Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Critical Analysis of the Category of the ‘Refugee-Woman’ in post-Partition Studies

Pallavi Chakravarty Ghoshal
(Pallavi teaches history at Ambedkar University, and can be reached at

Nearly a decade ago Gargi Chakravartty coined a new term in the historiography of partition studies in India—the ‘Refugee woman’. Before this intervention Urvashi Butalia, made a pioneering breakthrough in bringing out the voices of the women who had suffered the trauma of partition and who had for long been neglected in the study of independence and partition of the subcontinent. Partition history had till then been a study of ‘high-politics’ alone, neglecting what is now seen as the ‘human dimension’ of this greatest human tragedy experienced in the Indian subcontinent. Scholars like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, Gargi Chakravartty and Veena Das altered the course of partition historiography in India by introducing a gendered analysis of this traumatic episode in the subcontinent’s history.

 This article discusses the two images perceived of the post-partition refugee-woman in the Indian subcontinent: that of the victim, and that of the one who survived it all. Finally, I critically assess such perceptions regarding the refugee-woman, by raising the following questions: how did she perceive these roles assigned to her by the exigencies of the situation? Was she a willing participant to these roles or did she simply take these roles upon herself based on the dictates of the family, society, and nation?

The Refugee-woman as the Victim:

Women were abducted, forcibly converted to the other religion, raped, and killed by the men of the ‘other’ community in the name of religion, as a message to the rival community. As noted by Urvashi Butalia, such an assault upon the body of the woman, was not an attack upon the woman alone, rather it was an attack upon the family, community, and nation of the woman. Thus, the body of the woman did not belong just to her, but it epitomised the trinity of family, community, and nation.
 However, the violence did not just end there, as the erstwhile protectors of the woman, now became her tormentors as well. The notion of honour diluted all notions of love and belonging, as now fathers, brothers, husbands, took upon themselves the responsibility of preventing the defiling of family honour and killed their own daughters, sisters, and wives, to save this ‘honour’ of the family, community, and nation. It is this very skewed notion of honour, that brought feelings of sorrow or anger instead of joy and relief upon a family when their daughter was returned to them by the efforts of a government-sponsored recovery and restoration project undertaken for abducted persons (children below the age of 14 and women of all ages). It is this very notion of honour which makes the Punjabi Hindu refugee proudly narrate stories of how the brave women of Punjab, of their families, ‘chose’ death over abduction/rape/forcible conversion to Islam, while, despite much prodding, they remain silent or feign ignorance about the women who survived this torment, deep within some also felt why did these ‘shameless’ women not die? Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti and Amrita Pritam’s Puro, in different ways, epitomise these silent voices of the woman who were ‘restored’ and yet not accepted within their own family and home.
In Bengal, women were victims of not only direct violence but also subtle and discreet forms of violence. Any memoir of the Bengali bhadramahila during these troubled times would show how the routine violence was even more difficult to bear than the experience of direct violence. A first-hand account of this omnipresent fear in the minds of the Hindu women can be observed in Nalini Mitra’s statements: ‘It became increasingly difficult for me to pass through a locality infested (sic) by Bihari Muslims on my way to college.’ But it was only when in the workplace too, she heard obscene remarks being directed towards her, that she realised it was time to leave—‘At that instant I realised that it would no longer be possible to stay in my beloved motherland. How could one live in such a filthy environment?’[1]
The Refugee-woman as a Survivor:

This was the new image of the refugee woman which recent scholarship has unearthed, and this comes from a use of non-conventional sources and a re-reading of the conventional archive. However, it was not an altogether unexplored area as Bengali literary works and cinema had brought this aspect to light in the 1960’s itself. At a time, when narratives of gruesome and inconceivable violence from the west was dominating all popular memory in the works of Sadat Hasan Manto, Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star), a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru, later brilliantly translated into a cult partition movie by the same name by Ritwik Ghatak, started bringing a change of perspective vis-a-vis partition and the refugee-women. It is this film which set scholars to find the many lost Nitas (the protagonist in the film: a refugee-woman who becomes the sole breadwinner of the family in post-partition Calcutta and in the process gives up her own desires and ultimately dies in the end). Hereafter, many such narratives of women giving up their own personal wishes, and becoming the sole breadwinners of the family started pouring out. Manikuntala Sen, in her memoir, notes that it was the women from East Bengal who taught the women of West Bengal to get educated and employed.[2] A survey conducted by the Directorate of National Employment Service, West Bengal, shows that in the post-partition period there was an increase in the demand for employment among women.[3]Similar narratives of the refugee woman from West Pakistan also started coming up.        

The Problem:

However, was it always a happy story of women empowerment at the end of a traumatic experience? Did these women ‘choose’ this life? Did it bring them the empowerment which is often assumed in these narratives? Was partition truly that violent break which set women upon a different path of their own? These are some questions one wonders when talking of this refugee-woman who became the sole earning member of the family.
 Meghe Dhaka Tara, the novel as well as the film, do not conceal the fact that Nita had a few desires of her own—be it higher education, marriage, motherhood, and perhaps something as basic as slippers for her feet or to visit the mountains, however with her father getting incapacitated, brothers not earning enough, she took upon herself to sacrifice all her wants and keep the family alive with her earnings. But the final scene in the movie, makes us ponder whether at all she wanted to make all such sacrifices or not—‘Dada, ami bachte chai!’ [ Dada, I want to live][4]
         Not all such narratives ended on a sad note, Bithi Chakravarti, would be a case in point. Like Nita, she too, was the sole breadwinner in the family and kept refusing marriage till her family had become financially stable. Unlike Nita, her partner waited for her and eventually they did marry.[5] But did she go back to work after marriage? This has not been explored.
Asok Mitra problematises this idea of the woman’s ‘choice’ i.e. her willingness to take up the entire burden of the family upon herself, most poignantly in the following words—‘She has nothing to look forward to, she has nothing to plan for, except the short term arithmetic of how much to try to borrow from which neighbour or school colleague… [brothers would waste away the money earned by her in expensive restaurants, but she could not] for she was the leading earner in the family, and the entire salary she meticulously hands over to her mother. Nobody cares to ask how many saris she has…There is no question of marriage… you need a minimal glow of health even for divertissements like that. This Bengali girl is nobody’s desire… she has nothing to look forward to, spinsterdom, give or take a few years, is going to set in early…’[6]
An Annual Report of the Ministry of Rehabilitation mentions that marriage was the ultimate means of rehabilitating the ‘unattached displaced women’. One may also note that under the Government of India schemes, it was the family which was a unit of rehabilitation, not the individual. And families were further divided into those headed by the ‘able-bodied males’ those which were headed by ‘women’. The latter came under various categories of permanent liability and were taken care of in the permanent liability camps. If at all there was an individual unit for rehabilitation it was that of the ‘unattached woman’. Such women were sent to Women’s Homes, but hereto, the final solution to their rehabilitation was considered to be marriage. Thus, the patriarchal notion of state as protector was not betrayed even in the times of grave trauma and travail for the refugees.
Apart from the problem of choice and gendered notion in the scheme of rehabilitation, let us look at the issue of victimhood. We may ask can the question of survival be completely divorced from that of victimhood? This woman had been inflicted by the scars of partition violence and the misery of displacement. But her story of victimhood did not just end there as being a woman she became the most vulnerable victim of sexual abuse even after crossing over to what was being considered as safety in the new homeland. Beginning from the lack of private space in the cramped tents in the refugee camps to entering the flesh trade (willingly or being duped into it), the refugee woman became an easy prey even in these times which should have reflected more sensitivity from the public and the state. The workplace, too, was not free from harassment of various kinds: going to work itself was often accompanied by derisive looks or comments from men directed not just to these women, but also to the men of her family, who had allowed such a role reversal to take place.  
Of course, there are narratives of those women as well who found freedom in this whole traumatic experience of partition violence and displacement. For many, it was the first time that they had stepped out of the home and that they were earning for their families.
On the other hand, there is a class question involved as well in this glorification of ‘triumph’ after ‘trauma’. Women from the rural background and lower income groups had always been working to supplement the meagre family income. For them this toil was not a new found enterprise, rather, it was business as usual for them. They had even previously toiled in the farms, or worked as domestic help in pre-partition times. Their stories go unheard and unwritten. Even Rameshwari Nehru, the head of the Women’s Section (a special Board set up by the Government of India to look into the matters of the refugee-women) commented that it was easier to resettle the women from rural backgrounds or those who were not so educated as they were easily absorbed in the agrarian work or as domestic helps in the urban areas, it was the educated middle class women which were difficult to rehabilitate as it was difficult to find ‘suitable’ jobs for them.[7]
Further marginal to this narrative of victimhood and survival are the women from the lower castes. The story of rehabilitation of refugees is essentially that of the middle-class and upper caste refugees. Very little research has been done on the rehabilitation of the refugees belonging to the lower castes, and among them much less is known about the refugee-women of this caste.
To conclude, this article has tried to present how the category of ‘refugee-woman’ has been perceived in recent scholarship. I have also pointed out to the strengths and weaknesses of such an analysis and suggested further areas of research on this theme. The idea is to suggest that while research on this new category of the refugee-woman has certainly enriched our understanding of partition, it has also made a very significant contribution to gender studies and further opens up a greater avenue for studying the history of the oppressed in a new light.

[1] Nalini Mitra (Director of the Refugee Rehabilitation Department of the West Bengal Government) interviewed by the research team, School of Women Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in Seminar, 510, Interviews.
[2] Manikuntala Sen, In Search of Freedom: An Unfinished Journey, Kolkata, 2001.
[3] ‘Employment among Women in West Bengal’ Directorate of National Employment Service, West Bengal, November 1958.
[4] Nita develops tuberculosis and is sent to the sanatorium, she is aware that she cannot live long and it is a final outburst from her where she expresses this desire to live.
[5] See Bithi Chakravarty interview in Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta (Eds), Kolkata, 2003, pp.150-154.
[6] Asok Mitra, ‘Take a Girl Like Her’ in Calcutta Diary, London, 1977, pp.16-20.
[7] From Rameshwari Nehru Files, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi.

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