বা ঙা ল না মা

Partition Experiences of the East Bengali Refugee Women

Posted by bangalnama on July 6, 2009


Women’s experience of the Partition is marked by large scale rape, abduction and forced marriage. It has received special attention of several scholars over the last few years, particularly since the 1990s. They have tried to understand the women’s experience of the Partition in terms of gender and patriarchy. Patriarchy constructs women in a peculiar way—her respectability is confirmed to the degree to which she is able to retain her sexual purity, her sexuality is a threat to her; her body is not her own, and it is not only the question of her own honour, but also that of her family and community. She is the repository of her community’s honour. Therefore, in a situation of conflict rape becomes a symbolic form of dishonouring the community. And it was so at the time of Partition too. It is interesting that both the rival communities shared the same patriarchal conception of rape. The honour paradigm of the rape culture was no less harmful to the women than the actual physical violence. Rapes were accompanied with large scale abduction and forced marriage. It was on the bodies of women that the new national border was marked out; the edifices of the two nation states in South Asia were constructed.


In 1993, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, Urbashi Butalia and Karuna Channa initiated a new kind of research on Partition experience from the perspective of gender. Their focus was primarily on the sufferings of the Punjabi women in the aftermath of Partition.1 Later Urbashi Butalia rightly pointed out a serious gap in the historiography of Partition – the omission of the experiences in Bengal and East Pakistan (Bangladesh), which, in her opinion, required detailed attention in their own right.2 Thereafter, initiatives were taken to reconstruct the Partition experience of the Bengali women, particularly the Bengali Hindu women.3


Women in Bengal’s Partition: Facts and Fiction


“The East Bengali woman had to pay the cost of independence by her chastity, her life and the life of her husband and children”, wrote Nivedita Devi in the column “Narir Katha” (Voice of Woman) in the Ananda Bazar Patrika4 when thousands of refugees were coming from East Bengal everyday after the February Riot. Women were the most common targets of attack at that time. Rape, forced marriage and abduction of women on a mass scale were very common forms of attack upon the minorities there. They were also tortured and humiliated on their way to West Bengal in the form of search by the Pakistani customs officers and staff. For example we may site how some female passengers of Barishal Express were harassed and humiliated by the customs officers at the Benapole station, the last station of East Pakistan bordering West Bengal on March 4, 1950. A staff reporter of the Ananda Bazar Patrika reported that the female passengers were taken to a room in the station compound one by one. The room was almost blocked and light was very dim there. They were forced to strip and were searched in front of two male custom officers. One lady custom officer was there but she stood silent. Virtually the search operation was made by the male officers. Another report of the same newspaper (March 27, 1950) showed the fate of two young women who protested against the misbehaviour of the Pakistani custom officers at Darshana. Those two women were driven out naked by the staff of that department.


After much suffering, the refugees came to West Bengal where nobody was there to welcome them but to offer a set of new problems. A large number of them came to Sealdah station where they had to spend a couple of days or a week, some times more than a month at the open station compound. They had to do everything in front of thousand eyes. Women, who were used to living behind closed doors, were suddenly brought out of their homes. Certainly, it bewildered them at least for some time. The quite, simple lifestyle to which they were used was changed overnight and got transformed into a fast and complicated metropolitan lifestyle. The touts were there, in Sealdah station, in camps and almost everywhere to misguide the refugee girls by exploiting their innocence and helpless condition. A group of people used to cheat the newly arrived refugees, particularly the women, in and around the Sealdah station compound.5 A letter was published in a leading newspaper on March 14, 1950, written by Romesh Chandra Dutta which describes how his young daughter was kidnapped in his absence by cheating his sick wife from the outdoor of Campbel Hospital compound near Sealdah station.6


Jyotirmoyee Devi in her novel Epar Ganga Opar Ganga draws our attention to sufferings of the refugee women at social and psychological level apart from physical harassment. Sutara, the central figure of the novel, lost her parents in the Noakhali riot. Fortunately, she was saved by a neighbouring Muslim family. She had to suffer a number of problems when she was brought to Calcutta to her elder brother’s family. She was virtually excommunicated by the elder female members of the family as she had spent a few months with a Muslim family. To avoid the embarrassing situation she was sent to a residential missionary school. She was extremely humiliated when she came to attend a marriage ceremony in her brother’s family. After that incident, she was never invited on any social occasion. After finishing her higher studies, she joined a college at Kurukshetra (near Delhi) as a lecturer in history. There she learnt about similar experiences of the Punjabi women during the Partition. Sutara was absolutely alone in this crowded world. Nobody was there to take care of her, love her. She was deprived of her family, society and religion. This was the fate of a section of women whose lives were totally disrupted by the communal riot and the partition of the country. In the last phase of the novel, Promad, a broad-minded person who had a very sympathetic attitude to refugee women, came to rescue Sutara. However, in the real life very few women got proper rehabilitation in normal life.


Forced marriage was a very common feature of those troubled times. The suffering of those women who had to accept their abductors as husbands was tremendous indeed. Some initiatives were taken by both the governments to recover those women and to send them back to their parents. But it was not an easy job. The governmental initiative failed to solve the problem and rather added a new dimension to it. Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin have made an interesting study of this problem with reference to the Punjabi women. No such systematic study has yet been made regarding Bengal. However, from literary evidences we can develop an idea of the magnitude of the problem.


Mention may be made of two Bengali short stories written by Ramapada Chowdhury—‘Angapali’ and ‘Karun Kanya’ in this connection. In each of the stories the central figures is an abducted woman, later recovered along with her illegitimate baby. Both of them had to face almost the same experience– indecent curiosity of neighbours, hesitation on the part of the family members to accept them and particularly their babies. In the first story, Sabita saw her mother taking a bath late at night. Buku, her younger brother objected to this, particularly in context of her illness. She said, “What to do, I have to touch the baby throughout the day”. Buku, quite offended, said, “So what!” Mother replied, “We may be rearing him, but he is not our child after all”.


In the later story, Arundhuti was even advised by her mother to send the baby to the orphanage. A few days after her return she met her sweetheart, Subimal, quite accidentally. She again dreamt of a new life with new hopes, but was shortly stunned by the mean-mindedness of that fellow, who simply said that it would not be possible for him and his family members to accept a woman like her as they had not even accepted his own abducted sister, Madhuri, who was a very close friend of Arundhuti. Therefore, having been frustrated, she decided to go back to her abductor-husband who expressed the willingness to have her back.


To many of the abducted women, the official recovery operation meant a second uprootment. Many of them openly protested against the recovery operation and refused to return to their parents or kin folk. They knew very well what was waiting for them. They were almost sure that their family and society were not open enough to accept them heartily. Sometimes they were forced to come back leaving their babies behind. How can a mother disown her child, be it a product of love or hate? – The eternal question of motherhood was left unanswered by the male protagonists of recovery operations and their patron, the State, which failed to protect the women from being abducted.


Quite a large number of the recovered women were sent to ashramas (homes) as they were not accepted by their families. Very few of them got the opportunity to have a family life which they desired most. In the homes, they had to spend the whole life in overwhelming misery and loneliness. Sometimes in the private homes, they were forced to marry unknown persons from other provinces, engaged in illegal activities, which was revealed through an investigation made by the Calcutta Police in twenty such private homes under its jurisdiction.7


The women, who could avoid abduction during the time of riot or on the way to West Bengal, were certainly fortunate. However, they also suffered extremely, but in a different manner. They were abused in camps and colonies——particularly those who had lost their male guardians. Narayan Sanyal in his novel Bakultala P.L. Camp (1973) depicted the suffering and helplessness of the refugee women residing in a P.L. Camp. They had the full potentiality to live a normal happy life if they were provided with the opportunity as in the case Kamala of that novel.


The refugee women had to bear the main burden of displacement even when they were attached with their families.8 In the Bengali tradition, it is expected that women would serve food to their family members. It is related to the imagery of annapurna. This led to a tremendous psychological pressure on refugee women in a situation of scarcity. Women frequently committed suicide for not being able to perform their expected duty properly. One such incident was reported in a leading vernacular newspaper. A refugee woman named Saraswatibala Pal, wife of Sri Nandalal Pal of Green Belt Colony of Nadia, committed suicide on May 30, 1953. The whole family had been going through total starvation for the last few days. Even in the day of Sasthi Puja9 she could not feed her only child. It made Saraswatibala Pal so upset that she committed suicide.10 It was not an isolated event but a common feature in the Camps and Colonies where the women along with their male counterparts were struggling hard for their day-to-day existence. Moreover, they were in general looked down upon even by the women folk of the local population. An old refugee woman of Chotonilpur Colony, Burdwan complained about the non-cooperation of the local people. She said that they were treated as untouchables, irrespective of their caste. The local people thought that the East Bengali women had been polluted by the Muslims (as if all were raped by the Muslims). Whenever they (the refugees) were invited to their houses, they had to wash their plates in which they had been offered foods. They did not even let the refugee women to collect drinking water from the common water points.11


Refugee Women Stepping Outdoors


Recently Jasodhara Bagchi and Subharanjan Dasgupta have shown that the refugee women moved far beyond the sense of ‘victimhood’ to ‘triumph’, a sense of confidence and ability to survive and attain success in the face of stiff hurdles. ‘In West Bengal, in particular, the historic assertion of the refugee-woman as the tireless breadwinner changed the digits of feminine aspirations of the Bengali bhadramahila and altered the social landscape irrevocably.’ 12 The coming out of the women from the private domain to the public is one of the most remarkable developments in post-Partition West Bengal. Gargi Chakravartty has developed the theme further by providing us with an extremely perceptive account of the experience of the refugee women of Bengal.13

Picture 1: Neeta with torn slippers in her hands in Meghe Dhaka Tara. [Courtesy: Max Video]

Picture 1: Neeta with torn slippers in her hands in Meghe Dhaka Tara. (Courtesy: Max Video)


The struggle of the refugee woman was not confined within the four walls of their homes; they came out of their homes when the situation demanded so. Those who had some education set out in search for jobs in educational institutions, Government and semi-Government offices and private firms. Those who lacked education did not give up and rather fought the battle with much more vigour. A section of them capitalized on their training in household activities for commercial purpose by preparing varieties of pickles, papad, badi (made of various kinds of pulses or dals) and other culinary articles. A large number of them were engaged in preparing paper packets and rolling bidis.14 A few among them took up a more challenging and unconventional job as hawkers.15 Some even became wardens in the female wards of the Jails of West Bengal.16

Picture 2: Neeta in Meghe Dhaka Tara. [Courtesy: Max Video]

Picture 2: Neeta in Meghe Dhaka Tara. (Courtesy: Max Video)


A number of refugee girls mostly from middle and lower middle class background took up the career in acting in Calcutta film industry and in commercial theatres. A few of them, after much struggle against odds and uncertainties, established themselves as successful actresses. Sabitri Chattopadhyay is a well known example.17 Sabitri, like thousands of East Bengali refugees came to Calcutta with her parents. Her father was a station master in East Bengal. He opened a petty shop in Bhabanipur area (near Purna Cinema) which could hardly maintain their family. The ugly face of poverty, which she experienced in her childhood, made her to take up a profession in acting. When she was offered the role of a refugee girl by a theatre group in their production Natun Ihudi written by Salil Sen, she readily accepted it. After that, she appeared in her maiden film Pasher Badi in 1952 directed by Subir Mukhopadhyay. Sabitri earned the reputation of a very powerful actress in the Bengali cinema. Her acting was based on a perfect blend of tragedy and comedy that is very rare indeed as noted by Soumitra Chattopadhyay who observed her very closely.18 Madhabi Mukhopadhyay, another famous actress, had to go through the same experience caused by the Partition of Bengal. In her reminiscence, she has told us about the hard days of her childhood, which were completely different from those of the other girls of her age. She was offered a job by the Minerva Theatre as a child actress with a monthly salary of Rupees Twenty Five. That was a great help for the survival of her family. She gradually established herself as a leading actress in the Bengali professional theater as well as mainstream Bengali cinema.19 Her memorable role as Arati in Satyajit Roy’s Mahanagar clearly represents the role conflict of the Bengali refugee women who struggled hard in their professional life as well as within their families.20

Picture 3: New face of Bengali woman: Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati in Mahanagar. [Courtesy: RDB Video]

Picture 3: New face of Bengali woman: Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati in Mahanagar. (Courtesy: RDB Video)


The success stories of Sabitri Chattopadhyay and Madhabi Mukhapadhyay are exceptional indeed. Most of the refugee girls had to waste their careers as ‘extras’ in the Bengali film industry. They were ill paid and ill treated in the film industry on the whole. To attain success in the male dominated film industry was not an easy task for the refugee girls. A majority among them were misguided and exploited both physically and mentally. A report published in a daily newspaper may be mentioned in this connection. The news describes how a young girl of fourteen from Mymenshingha who had been working in a studio as ‘extra’ was abused by one of her colleagues.21 It was not an isolated incident but a common feature of the film industry, particularly when the victim was a refugee girl who was new in this land and was ignorant about that mysterious world of film industry.


Some refugee girls took up the profession of bar dancer in the hotels of Calcutta. Mention may be made of Miss Shefali who acquired some reputation as bar dancer and actress in Calcutta. Some refugee girls also served in the massage parlours to secure a living. Those who had no other ways took to prostitution. The extreme economic distress that primarily forces a woman into prostitution was the reality of the camps and colonies. Women were forced to sell themselves in exchange of some coal or a piece of cloth or a little money.22 In Bengali literature, we find so many indications of this social phenomenon. Alor Britte, a short story by Samaresh Basu is centered around such a theme. The theme of the short story Guilty written by Santosh Kumar Ghosh is more shocking. Salil and Sita were in love since the pre-Partition period. In the post-migrational phase, their relationship reached a crucial juncture. Salil lost his job. Sita had to shoulder the burden of her family. In this situation, they came to a compromise. Salil used to bring customers to Sita and Sita entertained them. The earnings were shared between them. They often quarrelled with each other regarding their shares. That was the tragic end of their love.


The upheaval caused by the Partition threw the uprooted woman into a situation where her dignity and integrity faced severe challenges, which has been reflected extensively in the existing Bengali literature, newspapers, films and dramas of the period. The challenge was so acute that the refugee women had to undergo a process of fundamental change in their behavioural pattern, attitude and the mode of their thinking. Refugee girls’ urge for education and employment and self-dependence encouraged others in this respect. The middle class Bengali families were generally unwilling to allow their educated girls to take up jobs even if they were in economic distress. This mentality of the middle class Bengalis got a severe blow from the newcomers and ultimately it brought about a major change in the mentality of the Bengali people as a whole. The outcome was the emergence of a new class in Bengali society i.e. the working woman. It was primarily composed of the refugee women. The refugee woman driven by the circumstances opened up the door to many new opportunities for many other middle class Bengali women. They came out of their private domain of domesticity and child rearing and took up public duties, driven by economic motive in the main. Whatever the motive was, it meant more freedom from domestic chores and some command over money, which they could now claim as their own. Women were caught between private and public worlds and underwent tremendous roll conflicts. Anyway, the patriarchal control was relaxed to some extent. At least the traditional association between women’s confinement to home with the idea of their ‘respectability’ was now challenged.


The working women emerged as a subject of representation in fictions and cinemas. Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, based on a story by Narendranath Mitra, is an excellent example of the new social reality. It was not an easy job to establish themselves as working women. They had to adjust with their family members on one hand and the employers on the other, most of whom were obviously men. Sometimes the resultant tension reached the breaking point. Arati’s mental tension has been vividly reflected in Mahanagar. When her husband lost his job, she had to make compromise with her employer to enhance her salary. Here I can also mention a short story named “Ekti Shabder Mane (Meaning of a word)” written by Prafulla Roy.23 Jayanti had to accompany her boss beyond her working hour to maintain her job. As her husband had lost his job, she urged him to accept this so long as he remained unemployed. Many working women had the same experience as Jayanti had.24


Thus, though the East Bengali Hindu refugee women suffered tremendously due to the upheaval caused by the partition, it was not the end of the story. The most significant part of the story was that they waged a remarkable struggle for existence that has no parallel in the contemporary history of West Bengal. The coming out of the refugee women from private to public space brought about a fundamental change in the thinking and attitude of the Bengali women as a whole and added a new dimension to their self-consciousness. Rachel Waber, however, questions the significance of the coming out of the refugee women. She argues that the refugee women did not really move into public space, rather the domestic realm expanded to facilitate their participation in political, community and economic affairs.25 Many refugee women returned to the domestic world as soon as their families were comfortable situated, financially and physically. They also felt that their new responsibilities— to defend their homes, to participate in demonstrations, to work for wages—in addition to their regular household chores were quite burdensome. Many of the second generation daughters do not work outside the home because they do not need to now. She also argues that the private world of the refugee women expanded to include these new roles because women’s entrance into the public sphere is and was legitimated on the basis of women’s domestic roles as wives, mothers and daughters. In other words, because a woman’s home is her domain, it is only natural that she fights for its right to exist. Women’s mobilization is perceived as an extension of their natural realm of interest and power within the domestic arena. The coming out of the refugee women undoubtedly provided them with some sort of freedom. However, not all women were happy about this freedom thrust upon them. This individual freedom was also articulated in an idiom of loss. Karuna Channa while studying the impact of Partition on the Punjabi women also observed that having ‘stepped out’ they were unable to disentangle themselves from the traditional ‘feminine role model’.26 She showed that the Punjabi families used education of the daughters for employment, social security as well as for status. In many cases they had no choice. Jobs were thrust upon them.27 The stepping out of the refugee women was merely a survival strategy on the part of the refugee families.


Notes and References
1Economic and Political Weekly, April 24, 1993, WS-2-34
2Seminar, vol.420, August 1994
3Kundu, Tridib Santapa, “Bangaali Nari Jibane Deshbhager Prabhab” in Chattopadhyay, Goutam (ed.), Itihas Anusandhan, Vol. 13, Kolkata, Farma K.L.M. Pvt. Ltd., 1999, pp.589-599.
See also Basu, Monmayee, “Unknown Victims of a Major Holocaust” in Settar, S, Gupta, Indra B (Ed), Pangs of Partition, Vol. II, New Delhi, Monohar, 2002, pp 143-163.
4Ananda Bazar Patrika on May 14, 1950
5Ibid., March 27, 1950, p.5
6Ibid. , March 14, 1950
7Ibid, Feb 28, 1951.
8Ritwik Ghatak’s films, particularly Meghe Dhaka Tara, a number of short stories like Shanti Mitra’s Samabedana, Manik Bandopadhyay’s novel Sarbajonin, Narayan Sanyal’s Balmik and a couple of pieces in Ashok Mitra’s “Calcutta Diary” (‘Take a Girl Like Her’, and ‘The Song of Mother Courage’) may be mentioned in this connection.
9Sasthi is the goddess of children. Women worship goddess sasthi for the well being of the children.
10Ananda Bazar Patrika, June 3, 1953
11Author’s interview with Sarashibala Roy of Chotonilpur Colony, Burdwan on 28.8.1997.
12Bagchi, Jasodhara and Dasgupta, Subharanjan (ed), The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, Kolkata, Stree, 2003, p.6
13Chakravartty, Gargi, Coming out of Partition: Refugee Women of Bengal, New Delhi, Blujay, 2005.
14Authors interview with Sarashibala Roy of Chotonilpur Colony, Burdwan on 28.8.1997. Sarashibala, though belonged to a middle class family, had to roll bidi to support her family financially.
15See Samaresh Basu’s short story Pasarini in Ray, Debesh (com. & ed.), Raktamanir Hare, Vol. I (A collection of Bengali short stories on partition and independence), New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 2005, pp.190-205.
16Guha, Debashis, “politics of Prison Power: A Case Study of Wardens of Burdwan District Jail”, Socialist Perspective, Vol.24, No.1-2 (June-September), 1996, pp.81-88
17Sabitri Chattopadhyay., “Smriti Bismritir Mala”, Saradia Bartaman, 1996, pp.454-468.
18Ibid, p 466.
19Sarkar, Arkaprabha, “Childhood: Madhabi Mukherjee”, The Statesman, 23 August 1997, p 8.
20Roy, Satyajit, Mahanagar, R.D.Bansal & Co.,1963
21Ananda Bazar Patrika on April 16, 1952
22Sen, K.N and L.Sen, “Sex Life of Refugees in a Transit Camp: Some Case Studies”, Man in India, Vol. 13, No.1 (1953), pp.55-56.
23Roy, Prafulla, Anuprabesh, Dey’s, Kolkata, 1996, pp.130-140.
24Neeta of Meghe Dhaka Tara. Ritwik Ghatak, the filmmaker of Bengal Partition, has epitomised the new refugee women in the resettled colonies on the outskirts of Calcutta in the epic figure of Neeta, the heroine of Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Star Clouded Over). This is the tragedy and triumph of the displaced women of Bengal.
25 Waber, Rachel, “Re (Creating) the Home: Women’s Role in the Development of Refugee Colonies in South Calcutta” in Bagchi, Jasodhara and Dasgupta, Subharanjan (ed), The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, Kolkata, Stree, 2003, pp.75-77.
26Channa, Karuna, “Partition and Family Strategies: Gender-Education Linkages among Punjabi Women in Delhi”, Economic and Political Weekly, April 24, 1993, p.WS-31.
27Ibid, p.WW-34


-by Tridib Santapa Kundu

7 Responses to “Partition Experiences of the East Bengali Refugee Women”

  1. Kabir said

    Thank for this wonderful article, we had full issue dedicated to the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. U can access it through our archive.

  2. sayema said

    I found Tridib Santapa Kundu’s article enlightening for both sides of Bengal.Actually, partition played an underpinning role in structuring political and social ambiance of South Asia and still remaining very powerful historical context.

  3. ranjan maity said

    thanks Tridib for such a good article.

  4. Suchandra Ghatak said

    Its a wonderful article. Thanks for this.

  5. Soumen Chakraborty said

    good article

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