Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Displaced People, Especially Women (Guha Chapter 5)

(Part four in an ongoing series dedicated to Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's post can be found here. Next week we will look at chapter six, on the Constituent Assembly and the writing of India's constitution. )

There are lots of interesting bits in Guha's fifth chapter, on the resettlement of refugees scattered across India after Partition. The part I will focus on in particular is the status of women who were abducted, forcibly married, and then forcibly returned to their families. But to begin with, here are some general facts on the displaced people who ended up in India:

  • Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees in Punjab were temporarily housed in camps. The largest of these was at Kurukshetra, where there were some 300,000 refugees. Over time, a major land redistribution effort was initiated, so that farmers who had been displaced from land in Pakistan were granted land in India. More than 500,000 claims were processed through this effort. (According to Guha, the effort worked, by and large; withing a few years, many displaced Punjabis from farming villages were back at work on new lands.)

  • Nearly 500,000 refugees ended up in Delhi, fundamentally changing the character of the city. Some settled in outer districts like Faridabad, while others were given land immediately to the south and west of New Delhi. Many of Delhi's new residents thrived in trade, and came to hold a "commanding influence" over the economic life of the city.

  • About 500,000 refugees also ended up in Bombay, including a large number of Sindhis. Here resettlement did not go as well, and Guha states that 1 million people were sleeping in the streets (even in the early 1950s).

  • 400,000 refugees came into West Bengal during and immediately after the Partition, but another 1.7 million Hindus left East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) following communal riots there in 1949-50. At least 200,000 ended up in desperate straits in "squatter colonies" in Calcutta, where the refugees effectively overwhelmed the city. Conditions here were much worse than they were in Delhi or in the resettlement camps in the Punjab. The government may have been slow to respond because it presumed that many of the refugees would be returning -- and that communal feelings in Bengal were not quite as bad as they were in Punjab. (A mistaken presumption, Guha suggests.)

Those are some of the general facts Guha gives us. What stands out to me is how effective the new Indian government was, on the whole, in responding to the mass influx of people. There were failures -- and again, Guha singles out West Bengal as the worst -- but if you think about the numbers involved, it's astonishing that the process was as orderly as it was. Hundreds of thousands of displaced families were allotted land through a rationalized, transparent process oriented to ensuring their survival. And food relief and temporary shelter was provided to thousands more (not without international help).

However, one area where the state really did fail -- astoundingly -- is with women who had been abducted, converted, and forcibly married in the Partition. Guha's account here is quite thin, so I'm supplementing what he says with material from Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin's book, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition.

The abductions happened on both sides, and both India and Pakistan agreed to cooperate in the effort to restore abducted women to their families. Here are some of the numbers, from Menon and Bhasin's book:

The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan. Although Gopalaswami Ayyangar (minister of Transport in charge of Recovery) called this figures 'rather wild,' Mridula Sarabhai believed that the number of abducted women in Pakistan was ten times the 1948 official figure of 12,500. Till December 1949, the number of recoveries in both countries was 12,552 for India and 6,272 for Pakistan. The maximum number of recoveries wre made from Punjab, followed by Jammu and Kashmir and Patiala. (from Menon and Bhasin)

In 1949, Indian Parliament passed a rather bizarre law called the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Bill, which gave the government virtually unlimited power to remove abducted women in India from their new homes, and transport them to Pakistan. The government could use force against abducting families, and it could also hold abducted women in camps if needed.

The problem with this process is that nothing in the law, or the major humanitarian effort that followed, was oriented to ascertaining the will of the women themselves. While some were in fact eager to rejoin their families, quite a number (no one knows exactly how many) were not at all eager to return. The biggest reason is of course the sense of anxiety and shame about being marked as "fallen women" -- they weren't at all convinced that they would be accepted by their families. Other times, the women had had children by their new husbands, and were at least resigned (if not happy) with their new lives. (Nothing in the law passed by Parliament dealt with the situation of women who had had children, nor was the final status of children born of these marriages determined by the Bill.)

But there were other reasons not to return as well. Menon and Bhasin have a fascinating account from Kamlaben Patel, a social worker working with abducted women for the Indian government. She was stationed in Lahore between 1947 and 1952, and worked on a number of cases. She became personally involved with one particular young woman, and Menon and Bhasin give us the story in her own words:

I have written about a case where the parents thought it was alright to sacrifice the life of a young girl in order to save a whole family. And when we were arguing about her recovery then the father said, this is our girl, and the girl denied it because she was terribly hurt by their behaviour. She said, 'I don't want to go back. I have married of my own free will, I don't want anything from my parents.' When she refused to return, it became very awkward. She was in the home of a police inspector. We felt that if we have found an abducted woman in the house of a police inspector, then how can we expect the police to do any recovering? That is why we had to bring her back.

After interviewing the woman, Kamlaben found out why she was so adamant:

That girl kept saying that she didn't want to go to her parents, she wouldn't budge an inch. After two or three days she broke down, she told us that her parents had been told by the police inspector, 'If you leave your daughter, gold and land with me, I will escort you all to the cantonment in India.' That man was already married, had children. He had told her father, you give me this girl in exchange for escorting you all to an Indian cantonment. Then her father gave him his daughter, 30 tolas of gold and his house. One night I called the girl to my bedside and said, if you want to go back (to the inspector) then I will send you. If you don't want to go back to your parents, don't go, but please tell me why.'

What happened in the end: the young woman said she didn't want to go back to the police inspector (in Pakistan), but she also refused to go back to her parents. Acting beyond the call of duty (and beyond the mandate given her by Mridula Sarabhai), Kamlaben was able to arrange a marriage for the woman to a displaced young man living in Amritsar. She later had a child, and came to thank Kamlaben personally for her efforts. (At the same time, Kamlaben was castigated by Mridula Sarabhai for getting too personally involved.)

For me this story illustrates some of the basic problems in the government's "recovery" effort, though it also suggests how individuals can sometimes intervene to try and respond to the particularities of individual cases, and more importantly, the will of individual women affected by the Partition.

Menon and Bhasin don't suggest that the recovery effort that was undertaken shouldn't have happened. Rather, they point out that the way it was done was flawed -- it was, in effect, an arrangement between the men ruling the two new countries, carried out to protect national (and familial) "honor," rather than to ensure the best possible result for the affected women. Though the goal was to rectify a wrong, one could argue that it in some ways continued the patriarchal mentality that led to the atrocities against women in the Partition in the first place.

I should point out that most of the stories about women abducted in the Partition do not end as happily as the one above. Many "recovered" women committed suicide, while others ended up as prostitutes. But there are many, many stories, which you'll find recounted in books like Borders and Boundaries as well as Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence. Amrita Pritam also wrote about this in her novella Pinjar, which was made into what I thought was a decent Hindi film a few years ago.

What comes up again and again in these stories is the failure of the government's blanket policy to address the particular experiences of women who had been abducted. On the other hand, it might not be the government's problem entirely: in the late 1940s neither Indian nor Pakistani society was really set up to accommodate women who had been so brutally alienated from their families and communities. What these women really needed, perhaps more than anything, was the ability to determine their own fates, to be enabled to become independent, both socially and financially. But it appears that that, which is to say, freedom, simply wasn't an imaginable conclusion in the vast majority of the cases.

Labels: , ,


musical said...

My Grandmother always said, "The worst sufferers in any war are women!". She, like countless more people, took that painful journey during partition.

3:32 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home