Finding Wholeness in Violence

History Sep 02, 2019

By Bee Khaleeli
Published 2018-11-15

In order to meaningfully explore the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan—the migrations, the mass displacement, the massacres which would shape geopolitics in the Indian subcontinent through the 20th and 21st centuries— historians must reckon with the widespread occurrence of gendered and sexual violence. In the words of feminist scholars Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, this violence “knew no boundaries”: it was colossal in its scale, and often arbitrary in its execution. Scholars have consistently attempted to make sense of this phenomenon, encountering barriers when it is inevitably incompatible with canonized narratives of history, whether these focus on colonialism, subsequent nationalism, or class relations. For David Gilmartin, the impossibility—or the perceived impossibility—of creating narrative vis-à-vis these occurrences produces a sense that Partition is fated “to remain outside history.”

This has certainly not prevented historians from attempting to make sense of the traumatic ways that women in the subcontinent experienced the events of 1947. Partition’s centrality to the mythos of the Indian and Pakistani nation-states augments scholarly interest in sexual and gendered violence; the gendered implications of the event were constitutive of both countries’ political realities in the long-term. In this essay, I will illustrate the shifting understandings of gender and violence present in historiography of women’s experiences of the Partition of India and Pakistan. Prior to the late 1980s, readings of Partition more or less lacked meaningful treatment of gendered and sexual violence; but with early incursions into subaltern studies, the immense victimization of women across communal divides has been flagged. Following these interventions, scholarly work has sought to extract the complex experiences – and sometimes the agency– of women from these narratives of violence.

In order to move towards a historiography of gendered and sexual violence during Partition, it is necessary to first address the nature of the violence itself. What did it entail? Who was a perpetrator? A victim? In what contexts were the lines between the two blurred? Scholars have proposed diverse answers to these questions, but the basic realities of Partition remain. The Hindustan-Pakistan Plan was announced in June of 1947, and it set the stage for widescale migrations and a division of territory which would be finalized by August 15th of that year. The most obvious outcome was mass movement in both directions: 8 million people would cross the border within six months. Within this mass migration and displacement, women found themselves subjected to immense violence. Rape, abduction, forced conversion, and forced marriages were common across communal lines and borders. Furthermore, it was often carried out in ways that were seemingly random: women were not necessarily targeted by mobs of religious “others”. Menon and Bhasin remind us that in the midst of this chaos, “husbands, fathers, brothers, and even sons could turn killers.” Notably, this violence was not ordered by central authorities, but was carried out on a popular level.

Understandings of how this violence can be committed to historical memory—if at all—have shifted dramatically in the decades that have followed. Early Partition historiography offered minimal treatment of popular classes’ experience during violence and displacement, much less the plight of women in this context. A focus on the high politics of Partition necessitates the obscuring of sexual and gendered violence, which occurred outside of diplomatic and political spheres. The historical narratives which have prevailed throughout modernity overwhelmingly focus on the behaviours of the nation-state; women are thus left at the margins. Scholarly literature on Partition produced prior to 1985 consequently fails to address gendered and sexual violence entirely; the most seminal works on Partition which emerged at this time deal primarily with the “Great Men” of the era.

One such work which fits into this trend is Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan, first published in 1985. Jalal exclusively addresses Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s role in partisan politics and diplomacy, rather than taking a “ground-up” approach to Partition history which would allow readers to understand how civilians would have been impacted by these political moves. Similarly, Y. Krishan’s “Mountbatten and the Partition of India” centres on the last Viceroy of India, Earl Louis Mountbatten of Burma. In this reading, the outcomes of the Partition are deemed to be a direct result of Mountbatten’s decisions vis-à-vis transfer of power and division of authorities. To place focus on individual political figures in the elite nationalist or colonial realms necessitates a marginalization of popular experiences, and by extension, women’s experiences. It is not just gendered and sexual violence which is left out of these narratives—it is the popular social experience of political upheaval as a whole.

It would, however, be inaccurate to claim that gendered and sexual violence were not represented whatsoever in Partition narratives predating 1990. Rather, historical scholarship was not the site of this representation. Fictional works such as Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Chaman Nahal’s Azadi explore the popular experience of communal violence, social unrest, and mass migration, and within these themes, the authors address sexual and gendered violence. In both Singh and Nahal’s work, this violence is present in both the mundane happenings of day-to-day life and in the specific experience of Partition.

The same is true of Freedom at Midnight, a 1975 work of non-fiction which consistently makes references to violence against women in tandem with graphic descriptions of communal unrest. Written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre—an American and a Frenchman respectively—Freedom at Midnight adopts the occurrence of gendered and sexual violence in creating an image of chaos. This text offers gratuitous descriptions of women with “their breasts methodically mutilated”, and having their “chastity violated in the open streets”. Rape and murder of women are mentioned flippantly throughout the text, often as punctuation for descriptions of riots and general instability.

None of these authors seem to be concerned with producing nuanced, complex understandings of mass rape and abductions experienced by women. In all of these texts, representations of sexual and gendered violence function as signifiers for the scope of communal brutality, rather than as a signpost of women’s traumatic and multidimensional experiences during Partition. . What Singh, Nahal, and Collins and Lapierre magnify through these representations is state instability and the compromised boundaries of the political realms that Muslims and Hindus occupied; the bodies of women act as a stand-in for the territorial “body” of the nation-state in this sense.

Regardless of their shortcomings, these representations are noteworthy for historians, as they reveal the presence of sexual violence in popular imaginings of Partition prior to 1985. The occurrence of rape, abductions, assaults, and murder were not unknown to political figures or the popular class—in fact, it had been well-documented and addressed by state institutions in the midst of Partition. Explicit representations of sexual violence in literature would eventually metastasize into more deliberate and detailed successors in scholarly work within the coming decade thanks to the birth of a distinct new school of thought within history—subaltern history.

The advent of subaltern studies in the 1980s and 1990s allowed for a return to Gilmartin’s earlier question—how do we reconcile Partition as a singular event with existing historical narratives? Is this a feasible scholarly goal if we continue to centre the paradigms and pre-conditions of the nation-state? How do we bridge the disjuncture between discourses of the South Asian past and the single event that has come to define its present? Using the intellectual traditions of scholars of subalternity, such as Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Gayatri Spivak, a departure from this rift is possible. The subaltern, in the context of this intellectual tradition, is rooted in the work of Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who used the word in reference to the Italian peasantry. Within the context of postcolonial studies, however, it takes on a new meaning. Subalternity is less synonymous with the rural working class, and more referential to a specific position within colonial class relations—it is not “just a classy word for oppressed.” In this sense, as Spivak puts it, “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern—[it is] a space of difference.”

Subaltern history seeks to reimagine both the contents of history and the disciplinary frameworks which function as their container. Quoting Guha, postcolonial scholar Priyamvada Gopal points to how “Great Man” theories of history and the commonplace focus on high politics has created absences in our understandings of life as it was during Partition:

The ordinary apparatus of historiography has little to offer us here. Designed for big events and institutions, it is most at ease when made to operate on those larger phenomena which visibly stick out of the debris of the past. As a result, historical scholarship has developed . . . a tradition that tends to ignore the small drama and fine detail of social existence, especially at its lower depths.

For Gopal and Guha, there is much to be gained from gleaning the minutiae of social existence at the popular level. In this type of scholarship, life may exist outside of the frameworks of state apparatuses such as the judiciary or the diplomat’s office. The bureaucrats of the colony and the elites of the postcolonial nation-state can thus be unseated from the direct view of the historian, and focus can be placed instead on the everyday experiences of workers, peasants, women and children. In this sense, “subaltern studies emerged as a corrective to both colonialist and ‘bourgeois-nationalist’ historiography” .

It is unsurprising, then, that sexual and gendered violence was rendered visible within Partition historiography during the emergence of subaltern studies; Pippa Virdee refers to this shift as the emergence of Partition’s “new history” . This shift was coupled with the rapid development of an Indian feminist academic tradition; authors such as Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Urvashi Butalia contributed greatly to scholarship which focused on the experiences of women in Partition narratives. Andrew Major points out that “after several decades of silence… a more frank and sympathetic appraisal of women's suffering in 1947 is emerging [in] the form of feminist reconstruction.” We must note, then, that the inclusion of sexual and gendered violence in this scholarly work was not merely a natural outcome of subaltern-focused scholars “drawing attention to the small voices of history”. The work of Indian and Pakistani feminist academics required concerted attempts to grant women subjectivity within the study of Partition, and this inclusion may have not occurred in their absence.

Andrew Major’s “The Chief Sufferers: Abduction of Women during the Partition of the Punjab” is one of the first works which emerged within this category. Major specifically seeks to highlight the victimization of women in the Punjab, emphasizing the abduction and forced conversion that some were subjected to. According to Major:

It was women who were frequently singled out for especially humiliating treatment at the hands of men of the rival community: molestation, rape, mutilation, abduction, forcible conversion, marriage and death (the latter sometimes also inflicted by their own menfolk in order to save the 'honour' of women who were about to be maltreated).

Much like his fiction-writing predecessors, Major offers a series of raw accounts of the violence faced by Punjabi women. Mutilation, assaults, and suicides are all presented to readers in graphic detail. However, Major also provides us with an explanation of sorts for this violence, giving it coherence and legibility within the progression of history. For Major, the rapes and abductions which marked women’s experiences of Partition fit neatly into trends of violence against women during war—women are given the status of “territory”, and can thus be “occupied” or appropriated by men. His understanding of these occurrences also flags the cultural context of the Punjab; ‘power rapes’ and ‘abductions’ of women were not an uncommon way for men to assert dominance over their rivals. For Major, the rapist “was not impelled by anger or a desire for revenge. For him it was a God-given occasion to do something he heartily enjoyed.”

Similarly, Menon and Bhasin highlight the immense victimization of women. They place particular emphasis on government reactions to sexual and gendered violence, which allows for a marriage between high politics and popular experiences. Efforts by both governments to “recover” abducted women focused on the “moral depravity” of the other side and the need to repatriate “their” women. Women were deprived of agency both before and after recovery—often returning to one’s “home country” was not always a choice, but rather a demand. Relatives of these women would sometimes reject them or demand that they marry a second time, and they would ultimately feel alienated and isolated upon coming “home”. The perspective of women is only one third of the picture that Menon and Bhasin present; they also overwhelmingly focus on government bureaucrats and social workers when exploring abduction. In this sense, women are given a very limited voice, and it ultimately only serves to express their victimization.

Similarly, Gyanendra Pandey’s “Community and Violence: Recalling Partition” highlights the nature of violence during this time. Pointing specifically to the construction of violence happening “elsewhere” at the hands of the “Other”, Pandey argues that Partition was accompanied by a certain distancing from the occurrence of violence, where sacrifice and martyrdom were understood as obligatory, particularly for women. She highlights instances such as the mass forced suicide of Sikh women by drowning in the Punjab. Violence within communities was emphatically seen not as violence, but necessary and honorable, and as corrective to the shame of abduction. Pandey argues that this forces women who are victimized into “survivors’ narratives”.

These texts share one central commonality—their focus on victimhood. Despite their varied approaches to understanding sexual and gendered violence, women are always characterized as being vulnerable to exploitation and oppression. Narrativizing Partition with women in mind inevitably seems to involve some variation of tragedy as its closure, whether it be rape, mutilation, abduction, sacrifice, murder, or suicide, and this has implications for the overall representation of women. As Hayden White asks us, “what other ‘ending’ could a given sequence of such events have than a ‘moralizing’ ending?” There is no way to present a historical narrative which does not enact some kind of moralizing conclusion upon a series of events. In the case of Partition, scholarly work produced prior to the 2000s leads us to a singular moral conclusion—it is that Indian women lacked autonomy. While it is certainly true that women were subject to horrific treatment, the tendency to frame sexual and gendered violence in absolute terms raises the issue of agency for historians.

There is one text from this milieu of scholarship which deviates from the existing trend. Urvashi Butalia’s “Women, State, and Gender: On Women’s Agency during Partition” explores the ways in which women occupied roles which transcended uncomplicated victimhood during Partition. Butalia highlights women’s roles as participants and perpetrators in communal violence, as dissenters when faced with state repatriation, and even as active and often willing participants in mass suicides. For Butalia, it is crucial that these “valorous” women, who exercised power and agency during Partition, be written into history. Much like uncomplicated victimization, this valorization is equally worth problematizing—for it necessitates the dismissal from our narratives of women who did not survive or benefit from this violence. Not all women were perpetrators or accomplices in violence, or active dissenters, or willing martyrs. Do these women consequently not meet the mark in terms of having their own agency? Do they not hold complex, multifaceted experiences—worth writing into history—even when irreparably victimized, and often ultimately killed, as a result of violence? We must ask if it is possible, or even desirable, to only provide partial agency to women as historical actors. Given these realities, is agency ultimately a theme which scholars should seek to illuminate in Partition narratives?

The question of agency echoes in more recent historiographical contributions, albeit in more subtle ways. Post-2000, we see an influx of oral histories in the realm of Partition scholarship. Pippa Virdee and Anjali Bharwaj Datta have produced particularly valuable studies on gendered experiences of Partition by using women’s oral history. If we are not seeking agency-as-resistance for these women per se, then we can at least offer them wholeness as actors in historical narratives— under the right conditions, oral histories can allow for this. For Virdee, oral histories introduce an affective component into scholarship and contextualizes the violence which women faced, granting them complete lives in the historical record. These women speak of their victimization and fear, but they also offer scholars information on the minutiae and happenings of their day-to-day lives. The goal here is not to replace traditional histories, but rather to broaden and diversify what history may be about. By changing the meaning of history itself, women’s experiences can be represented in complex and individual ways, rather than being narrativized as uncomplicated victimhood or agency.

Partition historiography has been the site of shifting understandings of gendered and sexual violence, from the silences of high politics-focused scholarship to the representations within Partition’s “new history”. Ultimately, this flux allows us to reimagine women’s experiences of violence as what they are—complex, sometimes tragic, often messy, and perpetually situated in a certain temporal and cultural context. When narrativizing this history, historians have run into the problems of agency and voice, and undoubtedly these issues have not departed from scholarship. It is necessary that historians focus not on abstract notions of oppression or agency exclusively in their Partition scholarship—while these concepts may act as valuable theoretical foundations, they cannot replace the development of an academic tradition which allows for a complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship to the occurrence of gendered and sexual violence. To grant women who were subject to violence “agency” in Partition historiography does not necessarily “empower” or valorize, as it relies on survivorhood narratives at the expense of those who experienced victimhood. Ultimately, finding wholeness in these women’s lives is a more valuable intellectual exercise.

Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin. "Recovery, Rupture, Resistance: Indian State and Abduction of Women during Partition." Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 17 (1993): WS2.

David Gilmartin. "Partition, Pakistan, and South Asian History: In Search of a Narrative." The Journal of Asian Studies 57, no. 4 (1998): 1070.

Gilmartin is more specifically referring to the incompatibility of the experience of Partition with historical discourses that centre the high politics of the epoch. This stance is not formulated in a way that explicitly implicates subaltern history.


Menon and Bhasin, “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance”, WS3.

Robert M Hayden.. "Rape and Rape Avoidance in Ethno-National Conflicts: Sexual Violence in Liminalized States." American Anthropologist 102, no. 1 (2000): 29.

Menon and Bhasin, “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance”, WS2.

Hayden, “Sexual Violence in Liminalized States”, 29.

Anthropologist Robert M. Hayden underscores that this lack of governmental command does not render the sexual and gendered violence which occurred during partition random and strategic.
Gilmartin. "Partition, Pakistan, and South Asian History”, 1070.

Ayesha Jalal. The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Y. Krishan. "Mountbatten and the Partition of India". History. 68 (1983): 22-38.

The two novels which I examined were written in English. When examining representations of Partition in Anglophone literature from the subcontinent, it is necessary to account for two particular factors; firstly, that the particular demographics of a formerly colonized indigenous population capable of producing literary works in English tended to occupy a particular classed position which would impact their representations of popular violence; secondly, that these works would enter the global literary market place more easily by virtue of their language, and that certain representations of violence would be deemed more appealing to a metropolitan audience.

Shakti Batra. "Two Partition Novels." Indian Literature 18, no. 3 (1975): 83.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. Freedom at Midnight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975. 331.

Collins and Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight. 331.


Frances Harrison. "Literary Representation: Partition in Indian and Pakistani Novels in English." Indian Literature 34, no. 5 (145) (1991): 109.

Menon and Bhasin, “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance.”

Leon de Kock, “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literatures. 23 (3):45.

Priyamvada Gopal. “Reading subaltern history”. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies. Ed. Lazarus, Neil. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Gopal, “Reading Subaltern History.”

Pippa Virdee. "Remembering Partition: Women, Oral Histories and the Partition of 1947." Oral History 41, no. 2 (2013): 51.

Andrew J. Major. ‘The chief sufferers’: Abduction of women during the partition of the Punjab” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 18:s1 (1995): 58.


Major, “The Chief Sufferers”, 58.


Ibid., 62.

Ibid, 60.


Though Major later adds that “not all men” were involved in perpetrating violence, I have chosen to highlight this particular quote because I feel that it is representative of one of the major implications of painting women with the brush of constant victimhood—it allows authors to subsequently construct an image of the violent and chauvinistic South Asian man. This implicitly racialized construction allows for subtle—but nonetheless nefarious—justifications of colonial violence. Major, “The Chief Sufferers”, 60.

Menon and Bhasin, “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance”, WS3.


Ibid., WS5.


Gyanendra Pandey. "Community and Violence: Recalling Partition." Economic and Political Weekly 32, no. 32 (1997): 2042.

Ibid., 2044.

Hayden White. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987. 23.

I reference the sign of “agency” as it is understood by Walter Johnson—specifically, his characterization of this tool of analysis as a liberal construction which assigns a sense of independence to historical actors.
Urvashi Butalia. "Community, State and Gender: On Women's Agency during Partition." Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 17 (1993): S24.


See “Remembering Partition: Women, Oral Histories, and the Partition of 1947” by Virdee and “Gendering Oral History of Partition: Interrogating Patriarchy” by Datta.

Virdee, “Remembering Partition”, 53.