The problem

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Urvashi Butalia, author of The Other Side of Silence – a remarkable text on the human history of partition in Punjab – in the August 1994 issue of Seminar wrote, ‘A serious gap is the omission of experiences in Bengal and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). But these require detailed attention of their own: better not to pay lip service by including an interview or two.’ In fact, both Urvashi Butalia as well as Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon, co-authors of another remarkable text, Borders and Boundaries, on the gender-accent of partition narratives, confined themselves to the West because the partition of Bengal in the East, they correctly concluded, deserved a separate treatment. This issue focuses on the human dimension of the second partition of Bengal (1947) with a clear emphasis on the gender-perspective; the aim is to fill the ‘serious gap’ indicated by Urvashi Butalia.

Indeed, the partition of Bengal, despite some obvious political and existential convergences, differs from the partition of Punjab in at least four important aspects.

(1) While the partition of Punjab was a one-time event with mayhem and migration restricted primarily to three years (1947-1950), the partition of Bengal has turned out to be a continuing process. Displacement and migration from East to West, that is from former East Pakistan and Bangladesh to West Bengal, is still an inescapable part of our reality, as the most recent exodus following post-election violence in Bangladesh in October 2001 illustrates.

(2) The extent and depth of sheer violence and cruelty leading to a massive two-way exodus in Punjab was not repeated in the East. The kafilas from East Bengal to West Bengal were not matched by kafilas from West to East. Moreover, even after recalling the carnages in Kolkata and Noakhali in 1946, Dhaka-Narayanganj in 1962, Bhola and Jessore in 2001, it needs to be said that the ‘one fell swoop’ in Punjab was far more bloody and destructive. In contrast, the partition of Bengal has produced a process of slow and agonising terror and trauma accelerated by intermittent outbursts of violence on both sides in 1962, 1964, 1971 and 2001.

(3) While history and politics have been constant and definitive in the context of Punjab, the partition of Bengal has been refracted through conflicting prisms during the last six decades. For example, the two-nation theory which proved to be sacrosanct in Punjab was challenged for the first time in East Pakistan by the historic language movement which erupted in 1952. A series of determined resistances against the rulers of West Pakistan followed, ultimately leading to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. As Taslima Nasreen phrased it eloquently in one of her poems, ‘1971 challenged and rejected 1947.’

However, the emergence of ‘secular’ and ‘democratic’ Bangladesh did not signal the end of history. Forces opposed to it continued to be active and the ‘irony’ of history was repeated when the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami, an inveterate enemy of the liberation war, began to share power with the Bangladesh National Party after their combined electoral victory in October last year.

(4) Compared to the nature of border and boundary in the West where political, strategic and military considerations have converted the entire region into two rigid divisions, the dividing line in the East is porous and flexible. So much so, constant cross-border movement and migration impelled by human and economic considerations has given to this specific, along-the-border region a composite character of its own which questions the strictly demarcated preconditions of nationalism and the nation state. This borderless reality of diurnal existence was accepted by the staunch nationalist L.K. Advani as well who proposed the introduction of work permits for those who cross over, work and then return or do not return.

There, is, however, one compelling similarity between the experiences in Punjab and Bengal. In both these divided states, women (minors included) were targeted as the prime object of persecution. Along with the loss of home, native land and dear ones, the woman, singularly, was subjected to defilement (rape) before death, or defilement and discardment, or defilement and compulsion that followed to raise a new home with a new man belonging to the oppressor-community. Creative texts which are now being analysed focus on this distinctive tragedy of the woman who at times chose to commit suicide in order to thwart the corporeal holocaust.

This deathwish and act of immolation construct the tragic dialectic of the ‘women in partition’ trapped between the extremes of a life desecrated and a redemptive death. In point of fact, not only in Punjab and Bengal, but in all other countries where two communities incited by religion, race, colour or language fall upon one another, women are identified as the main object of ruthless conquest. Confronted by the same reality in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the reality of mass rape of women, Stasa Zajovic concluded, ‘the female womb becomes occupied territory.’

Living under patriliny women are the original ‘displaced persons’, leaving the safe haven of the natal home to the humiliation-riddled anxiety of the marital one. In the strict gender division of space women are given charge of the quotidian reproduction of life. Partition, read in history as an event in the public arena, wrenches the fabric of the quotidian life apart, depriving her of home and hearth. The ‘micro’ aspect of this tearing apart gets immediately lost in the public concern with re-setting the boundaries.

The most distasteful aspect of a vivisection in which nations are defined in terms of religious communities is the way it renders women’s bodies and sexuality. Vulnerable women, even in ordinary peaceful lives, are seen as icons of the honour of the community. The easiest way to assail a community, therefore, is to defile the sexual purity of its women. As Pradip Datta’s work on Bengal has brought out, the fear of ‘abduction’ or ‘rape’ by the ‘other’ community had been played up in the communal divide of the Hindus and Muslims and helped prepare the ground for the ‘two-nation’ theory. It is only to be expected that this fear psychosis had free play in the Bengal partition. Here, too, we have a re-play of Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s observation that, ‘All of them treat women’s bodies as territory to be conquered, claimed or marked by the assailants.’ This is the area which has produced its own veil of silence, the most difficult one to penetrate, though there is a general belief that rape was less marked a presence in the Bengal partition. The fear of rape was enough to marginalise women and to prevent them from being accepted by their own community.

The caring, nurturing role of women hounds them in their moments of public rupture. Nita’s famous cry that resounds on the hills at the end of Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara. ‘I want to live’, is the most living indictment of this aspect of Bengal partition. Nita, the breadwinner, was denied its gendered privileges and became the victim at the sacrificial altar of the displaced family.

But the same women, uprooted and ravaged, refused to succumb to the dictates of fate. Both in Punjab and Bengal they displayed exemplary resilience, fortitude, patience and strength to emerge victors against the combined nightmare of assault, exodus, displacement, grinding poverty and broken psyche. They not only kept their new shelter in camps and refugee settlements intact but also ventured out to acquire skills and earn. In West Bengal, in particular, the historic assertion of the refugee-woman as the tireless breadwinner changed the digits of feminine aspiration and irrevocably altered the social landscape.

This progress from trauma to triumph in West Bengal was, to a large extent, guided and inspired by the undivided Communist Party. In the words of Urvashi Butalia who traced the same emphatic advance in Punjab, ‘Just as a whole generation of women were destroyed by Partition, so also Partition provided an opportunity for many to move into the public sphere in a hitherto unprecedented way.’ The interviews and the translation of the last section of Ritwik Ghatak’s screenplay Meghe Dhaka Tara in this issue attest to this grim struggle, tragic and triumphant in the same breath.

Obviously, the grand narrative of the history of Partition which concentrates on the politics and main perpetrators, on deals and negotiations, on the exchange of territories and reckless redrawing of borders, ignores this crucial human aspect. If we want to recapture this essential human history, this epic saga of suffering and struggle, we have to excavate the memory of every man/protagonists with the help of interviews which constitute an important segment of oral history and by examining diaries and memoirs. These hidden histories, once revealed, will compose their own partition narrative where the veil of silence that has shrouded people’s experiences, especially that of women, will be lifted.

This resurgence of memory, hymnic and elegiac at the same time (to use the adjectives of Walter Benjamin), needs to be juxtaposed with the creative literature on Partition because the latter too embodies the triumph and trauma of the actual men and women (not political leaders) in authentic statements where transcription of reality and literary imagination form one indivisible structure of experience. Both memoirs and literature together articulate the totality of experience by combining the creative and confessional modes of expression.

One could profitably employ Pierre Macheray’s famous binary model of the ‘explicit/implicit’ or the ‘spoken/unspoken’ to define the relationship between concealed memoirs gradually coming to light and creative literature already read or films already seen. In Macheray’s words, the implicit-unspoken (memoirs) represents the ‘silence which gives (explicit) literature life.’ While memory acts as the tormented margin bordering the centrality of creative texts, both together script the reality of Partition which is still very much a part of our present condition burdened as it is by the partition of our minds. When this deep-seated internal rupture provokes us to link its external eruptions – Kolkata, Noakhali, Nellie, Bhagalpur, Babri, Ahmedabad, Jessore and Bhola – spanning six decades in one single chain, we realize the unrelenting immediacy of Partition 1947 in February 2002.



* Many of the papers in this symposium draw upon the research project, ‘Gender Accent on Partition Narratives in Bengal’, housed in the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University. Thir help is gratefully acknowledged.