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Partition and Nationalism through the Perspective of the Sex-workers in Srijit Mukherji’s ‘Rajkahini’ (2015)

By Priti Mandal

The issue of partition is intimately connected with the idea of nationalism. Nationalism entangled with the religious issues led to the events of Partition between India and Pakistan. In the context of the Partition, the present paper attempts to raise the following questions: What does the notion of nationalism denote? How were the notions of Indian nation and nationalism formed? What does a democratic form of governance mean in the Indian context? What does democracy actually mean in practice? How does the historical-political event affect the everyday lives of ordinary people? This paper attempts to analyse these aspects through the perspective of the sex-workers in Srijit Mukherji’s film, Rajkahini.

In discussing postcolonial theory and the concepts of ‘nations and nationalism’, Pramod K. Nayar argues that “the anti-colonial movement, in most cases, posited the idea of a nation with a continuous and common tradition. In India, for example, even the uneven ‘rebellion’ of 1857 invoked the idea of a pre-British ‘Hindustan’” (175). This anti-colonial nationalism defined the nation as democratic, secular and egalitarian. In his lecture, “Two Concepts of Nationalism”, Prabhat Patnaik posits two types of nationalism. He states that in the countries like “India where nationalism developed as a part of the anti-colonial struggle, it had to be inclusive because it was taking on the might of an imperial power” (233). Unlike European nationalism, he says, it prioritises people over nation. In the concept of nationalism, there are certain ideologies that bind the members of the nation together. But is there an invisible set of determinants which constructs the ideologies of Indian nationalism? We consider our nation in the images of Bharat Mata (Mother India), Matri Bhumi (Motherland) or in the image of a feminized figure. Is there any hidden knot tied to the nationalist ideologies and the projection of Indian nation in terms of femininity? One of the dominant ideologies incorporating the sense of Indian nationalism is the patriarchal ideology where women get sanctified as Bharat Mata (Mother India). And except for the role of biological reproducers of the members of its nation, they no longer have any roles to play in this frame of nation and nationalism. It is very clear that women have been on the fringes of the nation as a minor group throughout the ages in different ways. To be more specific, what about the role of those women in this notion of nationalism who earn their living by sex-trade? How can the sex-workers, who are even left out of the thought of the familial values and tradition of the Indian society, be a part of the Indian nation? Though the concept of Indian nationalism is integrated with the idea of collective unity and collective development, has it ever been able to include in it women and especially the sex-workers in order to imagine the collective development of all the people in India? In the frame of Indian nationalism, the women are left excluded through their sanctification which often puts them on a pedestal as the embodiment of mother India. The sex-workers are excluded through the social stigma imposed by the patriarchal society which puts them on the margin. In totality, women are considered to be either above the nation or below the nation but not within the nation. It is the patriarchal ideology which decides when women are to be protected like a divine figure or mata and when they are to be stigmatised as the sex-workers. In this paper, I would like to deal with the issues of exclusion of women in general and sex-workers in particular from the framework of Indian nationalism. It also covers the question of feminine identity which is shaped under different democratic social forces and reflects on how the historical-political event of Partition affects the everyday lives of ordinary people.

The film Rajkahini projects the lives, experiences, reactions of the suppressed voices like sex-workers and other women in the context of the historical event of Partition and creation of two independent nations – India and Pakistan. Throughout the film we can see how the sex-workers and women feel detached from the mainstream of nation as they are treated as mere objects by the police, the representatives of the two nations, and by other men. These sex-workers are never considered to be important enough in the scheme of the nation. They are merely considered as barriers to the creation of two separate nations.

Indian nationalism prioritises male views, ideologies, actions, where men are considered to be the protector of Bharat Mata and women are considered to be in need of protection. Here the beginning of the film is very crucial. On one hand, we have a demonstration of flag-hoisting at the Indo-Pak border, accompanied by celebrations, cheers and the noise of appreciation for the independent nation, in the form of slogans such as ‘Hindustan Zindabaad’. On the other side, there is a projection of a young woman, Fatema, who suffers from physical violence and mental trauma as she has been raped violently by a group of men. When she appears in the scene we see her lying in bed almost frozen with her traumatic experiences. In this context, the outside slogans like “Hindustan Zindabaad” is very ironical and significant enough to assert the patriarchal notion that men in the form of military will be the protector of Hindustan and women like Fatema in need of protection like its nation. It is also ironical that women need to be protected by men against the violence caused by men. The narratives of Kusum, Razia, and the wife of the representative of Muslim League also project the same kind of violence on women following Partition. The making of two different independent nations through Partition only leads to the partition of women’s mind, body and soul and the loss of identity, subjectivity, individuality and freedom.

Beside the narratives of general women, there are narratives of the sex-workers who live in a kothabari, a brothel which is at the outskirt of the society detached from mainstream of life, situated between Haldibari and Deviganj town. Begumjaan is the leader and head of the other sex-workers like Sabnam, Jui, Gulab, Lata, Rubina and many more, who live together with her. Though they are neglected, deprived, and rejected by family, society, state and nation, they seem to live in harmony with their own sense of freedom, individuality in their self-contained universe, i.e. kothabari. Though the sex-workers belong to different caste, religions, cultural and political background and had arrived at the kotha at different times, they share their identity only in terms of their bodily existence as they are called prostitutes. While the different signifiers like caste, class, gender, religion and race mark our identity – here specifically the feminine identity and position in the patriarchal society – the sex-workers hold their feminine individuality only through their bodily existence and in a way keep themselves apart from the patriarchal structure. Though there is male intervention, they create their own world of feminine ideologies and values through their strategic way of living. That is why when their own world, i.e. kothabari, comes under the threat of demolition during Partition, the sex-workers turn into extreme revolutionaries to save their own ‘nation’ (kothabari). It again asserts the fact that the concept of nation is imaginary where the sense of personal belonging is more real and essential which is also reflected in Begumjaan’s retort: “I don’t care who decides what sitting in Delhi. I just know one thing, this house, this nook and corner, this ‘country’ have been ours for years. If anyone tries to demolish the house, I will partition his hand, leg and body” (my translation).

Though the sex-workers still have the urge for rehabilitation, they are not accepted by the patriarchal babu (genteel) society. There always remains the question of their acceptance in the frame of any nation, which flows like an undercurrent in their lives. When the news of India’s Independence is broadcasted on radio, leading other sex-workers to celebrate with fireworks, Begumjaan slaps one of them and says: “Who will accept you, India or Pakistan? You will have to live like a bitch all through your life” (my translation). When a babu talks about the Independence of the country, Begumjaan reacts: “The country of Hindu, the country of Muslim and the country of British is the country of men, the patriarch. If you have guts, accept and marry one of my girls” (my translation). As Begumjaan states that the babus can only use the sex-workers to satisfy their own sexual desires, but don’t have guts to marry one of them, the socio-normative ideology of marriage in the lives of the sex-workers also brought under question. In the film, Golab, a sex-worker wants to lead a married life with her master, but the master says: “Prostitutes could only have babus but not a husband” (my translation). Thus, the sex-workers remain excluded from the frame of nation and its ideologies as well.

If we consider Begumjaan’s life story, we can see how the men’s world ultimately leads her to the field of sex-trade as the only way to survive in the patriarchal nation. After becoming a widow at an early age, she was sold to a man, who took her to Lucknow, where she became baiji and finally came back to her motherland, Deviganj, as a sex-worker. Other lower caste sex-workers like Duli and Koli joined sex-trade to escape torture and exploitation of the patriarchal world. It is the men’s world which forced young women to be sex-workers.

Indian nationalism, which prioritises people above the nation, unravels differently in case of the sex-workers, as the focus is shifted from people to the nation when the representatives of National Congress and Muslim League consider the sex-workers as merely a barrier to the formation of two separate nations. As the sex-workers are a minor voice in the democratic country, they remain ‘outsiders’. To the power holders, it is not important enough to consider whether the sex-workers survive in the new nations or not; the nations must be formed and survive. The representative of the National Congress interprets the demolition of the kotha as a matter of public interest: “in order to save majority of the people, some people have to be sacrificed just as the goats are sacrificed on the day of Muslim rituals” (my translation). The word ‘all’ unfurls the hidden majoritarian idea of India. In Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, David Miller writes, “the picture of representative democracy is sometimes called pluralism, and it rests on the assumption that people will be moved to form groups to defend their strongly-felt interests and preferences, and that decision-makers will respond to the activities of such groups, which besides lobbying might involve demonstrating or even perhaps engaging in illegal forms of protest” (45). This whole idea is perfectly projected in the national representatives’ illegal and violent forms of protest against the sex-workers in order to remove them from their dwelling place. The sex-workers, among other people in the nation, considered as mere ‘scapegoats’, have to be sacrificed for the well-being of the ‘majority’ of the people.

When the sex-workers’ protest against the demolition of their ‘nation’ (kothabari) takes an extreme form and Begumjaan orders all the sex-workers to leave the house, a lower-caste sex-worker responds: “Being a woman you don’t know! In this nation, whether you are a queen or a prostitute, all things go under the control of men. Where to go? Will our family members accept us? No, they wouldn’t. The men of the village will use us to satisfy their sexual desire at night but in the clear light of the day they will treat us as mere untouchables” (my translation). Wherever they go, they are bound to be excluded and treated as untouchable prostitutes, as no family, no society, no state, no nation is likely to accept them as a human being. Whether it is the nation ruled by a king or an independent nation ruled by a democratic government, Begumjaan knows that things will remain the same for them. The sex-workers’ sacrifice of their lives into the burning fire again highlights the question of their acceptance and proper inclusion in any nation. And due to the insecurity, rather the threat, that if they enter the men’s world, men will tear apart their bodies like animals and leave them to lead life as untouchables, they choose to die. The story of Padmini, narrated by Thamma (grandmother) at the end, is also significant enough where Padmini along with other women had to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of the men. Likewise, the sex-workers in the independent nation are forced to sacrifice their lives for the formation of two separate nations of men, where they will continue to rule with patriarchal ideologies.

In the contemporary times, the sex-workers still remain on the fringes of the nation as a minor and silenced group. They exist only as sexual objects to satisfy men’s sexual desire. The sex-workers still wait for recognition and proper inclusion as human beings in the framework of the Indian nation. They don’t have their voice and any role in the historiography of Indian nation and nationalism as well.

Rajkahini portrays the historical and political events of Partition through personal and minor narratives. The film shows how the political events of Partition affect the lives of ordinary people and also unfurls the hidden structure and politics of nationalism. While the Indian nation is formed as a democratic republic, inclusive on the basis of equal rights for all the people, it foregrounds the majoritarian voices of men. The minor voices of women and more specifically those of the sex-workers are left on the fringes of its frame. Rather, their voices are ‘inclusively excluded’ through different strategic ideologies of patriarchy.

*All the translated quotations are from the film, Rajkahini.


Miller, David. Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford U P, 2003.

Nayar, Promod K. “Postcolonial Theory.” Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: from Structuralism to Ecocriticism, Pearson, 2010, pp. 153-182.

Patnaik, Prabhat. “Two Concepts of Nationalism.” What the Nation Really Needs to Know: the JNU Nationalism Lectures, edited by Rohit Azad, Janaki Nair, Mohinder Singh and Mallarika Sinha Roy, Harper Collins Publishers, 2016, pp. 230-241.

Rajkahini. Directed by Srijit Mukherji, produced by Shrikant Mohta, 2015.

Priti Mandal completed her Masters in English from Gour Banga University. At present, she is an M.Phil. Scholar in English at Visva-Bharati University and is working on the Ao-Naga tribe of Nagaland in the writings of Temsula Ao.


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

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