Tag Archives: violence

14Aug/17

Amrit Wilson: Gender & Partition

This article is based on a talk given by Amrit Wilson of South Asia Solidarity Group at the event Decolonising Partition: 70 Years On, hosted by Consented at Birkbeck University of London, 30th July 2017

Amrit Wilson

For us in the South Asian diaspora, history is not only about exploring our roots, though that too, it is about understanding the present and accessing finding ways forward. It is encouraging then that there are now a number of projects in the UK collecting oral histories of Partition. In many cases, those who speak about their experiences and explore their memories are women. These narratives are important and unique because they relate to a specific type of experience – of leaving behind your home and the base of your life, not once but twice over. I gained an understanding of these second separations, this second sense of loss, through the interviews I recorded with South Asian women back in the 70s when they first came to Britain.

When we examine and reflect on these women’s narratives which have been, and are still being, collected in Britain about Partition, a number of things become clear. Firstly, that there can be no non-gendered way of understanding that period; secondly, that these narratives  told through women’s voices demolish the notion that women in South Asian communities were simply symbols of honour and lacking in agency; and thirdly, that to fully understand these experiences we need to also examine colonial, as well as South Asian, patriarchies.

It is crucial, however, that we locate this new research against the rich body of work done in South Asia itself. Too often the research done in India and elsewhere in South Asia is ignored, invisibilised by British historians and academics. We in the diaspora must not do the same. We must embrace it. We need to examine the writings of Urvashi Bhutalia, Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon and Veena Das, among others, and watch remarkable documentary films like ‘Stories of the Broken Self’ in which women who experienced Partition reflect on what happened to them and how they felt and still feel.

It is clear that the trauma of these terrible experiences still haunts the lives of those who experienced it. The memories have not faded, even though they try to push them aside and live their lives. As Nusrat, a woman living in Pakistan, explains in the Stories of the Broken Self (quoted by Humaira Saeed in her fascinating thesis Persisting Partition: Gender, Memory and Trauma in Women’s Narratives of Pakistan):

‘None of this is written in any of our history books. [pause] We have never read about it, never thought about it. [pause] Why are we only concerned with ourselves, our own selves? [pause] My children tell me “Ammi, forget about it, we want peace,” especially my grandchildren. And I say, “Yes, so do I”.’

For a decolonial understanding of the various political forces of that period, we need also to understand the events which led up to it. The reasons for Partition cannot be understood without examining 1857, the First War of Independence or ‘the Mutiny’ as it is called dismissively in British history books. It was an uprising on an enormous scale across what is now Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh which lasted over two years and required the British to bring colonial troops from other parts of their Empire to finally subdue it.

At the core of the uprising were about 95% of the Colonial Indian army, the Sepoys, who were mainly Hindu. In addition there were not only members of the feudal aristocracy, but vast numbers of peasants and unemployed crafts people whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the economic restructuring central to British colonialism.

Despite this broad demographic, as Kalpana Wilson writes in her book Race, Racism and Development – Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice, British historians – most recently William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal – have portrayed 1857 as a battle between Islam and Christianity, even while conceding that the great majority of Sepoys were Hindus. Dalrymple fails to mention the use of rape as a colonial weapon or the sheer staggering scale of this, and ignores the work of highly respected Indian scholars like Rajat Kant Ray (cited in Wilson’s book), who noted that the uprisings saw people of different religions who shared a syncretic culture consciously unite to fight the colonizers in the name of Hindustani Independence.

1857 was also, in a variety of ways, a watershed for British colonial policy. After 1857, Muslims were portrayed as invaders and denied administrative jobs. Both Hindus and Muslims were encouraged to think that their religion was under threat.

These divide and rule policies culminated in the partition of Bengal along religious lines, in 1905 – a key event in terms of the later partition of India, because while Bengal was reunited in 1911 after mass protests, strikes, and even assassination attempts, the damage had been done.

Sure enough, the very next year saw the emergence of two communal organisations, the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. Neither of these organisations ever played any part in the anti-colonial struggle. The Hindu Mahasabha eventually morphed into the Jan Sangh party, which became the BJP, and many of its leaders were also leaders of the RSS, the fascist organisation which is the ideological parent of the BJP and is ultimately responsible for the current horrendous violence going on in India, including mass lynching, rapes and ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Muslim League, is often referred to as the originator of the two nation theory which was the ideological base of partition. In fact, sixteen years before Jinnah came up with it, V.D. Savarkar had formulated such ideas and advocated the division of India in his essay, Hindutva’. Savarkar, then in the Hindu Mahasabha, was soon to become one of the leading theoreticians of the RSS.

The details of British callousness and bungling around the actual division of land between India and Pakistan, which led to an enormous loss of life overall, are perhaps slightly better known, although contemporary  films like Viceroy’s House and recent articles in the British press manage to tiptoe round this aspect of colonial history.

Briefly, partition was due to take place in August 1948, but it was brought forward by a year because the colonialists, aware that they were about to be kicked out, were eager to leave. Rumours of the divisions of Punjab and Bengal had spread like wild fire, causing panic, since people did not know which side of the border their homes would fall. And these rumours were fed, inadvertently, perhaps, by the British government. For example, it was public knowledge that Wavell, the outgoing Viceroy, had suggested a ‘rough border’ before he handed over to Mountbatten in February 1947.

When Partition was finally officially announced in June 1947, the lawyer charged with drawing the exact boundaries, who had no knowledge at all of India, was given only 5 weeks to complete this incredibly difficult task. The border was eventually announced after both countries were independent on 17 August!

Partition saw the largest cross-border mass migration in recorded history, affecting 12-14 million people, but the British had made no plans or arrangements of any kind for the future of the two countries. As historian Stanley Wolpert wrote in his book Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India, ‘No Viceregal time had been wasted in planning for the feeding and housing and medical needs of ten million refugees.’ There were few security measures taken, with the army also divided between the two countries.

Partition saw the most gruesome and sadistic violence against women. Women were gang raped; their bodies were mutilated. They were also killed by their own families because patriarchy decreed that to die was better than being ‘dishonoured’ .This happened to both Muslim and Hindu women. These outcomes of partition were events staggering in both their scale and their cruelty.

Why did this happen? Women’s bodies are used as the ultimate weapon of wars everywhere. But those of us who are involved with fighting violence against women are familiar with the echoes of this sadism and misogyny in our South Asian communities in this country. Why is patriarchy in our countries so brutal?

Some clues are provided by Nirmala Banerjee, another Indian academic invisible to British writers, who examined the period in the 19th century when the British de-industrialised India, in order to turn it into a source of raw materials. Towns and cities were destroyed and people pushed back onto the land. In other words, society was pushed back from emerging capitalism to a distorted form of feudalism. From this emerged the particular type of violent patriarchy which still persists in South Asia today.

The history of Partition allows us to understand the violence-ridden climate of India today. How else would we make sense of the lynchings, murders and rapes of Muslims which are happening on such a massive scale? Is it a coincidence that while Savarkar campaigned for a Hindu Rashtra back in 1923, now, almost 100 years later, under Narendra Modi and BJP we are beginning to see the implementation of this Hindu Rashtra. Ethnic cleansing and gender violence are central to this project. Tanika Sarkar has analysed this as follows: ‘The pattern of cruelty suggests three things. One, the woman’s body was a site of almost inexhaustible violence, with infinitely plural and innovative forms of torture. Secondly, that their sexual and reproductive organs were attacked with a special savagery, and third, that their children, born and unborn, shared the attacks and were killed before their eyes.’ (Sarkar, 2002)

This was written about the Gujarat massacre of 2002. But Gujarat, as the Hindu supremacists announced at the time, was ‘a laboratory for the Hindu Rashtra’, into which India is gradually being transformed.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, the point of history is to understand the present. But once we begin to understand the present, you are impelled to action. We cannot stay silent!

I would urge you to join the protests on 15 August in solidarity with the victims of the mob lynchings and rapes which are constantly occurring all over India today.

14Aug/17

The House: Short story by Tariq Mehmood

The House

A non-Muslim woman goes to Pakistan in search of the house from which she was forced to leave during the 1947 partition of South Asia

Short story by Tariq Mehmood

I was waiting for a fare close to the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad, watching a couple of bored policemen sitting under the shade of a tree, twiddling about with the barrels of their guns, when a bellboy from the hotel, followed by a tall thin woman, came towards me. The woman stopped, looked around at something and then followed the boy, who was already by my car.

‘Your lucky day, sir,’ the boy said to me.

I handed him a fifty rupee note. He brushed it away, saying, ‘It’s a big booking. Hundred.’

‘She’s a Pakistani madam,’ I said, pushing the note back towards him.

‘Foreigner,’ he said quickly, snatching the note whilst insisting with the index finger of his other hand for me to give him more money. I swore at him under my breath and handed him another fifty rupee note. He turned to the woman and opened the back door.

‘Yes, madam,’ I said to her in Urdu, ‘where would you like to go?’

She took a deep breath and replied, in Pothohari, ‘There is so much I would like to see, but can’t.’

I touched the key, my lucky charm, which dangled off the rear view mirror, and looked at her face in the mirror. She had long grey hair with streaks of silver, which fell down over her shoulders, and the way she held her head was just like the madams of Islamabad. By the way she talked and looked, she could have been someone from my village, but the black kamize, her top, with its embroidery of gold running down her front and the edges of the arms, meant she was not short of money.

I cursed the bellboy inside my head, You son of a donkey! I’ve waited for over two hours for a fare, and you dump me with this one.

‘Where can I take you?’ I asked in Urdu.

‘Do you not speak Pothohari?’ she asked, looking for something in her handbag.

‘Yes. Yes, madamjee,’ I said in Urdu with a taxi driver laugh. ‘It just doesn’t feel right talking in that language with a madam, especially someone from round here.’

‘I’m Indian,’ she said. ‘Talk to me in Pothohari.’

Thank you Allah, I thought inside my head.

‘As you wish, madam,’ I said in Pothohari. ‘I can take you anywhere. And get you whatever it is you desire,’ I added quickly.

She flicked her eyebrows disapprovingly and repeated, ‘There is so much I would like to see, but can’t.’

Oh yes, I thought, I know what your type wants.

I was just getting ready for the long game which would eventually mean me getting her what someone like her was really after but was finding it difficult to say, when she took a cigarette from her bag and lit it.

‘Do you mind if I smoke in your car?’ she asked, blowing smoke out of the window.

‘This car is at your service, madam,’ I said, thinking over what sort of a boy she was likely to be after.

‘Do you smoke?’ she asked, offering me a cigarette.

‘Which taxi driver doesn’t?’ I looked at her pack. It was one of the expensive foreign ones.

‘Keep the pack,’ she said. ‘I have more.’

I took it from her, and as I did this she said, ‘Drive.’

‘Where to, madam?’

‘Just drive.’

I put the cigarettes in the glove compartment, touched the dangling key and started the car. As I drove past the policemen, they looked at me and then chuckled to themselves, nodding towards the woman in the back of my car.

I turned left onto the main road and decided that she was the sort who would like to go to Taxila. Indians loved that, and they were good tippers. And if I was lucky, she might want to go to the ancient ruins of Katas. Then, I thought, maybe she is a Sikh. She would no doubt want to see Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal.

I had only gone a short distance when she asked, ‘Why did you touch that key?’

‘Just one of those things we drivers do, madam.’

‘Just one of those things we drivers do,’ she mimicked, and then said, ‘I was born in Gujarkhan and have dreamt of one day visiting the house of my birth.’

I detected great pain in her voice.

A traffic policeman, who was standing in the middle of the road directing traffic, flagged me to stop. I tried to sneak past him, but he blew on his whistle a few times. I stopped and snatched a look at the woman. She didn’t look like the madams of Islamabad anymore, but almost like a mother who was searching for a lost child.

‘Majee,’ I said, thinking of my own dead mother, ‘You can go to Gujarkhan right now. It’s not far. I can take you.’

She smiled a sad smile and said, ‘I’m Indian, not allowed. And besides, everyone in India warned me not to go to Pakistan; it’s not safe, especially for Sikhs.’

‘This is Pakistan, no one is safe and Allah decides,’ I said, hoping she would want to go to Gujarkhan.

I prayed inside my head, ya rabbah, oh god, make this my lucky day. I’ve never had one of these returning Sikhs. Especially someone as rich as this one. Oh Lord, let this day be my Eid!

She went silent for a while and then her eyes lit up. ‘I have dreamt a thousand dreams to see where I was born.’

As I turned onto the Islamabad Highway, going south towards Gujarkhan, she asked, ‘Are you married? Do you have children?’

I glanced at her in the mirror, trying to work out what she would most likely like to hear. She looked the motherly type. She could have grandchildren, and then she might feel sorry for me if she thought I should be married but had not managed to save enough money.

‘Well, is it that a difficult question to answer?’

‘No, madam…’

She turned her head towards me. ‘Either call me majee or auntiejee, but not madam.’ Before I could answer, she added, ‘Majee.’

‘Jee, Majee.’ I stroked the dashboard next to the steering wheel, pointed to the black ribbons I had tied to the side mirrors and said, ‘This is my wife and my mother.’

She laughed, and then sat silently with her hand up to her mouth. Every now and again, when she saw a child or an animal, she would let out a deep sigh.

When we crossed Mandra, just as we went past a village, she asked me to stop. She pointed her thin finger at a house where a woman was rolling dung in her hands and then putting it on the side of the wall of a house.

‘People here still dry dung and use it for fuel to cook with,’ I said.

‘That little girl near the tandoor, the oven. When I was young, I used to light our tandoor just like her. See those twigs sticking out from the top of the tandoor, just above the flames? I can hear them crackling, even from here, and I can smell the wood burning, just like that little girl can. I would stand close to my tandoor, especially at night, and watch the flames going up and the twigs falling down, and the sparks flying about. Maybe they are still the same last sparks I saw when they told us to leave.’

How could those be the same sparks, I thought, and said, ‘Maybe, Majee, maybe.’ And then I asked her, ‘Why did you come to Pakistan?’

‘I am a poet. I came to recite.’

A poet, I thought. At least she is not like all the ones I know. Broke!

She started humming to the tune of Saif-al-Maluk. She stopped, let out a strange little laugh and said, without taking her eyes off the little girl by the tandoor, ‘It was the middle of the day in that year, 1947. I had lit our tandoor and then went to hang the washing on the walls. Mother had made the flour into dough, and I went and sat next to her and helped her make paeras, small balls from the dough. Mine were always either too small or too big, but mother never once told me off. She would just pick them up, smile and make them up again into the right size. My father was out somewhere, doing whatever he did, always turning up just as the rotis came out of the tandoor.

A few other women, four neighbours, came with their dough. They always did. Ours was a big tandoor. Mother placed our flour, all neatly rolled into perfect balls, on a silver tray and put it on my head; then she went to greet the women. I followed her and we all went to the tandoor. She began chatting with the women about how bad the times were getting. All the Sikhs in Choha Khalsa were dead, they said. And Sukho was in flames. No one knew who was alive and who was dead. All the Sikhs from Domeli had left.

Ours was a big tandoor …’ she stopped, looked at me and asked, ‘Did I tell you that already?’

I nodded.

‘Mother had built our tandoor with her own hands. It was big enough for lots of rotis to cook in. She usually let the other women make theirs first but that day, for some reason, she started on ours. She had just put four or five rotis into the tandoor when our door smashed open and soldiers with guns burst in. There were so many of them. The women screamed. I ran behind mother.

“You are leaving for India, right now,” they said.

Mother held my hand tightly. Her hand was hot and she was trembling.

Before anyone could say anything, the soldiers pushed us out of our house. Mother kept looking back at the tandoor, saying, “My roti will burn. My roti will burn.” But the soldiers just pushed us out of the house. Outside, there were more soldiers and so many terrified people. I called out for father, but how could he hear me amongst all those others who were calling out names?

We walked to the railway station. Mother never let go of my hand. I kept calling out for father all the way. Even as they made us get onto a train, I kept calling him. I had been on a train before, but this was not like any other. It was so full of people; some bleeding, others crying. I remember the eyes! The eyes – they were all bloodshot. And as the train pulled away, I heard a raging river of screams, screams I have never stopped hearing.

Mother never did talk much after that and when she did, she would say, “My roti will burn.’”

‘And what happened to your father?’ I asked.

‘I never did see him again.’

She didn’t say anything else all the way to Gujarkhan. When we got there, I parked my car behind the courts. She remembered the banyan tree, and she led the way as if she had never left. We walked around some narrow streets for a while.

As we did this, she would suddenly stop and say, ‘My house was here,’ and then shake her head, walk this way and that, and then stop again and say the same thing.

After a little while of doing this, she said, ‘It’s been too long.’

We headed back to my car. She walked much slower this time, lost deep in thought.

Just as we got into the bazaar, she said, ‘When I was young, there was a Christian called Khaled who used to sell little sweets on a raeree, a little wooden cart, which had a broken wheel.’

‘Maybe someone remembers him,’ I said.

She shook her head, ‘After all this time?’

I looked around till I saw an old shopkeeper. He was a big fat man who was looking at us whilst picking up fistfuls of daal, lentils, from a sack close to him and letting it fall through his fingers. I went up to him and asked, ‘Uncle, do remember a Christian who sold sweets around here before the partition?’

He looked at me for a while, then looked the woman up and down, and said, ‘The Christian is still here, still selling things on a raeree.’ He then told his son, a small round spitting image of himself, ‘Take them to Khaled Masih.’

We followed the boy through the bazaar up towards the GT road. After a short while, he stopped and pointed, ‘That’s Khalid Masih,’ and disappeared into the bazaar

As soon as she saw Khalid Masih, she cried, ‘Ya rabbah, oh god.’

Khalid Masih was a small dark man with a deeply wrinkled face. On his raeree, he had combs, socks, locks, mirrors and other small things.

She walked up to him ever so slowly. When she got close, she asked, ‘Are you Khalid Masih?’

He looked up at her and nodded.

‘Do you remember Karamjit Singh, son of Harjit Singh Kataria?’

Khalid Masih’s small eyes became even smaller. A sad smile flashed across his toothless mouth. ‘Kamli Kaur. You? Here?’

She hugged him and cried, ‘Babajee, you are still alive and still have your raeree!’

‘I died a long time ago, daughter,’ he replied.

Pulling away from him, she examined the raeree. ‘At least this one doesn’t have a broken wheel.’

He shook his head.

‘Do you remember my house?’

He nodded, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

‘We have searched everywhere for my house. Nothing looks like what I remember. Is my house still here?’

He nodded.

He left the raeree and we followed him. He had taken only a few steps when she asked, ‘What about your raeree?’

He turned around, pointed at the bazaar and smiled. Everyone was looking at us.

For an old man, he walked fast. We went through countless narrow streets until we came to a big house. ‘That is where you were born.’ He turned to leave.

‘Come with me,’ she said to the old man.

He stepped away from us. ‘I am still an untouchable. They will think I have contaminated you.’

She watched Khalid Masih until he went out of sight and then said to me, ‘This is not my house; maybe he is mistaken.’

‘We’ve come all this way. Let’s knock.’

‘Maybe, if they find out I am a Sikh…’

I interrupted her, ‘I’m with you and, as the Almighty is my witness, I will let nothing happen to you.’

She knocked on the door.

After a little while, a woman from inside the house asked, ‘Who?’

‘I’ve come from India and I am looking for the house where I was born,’ Kamli Kaur replied hesitantly.

There was a little pause and then the door opened. A young woman with a child on her hip stood in front of us. Kamli Kaur’s face turned white. She pointed to the veranda. It was an old wooden one, with carved curving arches. It was painted blue. With tears streaming down her cheeks, Kamli Kaur pointed inside, saying, ‘My name is Kamli Kaur. This is the house where I was born. And the veranda is still blue.’

Beckoning us in, the young woman said, ‘It is still your house, Majee, and the veranda has always been blue.’

As we stepped inside, the young woman handed her baby to Kamli Kaur and ran towards a tandoor, saying, ‘My roti is burning.’

Whilst the young woman retrieved her rotis, Kamli Kaur walked around the veranda, holding the child close to her. I stood where I was.

A few moments later, a frail old woman, much older then Kamli Kaur, came out. ‘Kamli!’ she cried.

I went outside, stood by the door and lit a cigarette. A short while later, a door close to me opened and a young man asked me to come inside. He pointed to a tray of food on a small table and said, ‘Eat, Ustad,’ and walked back into the house.

On the way back to Islamabad, Kamli Kaur sat in the front passenger seat. She looked much younger now.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked, lighting a cigarette.

‘Iqbal. Raja Iqbal,’ I replied. ‘We are refugees from India.’

‘Do you know where from?’ And then she added quickly, ‘How could you, you were not born then.’

‘No Majee, I wasn’t born then,’ I said, ‘But my mother, may the Almighty grant her a place in heaven, never stopped talking about her house. She said we had a great big peepal tree in the middle of our yard. We had the biggest well in the whole area, which never went dry, and from which everyone filled their pitchers. It was close to the Pir-I-Dastgir shrine.’

Kamli Kaur threw her cigarette out of the window, touched my lucky key and went silent for the rest of the journey.

It was late at night and there was not much traffic, so we made good time. I pulled up outside the Marriot and said, ‘Majee, I want no fare from you. I will never forget this journey.’

She held my hand tightly in her trembling hands for a few moments and then left the car. As I withdrew my hand, I noticed there was a key in it, and there was a small pile of one thousand rupee notes on the passenger seat. I picked up the money and drove off, the key in my hand. I stopped a short distance from the hotel, put the interior light on, and stared at the key.

A chill ran down my spine. I held it next to my lucky key.

They were exactly the same.

 

First published in Closure – Contemporary Black British Short Stories

 

21Jul/17

[Press Release] SASG calls on public to urgently respond to UK Government consultation on Caste

Press Release

21 July 2017

SASG calls on public to urgently respond to UK Government consultation on Caste

On March 28th 2017, the UK Government opened a public consultation to seek views on “the most effective way to implement a legal ban on caste discrimination”.

Introducing the consultation, found here, the UK Government asks for views on “how best to ensure that there is appropriate legal protection against caste discrimination by formally making caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010 or through developing case law in the courts and employment tribunals”.

As a result of the recent General Election, the consultation has been extended beyond its initial 16 week period, for a further 8 weeks.

The closing date of the consultation is now 18 September 2017, after which no further responses will be accepted.

Human rights campaigners, academics, Dalit community organisations and individuals affected by caste discrimination (represented under ‘Caste in the UK’), all agree that the most effective way to outlaw caste-based discrimination is to add caste to the Equality Act 2010. They have prepared this guidance for completing the consultation.

SASG calls on the public (even if you are not South Asian or affected by caste yourself) to urgently respond to consultation.

Further reading: www.southasiasolidarity.org/caste_consultation

 

-Ends-

18Jun/16

Letter to PM Narendra Modi: Stop Racist Attacks on Africans in India!

To sign this letter Please visit the petition page here.


Dear Prime Minister Modi

We the undersigned strongly condemn the horrific killing of Masonda Kitanda Oliver and the spate of violent attacks on African nationals living in India. Our deepest sympathies and solidarity are with the families of the victims. In the last two years, there has been an enormous rise in racist violence against Africans in India. Continue reading