Partition and Collectivity: Language and Pain in the Indian Partition Riots

Jenny Lutkevich '03, Northwestern University

[This essay was originally written for English 365, Postcolonial Theory and Literature, by one of Jillana Enteen's students in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University.]

In Writers in Politics, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o describes language as a "collective memory-bank of a given people" (59). Language, as a public and discursive medium, is crucial for the construction and continuation of a common history. The exclusion of an event or experience from linguistic representation, then, prevents its entry into such a history. As Veena Das presents in her essay "Transactions in the Construction of Pain," the pain experienced by women who were abducted and raped during the Partition riots surrounding the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 is an example of a collective experience that did not enter the public discursive space, and thus was blocked from collective consciousness. The secrecy of this suffering, according to Das, caused pain to be internalized and carried by the women who had experienced it. Expression of such pain through language was necessary to allow women to escape the suffocation of their private suffering and, moreover, to convey the widespread suffering of the Partition violence into the collective history of Independence.

In the fifteen months surrounding the 1947 Partition of India, as many as 100,000 women were abducted and raped. Muslim women were abducted by Hindu and Sikh men into India, and Hindu and Sikh women were abducted by Muslim men into newly partitioned Pakistan (Das, Critical Events, 59). Womens' bodies became sites that, through massive collective violence, came to symbolize the nationalisms of the two new nations. Das states in Critical Events that "the woman's bodyŠbecame a sign through which men communicated with each other. The lives of women were framed by the notion that they were to bear permanent witness to the violence of Partition. Thus, the political programme of creating the two nations of India and Pakistan was inscribed upon the bodies of women" (56). The violence against women that occurred at Partition could be seen as what Das refers to as "discourses of assimilation" (56) within which the vying religions and newly formed nations attempted to overpower and thus mark the women of the other side. This led to forced conversions and sexual violation of abducted women, and often forced marriages to their abductors. Many of these forced sexual unions resulted in the birth of children, leading to major religious and political questions regarding the status of these "illegitimate children" who, as Das describes in Critical Events, are subject to the question of "what happens when women are impregnated by Œother' men and give birth to the Œwrong' children" (56).

State policies were developed to address the recovery of abducted women and the fate of children conceived in the enactment of sexual violence. In Critical Events, Das cites a resolution moved by Dr. Rajendra Prasad at the Indian National Congress on November 23 and 24, 1946.

The immediate problem is to produce a sense of security and rehabilitate homes and villages which have been broken up and destroyed. Women who have been abducted and forcibly married must be restored to their homes. Mass conversions which have taken place forcibly have no significance or validity and the people affected by them should be given every opportunity to return to their homes and the life of their choice (60).

Meetings between Pakistani and Indian representatives corroborated this policy, leading to the recovery of large numbers of women from each side and their reinstatement within their original homes. Returning women to their homes was, as Das states, "a matter of national honour" (66). However, the honor implicated in these efforts was linked to the sexual value of the women each state was attempting to recover. Das posits that "this interest in women was not premised upon their definition as citizens, but as sexual and reproductive beings" (68). In this construction, state efforts at recovery did nothing to take away the sexual subjugation that the women had experienced during abduction. Instead, it solidified their position as sexual objects and further dispossessed them of agency by making their recovery and return home into a product of legislative power. Paradoxically, as the state "distanced itself from the Œdepths of moral depravity' which the populace had shown and took upon itself the task of establishing civilized government" (Das 68) by legislatively providing for the recovery if its women and the return of abducted women within its confines, it entrenched the view of women as solely reproductive assets that produced the particular sexual violence of the Partition riots that the state was attempting to correct. Just as nationalism and discourses of assimilation were inscribed on the bodies of women in the violence of Partition, in the legislated recovery, "women are being redefined as semiotic objects on which the actions of the state are to be inscribed" (Das 71). The sole difference is that the recovery policies are seen as positive. Women's rights were not addressed by the state policies on recovery. Das states that, in developing legislation to address the abductions,

The whole debate was conducted in terms of a concern for the abducted women, and within a context in which the legitimacy of the Indian state was not in question. Yet one can plainly see that by evoking its protective functions the state was able to curtail the rights of abducted women much more effectively, and with an aura of complete legitimacy, than if it had relied upon its police functions alone (71).

If not from the state, where can agency come from? It is clear that legislative measures to recover abducted women only further subjugated them as reproductive objects. Publicity, discourse and explicit acknowledgement of the actual experience of abduction and rape were necessary for the actual suffering that women experienced to be recognized and alleviated. However, as Das addresses in Critical Events and in her essay "Transactions in the Construction of Pain," the actuality of the pain that women experienced as a result of the communal violence of Partition was shrouded in silence.

In her essay, Das asks the question "did forms of mourning find a place in the recreation of he world in, for instance, the discursive formations in post-Independence India?" (68). The answer, as she goes on to discuss, is resoundingly negative. She states that "in the normal process of mourning, grievous harm is inflicted by women on their own bodies, while he acoustic and linguistic codes make the loss public by the mourning laments. When asking women to narrate their experiences of the Partition I found a zone of silence around the event" (84). Metaphoric or evasive language was instead used to discuss the violence in general, but specific experiences of abduction and violation were not narrated. Das states in her essay that

this code of silence protected women who had been brought back to their familiesŠor who had been married by stretching norms of kinship and affinity since the violation of their bodies was never made public. Rather than bearing witness to the disorder that they had been subjected to, the metaphor that they used was of a woman drinking the poison and keeping it within her (84,85).

The secrecy of suffering contributed to its continuation. Whereas traditional mourning rituals publicized pain and thus allowed its expression and displacement, the pain of Partition violence was swallowed and carried. In her essay, Das refers to Wittgenstein's discursive theory in order to explicate the constitution of pain within language. She states that "the sentence ŒI am in pain' becomes the conduit through which I may move out of an inexpressible privacy and suffocation of my pain" (70). The utterance declaring that one is in pain is not a descriptive statement, instead it "makes a claim asking for acknowledgement" (70). Expression of pain through language, and the possibility of its subsequent legitimation through acknowledgement, is crucial to escaping from suffering. Unfortunately, in carrying the pain of abduction, women internalized the pain they had experienced, moving suffering from the surface of their bodies into their depths. Because of intensely personal and secret nature of pain and suffering, women had no chance of displacement of pain through acknowledgement, and thus their pain could not be alleviated. Das gives a striking account of the effects of the "drinking" of pain in an example from a story by Sadat Hasan Manto:

A woman is sitting in front of a mirror. Her speech is completely incoherent Š interspersed between the strings of nonsense syllables are meaningful sentences with precise information such as the bus number that brought her from one side of the border to the other. The woman is drawing grotesque designs on her body, registering these only in the mirror. She says she is designing a body that is appropriate for the time, for in those days, she says, women had to grow two stomachs‹one was the normal one and the second was for them to be able to bear the fruits of violence within themselves (86).

Conveying the experience of violence, through language, into the public realm is crucial for suffering to be allayed. Through symbolization of the bodily state through language, pain is exported and the world becomes livable again. Das posits that, through "transactions between body and language lead to an articulation of the world in which the strangeness of the worldŠcan be transformed into a world in which one can dwell again" (68,69).

The implications of non-expression of the pain of the Partition riots extend beyond the individual level. However profound the need for acknowledgement of suffering for women who experienced it, so is the importance of moving the actualities of the Partition violence against women into the collective memory and culture of the post-imperial moment. The only discursively and thus publicly legitimated response to the abduction of women is the state's policies regarding their recovery, which served only to entrench the non-agency of women. Women's own experiences of pain must become public in order to make their suffering part of the collective history of independence. This recognition is crucial, as the violence women experienced was not only concurrent with the creation of India and Pakistan, but was the ugly manifestation of nationalism emerging from these new states. The lack of linguistic acknowledgement of such suffering constitutes an ignorance of the actualities of the violence within the collective history of Independence.

The role of language in constructing a historical consciousness is discussed by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o in Writers in Politics. He states that the importance of language "is the same aspect which has made nations and peoples take up arms to prevent a total annihilation or assimilation of their languages, because it is tantamount to annihilating that people's collective memory-bank of past achievements and failures which form the basis of their common identity" (60). If obliteration of a language can erase collective history, then the effects of a collective event simply never entering into language must be the exclusion of that event from recognized history. The lack of recognition of women's suffering in the Partition riots constitutes a tragic omission from the history of independence. Giving voice to the particularities of violence inflicted in the name of national identity could move the widespread suffering, formerly individualized and internalized through silence, into the collective memory of a nation in whose independence it played a major role. Ngugi states that "a particular system of verbal signposts comes to reflect a given people's historical consciousnessŠtheir language becomes the memory-bank of their collective struggles over a period of time" (59). Given the scope and symbolization of the victimization of women in the Partition riots, it is historically crucial to transfer memory of the pain of these events from the internalized burdens of individuals who lived through the experience into discursively legitimated collective history. In Critical Events, Veena Das states that "the communal riots during Partition haveŠbeen called the birthmark of the new nations of India and Pakistan" (58). Moving the memories of suffering into the collective history of Independence cannot remove this blight from the creation of India and Pakistan, but it is necessary for recognition of those who suffered in the name of nationalism and for a more complete narrative of the immediate post-colonial moment.


Das, Veena. Critical Events. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Das, Veena. "Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain." Daedalus 125 no.1 (1996) 67-91.

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. Writers in Politics. London: Heinemann, 1981, 53-65.

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Last Modified: 4 April 2002