Women During Partition: Courage, Compassion, Survival

By The 1947 Partition Archive

The 1947 Partition Archive

Subhani (October 2, 2015)The 1947 Partition Archive

In 1947, when the Partition of India and Pakistan was announced, Subhani was living with her Mewati-speaking family in Alwar in present-day Rajasthan. She remembers that the violence of Partition spread like fire. “Anyone running from home with their belongings in large crowds was murdered by men with swords, on horses. Anyone running empty-handed and in small crowds was spared,” she says.

Recalling an incident with her maternal uncle, she says, “He wouldn’t let go of his cattle and the insurgents caught up with him. He just barely escaped with injuries to his hands. The British troops came to us and told us to leave everything and go to Pakistan immediately,” she says.

Mass Migration, India (1947-10) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

The 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan is recognized as the world's largest mass refugee crisis. Nearly 2 million died in the communal violence that accompanied Partition, and up to 25 million were uprooted through the 1950s, or 1% of the world's population at the time.

Mass Migration, India (1947) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Over 75,000 thousand women and girls suffered rape, mutilation and abduction. Those who survived fought hard to overcome the trauma of Partition and rebuild their lives.

This exhibit honors the experiences of several courageous women survivors, as narrated to The 1947 Partition Archive (also referred to as "The Archive"). The stories showcased, however, provide only a small glimpse into the vast range of women's experiences. Many more stories are housed by The Archive and new ones are being recorded everyday.

Jaya Mehta as a child (December 16, 2015)The 1947 Partition Archive

Jaya Mehta spent most of her childhood in Mumbai, where her older sisters were actively involved in India's struggle for independence.

Jaya MehtaThe 1947 Partition Archive

She says that following the news and advice of the Indian National Congress, her sisters bought a spinning wheel to spin as much yarn as they could and had it woven into saris.

Crowds Of Gandhi Admirers (1946-05) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

They attended protests and rallies, and courted arrests and short jail terms. Her family would house and care for volunteers who came to attend big rallies in Mumbai. "Some of them needed extra care to get over the beating from ‘lathi charge’ (beating with a long wooden stick), a very common way of trying to disperse the crowd at such rallies and protests,” Mrs. Mehta remembers.

Jaya MehtaThe 1947 Partition Archive

Mrs. Mehta describes how Mumbai changed after Partition. She says, "Whoever migrated to the big city brought with them all the positives and good things about their culture, and shared these with the city and its inhabitants.”

Lena AvrahamThe 1947 Partition Archive

Before Partition, Lena Avraham was living with her Jewish family in Thana, Maharashtra.

Her mother worked in a women’s prison where many women who took part in the independence movement were jailed. During Partition, Mrs. Avraham witnessed a man killed in front of her house. She did not go outside alone during that time, and went to and from school on a bus. Mrs. Avraham got married in Karachi after she moved there with her family in 1959. Soon after, the family decided to migrate to India. Later, with her husband and two children, Mrs. Avraham flew to Israel, where she worked as a kindergarten teacher.

Badshah BegumThe 1947 Partition Archive

Badshah Begum clearly recalls that it was sunset when the announcement of Partition was heard on the radio.

She was in Lahore with her mother, who had just given birth to her baby sister. She says that there was a lot of celebration in her mohallah, or neighborhood, as well as a lot of anger. Her neighbors had weapons and protected her family when angry mobs started to attack.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Badshah Begum describes the sudden changes that took place after Partition, as families moved in and out in small caravans. Many families that were leaving entrusted her family with keys to their houses. Some families, she says, did not leave their homes immediately after Partition, in the hope that the situation would settle down.

Maryam Babar (November 18, 2015)The 1947 Partition Archive

At the time of Partition, Maryam Babar was living in Hyderabad Deccan with her Scottish-Indian family.

One night, thousands of rioters gathered around the Goshamahal Baradari assembly building and started chanting slogans. Mrs. Babar and her entire family were inside.

Maryam Babar's mother Eva Matthew Watt in Scotland (November 18, 2015)The 1947 Partition Archive

“I heard my parents talking with each other about a pistol my mother was carrying. I remember my father asking her how she was going to defend herself with one pistol against thousands of angry people outside. She told him that the pistol was not for them but for killing the children in case the mob breached the mansion,” Mrs. Babar recounts.

Maryam BabarThe 1947 Partition Archive

In 1950, when Mrs. Babar's family felt that conditions had become too unsafe for them, they left India with her father’s briefcase. He drove the family to the railway station, and boarded them on a special train to Mumbai. They then took the evening flight to London. They stayed in London for two years and then relocated to Karachi in 1952.

Ghulam Bibi (December 15, 2015)The 1947 Partition Archive

Days before Partition, Ghulam Bibi and her husband were at their home in Gurdaspur in Punjab.

“All of a sudden all the villages were in a state of turmoil and panic. The next moment, we were getting ready to leave Gurdaspur,” she says. Ghulam Bibi left Gurdaspur along with her grandmother, sisters, sister-in-law, and aunt. Her brother-in-law and a few men from some Sikh families went with them to ensure they crossed the border safely.

Mass Migration, India (1947) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Ghulam Bibi's convoy was shot at several times during their journey on foot to the river bank. “Our guardians at one point asked us to drop on the ground and pretend we are dead. By the time we were close to reaching our raft amidst the constant firing, my maternal grandmother was shot in the stomach and died,” she recounts. After burying her at the bank of the river, Ghulam Bibi’s convoy was escorted to the migrant camp at Dhariwal where they spent the night.

Mass Migration, India (1947) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

From the migrant camp, Ghulam Bibi’s convoy was taken to the Dhariwal railway station where they boarded the train to Amritsar. “We saw Amritsar burning from inside the train. With the exception of a minaret of a mosque faraway, everything else was in flames. There were men with swords all over the station but no one harmed us,” she says. After stopping at the Amritsar railway station for a few hours, they were boarded on the train to Vehari. "Finally, we were able to go home and be with our parents, who had already arrived in Vehari in another convoy. Our father joined us a day later. He was in tears when he returned and found me alive and well,” she says.

Baljit Dhillon Vikram SinghThe 1947 Partition Archive

Baljit Dhillon Vikram Singh remembers that the social tension in Lahore kept growing around the time of Partition.

One night she was woken up by her mother putting all her jewelry, money, and valuables in a vault that was located between the walls. She put all three children in the family jeep and they headed for Amritsar.

Baljit Dhillon Vikram SinghThe 1947 Partition Archive

On their journey from Lahore towards Amritsar, Mrs. Vikram Singh saw the dead lying in ditches along the road and floating in the canals. Even now, she says, the images are vivid. Her mother tried to cover her daughter’s eyes with her dupatta or shawl to protect her from the scenes. They reached her maternal grandparents’ house in Amritsar safely. Later, the family settled in Rajasthan.

Baljit Dhillon Vikram Singh with her grandfather, Sardar Natha SinghThe 1947 Partition Archive

Mrs. Vikram Singh's father had left everything in Nanikie, her ancestral village, expecting to return in a few days. But that day never came. He was allotted a small amount of barren land in the Punjab, in lieu of the hundreds of acres left behind. Overnight her family became refugees living off the land, eating turnips, mustard greens and spinach, wearing simple clothes, and riding bullock carts and camels instead of jeeps and cars. The family worked very hard to make ends meet.

Gayatri Chakraborty with Citizen Historian Sarmishtha BiswasThe 1947 Partition Archive

Gayatri Chakraborty spent her early childhood in Barisal in present-day Bangladesh.

In 1946, through a telegram message, her family learned that her father had been sent to prison for taking part in the freedom struggle. Nobody in the family was aware that he had left the army. Soon after they heard of the incident, the senior family members decided to leave their home at Barisal and take temporary shelter at her maternal uncle’s place in Kolkata, as there was no other earning member in the family.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Young Mrs. Chakraborty felt quite excited about moving to Kolkata. In 1947, shortly after Partition, her father was set free from prison and came to Kolkata to reunite with his family.

Gayatri ChakrabortyThe 1947 Partition Archive

In 1948, only a few months later, Mrs. Chakraborty moved back to her ancestral home in Barisal along with her parents and younger brother, in order to escape the riots happening in Kolkata. A few months later, her father returned again to Kolkata in search of a suitable job, while the rest of the family stayed back.

Gayatri ChakrabortyThe 1947 Partition Archive

Mrs. Chakraboty's mother became ill and passed away in 1949. This, along with the tense social environment in the community, caused Mrs. Chakraborty to leave her home permanently with her younger brother in 1950, immediately before riots took place. She moved back to Kolkata, reunited with her father, and stayed with an uncle who lived in a refugee colony at Belgharia. Moving from place to place for the next several years, Mrs. Chakraborty was not able to attend school. At the age of 21, she began studying at home privately. At the age of 24, she married.

Arghwani BegumThe 1947 Partition Archive

At the time of Partition, Arghwani Begum was over eight months pregnant with her third child.

As communal tensions increased, she and her family decided to leave their Delhi home for Lahore. Their first destination, however, was the Purana Qila or Old Fort refugee camp in Delhi.

Mass Migration, India (1947) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

It was raining heavily when the family arrived at Purana Qila. Another family at the fort helped them set up tents for shelter. The next morning, on August 15, Arghwani Begum went into labor.

Arghwani Begum with Story Scholar Fakhra HassanThe 1947 Partition Archive

She recalls that her sister-in-law cried incessantly on seeing the newborn baby, though she could not understand why. “There were no clothes for the baby,” she says simply. “We draped him in one of my daughter’s frocks.” After two days, the family traveled in army jeeps to the Nizamuddin Railway Station in Delhi. They managed to board a train to Pakistan.

Arghwani BegumThe 1947 Partition Archive

The train was attacked at Wagah border. Amidst the panic that ensued, Arghwani Begum's infant son struggled to breathe. A man on the train helped the baby get some air through the main door. Arghwani Begum recalls seeing countless bodies of men, women, and children that night. The family fortunately escaped the attacks and reached Walton in Pakistan. They later settled in Lahore.

Dr. Bapsi Sidhwa (April 6, 2013)The 1947 Partition Archive

Renowned author Dr. Bapsi Sidhwa was living with her Parsi family in Lahore at the time of Partition.

Dr. Bapsi Sidhwa (April 6, 2013)The 1947 Partition Archive

She remembers an incident when she was walking with her family's gardener and they both came across a gunny sack. When opened, they found the body of a very young man inside. She recalls being deeply struck by that sight, realizing the futility of a young life with so much lost potential.

Many episodes from Dr. Sidhwa's life and her memories of Partition are captured in the fictionalized story that unfolds in Cracking India, originally published as Ice Candy Man in 1988. The popular 1998 film, Earth, is based on the book.

After Partition, at the age of 19, Dr. Sidhwa married and moved to Mumbai. She had a son and a daughter. Her marriage ended when she was 23 and she moved back to Lahore, though her son stayed behind. Due to border restrictions, she was unable to see him again for over a decade. She describes this as a devastating time. He finally was able to join her in Lahore in his late teens. She recalls going to Wagah border daily for four months to receive him, until one day he finally arrived.

Dr. Sidhwa says, “I am sharing this story because I wanted to share how Partition affected every single life. It affected my life by taking away my son and it put me through a grieving period for years… You don’t forget it.”

Ajit CourThe 1947 Partition Archive

India Politics (1946-05) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Closing Commentary by Dr. Urvashi Butalia - Writer, Publisher and Founder of Zubaan Books 

The last two decades in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been marked by the slow emergence of deeply-layered, complex and nuanced accounts of the experiences of people who lived through the Partition of 1947 and later 1971. Not surprisingly, many of the early narratives that came to public attention were the stories of men. Gradually, however, step by painful step, others such as women, children, minorities, poor and low caste people, have begun to speak.With women’s voices came a set of different, intimate, hitherto hidden histories through which other realities began to take shape. We heard about the terrible sexual violence women faced, mostly, but not always, by men of the ‘other’ community, and indeed sometimes by men of their own community. We heard too about survival, compassion, friendship, heroism and silence – the silence of aloneness, sometimes of abandonment, sometimes of family indifference, sometimes of the fear of speaking out about sexual violation. And we heard of women’s resilience – how they fought to save their children, how they hid cash and jewels in clothing, in walls, how they gave birth in refugee camps, covering their new-born infants with rags, how they moved into new professions and earned to keep their families together. Stories like this alert us to the importance of understanding the many ways in which Partition impacted the lives of ordinary people and the longstanding legacies of that history.   

Credits: Story

Exhibit Curation
Rohini Ramkrishnan

Material Sourcing and Editing
Elaine Jones

Special Advisor and Contributor
Dr. Urvashi Butalia

Ajit Cour
Interview conducted by Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, Founder and Director of the 1947 Partition Archive.

Arghwani Begum
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Badshah Begum
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Baljit Dhillon Vikram Singh
Interview conducted by Citizen Historian Farhana Afroz.

Dr. Bapsi Sidhwa
Interview conducted by Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, Founder and Director of the 1947 Partition Archive.

Gayatri Chakraborty
Interview conducted by Citizen Historian Sarmishtha Biswas with cameraperson Debanjan Sengupta.

Ghulam Bibi
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Jaya Mehta
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Sobia Saleem with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Lena Avraham
Interview conducted by Citizen Historian Ranjanpreet Nagra.

Maryam Babar
Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Interview conducted by Story Scholar Fakhra Hassan.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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