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A Terrible Tragedy in the Small Town of Rasana

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In a small town called Rasana, in India, but near the border to Pakistan, a horrible travesty occured. An eight year old Muslim girl was kidnapped, drugged, strangled, beat, raped, and eventually killed by a group of Hindu males over the course of three days- locked in a temple. Yet, these unforgivable crimes occurred in a place of worship. For most people, these happenings are unimaginable, but the story worsens. According to Jeffrey Gettleman, the motive of the Hindu males was to terrorize her Muslim community to leave Rasana. Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whose strong following includes many devout Hindus, remained silent after the girl’s death, speaking up only after protests broke out across the nation. The little girl’s extremely premature and unjustifiable death was the consequence of an intense hatred that stemmed from previous decades. Her sad story is not some stand alone, exceptional circumstance.

Today, stories of violent rape and sexual abuse, and the lack of response from people in power litter the pages of the Indian newspapers. Reading them, they seem almost unbelievable: except for the fact that they have occurred. Hate-related violence in India, targeted at women, is an endemic. But it is an endemic that has ravaged the nation for a long time. In fact, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, used to coexist despite fundamental ideological differences. After the split that turned a piece of India into a new country, the dynamic flipped. This aggravation was the root of violence felt by Indian women post Partition. To what extent was the legacy of religious animus that resulted from the partition of India responsible for the abhorrent violence felt by Indian women in the second half of the 20th century?

The Partition India won her independence in 1947, a result that was the combination of thirty years of struggle with the British, and the British’s inability to control excess territories following World War II. World War II squandered the economies of many nations across the globe, and Britain was not exempt. As stated by Subbarao Prabhala, during the war Britain had used resources from India, and denied the demands of Mahatma Gandhi and the Quit India Movement, headed by the Indian Congress. After, however, Britain did not have the resources (men or money) to stop the rising oncoming revolution in India (Prabhala). Mytheli Sreenivas injects that amid the chaotic situation in India, Britain’s political scene saw a shift: the Labour Party was elected into power, and the new Prime Minister, C.R. Attlee, believed that Britain should evacuate India as soon as possible. C.R. Attlee’s Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten was told: “Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out” (Prabhala).

Under such pressure, Mountbatten orchestrated a rushed and haphazard British exit from India… the consequences of which would be felt deeply later on. The possible date for the transfer of power was set for June of 1948 by Parliament, but was later advanced to August of 1947 by Lord Mountbatten (Prabhala). This advancement of nearly one year ended up having troubling effects. It led to a rushed process that lacked thoroughness; it left brewing issues unresolved. The planned transfer of power proved to be trickier than a transfer of power from one nation to another. Even during British rule, there was tension between the three most prominent religions in India: Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism, and as British rule came to a close it got worse. In 1906, as reported by the The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, the All India Muslim League had been created to protect the rights of Indian Muslims.

Though originally the All India Muslim League wanted to leave India as a unified nation after independence, with Hindu and Muslim coexistence, in 1940 they changed their tune and demanded a separate country with a Muslim majority (Britannica). There was an outcry for a separate Islamic state and acts of violence and aggression were committed on both sides, the Muslims and the Hindus/Sikhs. It was clear that many Muslims, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted to break away from India. The UK High Commissioner at the time, Terence Shone, stated: “The ever-deteriorating relations between the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League had made it clear that collaboration between them in any Central Government was impracticable; and when the only power which had been able to keep them together (if latterly with ever increasing difficulty) set a date for withdrawal, the two main parties were forced to accept the best arrangement they could get.” Thus, the All India Muslim League and the Hindu Congress clashed on what the state of the nation would be post transfer of power.

The Hindus wanted to keep India unified, as a centralized and majoritarian state where they would have control (being the majority religion), while the Muslims wanted to leave and create a new Islamic state (Britannica). According to Gyanendra Pandey, in Garhmukteshwar, in November of 1946, there were multiple attacks on Muslim citizens at the hands of Hindus, resulting in around 275 deaths. A few years later, a “conservative” estimate tabulated 1000 people murdered (Pandey 105). India was on the brink of falling into total chaos, and this was a driving force for Britain to rapidly hand over power to the Indian National Congress. Upon the British departure, India was to be split into two, but the uncertainty shrouding the Partition itself, and the rushed way in which it was handled led to communal violence. Muslims felt unsafe in areas of Hindu majority, and vice versa.

The border between the two new nations was drawn on August 17 (Pakistan celebrates independence on August 14 and India celebrates independence on August 15). Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer with limited knowledge of Indian geography, and an incoming deadline drew the line with outdated maps and censuses (The Conversation). A new country was to be carved out of the existing India. West Pakistan was to encompass Muslim majority provinces: Sind and 16 districts of Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province. East Pakistan is also modern day Bangladesh. Communities, families, and homes were torn apart; this resulted in millions of cases of misplaced identity. Muslims headed towards the newly formed Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs trekked the opposite direction. Upwards of 10 million human beings were displaced- one of the largest human migrations in history . Almost two million died during the process. In 1941, the city of Karachi (now in Pakistan) was half populated by Hindus, but after the split, almost everyone fled east towards the remaining India (Bhasin and Menon).

Towards the end of British rule, religious tension had started brewing. The looming fall into chaos that India was on the brink of, was a driving force for Britain to rapidly hand over power to the Indian National Congress. The hastiness of the process, the messy nature of the Partition of India, which led to the chaotic birth of Pakistan, left loose ends that failed to get tied in the following years. From The Independent, Oxford lecturer Dr. Yasmin Khan agrees, saying, “The British government had repeatedly delayed granting freedom in the 1930s, when it might have been more amicably achieved… the planning was shoddy and the date was rushed forward by a whole year; the original plan was for a British departure in mid-1948.” Much of the violence and barbarianism that ensued following the British’s swift departure from India was a result of this. A Rude Awakening That Followed the Partition of India and Creation of Pakistan In the newly created Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs feared for their lives as they became the religious minority.

Across the border, in India, Muslims also were fearful. Mohammad Ishaq, who lived in the then newly formed Pakistan, remembers, “That was the time of extreme fear. Then only the men stayed in their homes. Women and children were sent to safer places…” (The Independent). Another Partition witness, Shamsul Nisa, who was ten years old at the time, watched a Hindu mob bring about the deaths of her uncle, father, and grandfather, in the still disputed area of Kashmir (The Independent). A Sikh, Hira Gulrajani was forced to walk over the the Guru Granth Sahib, to “prove” that he was not a non-Muslim and preserve himself from a knife attack (The Independent). Steven Brocklehurst states: Ghulam Malik Rabbani, a twelve year old boy at the time, recalled when a militia of Muslim soldiers arrived at a college where Rabbani’s family and many other Hindus were seeking safety and massacred most of them. Rabbani had to play dead among dead bodies to stay alive (Brocklehurst).

Though anecdotal, these experiences were not one off. These horrific acts were terrifying, and even worse, common. Most troubling of all, they were not random. Out of the millions of people who made the voyage over the border, five hundred thousand to one million people died (Bhasin and Menon 430). According to the book Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, “No one, they say, foresaw either the rivers of people that would flow from one part of Punjab to the other, or the blood that would be shed as they were killed in their tens of thousands” (Bhasin and Menon 436). Cruel acts of violence were specifically a result of the recent Partition- religious and hate based violence. And the violence was not reserved just for men. In fact, women were blatantly targeted and were in increasingly more danger. The Consequences Women Faced The distinct communities, divided by religious preference, targeted women. Women were tormented with rape, sexual violence and mutilation, abduction, and other gruesome acts (Arunima Dey).

A woman from the Chund Bharwana village had to be treated at a hospital for major injuries after being amputated at the wrist by an enemy, then thrown into a fire to burn and subsequently drowned. According to Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, “The material, symbolic and political significance of the abduction of women was not lost either on the women themselves and their families, on their communities, or on leaders and governments”. By torturing one community’s women in a revenge-based way, the rival community was asserting their presence and humiliating the other community. Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition also suggests that in the state of Punjab alone, 16,000 Muslims were killed and 1,500 women were abducted (Bhasin and Menon 464). Also up to 100,000 women were raped or abducted during this time (Sarah Ansari). Fear of getting abducted by the enemy drove hundreds of women to commit suicide to preserve themselves and their families and communities honor. Some would even be murdered by their own families to accomplish this.

Others carried poison on their bodies in the terrifying event that they would be taken. Women faced a variety of sexual violences: stripping, parading, mutilating, disfiguring, tattooing of breasts and genitalia, raping, and killing fetuses (Bhasin and Menon 528). Evidence of the religious based violence spurred by the Partition was seen in the village of Thoha Kalsa, a village now in the Rawalpindi District in Pakistan, which used to be inhabited by primarily Sikhs. According to Arv Singh from SikhNet, March of 1947, even before the lines of the border were officially drawn, Muslim mobs surrounded the village. The Muslims demanded that the Sikhs convert. They resisted for three days but ultimately could not hold out (Singh). The Sikhs offered a truce, where the Muslim mobs could take what material things they desired from their homes, but would leave the actual people alone (Singh). They abandoned their homes and gathered in a mansion, and others stayed in the Gurdwara (Singh).

After six days of looting and burning the Sikh houses, the Muslim mob disregarded the truce and all of the Sikh men were killed in battle. Desperate, the Sikh women and their children jumped into a well just outside the mansion (Singh). Over 93 women and children took their own lives in an attempt to preserve what dignity they had left (Singh). A Muslim man who witnessed the mass suicide stated: I was a 16-year-old in 1947…People were very friendly and co-operative. Sikhs were very rich people as they ran the shops and had thriving businesses…. On the evening of March 6, Muslim mobs from the surrounding villages entered Thoha Khalsa and gave ultimatums to the Sikhs to convert…when defeat and dishonour was imminent, Sikh men started killing their own women. I still remember when Bhansa Singh killed his wife with tears in his eyes… In the span of some hours, I witnessed the deaths of almost 25 women. It was such a horrible scene…. While their men fought, the Sikh women started gathering near a well around the garden…. They sobbed desperately as they jumped into the well. In about half an hour, the well was full of bodies…. It was a terrible scene. They were determined to die rather than sacrifice their honour. (Singh)

The crisis that was the abduction of women became so concerning that the All India Congress Committee passed a resolution in November of 1947 which stated: …There is nothing more heinous than the abduction of women. Every effort must be made to restore women to their original homes with the cooperation of the governments concerned (Rana Gupta). Between December of 1947 and July of 1948, 9,362 women were recovered in India, and 5,510 women were recovered in Pakistan (Bhasin and Menon). Even still, the official estimate of women displaced was around 50,000 muslim women in India, and 33,000 non-muslim women in Pakistan (Bhasin and Menon 826). 15,000 recovered women, though significant, was quite small compared to the more than 80,000 total abductees. Among the third of abducted women who were recovered, many Hindu families refused to take them back. Many women themselves also refused to return home, due to fear of shame and rejection from their previous families. Women were forced into premature death to preserve their modesty and protect familial and communal honor. This tragedy of families unwilling to take in their daughters, wives, and sisters after they were victims of sexual violence was common.

In the Head Junu villages, Hindus would throw daughters into wells, bury them alive, burn them to death, or force them to touch electric wires to prevent Muslims from corrupting them. “They (Muslims) would force their way into homes and pick up young girls and women. Ten or twenty of them would enter, tie up the menfolk and take the women,” state Bhasin and Menon in their book, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. Women were raped and maimed, their faces and reproductive parts were scarred, and then left for dead; their families would not take them back because their character was damaged. One girl was raped by more than ten men, and her father burned her alive because of what had happened to her (Bhasin and Menon 398). Awful tragedies like these were the result of Partition. The British’s overdue yet hasty departure from India, and the careless drawing of the border between Pakistan and India led to mass migration and chaos from which unthinkable violence emerged.

Religion and Indian Culture as an Aggressor Some may say that it was actually the social standing of women in India then that was the reason for the targeted violence against them. The Indian culture and religions emphasize the strength of men and the secondary place of women. For example, in Hinduism, Lord Krishna had eight principal queens, but also thousands of junior wives. In religious literature and art, his wives massage his feet, fan him, and are secondary to him. Lord Vishnu himself has three wives, two of which are prominent Hindu goddesses themselves. In the Qur’an, Sura 4:34 states: Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

This excerpt is another example of the underlying sexist ideas; this time they are housed in the Islamic religion. Lord Krishna and Lord Vishnu having several wives, and the Qur’an Sura 4:34 demanding blind obedience of women, is historically accepted, as women are objectified and treated as property- delicate and important property, but property nonetheless. Obviously, the religious perspectives of women diminish their authority, leaving them as secondary to men. This explains how women were mainly targeted during the chaos of the partition of India and Pakistan- they were valuable to the men in their lives, and therefore an easy and obvious target. However, there is a serious issue with this argument. People who correlate the sexual inequalities found in religion and Indian culture with violence against women, particularly around the time of Partition, are neglecting the fact that Islam and Hinduism are not alone with these sentiments, either. Stated in the Bible, in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” This also places women below men. According to a BBC writer in traditional services, Jewish women cannot take an active role in the worship. In nearly every culture and religion, sexism against women has occurred or still does to this day. In contemporary society, however, not every community has seen a mass subjugation of women to such terrible violence by peoples of the same race. To that extent, Sikhism actually celebrates women, and female independence. Yet Sikh women were abducted, raped, and murdered, and Sikh men were not innocent of tormenting Muslim women either. Thus, the violence shown to women post Partition was not just a product of a longstanding cultural issue, but one that was inflamed by the partition of India and Pakistan. Violence against women in the second half of the 20th century was a product of the Partition of India and Pakistan.

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