On 3rd June 1947, the last Viceroy of British India, Lord Mountbatten, announced the Partition of India into two independent nations on religious lines triggering a gruesome cycle of violent upheavals and absolute horror for millions of people. It led to one of the largest displacements in human history as millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs migrated over to either Pakistan or India.
The Partition of India is incessantly discussed with respect to its socio-political implications only. Gandhi, Jinnah, the two-nation theory along with its bloody legacy are the only emphasis. These are served with rough statistics on the number of people displaced, killed, brutalised, or abducted.
However, we frequently overlook accounts of genuine tragedies that were inflicted upon millions of people who turned into refugees almost overnight, fleeing across borders with barely their own lives. Nevertheless, it was women who faced a terrible predicament during this time. Many of them got “fortunate” since they did not reach the enemy hands but were killed by their family members or killed themselves to “protect” the honour of their community. There is a legion of such horrific stories on both sides of the border which reflects the deep-rooted patriarchal mindset of Indian society where women are treated as mere objects of honour. A small village of Thoa Khalsa near Rawalpindi in Pakistan has such a painful story to tell.
The tragedy of Thoa Khalsa
...About a month ago, a communal army armed with sticks, tommy guns and hand grenades surrounded the village. The villagers defended themselves as best they could... but in the end, they had to raise the white flag. Negotiations followed. A sum of Rs 10,000 was demanded... it was promptly paid. The intruders gave solemn assurance that they would not come back.
The promise was broken the next day. They returned to demand more money and in the process hacked to death 40 of the defenders. Heavily outnumbered, they were unable to resist the onslaught. Their women held a hurried meeting and concluded that all was lost but their honour. Ninety women jumped into the small well. Only three were saved-there was not enough water in the well to draw them all.
The gruesome incident mentioned in The Statesman report of 15th March 1947 expounds what happened in Thoa Khalsa. These women took their own lives in a desperate attempt to protect the honour of their family and community, to escape abduction, rape, and religious conversion. They chose death over all these possible dreadful consequences.
This mass suicide by almost ninety women is perceived as an act of bravery on the part of Sikh women who “sacrificed” their own lives to preserve the honour of their community. The survivors of the partition kept the story of the sacrifice of their sisters in their memory and celebrated it. Pamphlets were distributed glorifying their sacrifice, gurudwaras had special remembrance rituals on their memory. In Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India, Historian Gyanendra Pandey, provides one of such pamphlets distributed by the Sikh community in July 1947.
THE DEATH-DEFYING SISTERS OF RAWALPINDI –THE PRIDE OF POTOHAR –
THOSE BRAVE DAUGHTERS OF GURU ARJAN – WHO PREFERRED VOLUNTARY
DEATH – SELF-INFLICTED OR AT THE HANDS OF THEIR DEAR ONES TO AN
IGNOBLE LIFE. THEY ARE PHYSICALLY GONE. THEIR SPIRIT IS AN UNDYING
Their sacrifice is painted in letters of glory but in retrospect, it is imperative to ask a certain question about this ‘mass suicide’. Was it done by the choice of these women or was it a result of a patriarchal consensus imposed upon them? It is often difficult to find answers for questions associated with such past events which are not even properly documented. All we have is memoirs of the survivors which consequently was mostly men who always remember such instances with great pride in the sacrifices of their women. Hence, we are unaware of what exactly those women were feeling.
The question of “honour”
All the deaths in Thoa Khalsa during the partition cannot simply be viewed as voluntary sacrifices made by some hundred women but a result of deep-rooted patriarchal notions ingrained in our society. Women either were not given much of a choice in the matter or they considered taking their own lives as how a woman performs her duty towards her community. In either way, this would still be the result of a community-orchestrated decision, rather than the individual decision of a woman.
Urvashi Butalia in her book The Other Side of Silence provides accounts of those who managed to survive the bloody partition. Mangal Singh was one among them who reached Amritsar after an arduous journey. He also was familiar with a story where women became martyrs for the sake of honour.
After leaving home we had to cross the surrounding boundary of water. And we were many family members, several women and children who would not have been able to cross the water, to survive the flight. So we killed - they became martyrs - seventeen of our family members, seventeen lives... our hearts were heavy with grief for them, grief and sorrow, their grief, our grief. So we travelled, laden with sorrow, not a paisa to call our own, not a bite of food to eat... but we had to leave. Had we not done so, we would have been killed, the times were such.
In his story, those women “offered” themselves for death since that was preferable to rape and conversion. And according to him, those women never were afraid of death. “The real fear was one of dishonour. If they had been caught by the Muslims, our honour, their honour would have been sacrificed, lost. It's a question of one's honour... if you have pride you do not fear.”
According to his recollections, the biggest threat to their families, and indeed for entire communities, was the loss of honour as a result of conversion to another religion. There were indeed very high rates of forced conversions on both sides of the border during the partition. But women were denied the chance to live in the angst of possible conversion.
According to this, women's sexuality constituted a serious threat because they were more "susceptible" to conversion, and the idea of these women being impregnated by men of other religions was a very real possibility, destroying their family's honour. So they killed their mothers, wives, daughters and sisters to protect their honour. That was all left for them. And women who were grown to be faithful to their family and community offered themselves to die. Men could die fighting but women are unable to defend themselves and therefore death was the easiest way out. Most of them preferred it by the hands of their kin rather than enemy men. This whole narrative showed how ‘vulnerable’ women were perceived and how they considered themselves inferior to men.
The well of sacrifice
Basant Kaur was a survivor from Thoa Khalsa, not because she chose not to jump the well, but because the well was already full of dead bodies to drown her. “Many girls were killed. Then Mata Lajjawanti, she had a well near her house, in a sort of
garden. Then all of us jumped into that... I also went in, I took my two children, and then we
jumped in... the well filled up, and we could not drown…the children survived. Later, Nehru
went to see the well, and the English then closed it up, the well that was full of bodies. “
Men usually instigate war or violence but women, in the end, would be the worst victims of any such upheavals. The heart-wrenching tragedy at Thoa Khalsa manifests the gendered violence of partition. It also demonstrates how a woman’s sexuality threatens everything that patriarchy stands for. However, It would be wrong to conclude that all these women were forced to commit suicide. Women themselves might have decided to end their lives. As Urvashi Butalia remarked, the lines between choice and coercion must have been blurred. Seven decades have passed since the partition, it is almost impossible to find the truth about what exactly happened there.
India's partition should not be restricted to history texts. It had been a long, drawn-out process with several ramifications. We missed the vital lessons that partition had to offer—the undeniable outcome of communal hatred and conflict—by disregarding the voices of survivors. More than at any other point in history, India today requires such lessons to remind us of what would happen if we continue to embrace communalism.
Partition also illustrates one of the most horrendous forms of gendered violence. It gives us a lens through which we can assess the extent of influence that patriarchy holds in our society. Some of the survivors' experiences serve as a reminder of contemporary women's issues. Some of the partition survivors were women who were kidnapped by 'others' and struggled with their identification as members of the rival community. Some of them were abducted as Hindus, married as Muslims, and were eventually reunited as Hindus after going through a series of cruel and agonising "choices."
The struggle between women's individualism and the honour of the community is still going on now. The rising number of honour crimes reported in India demonstrates the patriarchal mindset's growing influence in our culture. Violence against women is still pervasive in the country as well as in the world. This isn't likely to change anytime soon. Not until every woman understands how everything and everyone around her is conspiring against her.
Seethalakshmi K S
Seethalakshmi is a Political Science major at Hindu College, and is a member of The Symposium Society. She loves being around books and is a keen enthusiast of national and international affairs.