Gender and violence during and after India/Pakistan Partition 1947

In a recent post, I made reference to a fascinating and very informative BBC documentary that deals with the final days of British rule on the Indian subcontinent and the eventual partition of that territory in 1947 into a Muslim-dominated Pakistan (east and west) and a Hindu-dominated India.  In part four of the documentary an elderly Sikh gentleman from the Punjab region tells the harrowing tale of how his female relatives were the victims of brutal violence. Many scholars have argued that the ethnicization of the violence that accompanied the Partition obscure the fact that women bore the brunt of the violence.  In a recent paper, Richard Lee writes about the gendered nature of the violence:

Women were arguably the worst victims of the Partition of India in 1947 and endured displacement, violence, abduction, prostitution, mutilation, and rape. However, on reading histories of the division of India, one finds that the life-stories of women are often elided, and that there is an unwillingness to address the atrocities of 1947. This reticence results partly from the desires of the Indian and Pakistani governments to portray the events as freak occurrences with no place in their modern nations. Literature can play an important role in interrupting state-managed histories, and ‘The Rebirth of Inherited Memories’ focuses upon the manner in which Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers (2001) unsettles official versions of Partition. It examines how the novel acts as a counterpoint to ‘national’ accounts of 1947 through its depiction of the gendered nature of much of the violence, and it explores Baldwin’s representation of the elusive concept of ‘body memory’. The possibility of remembrances being passed on physically, or born within people, has found support in the eschatologies of Eastern religions, in Western psychological theories, and in recent scientific investigations into the ‘mind-body’ problem. The transmission of ‘body memories’ between generations serves to disrupt accounts that downplay the brutalities at the splitting of India. This paper draws upon a chapter of my doctoral thesis that investigates issues of memory and the enduring influence of Partition in South Asia.

The Partition of India in 1947

The importance of international borders can not be overstated. Despite predictions that the combined forces of globalization would undermine the importance and political meaning of borders, the territorially-defined state remains the world’s predominant form of political organization. As multi-national empires/states collapse, much of the violence that ensues is the result of efforts to draw and redraw what had once been internal borders. Here is a fascinating documentary about the partition of the Indian sub-continent, into India and Pakistan. The narrator observes:

As a British barrister draws a line on a map, the once peaceful land implodes. People are forced out of the villages they have lived in for generations. Fifteen million scramble to be on the right side of the border. At least one million die in the process.