Book Review: Borders and Boundaries: How Women Experienced the Partition of India (2000) By Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin

Book Review by Anita Botello

On June 3, 1947, the Partition of India announced by the Hindustan-Pakistan Plan effectively created Pakistan by dividing provinces in India along religious-based borders.[1] The Muslim-majority provinces, which had been part of India became West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and regions of Punjab with a Hindu majority remained in India. As soon as lines were drawn, or even sooner, mass exoduses began on both sides as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were pushed to their new homes. Those reluctant to leave their communities were forced out by the violence that broke out at the beginning of partition. Rita Menon and Kamla Bhasin study the violence that defined the female experience during Partition and the post-Partition years in their book Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. Through their research, they seek to present an alternative view of Partition aside from the countless political histories that exist. To do this they rely of oral accounts of women that fell victim to the violence that overtook regions of India and Pakistan and expose the “tangled relationships between women, religious communities and the state.”[2] The female body become a site on which male honor was disputed and the state negotiated citizenship and borders.
Religious tensions in regions of India among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs began long before 1947, but the official declaration of Partition escalated the public violence against women. Sexual violence among these three communities included “stripping, parading naked, amputating breast, rape, and the killing fetuses.”[3] Menon and Bhasin argue that the overwhelming displays of sexual violence against women brought about feelings of shame and dishonor for both the family and the community as a whole. Taran, a Sikh woman, shares her story with Menon and Bhasin, stating that when faced with an imminent attack by a mob, her family along with others in her community discussed gathering the young girls in a room and setting it on fire to prevent them from falling into the hands of Muslim men. Stories like Taran’s were devastatingly common; some involved women forced to take poison, others hung themselves and some jumped off buildings. Acts of sexual violence on the female body by opposing communities were considered a sort pollution of the family. The researchers do not shy away from presenting readers with gruesome realities women faced. By showing them, they seek to engage the reader in the realties that marked female bodies in India and the national struggle that dominated that experience.

The process of recovering female refugees in both India and Pakistan was dictated by political debates about citizenship and responsibilities. Both governments established laws to recover abducted women and return them to their families and communities. The researchers rely on the account of a social worker, Kamlaben Patel, who was charged with the responsibility of returning Hindu and Sikh women to their families. With Patel’s account, Menon and Bhasin address the debate that emerged as social workers encountered women in Pakistan that did not want to return to India. Some women had married Muslim men and had children, but Indian abduction laws recognized them as citizens of India and demanded that they be returned to their families. They were considered daughters of India and the state considered it its duty to protect them as such, but what was the citizenship status of their children? Menon and Bhasin address this question through Patel, who states that initially the nations refused to allow women to cross borders with their children. Eventually, as Patel explains, these laws would change, but citizenship continued to be a topic of debate among abducted women.

Firsthand accounts provide Menon and Bhasin critical information necessary to study Partition in India from a feminist historical angle, but relying on oral histories can prove to be problematic. Menon and Bhasin address early on in their work, issues of memory and the interviewer-interviewee dynamic in oral histories. The relationship between a researcher and the subject is especially problematic because, as they point out, inequality exists; the subjects provide their narrative based on personal memories to be interpreted and used by the researcher. It is Menon and Bhasin’s responsibility to maintain “accuracy and fidelity to the letter and spirit of the narratives” that women share with them. [4] One way they accomplish this is by allowing the words of the women to stand alone, offering context and analysis in the beginning and end of each section, but ultimately allowing narratives to speak from themselves. They allow the reader to form a human connection with the histories of the women by transcribing interviews with little editing, which allows for the subjects voice to be imagined. While historians often promote a detachment from research, Menon and Bhasin present their bias early on by addressing their family ties. The narratives mean something to them not only as scholars, but also as women growing up in a post-partition India.

Scholar-activist and oral historian Maylei Blackwell uses the term “retrofitted memory” to describe a “form of countermemory that’s uses fragments of older histories” to uncover historical narrative that have been disappeared or lost.[5 In essence Menon and Bhasin’s collection of oral narratives is a form of retrofitted memory because it challenges the established history that exists on the Partition of India to uncover the gendered violence that took place during this time. While Menon and Bhasin explore uncharted waters, their work focuses mainly on the Indian experience with less emphasis on Muslim women in Pakistan. How did Muslim communities reconcile with the violence they experienced? What happened to those children born from sectarian violence? Oral narratives allow for the opportunity to continue exploring critical moments in history that defined individuals and communities.

[1] Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Brunswick (N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998) 33.Bottom of Form

[2] Ibid, 20.

[3] Ibid, 43.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Maylei Blackwell, Chicana Power: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011) 2.

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