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Restored, or doubly displaced?: Women and the Recovery Commission in India’s Partition Narratives

By Debasri Basu

The Partition of India in 1947 affected a cross-section of the populace, but it were the womenfolk who had to bear its brunt in more ways than one. That women have to leave their natal homes and move in with their husbands and in-laws after marriage is an age-old tradition in patriarchal society, but the various dislodgments that occurred during this turbulent phase demand special focus, as the shift here was occasioned by an abrupt blow. This article is an exploration into some literary narratives – novels, short stories and memoirs – which exemplify the trope of displacement on account of the officially sanctioned ‘rescue missions’ conducted in the wake of rampant abductions. Written in the sub-continental languages ranging from Punjabi and Urdu to Bengali, these accounts relate the manifold tribulations of women dislocated from their ‘homes’. Women, conferred the unenviable role of embodying their community’s ‘honour’, had become ready targets of men from ‘rivals’ groups, with the shameful consequence that abduction and rape turned into a potent tool of attack during the riots. Their widespread incidence prompted the governments of both India and Pakistan to implement policies for curbing this dastardly act, and repatriating these women wherever feasible. Recovery Commissions were set up in 1948 to carry out the process of rescuing these women and putting them up with their co-religionists, and it continued till 1956. Regarding the modalities of conducting its operations, two distinct views had arisen within the members themselves: women social-activists like Mridula Sarabhai and Kamlaben/Kamlabehn Patel held that the government was obliged to rescue as many abducted women as possible. Analogies were drawn with the efforts of Rama and Vanara Sena to rescue Sita from the clutches of Ravana [an allusion to the mythical epic Ramayana] in the Indian Parliament to validate these actions, while legislating The Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act, 1949. Those in its favour argued that these women, under duress in a hostile environment, would not be in a correct frame of mind to take the ‘right’ decision. Although it cannot be denied that some abductors did try to influence them, as described in the social worker Anis Kidwai’s memoir, Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein [subsequently translated into English by her granddaughter], it was not reason enough to deprive these women of their voice and volition. As such, members like Rameshwari Nehru and Phulrenu Guha, and later-day feminist ethnographers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Veena Das have critiqued it as a state-generated imposition on these women that would have only served to further encumber them.

Several thousand women were ‘recovered’ in this manner, but not all of them rejoiced in their so-called liberation. Narratives centred on Punjab are replete with such figures, and demonstrate the multiple levels on which this double displacement shattered their lives. Kartar Singh Duggal, the doyen of Punjabi literature, takes up the matter in his novel, Nau Te Maas [Nails and Flesh], in which Satbharai, a young Muslim woman, is sent back to Pakistan from the Amritsar ashram where she had come of her own free will, along with Sohne Shah, her father Allahditta’s friend. Her restitution, ironically, is facilitated by a Sikh youth Kuldip for whom she had developed tender feelings during her stay in India. Duggal’s Punjabi short story, “Pakistan Zindabad”, too has a similar concern, as it presents the agonizing picture of a young woman Rakhi ripped off from her husband and in-laws by the Commission. Born Ram Rakhi, she had been married off to her Muslim neighbour Sher Baz and converted as Allah Rakhi after the murder of most members of her family during the riots. However, her surviving brother arrives with a police officer to take her away to India, ignoring her pleas to the contrary. She had been carrying a child in her womb and the thought of getting separated from Sher Baz was unimaginable to her. But the lumbardar, the village elders, and the police officer persuade her husband into letting her leave, since it had been mandated that “Raki must be sent away so that an abducted Muslim girl could be brought back from India” and that this ‘sacrifice’ had to be made for the sake of Pakistan (Duggal 102). As a result, she is bid a tearful adieu by Sher Baz and his family before embarking on her journey to India.

It is blatantly apparent that in this process women had been relegated to the status of chattel to be exchanged following the primitive barter system; both abductions and rescues were, thus, being carried out in violation of their will. The very irrationality of such a premise, which is also devoid of a humane outlook, prompts the unnamed narrator of the Urdu short story, “Khuda Ki Qasam” [‘I Swear By God’], to make the wry observation that “the entire operation was being conducted like import-export trade” (Manto 167). Written by Sa’adat Hasan Manto, that great chronicler of the Partition, it is the tale of many a women who, for miscellaneous reasons, had declined to be rescued: “…in Saharanpur, two abducted Muslim girls had refused to return to their parents who were in Pakistan. Then there was this Muslim girl in Jullundar who was given a touching farewell by the abductor’s family as if she was a daughter-in-law leaving on a long journey” (166), reminiscent of Rakhi’s case.

In a few instances, these women managed to avoid this second round of displacement either by evading detection or through the aid of compassionate officials. Jamila Hashimi/Hashmi’s Urdu story, “Banwaas”, translated twice into English as “Banished” and “Exile”, shows an abducted Bibi, a Muslim, remaining with her Sikh abductor Gurpal even after learning about soldiers from Pakistan visiting a nearby village to seek out abducted women. We get a glimpse of the fundamental anxieties of women through the incessant questions that crop up in her mind, when she receives news of this recovery mission: “Repatriate them to what country? Where? To whom? Who were these soldiers? And what would that country be like?” (Hashimi 102). That her Bhaiyya and Bhai [elder and younger brother] had not accompanied the soldiers to look for Bibi adds to her consternation. Her ultimate decision to stick with Gurpal may also be attributed to the maternal bond with her daughter Munni.

At times, the personnel who were sent to locate such women felt pity and did not insist on strict adherence to the law. Kulwant Singh Virk, a male member of the Central Recovery Operation who acted as a Liaison Officer in West Pakistan, has penned a short story, “Weeds” [original in Punjabi], which imaginatively recreates his real-life experiences within its pages. It revolves around an abducted Sikh woman, now a Muslim, who is languishing in Pakistan. But when the narrator, modeled on the author himself, meets her, she forgoes the opportunity to return, making him recognize that women have the ability to grow roots irrespective of the environment. Reference may be made to Virk’s personal viewpoint in this context, which was allied to that of Nehru and Guha. In his newspaper article, titled “Recovering Abducted Girls in Pakistan”, Virk has remarked that some of these recovered women had clearly adjusted to their new, and at times, materially better life or, having become mothers, did not wish to abandon their children [akin to Bibi in “Banished”]. He noted that some abductors, though a rarity, also took on the role of lovers instead of bestial rapists. This type of affection had been “reciprocated by the girls [like Rakhi] and some of them fell in love with their abductors. Their sobs even after the third day of their recovery are still a nightmare” (qtd. in Major 40). Such reactions echo the plight of many women who had, willy-nilly, got themselves assimilated to their new ‘homes’ only to be uprooted again. Urvashi Butalia in her celebrated Partition study, The Other Side of Silence, draws attention to their valid queries under the circumstance. While one of them asked the recovery official: “Why should I return,”…“Why are you particular to take me to India? What is left in me now of religion or chastity?”, another testily commented, “I have lost my husband and have now gone in for another. You want me to go to India where I have got nobody and, of course, you do not expect me to change husbands every day” (qtd. in Butalia 148).

Partition historian Andrew J. Major considers the presence of these narratives which draw upon personal knowledge of abduction experiences – even if fictionalised – countering the state policy as noteworthy (33). This is true for not only Virk, but also Duggal, whose wife Ayesha Jaffri, a physician, was actively involved with women’s rehabilitation. Kamlaben Patel too alludes to instances of women making repeated attempts to escape from police escort in order to get back to the men with whom they had been living post-abduction (qtd. in Das 79). This complex issue regarding women exercising their choice was accorded due importance by the state, when it established a special tribunal in Jullundur/Jalandhar to arbitrate such disputed cases as per resolutions of the Inter-Dominion Conference held at Lahore in December, 1947. A set of regulations laid its roadmap, one of which explicitly stated that “[C]ases of those women whose relatives were not traceable and who were persistent in wanting to go back to their new homes should be decided on their individual merit by the tribunal in the interest and future good of the women themselves” (qtd. in Basu 24).

Although by the Indo-Pakistan Government decision of 1954, these women could not be forced to go to the other country against their wishes, the episodes enumerated herein indicate that this right was seldom exercised and remained largely on paper. The predominant cause for reluctance to return was the fear of rejection, for notions of ‘purity and pollution’ had a pervading influence in Indian society, as evinced in these women’s entreaties to the officials: “You have come to save us; you say you have come to take us back to our relatives. You tell us that our relatives are eagerly waiting to receive us. You do not know our society. It is hell. They will kill us. Therefore, do not send us back” (qtd. in Das 72). The renowned writer-filmmaker, Ramanand Sagar, highlights this unpleasant truth incisively in his story, “Pimps” [“Bhaag in Budafarushaon Se” in the Urdu original]. Although the abducted woman, Nirmala, here returns through her own initiative, having escaped from captivity, she is refused entry into home by her husband and her father-in-law. At times, these abducted women who either escaped or were restored through governmental agencies did not face outright rejection; instead, they were subject to estrangement from other family members despite being accepted into the house. Such an attitude is reflected in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s short story, “Lajwanti” [original in Urdu], where the eponymous character, who had been abducted by a Muslim, is returned to her home through official intervention. She perceives a physical and emotional distancing stemming from her husband Sunder Lal’s grudging acceptance of her, which rends her heart. Veena Das refers to a disturbingly similar case where a woman living with a Muslim man was traced by recovery officials from West Pakistan and ‘restored’ to her husband in India. This reunion with her husband did not last long, for she did not get along well with him and committed suicide after two years (64). In rural areas of north-western India, some nine or ten thousand women who were brought back from Pakistan were accepted out of self-interest, as documented in the memoir, Mool Sota Ukhdela [meaning ‘The Uprooted’ in Gujarati], of Kamlabehn Patel. According to her, economic factors played an instrumental role here, for these families had turned penniless and needed a woman to perform chores (119-20).

Turning to Bengal – the land of intellectuals famed for their progressive stance – we find that these women did not fare much better. Records reveal that the recovery operation in this part had not been as extensive as the north-western sector of the country, chiefly due to the ideological position of Phulrenu Guha, who considered it as self-defeating. According to her, it resulted in these women getting dislocated from their abodes which they had, willingly or otherwise, accepted during the Partition disturbances. Many who were sent to their homes in accordance with religious affiliation suffered the ills of this restitution process in the long run. Their misery is poignantly depicted by Ramapada Choudhuri in two of his short stories, both with comparable plot-lines. “Embrace” [“Angapali” in the Bengali original] evokes the anguish of Sabita, a young woman, who had been abducted in eastern Bengal like many other Hindu girls. When eventually sent to West Bengal by the Recovery Commission after one and a half years, she is already saddled with an eight-month old son, the reason why she initially did not show any interest in returning to her conservative family. Her surviving family members do not summarily reject her, but the child continues to be a sore point. It reminds of the segregation encountered by Sutara in Jyotirmoyee Devi’s well-known Bengali novel, Epar Ganga Opar Ganga. During the 1946 Noakhali riots, when her family members were wiped out, she had to take shelter at her Muslim neighbour Tamijuddin’s residence. As a result, most of her extended family in Calcutta heaped disdain on her and kept her isolated from ceremonies and functions for years. Choudhuri’s other story, “The Stricken Daughter” [“Karunkanya” in the Bengali original], takes this issue to its extreme where the recovered woman, Arundhuti, unable to find social acceptance in West Bengal on account of her child of violence, returns to her abductor again.

In some instances, particularly in north-western sectors where bellicosity is a marked social feature, women came to grim ends when the men who had abducted them resented their being thus taken away. Duggal’s short story, “Clay of the Muslim” [“Mitti Musalman ki” in the Punjabi original], presents one such case where Rukko, a Hindu girl from Pothoar village, who had been converted to become Rabia Khatoon and got married to Mohammedu during Partition riots, came to grief on this account. When she, unlike Rakhi, expresses her intention to accompany her brother, Beera, who has come looking for her from India, her husband, incensed with this eventuality, fires three bullets into her chest. Moreover, even after being rescued, there was no surety that these women could feel safe, as some of them became subjects of sexual abuse. “Dunghills” [“Gobar ke Dher” in the Urdu original] by Mumtaz Mufti is the tale of a young woman Sarwari who, after riots, was left in a camp and had to become the ‘kept’ of an old soldier there.

Therefore, we find that the Recovery Commission was only partly successful in restoring these women to the secure folds of their family and friends. The texts discussed herein represent the manifold sufferings of women, and attempt to convey their insecurities, dilemmas, and agonies during and after the Partition upheaval. When women writers like Hashmi take up this theme, it naturally lends an added nuance to their handling of the subject. These narratives dwell on the multifarious impact of this debacle on the body, mind, and soul of womenfolk, while simultaneously putting the associated societal mores under scrutiny. In this connection, Robert J. C. Young’s reading of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” bears relevance, where he deduces that a woman is “assigned no position of enunciation [and therefore] everyone else speaks for her” (qtd. in McLeod 19). Owing to the prejudices ingrained in our society, the plight of these displaced women has remained an abiding motif in Partition literature, as also in the subcontinent’s chequered history. 

Works Cited
Basu, Aparna. “Uprooted Women: Partition of Punjab, 1947.” Tan and Kudaisya 2:17-31.

Bedi, Rajinder Singh. “Lajwanti.” Cowasjee and Duggal 67-78.

Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Viking, 1998.

Choudhuri, Ramapada. “Embrace.” Fraser 339-44.

– – – .     “The Stricken Daughter.” Fraser 323-38.

Cowasjee, Saros, and K. S. Duggal, eds. Orphans of the Storm: Stories on the Partition of India. New Delhi: UBS, 1995.     

Das, Veena. “National Honour and Practical Kinship: Of Unwanted Women and Children.” Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995. 55-83.

Devi, Jyotirmoyee. Epar Bangla Opar Bangla. 1968. [Bengali]. The River Churning. Trans. Enakshi Chatterjee. New Delhi: Kali, 1995.  

Duggal, K. S. Nau Te Maas. [Punjabi] Delhi: Attar Chand Kapur & Sons, 1951. Twice Born Twice Dead. Trans. Jamal Ara. New Delhi: Vikas, 1979.

– – -.     “Clay of the Muslim.” Abducted Not and Other Stories of Partition Holocaust. New Delhi: UBSPD, 2007. 167-73.

– – -.     “Pakistan Zindabad.” Cowasjee and Duggal 98-103.

Fraser, Bashabi, ed. Bengal Partition Stories: An Unclosed Chapter. London: Anthem, 2008.

Hasan, Mushirul, ed. India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom. 2 vols. Delhi: Roli, 1995.

Hashimi, Jamila. “Banished.” An Epic Unwritten: The Penguin Book of Partition Stories from Urdu. Ed. and trans. Muhammad Umar Memon. New Delhi: Penguin, 1998. 87-105.

Kidwai, Anis. Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein. [Urdu]. 1947. In Freedom’s Shade. Trans. Ayesha Kidwai. New Delhi: Penguin: 2011

Major, Andrew J. “The Chief Sufferers: Abduction of Women during the Partition of the Punjab.” Tan and Kudaisya 2: 32-47.

Manto, Sa’adat Hasan. “Xuda Ki Qasam.” Cowasjee and Duggal 165-70.

McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. New Delhi: Viva, 2011.

Mufti, Mumtaz. “The Dunghills.” Hasan 1: 200-24.

Patel, Kamlabehn. “Oranges and Apples.” Hasan 2: 113-23.

Tan, Tai Yong, and Gyanesh Kudaisya, eds. Partition and Post-Colonial South Asia: A Reader. 3 vols. London: Routledge (Taylor and Francis), 2006.

Virk, Kulwant Singh. “Weeds.” Stories about the Partition of India. Ed. Alok Bhalla. 3 vols. Rpt. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1999. 1:240-47.

Dr. Debasri Basu, Assistant Professor in West Bengal Education Service, is currently teaching at the Post-Graduate Department of English, Maulana Azad College, Kolkata, India. Her doctoral research on the topic of Partition Literature in the context of the Indian subcontinent was completed under the mentorship of Professor Dr. Jharna Sanyal, Department of English, University of Calcutta. In addition, she has an avid interest in British Literature of the eighteenth century, miscellaneous Indian Writings in English, Bengali, Hindi, and English Translation, as well as Resistance Literature and Popular Culture.


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

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