Freedom in an idiom of loss


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THE first twenty years of independence in Bengal were clouded over by Partition. Women’s chronicle in this man-made uprooting by and large remains untold. I have here only hinted at some of the signposts in an attempt to open the deep scar on the mind and body of Sonar Bangla, the youthful golden Bengal, the honey-tongued mother whose sons weep if there is a flicker of sadness on her face. Partition was an ever unfolding story of the abduction of this young mother from which there was no recovery, state planned or otherwise.

I must, at the beginning, confess that the partition of Bengal has continued to haunt me in an ever-continuing dialogue with myself. At one level I feel myself to be one of the real beneficiaries of the Nehruvian thrust into a reasonably self-respecting sense of modernity. Those of us who studied abroad in the late fifties and early sixties will surely recall the sense of being prized as mini-ambassadors of a new India, committed to democracy, humanitarianism and political justice.

The pull at home, however, was one of being uprooted, loss of dignity and honour. Families huddled together on Sealdah station platform and the streets of Calcutta. The sense of being uprooted had overtaken the psyche of Bengal. A little press here or there, and the sense of pain gushed out. As I had once commented on a paper by Gyan Pandey that in a way the Partition never ended for us. Just as the Sikh riots in 1984 and the earlier riots in Bhagalpur made some activist scholars look back on women’s agency in the state-sponsored uprooting and the so-called recovery programme of abducted women, the events of the seventies and our involvement in the war of liberation in Bangladesh also made us live through the pain of Partition.



May the earth of Bengal and

the water of Bengal

The air of Bengal and her fruits

Be blessed, blessed again,

and thrice blessed my lord.

May Bengali dreams and

Bengali words

And the love that wells up in a

Bengali home

Be blessed, blessed again, and thrice blessed my lord.

(Translated by Chandreyee Niyogi)

This was a declaration by Rabindranath Tagore of the indivisibility of Bengal: its soil, water, earth, fruit and the familial love of people in the face of the first partition of Bengal attempted by Lord Curzon in 1905. The resistance produced the swadeshi anti-colonial movement in which Bengal/India was effectively represented as a feminine form: She was both the avenging and the affectionate reassuring mother.

In the words of Rabindranath again:

A scimitar shines in your hand

And your left hand quells our fears

Your eyes are tender and smiling

But your third eye scorches and sears

O mother, we cannot turn our eyes from you

Your temple of gold has opened its doors to ever enduring view.

(Translated by Chandreyee Niyogi)



The ghost of the later holocaust of the second partition of Bengal lay, as the Bengali proverb goes, in the mustard seed of this representation itself. This extreme Hinduised form of the three-eyed mother goddess made cultural nationalism a strongly divisive force in the long run. In the darkening horizon of the ever-growing rift between Hindus and Muslims, Qazi Nazrul Islam sounded a clear note of warning.

Are they Hindus? Are they Muslims? Dare one ask again?

O Captain tell them men are sinking, each of our mother born.

A mountain steep, a desert deep and a seething ocean ahead;

Take heed my crew, for we must cross at night.

The warning went in vain. The great Calcutta killing of 1946 and the Noakhali riots ended on 15 August 1947, but the land was divided.



In Bengal though women were not exchanged in lieu of property and chattel, the chastity belt of women’s heroism to save the family honour was a signifier of the most important defense against total social disaster. The nationalist obsession with preserving the honour of the community by valorising sati and jauhar was directed, by a strange twist of logic, less against the white ruler than against the Yavana compatriots. Tod’s Annals of Rajasthan provided a model of chaste women who were seen as custodians of India’s national glory.

As Atul Prasad Sen, a younger contemporary of Rabindranath declared in the heady days of anti-colonial resistance:

Those who keep their honour by embracing the pyre

Give up their lives happily for their sons and children’s sires

We are their children all

Sing, sing again with a hundred lutes and flutes

‘India will reclaim the grandest place in the conference of nations.’

What started off as an image of anti-colonial resistance helped to turn the women of the subcontinent into potential victims of communal conflicts. Abduction of women occurs as an inevitable refrain in all accounts of the Bengal partition. Young scholars who have worked among refugees (Chatterjee 1990, Weber 1996) have testified to the emphasis on the sexuality of the womenfolk to be carefully protected almost in lieu of the property over which they had forfeited their claims by turning foreigners in their own land and soil.

This anxiety was shared by both communities as this was the historical juncture when two nations were born out of one nationalist struggle. This harping on abducted women as a central core of nation-building is a pointer to the nation-community nexus. I notice in current discussions on women’s rights and citizenship a tendency to pit the community as a greater ally of women as against the nation state posed as site of harsh surveillance.



The nation is, in the current post-modernist onslaught on all things that smack of ‘modernity’, a meta-narrative in which the entire hegemonic establishment is implicated. Assessing the event from a feminist perspective one cannot help noticing the deep collusion between the community at one end of the spectrum and the nation on the other. The majoritarian religious ideology turning into natural common sense is thus not just the threat posed by the nation state. It is also the threat of the community and the family that make such naturalization possible.

Moral regulation or, rather, a hypocritical obsession with women’s sexual purity, marks the patriarchal foundation of the hegemonic class in India. A woman’s body is a pawn even in the game of nation building. Rather skillfully, Jyotirmoyee Devi narrates the story of the birth of two nation states on the Indian subcontinent through the holocaust of pre-partition and Partition violence, as the story of a Hindu Bengali girl, Sutara Datta.

Written in 1967, and published in book form a year later, Jyotirmoyee Devi’s Epar Ganga Opar Ganga (The River Churning) is a rare example of a Partition novel in Bengali written by a woman. It focuses on violence and, possibly, the rape of a Hindu girl in East Bengal and her subsequent marginalization by her own community in post-partition ‘secular’ India. With restraint, yet a daring rare in a septuagenarian of her generation, Jyotirmoyee presents the physical trauma of the young adolescent girl. Her sexuality is the great violation, ‘unspoken’ in the novel; yet it remains the stake in a sinister game in which the community teams up with nationhood in order to keep alive the class-caste entente of the hegemonic group in India.

Epar Ganga Opar Ganga was originally published in 1967 as Itihashe Stree-Parva (The Woman Chapter in History) in the pages of the autumn annual of the reputed Bengali periodical, Prabashi. The Stree-Parva of the Mahabharata was no conventional chapter on women: for Jyotirmoyee it contained the potential of cross-cutting ‘myth’ with ‘history’, the great ‘open secret’ that is kept carefully hidden from the public eye by a manipulative patriarchy. In the novel she tries to uncover the core of the subjugation of women by a specifically male violence on which the social order is dependent, an order that is shot through with hypocrisy and cowardice.



Our history is full of such male aggression, socially condoned by patriarchal values that make women pay for crimes of which they are the chief victims. Jyotirmoyee Devi detected such injustice at the heart of the vivisection of the subcontinent into two and, later, three states. The tragedy of this holocaust, carefully elided in our history books, is brought home by Jyotirmoyee through the life of a Bengali middle class girl. The stories of girls like her deserve to be told by people with special sensibilities and special pains using indirect strategies.

The author locates such a strategy in the Stree-Parva of the Mahabharata: ‘I do not know of historical writings in any other culture except the Mahabharata which has a chapter called Stree-Parva.’ But as she points out, the chapter hardly deserves the name: ‘In actual fact, even Vedavyasa could not bear to write the real stree-parvaÉ Cowards do not write history. There are no great poets among women, and even if there were, they could not have written about the violation of their own dignity.

‘Hence there is no recorded history of the real stree-parvaÉ The stree-parva of humiliation by men? The stree-parva of all time? The chapter that remains in the control of husband, son, father and one’s own community – there is no history of that silent humiliation, that final painÉ The stree-parva has not yet ended; the last word is not yet spoken’ (my translation).



Defilement of communal honour through the violation of female sexuality is a thesis that resonates through the entire process of our nation building, to which our popular mass media bear ample testimony. At one level, the anger in Jyotirmoyee Devi’s Preface may read like yet another of the familiar tunes. But the construction of her narratives shows that the anger is directed as much against the violation of a woman’s body as an expression of the triumph and intimidation of one community over another, as it is against the way it is then used as an exclusionary boundary with which the woman’s own community preserves its caste-class purity.

The novel that we are discussing was intended to lift the veil on a stree-parva in history – the blood-stained, chequered history of ‘secular’ modern India. It is no accident that Sutara grows to be a teacher of history in the capital city of India, and that the novel opens in one of her ‘modern’ Indian history classes. We hear Sutara speaking to her students:

‘Does history remain confined to the written page? The victors blacken the vanquished on the pages of history and which history has ever talked about the weak and the suffering?É andÉ’

Sutara pauses, and in the pause her story becomes history.



In a flashback we are transported to a night in 1946, when a sudden blaze of communal frenzy destroys the peace of a neighbourhood in a village in East Bengal, where Hindus and Muslims had lived in peace and amity. Within a few hours, there is complete havoc in the Hindu household. Even before they have registered what is happening, the father disappears, the mother jumps into the pond to save her honour, the married sister disappears and the young adolescent girl, Sutara, loses consciousness as a result of assault and molestation.

She is the only surviving member of her family to be nursed back to health by their Muslim neighbours. Through a haze of fear and physical pain she tries to piece together the nature of the outrage, since people are too embarrassed to answer her questions. Those who were involved with riots and Partition will instantly catch on that the trials of Sutara are not likely to end with the assault on her body but, instead, are about to begin.

Tamijuddin, Sutara’s father’s friend whose family nurtured her, faces a threat from his own community. He reports to his family, ‘I tried to tell them, why are you meddling with the women (of the Hindu community), we have women in our homes too. Do you know what they said? "When were women not dragged and pulled out? Read their Puranas – didn’t Ram abduct Sita? And what about Draupadi?" I said, that was not right, everyone knows. They said, "Let us not talk about right or wrong – it happens in every country. We know".’

When finally, Sutara’s brother who is living in Calcutta gets to hear about her survival, his response is lukewarm. It is Tamij Sahib’s wife who, as a woman, understands the dynamics of this social situation. ‘Why not let her remain here? She can go back later. And, will they accept her if she goes backÉ?’



Their fears are fully justified. After she is escorted back into the riot-torn Calcutta of 1946-47 by Tamijuddin and his eldest son (taking, one should note, considerable personal risk), Sutara has to move in as a guest of her brother’s father-in-law in whose home the family had taken temporary refuge. Having been touched by a Muslim is never openly mentioned as the reason for the discrimination against her, but from the beginning she is treated as an untouchable, outside the fold of caste and community. Her exclusion is most rigidly enforced as far as entry to the kitchen and drinking water are concerned. On one occasion she overhears the mistress of the house saying,

‘Six months in a Muslim household – what caste purity could such a girl be left with! All right, you have brought her here, but at least let her remain in a corner like hadis and bagdis! Instead, you have let enter into all the household activities. Who knows what she has eaten and done in the past few months!’

What are we left with! She is sent off to a hostel run by Christian missionaries where she meets girls in similar ambiguous situations: ‘Once again she was engulfed by fear. Everything was unfamiliar, the teachers were European. Most of the girls were orphans, their parents lost in the famine of ’42 (sic), others were victims of Partition. These young girls had forgotten which tradition they belonged to.’

In a much acclaimed book by Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments (1992), ‘community’ and ‘women’ are presented as two fragments of the nation. At the moment of the birth of two nation states in the place of one colonial state, the bodies of numberless women are brought under the control of their respective communities to complete the grand act of vivisection. The ‘limit to the realm of disciplinary power’ that is supposed to ‘mark the idea of a community’ is a gruesome chimera to the hordes of women who, like Sutara, witnessed (from the margins of the community) the incomprehensible birth of two nation states.



Contrary to what the rhetoric might suggest, the author’s anger is not the righteous anger of patriarchy protesting against our women being violated by them; it is, rather, directed against the dual control exercised by patriarchy. Thus riot victims like Sutara are hit twice by patriarchy: first by the male of one community who establishes his own ‘identity’ by exercising his territoriality over her body; second by her ‘own’ community which invokes compulsions of ritual purity to exclude her from the ritually pure domains of hearth and marriage, and drinking water. Her anger is focused on this reduplicated aggression: the first as physical assault on a woman’s body and sexuality; the second, a prolonged and unbearable panoptic gaze by the community over her body and mind.

It is against this ideology of the ‘purity’ of the community that the protagonist of Jyotirmoyee Devi’s novel has transgressed. No histrionics or heroism attend the act, for she has been robbed of her agency. Had it not been for ‘education’ Sutara would have been washed away like so much flotsam. (Small wonder that in the formative years of gender ideology, women’s education was seen as a threat to female sexuality – Hindu girls in Bengal were threatened with widowhood in the early years of female education).

The marginalization by the community persists; Sutara is particularly unwanted at weddings and is considered an obstruction to the marriage prospects of future generations. As a single girl she is free to take a job in Delhi where she meets victims of the Punjab partition. Somewhere she begins to comprehend the game – it is bodies like hers that have to be expunged in order that the community may nestle and breed in the bosom of the nation state.

Though Bengal cannot boast of her Bhisham Sahanis or Sadat Hassan Mantos, Bengali fiction, short stories in particular, abounds in stories of Partition and of Hindu-Muslim riots. In one story by Narendranath Mitra, in particular Jaiba (The Biological), a Hindu woman raped just before the Partition is not allowed to abort because her scientifically-minded husband makes a guinea pig of the baby to study the impact of environment during conception on the formation of the child’s personality. The bourgeois freedom that the woman is supposed to enjoy in the newly liberated India turns into a nightmare for her – raped, restored and then made an object of a scientific experiment.



There was no official programme of recovery of the abducted women in the Bengal partition. In a recent interview Phulrenu Guha said that she did not agree with Mridula Sarabhai, though she was a close friend of hers, that women should be exchanged. She said that if a woman had made a new home for herself she should not be uprooted yet again. However, the absence of this state-run surveillance did not make the monstrous displacement of Partition any less of a physical and psychological holocaust. The massive influx and exodus of people belonging to the same linguistic group signalled a displacement at a scale that was unimaginable. This is the kind of displacement that happens during war and the systematic carnage that follows ethnic violence.

As Ashoka Gupta, the well-known social worker and Gandhian activist said in a panel discussion organized by the School of Women’s Studies, they were appalled that this terrible displacement, loss of lives and property happened due to cool, calculated agreement between leaders at the top who remained virtually unscathed by this unprecedented violence.



The early years of Independence were scarred by this upheaval. From about 1949 Calcutta started swarming with refugees who first occupied the railway platforms of Sealdah then formed refugee colonies that dotted the outskirts of the city. The indignity of their existence was summed up in the word ‘refugee’ designated as ‘marginal men’ by Prafulla Chakraborty who was a militant leader of the refugees. It is Jyotirmoyee Devi who once again sums up this liminal existence.

A play that ran to full houses in Calcutta and was subsequently made into a film called ‘The New Jews’ points to the supportless, dangling condition of the thousands of Bengalis rendered homeless.

We are the valueless price


So you no longer seem to recognise us

We who have over long thirty years, been trekking through

village after village.

Leaving the land of our birth,

across the country, past rivers, canals, swamps and seas,

Past hill and wide stretches of land till – till what?

Our journey’s end?

Will it ever and or will it be one long ceaseless trek

for all time to come?

We come, the flotsam and jetsam of derelict humanity –

with stark fear stamped on our eyes,

With our limbs shrunken through starvation or near starvation.

Clad in rags and hair dishevelled

Our women folk? Our wives and daughters?

They have been abducted en route

And our parents and children are either dead or half dead

through fatigue and lack of food.

Still we come,

We who are the valueless counters you used

As pawns for winning dominion over your country,

the disgraceful symbol of your freedom won with a beggar’s

bowl and folded hands.

Hail, hail to thee august leader, father, and propounder of

Panchashila – the five Golden –

Rule of Conduct.

No longer have we any country we can call our own,

No village nor any name.

We are no longer Bengalis or Hindus nor even men;

You have given us a new name ‘refugees’ and stamped it on us as our hallmark.

Driven out from our land despised and disgraced in our new habitat

We are the valueless price paid for your acquisition of dominion Delhi and Dacca.

Our minds have ceased to hope

Our anguish finds no tongue, the open road offers us no asylum.

In this wide expanse of Mother India there is not an inch of land

Which we unclad and unfed,

Can call our own.

We are the slave, of your Ministers who hold sway over

Your land for five year terms.

They pretended to give us rehabilitation

or should it better be called exile

at Dandakaranya? Did they think as Kaikeyee did when

sending Rama to exile,

that we would be there for keeps and never return?

But just as you hold us in contempt, so do they – these

sons of the soil at Dandakaranya.

We went and we came back without an inch of land under

our feet and without a shred of self-respect left to us,

eternal vagrents trading the same old beaten track to

back and over and over again.

The Jews have regained their homeland after two thousand years

why can’t we? They did because they had unity,

their race was intact and religion was a live thing for them.

And what of us?

That we have any religion, any racial unity, nobody admits.

For Harijans, Islamis, Tribals, Scheduled Castes

There is a limit to words of sympathy that drop from your lips

or to tears you pretend to shed.

Are they men or Gods that so much sympathy is reserved for

them and none is spared for us?

Which country do they belong to?

And which do we?

(Translated by Shaibal Kumar Gupta. First published in Alekhya, Baisakh-Asad, 1385, April-June 1978)

Women’s protest against this wanton uprooting is recorded in a memorable shot in Nemai Ghosh’s film Chhinnamool, showing a group of Hindu peasants leaving East Bengal. An old woman of the community does not see the point of leaving the ancestral home(Bastu).



The ‘refugee’ population transformed Calcutta from a city of armchair babus devoted to genteel culture into a militant, angry, leftist city where middle class women uprooted from the shelter of their village homes came out to work. As Rachel Weber discovered through her interviews, not all women were happy about this freedom thrust upon them. This individual freedom was also articulated in an idiom of loss. Ritwik Ghatak, the filmmaker of Bengal partition, has epitomised the new refugee women in the resettled colonies on the outskirts of Calcutta in the epic figure of Neeta, the heroine of Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Star Clouded Over).

This is the tragedy and triumph of the displaced women of Bengal. Myth and reality enter into a convenient symbiosis in these rare chronicles of women’s suffering.



Jasodhara Bagchi, ‘Representing Nationalism: Ideology of Motherhood in Colonial Bengal’, Review of Women’s Studies, EPW, 20-27 October 1990.

Jasodhara Bagchi, ‘Women Since Independence’ in Calcutta, Living City. Edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, Oxford University Press, Calcutta, 1990.

Jasodhara Bagchi (ed.), Indian Women: Myth and Reality, Orient Longman, Calcutta, 1995.

Jasodhara Bagchi, ‘Secularism as Identity’, and ‘Comments on Gyanendra Pandey’ in The Nation, the State and Indian Identity. Edited by Madhusree Dutta, Flavia Agnes and Neera Adarkar, Samya, Calcutta, 1996.

Jasodhara Bagchi, ‘Ethnicity and Women’s Empowerment: The Colonial Legacy’ in Embodied Violence. Edited by Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1996.

Manabendra Bandyopadhyay (ed.), Bhed-Bibhed I & II (in Bengali), an all-India compilation of stories about riots, partition and anti-communalism. Dey’s Publishing, Calcutta, 1995.

Sandip Bandyopadhyay, ‘Partition and the Forgotten People’, Frontier, 2-8 August 1997.

Sandip Bandyopadhyay, ‘The Riddles of Partition. Memories of Bengali Hindus’ in Reflections on Partition in the East. Edited by Ranabir Samaddar, Vikas Publishing House, Calcutta, 1997.

Urvashi Butalia, ‘Community, State and Gender. On Women’s Agency During Partition’, EPW, (Review of Women’s Studies, WS 12-24), 24 April 1993.

Jaya Chatterjee, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-47, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. First Indian Edition, 1995.

Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, Zed Press, London, 1986.

Partha Chatterjee, ‘The Second Partition of Bengal’ in Reflections on Partition in the East. Edited by Ranabir Samaddar, Vikas Publishing House, Calcutta, 1997.

Indira Chowdhury, ‘The Return of the Sati: A Note on Heroism and Domesticity in Colonial Bengal’, RFR/DRF, 22, 3/4, 1993, pp. 41-44.

Suranjan Das, Communal Riots in Bengal, 1905-1947, OUP, New Delhi, 1991.

Jyotirmoyee Devi, The River Churning: A Partition Novel, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1995.

K. Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis (eds.), Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1996.

Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin, ‘Recovery, Rupture, Resistance. Indian State and the Abduction of Women during Partition’, EPW, Review of Women’s Studies, WS 2-11, 1993.

Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin, ‘Abducted Women, the State and Questions of Honour’ in Embodied Violence. Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1996.

Ranabir Samaddar (ed.), Reflections on Partition in the East, Vikas Publishing House, Calcutta, 1997.

Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, (eds.), Recasting Women, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1989.

Kumkum Sangari, ‘Consent, Agency and Rhetorics of Incitement’, EPW 28(8), 1993, 867-883.

Tanika Sarkar, ‘Communal Riots in Bengal’ in Communal and Pan-Islamic Trends in Colonial India, OUP, New Delhi, 1985.

Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, Women and the Hindu Right, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1995.