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Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Partition of India


This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised. 

Background of the Conflict

The Partition of British India into India and Pakistan is a traumatic memory in the history of the subcontinent. The birth of two nations from the erstwhile British colony as part of the global wave of decolonization came at a heavy cost: it sparked off the largest mass migration in the world, where about 12 million people were displaced. Even if the partition was not an active armed conflict zone within the conventional definition of armed conflict under International Humanitarian Law, the partition ushered in violent conflict in the form of riots. Against this backdrop of rioting and violence, as many as between 75,000 and 100,000 women were thought to have been raped, abducted, or killed (Aftab 2007).

Systemic targeting of women through sexual violence

The enabling environment for sexual violence during, before, and after the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan was the impact of the partition itself on Punjab. With communities targeting women in their rival communities, crimes in the form of rape, abduction, and forcible conversions took place both in Punjab, as well as in Jammu and Kashmir and the Rajputana States (Major 1995).

Sexual violence targeting women by cis-het men in this time has been documented, with evidence of women being complicit in some of these attacks, as well (Kabir, 2010; Chowdhry 2000). Riots across the country placed women in particularly vulnerable positions. In Calcutta, women were targeted during the Direct Action Day riots (Talbot and Singh 2009), while in the Noakhali violence, several Hindu women were kidnapped (Ibid.). In the course of the massacres of Muslims in Bihar, several women were targeted (Ibid). In November 1946, several Muslim women were stripped and taken on nude processions by Hindu mobs in Garhmukteshwar (Pandey 2001). This was the larger background against which systemic violence began to unfold ahead of the partition in March 1947, in Rawalpindi. Sikh women were targeted by Muslim mobs, followed by organized campaigns where Pathans took Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim women out of trains (Shani 2007; Major 1995). A nude procession of Muslim women took place near the Golden Temple in Amritsar (Talbot and Singh 1995). The Pathans abducted several non-Muslim women from Kashmir, and sold them in West Punjab – forcing them into factories as “slave girls,” before abducting Muslim women by 1948 (Major 1995). Abducted women were “distributed” among the police and army, and other attackers (Kidwai 2011). Forced marriages were also performed. In several instances, women committed suicide by jumping into wells, to avoid being raped or facing sexual violence.

The basis of sexual violence

The struggle for independence against the British was brutally repressed on several occasions, with the colonial power employing its tested strategy of divide and rule. By pitting communities against one another to ensure disunity and infighting, the British safeguarded its control over its several colonial empires – and British India was no different. The fomentation of ethnic tensions reached a tipping point at the time of partition, where a boundary etched on a map changed the idea of home and hearth for several and exacerbated ethnic tensions.

Sexual violence during the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan was carried out for several reasons. While several communities themselves cited revengeas their reasons (Talbot and Singh 2009), several of the systemic campaigns targeting women through sexual violence were carried out with the goal of ethnic cleansing (Major 1995). The perpetrators were a blend of men in power (such as police officials, army soldiers, landed and wealthy businessmen, and even members of the Muslim league) and criminal elements that had no direct affiliation with positions of power. For those that had no coals in the fire to exact revenge or cause ethnic cleansing, the situation of brazen impunity afforded opportunity to wield power over vulnerable women through sexual violence.

Healing from trauma and reparations

Even as the new governments of India and Pakistan took a firm stand not to recognize the forced marriages that took place in that time – a decision that was included in the agreement that emerged from Inter-Dominion Conference in December 1947, precious little was done in the aftermath. Although a recovery procedure was established, the implementation did not follow through – to the point that both countries decided not to publicize the number of women repatriated and the number of women who remained without support (Major 1995). While implementation was slow, several of the women also feared returning home: the burden of stigma and social ostracism that would await them back at home and in their communities, where they would be seen as defiled, was a difficult burden to bear. In 1954, both governments decided not to force any of the women to return (Major 1995).

References

Aftab, T. (2007). Inscribing South Asian Muslim Women: An Annotated Bibliography & Research Guide.Brill.

Chowdhry, G. (2000). Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, Mary Ann Tétreaul (ed.). Women, States, and Nationalism: At Home in the Nation? (1st ed.). Routledge.

Kabir, A. J. (2010). Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives: Violence and Violation. Routledge. 

Kidwai, A. (2011). In Freedom’s Shade. Penguin Books Limited.

Major, A. (1995). “Abduction of women during the partition of the Punjab”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 18 (1).

Pandey, G. (2001). Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shani, G. (2007). Sikh Nationalism and Identity in a Global Age. Routledge.

Talbot, I., & Singh, G. (2009). The Partition of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Documentation by: Kirthi Jayakumar

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