Monday, August 15

Searching for narrative in a photograph

PAKISTAN. Lahore. 1948. Women's camp. (MAGNUM/Henri Cartier-Bresson)
There they undergo medical examinations (to control epidemics). A woman taken there from the time of the August '47 troubles has been reunited with her husband but is detained pending verifications before she can leave prison. Camp has 800, but they come and go continually. This woman was separated from her husband for 10 months. They found each other with aid of Indian organization set up for purpose when Pakistan sent these women to India.
This is the description that follows the photograph in Magnum collection, one of the very few in public domain of the period encompassing partition and the events thereafter. This is also rare in the sense that unlike the pictures depicting the general narrative of the times, this photograph tells the story of particular - a particular individual. Of all the people in the frame the photographer is interested in the perspective of the 'detained woman'. He is, in fact, standing inside the facility with bars to keep others out. On the other side is, we are told, her husband, from whom she has been separated from ten months. The overwhelming moment has her hanging both her arms around the man through the bars, slightly hunched forward but not close enough to embrace fully. The accumulated pain coupled with the relief at seeing someone she seems to be writ large on her face.
The story, however, remains tantalisingly hanging there. The picture doesn't tell much. Who is this woman? How was she separated from her husband and where was she for ten months? What became of her ultimately? Did she go back to her family ultimately? We are not even sure if she is a Sikh, a Hindu or a Muslim.
There are no clear answers, at least not in this photograph and the description.
We have a context though, well documented, mostly in writing and some through films and literature. Women were the worst sufferers of the mindless violence perpetrated across the divide against each other. "Nationalism and communalism were the two most significant ideologies during this period, and both of them placed women at the very heart of their discourses and actions," according to Furrukh A Khan, who did a research based on the oral narratives of women from the Indian subcontinentwho survived the Partition. He wrote "The women who suffered during this time period were later considered to be social outcasts by their communities and, in a number of cases, by their families. It was because of such treatment of these women victims that it was deemed acceptable for women to kill themselves or to be killed off by their relatives in order to escape being abducted or sexually molested by men from the other communities."
"Throughout the chaos, both planned and random abduction of women were carried out, particularly in situations in which large numbers of refugees -disoriented and inadequately protected - had assembled or were on the move," writes Bina D'Costa in Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia, as she cites the heart-rending testimonies of survivor women she interviewed.
'Recovery operations' were launched by governments on both sides soon thereafter with establishment of Military Evacuee Organisations. District transit camps were set up in Lahore and Jullundhur for non-Muslim and Muslim women, respectively, informs Bina D'Costa. Camps on both sides of the borders where 'recovered' women were kept were visited by the men who had abducted them earlier,in order to persuade the women to return. D'Costa emphasises it was not that all women were captives and wanted nothing more than to be rescued by the state. In fact, there are clear instances of women who refused to be 'recovered' on both sides. "Some women were happy and settled in their locations." writes Urvashi Butalia in her essay Abducted and Widowed Women: Questions of Sexuality and Citizenship During Partition. She quotes Social workers such as Kamlaben Patel and Damyanti Sahgal who worked in the Central Recovery Operation, speaking eloquently of the women who did not want to return.
According to Amrik Singh, quite a number of these women had got married (though forcibly), and after the initial turmoil adjusted to that life and as such were not willing to migrate. Amrik Singh writes in The Partition in Retrospect, the cases of recovered women fell under two categories: (1) Women who did not object to being evacuated and were called ‘indisputable’ cases and the other group called ‘disputable’ cases involving women who refused to be evacuated for one reason or the other or where the abductors refused to surrender them or where the disposal of children created emotional or legal problems. Many of them got pregnant and a few having met good persons were not prepared to leave their ‘husbands’ for an uncertain future. So, when they were forcibly evacuated by the police and brought to the transit camps, a number of them escaped.
Butalia cites public records to suggest the number of Hindu and Sikh women abducted in Pakistan was roughly 33,000—although some estimates put this figure at 50,000—(this did not include women from Kashmir and it was felt that if these were added the figure could well have reached 50,000). Lists received from Pakistan showed the figure of Muslim women abducted in India to be around 21,000.
The sad story continues with men employing same tools with similar tragic consequences in the name of religion as evidenced in Delhi and some other parts of India in 1984 and Gujarat in 20022. D' Costa could well be talking of 1984 or 2002 as she writes, "Horrendous as they were, such experiences of women were regarded as little more than a product of the chaos of the times, as an abnormal occurrence in a society that had been undergoing severe temporary dislocation for decades. yet this prescription ignored the socially embedded nature of gendered violence."
Andrew J Major agrees wholeheartedly. In his book ‘The Chief Sufferers’: Abduction of Women during the Partition of the Punjab he wrote, "... it would seem to be quite wrong to regard the rape and abduction of Punjabi women in 1947 as a product of anomie of the times, as an abnormal occurrence in a society undergoing severe temporary dislocation, for that would ignore the fact that violence against women is embedded in everyday relationships in this society."
                                                                                                                                                         -Jatinder Preet