End of silence: A woman’s narrative of the 1947 Partition

Published: August 13, 2015

A woman sitting on the floor holding her baby, both weak from malnutrition and abuse. PHOTO: LIFE MAGAZINE

A woman sitting on the floor holding her baby, both weak from malnutrition and abuse. PHOTO: LIFE MAGAZINE Most of these women never had the chance to tell their stories but even the ones who did, chose to let silence take over instead. PHOTO: LIFE MAGAZINE

Many of us born to families who migrated across borders during partition grew up hearing whispers of events from that time. The end of the British Raj in India saw the subcontinent dissected into two Pakistan and India.

This led to the largest migration in history and caused widespread communal violence. My nani (maternal grandmother) narrated tragedies of madness raging the land without adequate police or troops to maintain law and order.

One of my nani’s friends narrated how her father had told all the women in their family that should the train they were on be stopped and boarded by rioting mobs, they should commit suicide. She was proud of the fact that they had agreed to the idea of group suicide, although luckily, no such need presented itself.

I was shocked. Why did they agree to it in the first place? When I expressed my astonishment to their plan, I was told that it was better to die than be dishonoured.

Reading about the Partition, I am overwhelmed by the intensity of the violence but I am even more astounded by how much of it was directed towards women. Thousands of women were abducted, raped, mutilated, used as slaves and discarded. Considering the extent of the violence, what is truly dumbfounding is how little has been written about it. It is as if the women did not matter enough for people to even bear witness to the cruelty they suffered and suffer they did; Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women, they all suffered.

The women themselves do not like to narrate or talk of what they experienced. Truth is that most of those who were abducted were also later abandoned by their families. A woman’s rape means dishonour to her kin. Her presence is a reminder of her shame. It is apparently easier to shun her and pretend she never existed.

Most of these women never had the chance to tell their stories but even the ones who did chose to let silence take over instead.

“Even when women survivors narrated Partition stories to their families, there were pauses in the narrative. As they began sharing their stories with scholars, women did not reveal any incidents of sexual violence they personally experienced.”

The governments of the two countries came to an agreement that abducted persons should be recovered. India’s Abducted Persons Act of 1949 stated that:

“‘Abducted person’ means a male child of under the age of 16 years or a female of whatever age who is, or immediately before the first day of March, 1947, was a Muslim (Pakistan’s Law stated Hindu or Sikh) and who on or after that day or before the first day of January, 1949, was separated from his or her family and is found to be living with or in control of any other individual or family, and in the latter case includes a child born to any such female after the said date.”

Where men over the age of 16 were given the option to choose whether they wanted to remain where they were, the women had the decision forced upon them by the state. They had to leave any children they may have had and if they were pregnant, even though abortions were illegal in both countries, their pregnancies were aborted.

In many instances, the families who these women were being returned to did not want them. Gandhi even felt the need to give a speech addressing this problem.

“Thousands of Hindu and Sikh girls have been abducted by the Muslims and Muslim women have been abducted by the Hindu and Sikh. Where are these women at present? We have no clue as to where they are at the moment. Those who met in Lahore have decided that all abducted women – Hindu, Sikh and Muslims – should be recovered. I have received a long list of Muslim women who have been abducted from Kashmir and the state of Patiala. Many of them belong to wealthy, good families.

If these women are recovered, there should be no problem in them being accepted by their families. However, it is doubtful that our Hindus and Sikhs will accept their abducted women and treat them with respect. They may have been forced to marry someone and may have even converted to Islam.

Despite this, in my opinion, they should not be considered as Muslims at all. I would be happy to keep these women with me and treat them with respect. At heart, they are pure. However, because they fell into the hands of evil men, I would only have compassion for them and would have no reason to despise them. Society must gracefully accept them.”

It is interesting that Gandhi felt that Muslim families would treat these women better in comparison to their Hindu and Sikh counterparts. But I am sure that Gandhi was largely mistaken in his assumption. Societies do not always behave with grace.

Tehmina Khan

Tehmina Khan

Currently enrolled in a correspondence writing program at the Humber School of Writers, and working on a book of short stories with a mentor, M.G. Vassanji.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Headstrong

    When are you people planning to enter the 21st century? Every second day you people have some blog about partition/ Two Nation Theory/ how Jinnah ‘saved’ you etc etc. But when India accuses pakistan of the destructive tendencies in the (relatively) more recent past, the stock answer is “Why do you people keep looking back – look forward”? Could this be a symptom of mass schizophrenia? Recommend

  • troub

    I hope the writer/bloger might have gone through the history..Anywhere in the history of Mankind and in particular Indian sub-continent Islam spread through force and raped women .Recommend

  • Queen

    You have not heard John F Kennedy saying: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”
    And we Pakistanis believe in our Qaid-e-Azam’s idea which is Pakistan.

    Happy Independence Day to you and your countrymen.Recommend

  • Free Thinker

    The left-wing media who loves to scrutinize and dissect every bit of Pakistani history for their agenda, isn’t representative of the average Pakistani who has move on since ’47 and lives in the moment.Recommend

  • shiva the destroyer

    what Are Indians doing here? I thought only pakistanis come to our sites to spam….what are Indians doing here?Recommend


    My father’s aunty misplaced in our native village Sahowal, Gurdaspur, India during 1947 when all family members were moving towards newly established Pakistan. However, when situation become normalize our elders went to Gurdaspur to search her and luckily they found her. She told elders that a sikh soldier married her and in these circumstances it is not good to go to Pakistan along with elders so she remained there in her native town, village Sahowal Gurdaspur.

    Further, I requested an Indian friend to trace out our native village Sahowal, who not only traced out it but also arranged a function in the school where my father studied upto class 5th (now eighty plus and living at Lahore). Pictures of function can be seen by clicking :


  • Headstrong

    Good for you. Believe me, today we realise that we are as happy as you that Jinnah thought of pakistan as a separate nation! May the idea live on forever, indeed may it thrive! Just don’t ram it down our throats every now and then. It seems that you need to continually reassure yourself of the soundness of the idea.

    A Happy Independence Day to you and all your compatriots too. Recommend

  • Headstrong

    Ironical you saying that – with your moniker!Recommend

  • optimist

    @ Headstrong as soon as ” you people” accept what happened in 1947. It is a reality, a dagger in the heart of bharat mata to which you people must come at ease with now. Every day and not every second day we thank the almighty for this day (partition) this theory and Jinnah…and will continue to do so no matter which century our neighbors will strive to keep us. Looking back is a thousand year rule which you must never forget….and looking forward is the Red from the north and Green from the west set to sweep everything in its way…So why not choose a new direction for yourself to look at?….Happy independence day!

  • Malveros

    Partition of Punjab and the misery created by it is heavy on our hearts.Recommend

  • ajay gupta

    you woke up yesterday? who doesnt know all this?Recommend

  • Headstrong

    Yada yada yada….

    Please do read my reply to Queen above to rid yourself of the cobwebs.

    A Happy Independence Day to you too. May you be truly independent, and not solely dependent on ‘Reds’!Recommend

  • optimist

    @ troub oops! seems they missed one!Recommend

  • optimist

    did you intend to rite “yaad hai”? am sure you cant really forget it and you would be right to advise that had you people not been born and bred of the red army…only learning from ‘you people’ mate. and ramming down your throat?…tribune blogs was very much us last time i checked…wake up perhaps?Recommend

  • Headstrong

    Maybe I should use words of 1 syllable – obviously nuances go way above you.
    This ‘1000 year rule’ you people go on about – it is truly amusing that you construe this as some kind of rule of yours. There was no ‘you’, how hard is it to understand that? If it means Muslim rule, how does that translate to ‘your’ rule? We have as many, if not more, Muslims here.
    Is the Tribune Blog truly yours? I see 60% articles on us – mostly negative, of course, but still… Just saying :-)Recommend

  • shiva the destroyer

    this is the first time I have been to a paki site…I thought I would come and say HiRecommend

  • amartya

    pakistan (esp Punjabistan) is an insecure state.so they need such articles to constantly remind of their quaid’s vision. two nation theory was based on the fact that muslims can’t live with hindus and this idea has been rubbished a long ago first by maulana abul azad and then by bangladesh freedom. now when they see Indian muslims doing far better than themselves and in top positions in india in many fields and many pakis going to India to in search of jobs e.g. musicians actors/actresses etc. they become more insecure . you can spot the difference between India and Pakistan at an Indian mosque and a pakistani mosque as there is heavy security check outside a pakistani mosque due to fear of terrorists and there is none outside an Indian one. so a country especially made for muslims has difficulty protecting muslims of other sects ,regions whereas same no. of muslims living in India(which is a hindu kafir nation in views of many pakjabis) does not need any type of security. LOLRecommend

  • Headstrong

    Well, as they say, the more the merrier… not for these people though :-)Recommend

  • Bairooni Haath

    Maybe there should be a discussion on Jinnah’s role in this whole affair. Jinnah is a historical figure. It is time he is studied objectively.Recommend

  • Diya

    You Indians beg to our musicians to sing for them. Because you can’t achieve 100 crore target with singers like Himesh Reshamiya. Recommend

  • Rajiv

    There was nothng like “partition”
    There were Hindu majority and Muslim majority areas and they were “separated” not “partitioned”.Recommend

  • Rajiv

    That’s funny.
    When was the last time Pakistanis were a nation and which area they ever ruled?Recommend

  • Rajiv

    Yeah Thanks
    Today we are more happy to see you Pakistanis on the other side of the border.
    Thanks to ‘your’ Jinnah.Recommend

  • The Truth

    There is one and only one truth.
    Only 10% of Muslims from India, were expelled or left for Pakistan.
    90% of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains were expelled or forced out of Pakistan.

    The difference is monumental.Recommend

  • Rajiv

    We open this weblog on our computer, in our houses using internet connection which we pay for.
    Don’t write about India , Indians won’t come here.

  • shimatoree

    It is good that there are people like this writer who help others recall and remember those Human beings who were subjected to the events of the partition. If you use that word Partition and most do then you accept that a WHOLW was PARTITIONED into 2 or 3. It am grateful to the writer for bringing up this specific aspect of 1947 on this 14th of August so that everyone can REFLECT and remember and THINK of those that were like burning candles and burnt out without anyone knowing about them or thinking about them.
    There are no museums nor any monuments to the million Plus who perished and 11 million plus who were up rooted. And I am saddened to see here that some do not even wish to RESPECT those that perished.Recommend

  • harish goswami

    Is it not amazing that a person divide his mother land for his own political ambitions ? Please do not take it as hindu or muslim.Recommend

  • harish goswami

    Is it not ironic and amazing that a person divide his motherland for his own political ambitions ?Recommend

  • dronachary

    @author …. read the responses below and see how deep the scar of partition is. Not only in ur mind but our heart too. For many liberal Indians like myself my angst against creation of Pakistan is that by doing so Jinnah only encouraged extremists on both side of border giving firebrand religious leaders excuses to be more assertive against the minorities left behind.
    Instead of partition the leaders had choice to make it a strong secular republic with strict rules against any form of racism by color, religion or sex. But handful of insecure and greedy people decided to use the religious difference as tool to demand their own piece of land to rule. Thereby throwing the 1.4 billion mass into perpetual chasm of hatred, mis trust and endless complains against each other and tear everything which comes in between them……even if that thing is “sensibility”.
    I like many other liberals in India, hate the two nation theory not because muslims got their own land, but purely because it fracked us “desis” for good.
    What good did we achieve really with this partition ? Happy Independence day anyways. May all be truly independent from ghosts of the past.Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    The sad part is they keep quoting the same old Aug 11 speech, forgetting other speeches of Jinnah.

    Depending on the political orientation dictates which speech of Jinnah they will quote. If they are more leaning towards secularism and closer to what they consider liberal values, they will quote the Aug 11 speech of Jinnah.

    If they are little conservative and lean towards the Right, they quote Jinnah’s other speeches where he is saying things like Pakistan’s Consitution should have Sharia as its base and all laws will hence follow the Sharia, or the myriad times he talks about Islam and its principles when talking about Pakistan’s formation and its principles.

    But, none of the above 2 groups talk about his really communal speeches and actions. Almost nobody ever quotes “We will divide India or destroy it” which trigerred the Direct Action day riots. Nobody even knows that Muslim League under Jinnah’s Presidentship released a Direct Action manifesto, just before the massacre of 5000 Hindus in Muslim majority Bengal, ruled by Muslim League, under a ML CM. This manifesto which talks about “Jehad”, about how Muslims have in the past taken up arms in various “Battles”, etc. right before a carnage bears no importance in anyone’s mind.

    So, what you talk about is just a tip of the iceburg, my friend. Thankfuly, Pakistanis have us Indians to remind them of a Jinnah and Muslim League they wont read about in their Text books. :)

    Happy Independency day! :)Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    They say unity is strength. The 450 Million Muslims, whose population will exceed 800 Million by 2050, are divided into 3 equal parts. All thanks to Jinnah. Imagine undivided India today, Army would be dominated by Muslims, would have many PMs and CMs who were Muslim. No Shia Sunni massacring each other, as they would be united to pose a united front towards Hindus. Ahmadis could freely call themselves Muslim.

    Bangladesh is doing alright, not because of Jinnah, but despite of him. Bengalis will always remember Jinnah’s anti-Bengali speeches. They are more Bengali than Muslim.

    Pakistan, well, we all know what has been happening. More Muslims have died in the past year due to Political/Religious violence in Karachi than India and Bangladesh combined! 60,000 dead in the last 10 years due to Terror. Add to that the 3 million dead in the 1971 war – Muslims killing other Muslims.

    Because of Pakistan, the entire Religion of Islam has got a bad name. All due to Jinnah and his Muslim League and their actions.
    India is still a continental sized country, with a LOT of resources. Sure, it lost half of fertile lands of Punjab. But, it also got a buffer state – Pakistan – from the violence and turbulance from Afghanistan.

    Remember invaders from Afghanistan – Alexander, Ghaznavi, etc – attacked the areas that now constitute Pakistan. Mughals too passed through to conquer large parts of rest of India. Now that loophole has been plugged. Afghanistan is now Pakistan’s nightmare and what a nightmare it is!

    So, after putting things in perspective, I am greatly appreciative of what happened in 1947. India is and forever be a Hindu dominated country which will have the biggest GDP in the world and assume great power!

    Thank you, Jinnah!Recommend

  • optimist

    haha. given the logic the entire ” you’ media is truly ours? they have alot more of us in the news and films!…dude i rest my case now! ;-)Recommend

  • vivek

    Our bulldozer from ‘the diplomat’ is on express tribune . Welcome , brother from another mother .Recommend

  • shiva the destroyer

    lol u also post on the diplomat?Recommend

  • Khalid Zaki

    PMs like Modi have given a new life to two nation theory. He is giving statements and making rules that will desperate two nations.Brief ban is one such act.Recommend

  • Headstrong

    Good point. Unfortunately for you, our media isn’t focussed on you – print, electronic or entertainment.
    But you’re welcome to Bollywood – I hold no brief for them :-)
    Just leave us our regional films – they’re far better.

  • http://www.umalik.com/ Usman

    How bigoted is the education system and even media in India that you people cannot even accept that people (especially) women suffered miserably during the partition equally on both sides!?

    To move forward you need to at least accept and acknowledge what happened in the past. Recommend

  • Headstrong

    Sir, we have accepted, acknowledged, resigned ourselves etc to all that has happened in the past and moved on. The point of my comment, which you have apparently missed, is exactly that. Read my comment – slowly. Read aloud, if you must… Recommend

  • vivek

    Yup ….a regular there . Been fightin there with ‘free okin’ and ‘muhamad_munshi” since ancient times . lolRecommend

  • shiva the destroyer

    both r well paid trollsRecommend

  • Guest

    Thank you for sharing and making a comment that is relevant and appropriate, not to mention interesting as well.

    As opposed to the usual childish internet warriors out to prove who is better now or was worse then etc.Recommend

  • dude

    we have not accepted and we will never accept..there was no pakistan before 1947.. its only the cunning british who has created this historical problem.Recommend

  • dude

    the partition is incomplete because you have left the 20 cr muslims in India. Two nation theory in true sense would complete when you take all those muslims back from India to PakistanRecommend

  • dude

    Indians like to have fun with Pakistan and bash them everywhere including this site. :)Recommend

  • jack night

    Have you heard of Kishore kumar,Muhammad rafiq,arjit singh?
    AR Rahman from India won an oscar for best musician.It is Pakistanis who are ready to sing for lower prices as compared to Indian singers and hence the producers hire them to save budget.Recommend

  • Ali

    Ironic that in your so called acceptance you make a living out of coming on Pakistani websites and commenting – insecurity much?Recommend

  • Ali

    You open this weblog – why? Pleasetell me who it was that made you open Express Tribune Recommend

  • Headstrong

    If insecurity means refuting fake news and countering an obsessed nation, then guilty as charged.Recommend

  • http://www.umalik.com/ Usman

    I’m glad not many people care about your opinion. Cheers! Recommend

  • http://www.umalik.com/ Usman

    Your comment is very clear: unrelated to a very good blog post and filed with sense of weird superiority complex. Please read the article again, then your comment and pray tell me what is the correlation between the two! Recommend

  • Headstrong

    I don’t think my comment was clear to you, though. Why am I not surprised that you people don’t get it?Recommend

  • Ali

    No fake news here or obsession – the only thing obsessive in this discussion is you. Why don’t you help out your own country instead of cyber fighting on pakistani websites?Recommend

  • Headstrong

    I help my country in my way, thank you. That includes countering propagandaRecommend

  • Santosh Anand

    Those are slaves we have kept for entertainment.Recommend

  • Santosh Anand

    They are no more than beggars singing in trains.Recommend

  • Santosh Anand

    It is funny.Recommend

  • ayesha

    My dada, dadi, my father(who was 6 or 7 at that time) and his younger siblings were in Dehli in August 1947. Dada had initially decided to take the train to Lahore on 16th August and had also informed their family in Lahore about this plan. However, they took the train for Karachi on 24th August taking with them a suitcase, which contained bare essentials for the children with them. In the meanwhile, the family in Lahore had already held a ghaibana jinaaza for them as the ”trains of death” reached Lahore carrying a cargo of dead and mutilated bodies.

    My maternal grandfather, nana, had been in the British Indian army, he had fought in the second world war and in 1947, he was in the boundary force. He had atleast a dozen photo albums of the ”trains of death” and the people migrating across the border. He used to talk about the divisions which existed at that time that even in those troubled times, at the train stations, the ”hindu pani” and ”muslim pani” was separate and hindus never drank from the same cup as the Muslims or if a Muslim drank from theirs, the cup was discarded or broken as it had turned ”achoot”.

    Sadly we lost those pictures over time, some very borrowed and we hope those may have survived.Recommend

  • ayesha

    Great article! It’s good that someone is talking about women’s experiences of the partition. Perhaps Bapsi Sidhwa touched upon the theme (the ayah) and Razia But wrote a novel, Bano, which hows the plight of the women of a family which decided to move from Ludhiana to Pakistan. The central character, the heroine, Bano loses her entire family, even a pregnant cousin is bayoneted. She is abducted from the train bound for Pakistan and forcibly married off to a sikh. She returns to Pakistan with a sikh baby in tow after a few years and finds that the life is not what she imagined and eventually goes mad.Recommend

  • ayesha

    Also watch, Khamosh Pani/ Silent waters on the subject.Recommend

  • http://www.umalik.com/ Usman

    Ah the complexes again. Cheers!Recommend

  • Headstrong

    Cheers! Do try and get an identity other than one solely focussed on being anti-India :-)Recommend

  • http://www.umalik.com/ Usman

    Oh please trust me when I say this, people in Pakistan do not even think about India let alone being anti-India. Fortunately it is not India where the whole politics of the country works on being a desh-baght by being anti-Pakistan :)


  • Headstrong

    Sorry, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Why ask me, take a look at your news. Count the number of articles on India – mainly negative. You can cover all sorts of stories, but the big story – the launching of GSLV is not covered. What does that say to you?Recommend

  • http://www.umalik.com/ Usman

    Please switch on a Pakistani tv channel and compare that your Indian news channels. Listen to your neta’s speech during elections and then compare it to Pakistanis.

    I’d leave it at that. Recommend

  • Headstrong

    Be it TV channels, news papers, websites or politicians/ army personnel, pakistan churns out many more quotes a day. As far as India is concerned, our dear western neighbour is an irritant, a mosquito – to small to really hurt us, too irritating to be ignored completely, with the possibility of contracting something deadly depending on which swamp the mosquito has been in and what deadly disease it carries.Recommend

  • http://www.umalik.com/ Usman

    One can only sympathies with your state of mind. Cheers!Recommend