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6The dawn of freedom from colonial rule in the subcontinent has forever been marked by the agony of Partition. The bloodshed, sweat of terror and the tears of helplessness made the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan simultaneously the most signifying and the most traumatic moment in South Asia’s history. What has often been forgotten, however, is the price paid by women and children.

Partition was about two specific incisions. Firstly, the territorial incision emerged from a political conflict over the ownership of a state – a conflict about who ought to acquire the moral and legitimate authority over the entire population and colonised territory left by the British Raj. Secondly, the creation of Pakistan was a partition not simply of the subcontinent but also of the Indian Muslim community itself.

Cyril Radcliffe’s awards of the division of Punjab and Bengal were announced on 16 August, 1947. Within a week, about one million Hindus and Sikhs had crossed from West to East Punjab. In the week following, another two and a half million had gathered in the refugee camps in West Punjab. By 6 November 1947, nearly 29,000 refugees had been carried by air in both directions and 673 refugee trains were run between 23 August and 6 November, transporting more than two million refugees inside India and across the border in Pakistan. Of these, 1,362,000 were non-Muslims and 939,000 were Muslims.

News of riots and violence during this colossal chaos created even more violence, which was organised and systematic. Now infamously termed as ‘August Anarchy’ (Swarna Aiyar 1998), the train massacres that occurred in every refugee train in Punjab between 9 August and 30 September killed thousands of people.

By the time the Partition exodus was over, it was estimated that almost 5.5 million Hindus and Sikhs crossed over from West Pakistan to the new India and nearly 5.8 million Muslims travelled in the opposite direction (D. A. Low 1998). Estimates of the dead vary from 200,000 (the contemporary British figure) to two million (a later Indian speculation), but it is now widely accepted that nearly a million people died during Partition of India (Urvashi Butalia, 1998).

The effect on ‘women and children’[1]

In addition to widespread killing, the Partition riots are also the story of the rape, abduction and widowhood of thousands of women on both sides of the newly formed borders. Incomplete and unreliable data make it hard to come up with the exact number of women and girls abducted during the Partition riots. 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 (Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, 1998).

Indian and Pakistani authorities used the term ‘recovery operation’ to describe the carrying out of plans to return abducted women to their own states, communities and families. While the term ‘recovery’ appears to have negative connotations today, when women’s human rights are celebrated if not always upheld, soon after Partition, the Indian and Pakistani states decided that this was the most appropriate phrase for an ‘operation’ where women were not given any rights or choices to decide about their own future.

Through the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation in India and its Women’s Section, under Rameshwari Nehru, between December 1947 and December 1949, from Pakistan 6,000 women were ‘recovered’ and 12,000 from India. Most ‘recoveries’ were made from East and West Punjab, followed by Jammu, Kashmir and Patiala. Approximately 30,000 Muslim and non-Muslim women were ‘recovered’ by both countries over an eight-year period. The total number of Muslim women recovered was significantly higher – 20,728 as against 9,032 non-Muslims. While most ‘recoveries’ occurred between 1947-52, women were being returned as late as 1956.

Indian Official and historical accounts of Partition see the event as an outcome of high politics, an unfortunate result of sectarian and separatist beliefs, and as a heartbreaking cost of freedom. Pakistani scholars also point to the inevitability of Partition, with little or no regret about the split with ‘Hindu’ India. They have looked at the causes and consequences of the division of the country, analysed the details of the many ‘mistakes’ and ‘miscalculations’ made, and examined the genesis of the call for a Muslim homeland. However, the micro-narratives on the margins of the nation in both India and Pakistan, and the fractured realties, indicate that Partition is also a gendered narrative of nation building.

Recent considerations of how such accounts are to be written, of the place of personal testimony and of bearing witness, of the desirability of reconstructing biographies or trusting memory or the collective re-telling of tragedy, have highlighted the importance of each of these aspects in presenting an alternative construction of what took place. Before this, we had little idea about the lived experiences of the gendered narrative of Partition, for example.

There have been some fragmentary and depressing references to women being treated like criminals or contaminated in the transit camps set up as temporary shelters for them before they were sent home to their respective countries. During the mid-1990s, some scholars focusing on India’s experiences – eg, Aparna Basu (1997), Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin (1996, 1998), Urvashi Butalia (1995, 1998) and Andrew Major (1998) – started finding documents that opened a whole new series of investigations into the human rights abuses of the abducted and ‘recovered’ women and children.

The feminist historiography on gendered experiences of Partition offers two important insights. Firstly, the ritualised violence inscribed on bodies by members of the ‘enemy’ community as a sign of conquest and humiliation of the Other; secondly, how both men and women from one’s own community perpetrated sacrificial violence in the name of honour.

The oral history projects also demonstrate how the ‘recovery’ operation was framed by both India and Pakistan and how through this, women suffered a second trauma inflicted by their ‘own’ state, community and family. Abducted by members of the ‘enemy’ community, yet ‘recovered’ by the state of which women were considered citizens, they were forced to leave behind the ‘post-abduction’ children with their fathers, who in many instances were the perpetrators of violence. The social workers (such as Mridula Sarabhai, Kamlaben Patel and Anis Kidwai) and the law enforcement agencies acted as agents of the state and on numerous occasions had to forcibly bring back the women, who did not want to leave behind their children or who by the time of the ‘recovery’ had settled in their new lives.

The state was eager to control women’s sexuality by exercising its rights over the body, religion, family life and, most importantly, motherhood. The discourse of morality, the nation building process and the euphoria over the success of the anti-colonial movement offered limited space for ordinary women (or men) to express their grievances. Moreover, it was impossible to challenge the political elite, who were in control of the nation-state. Women had little control over their lives. In most instances, this compromised women’s agency and right to make their own choices. The state devised policies based on the national idea of how women’s interests should be perceived, and no departure from this was acceptable.

The trauma of Partition continues. Women as ‘site of memory’ and ‘site of violence’ repeatedly serve as the primary target of wars and communal violence in the Indian subcontinent. The recent history of 1971 war of Bangladesh, the Babri Mosque riots, the riots in Gujarat or the attack on the Hindu community immediately after the election in October 2002 in Bangladesh and the sexual and gender based violence perpetrated against indigenous women are some vivid examples of this continuation.  Women’s token status in conflicts is an assault on the opponent through an elaborate inscription of women as the embodiment of the nation and sacred space.


Bina D’Costa, author of Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia and a member of Drishtipat Writiers’ Collective.


1. For brevity, I have used the data on women and children together.  However, women and children should not be always understood as a single category. Where there exists a gendered discourse of children’s agency, other identities such as those of religion, ethnicity and child specific experiences could produce alternative narratives.

8 Responses to “Partition: the price of freedom and the price paid by women”

  1. Mozammel

    Bina is right to reiterate the history of partition and suffering of people.

    Politics is directed towards the emancipation of upper handedness of one group over the other and personal interest and profit making of leaders plays a vital role to motivate the public.

    And the real essence of religion becomes a matter of farce.

    Though the Muslim got the separate land, their faith became useless because they had no wealth and money when they migrated to the new place.

    And this created a very bad stratification in the society. And all people are suffering for it.

  2. Mohiuddin Bulbul

    Thanks Bina D. Costa for reminding us of the past and for unmasking the ugly face of nationalism, which sometimes centre round faith, sometimes round ethnicity, sometimes by other social constructions. While a few prospers, millions pay the price. The worst victims are, of course, women.


  3. nasim

    Whatever the price was. The partition was the best thing that happened to the subcontinent.

  4. sajjad

    A good story, but it’s in the past, we can’t undo it. The question is ‘have we learnt anything from that?’ Looks like we always like to look back but not take any lesson from the past. That is the real tragedy of Bangladesh today.

    Having said this, thank you very much for the article.

    • Yamuna Jamal

      What is FREEDOM exactly? Are the 160 million people of Bangladesh anywhere near to that FREEDOM?

      Are these, whatever that’s been going on for the last 20+ years under the leaderships of the two leaders the “Fruits of our Freedom”?


      • Golam Arshad

        Right! We have to define FREEDOM in contrast to its manifestation, whether economic growth, or democratic norms! What do you say?

      • Bangladesh Generation

        I think both Mr. Arshad. And we have to work for both the agendas. They mutually reinforce each other. However, growth has to be ethical and just, politics also inclusive.

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