. His areas of special interest include Partition of India studies, Migration, Displacement and Gender Studies. He has authored three books besides research papers in edited volumes and journals. He is editing an upcoming volume on Partition in northeast India. He may be contacted at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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