Sudarshana’s escape and Veera’s return: two stories of Partition’s abducted women

This essay was also published in Feminism in India here.

Thousands of women were caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the border separating Pakistani West Punjab and Indian East Punjab. Women such as Piara, Parmeshwari, and Peshawari were listed in long tables counting abducted persons. Others, such as Sudarshana, Ismat, and Zainab were found in voluntary marriages across religious lines, only to be pulled back into their homes involuntarily after Partition. These women were Indian and Pakistani, Hindu and Muslim. Some jumped into wells to avoid dishonoring their families; others were raped while attempting to escape the carnage, some by the police escorts. Most were never found or reunited with their families, despite a dedicated legal and bureaucratic support system committed to finding them.

In Delhi and Lahore, women social workers signed up to find and rehabilitate women and children who had disappeared in the chaotic violence of Partition. Many of these social workers were Indian but committed to finding abduction victims on both sides of the India-Pakistan border and bringing them home. These social workers were not only named, they have rich documented backgrounds. They were largely upper-class, often direct disciples (or siblings) of independence ‘greats’ Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. These women, when moving across the border between Amritsar and Lahore, told police officers about their ‘important families’. They had ayahs, connections, and often British educations. They wore the simple khadi and ate the vegetarian meals of their upbringing and education, even when insistence on these humble trappings became a luxury.

2016. I drank my tea and sat in silence, looking down at the teacup to hide my dissatisfaction at the way the conversation was going. Ordinarily, I’m not the one to socialize when there is work to be done, but I needed the police officer to listen to me, and my gender, language, and citizenship were already working against me. I needed to laugh and smile, and thank him for the tea, but I just couldn’t. I hated joking about students, even with my Teach for India co-fellows, and this time, my thirteen-year-old student had been missing for two weeks. Teach for India’s government relations person was sitting beside me – he and the police officer were old friends and joked together and I hoped my silence was offset by my colleague’s sociability.  The police officer continued on, oblivious, commenting on how girls these days are more influenced by pop culture than their families, that she had probably run away because it was romantic, that police officers had gotten more and more calls about runaways since Sairat had been released in theaters.

When the social worker first met Sudarshana, it was thanks to a rare occurrence of the Pakistani police bringing over a Hindu girl on their own, without the social workers accompanying them to her home as mediators and escorts. Sudarshana’s parents had called from Delhi, where her father was the manager of the pre-Partition Imperial Bank. They were important people searching for their daughter, who it was suspected had been housed in an important person’s home. Perhaps that was the reason that within a day, the Pakistani police arrived in the Lahore resettlement camp with Sudarshana in tow.

Kamlaben Patel, the social worker in charge of Sudarshana’s case, was new to the role, and she had just settled in Lahore to help resettle in India Hindu women and children found in Pakistan. When she was summoned to the Deputy High Commissioner’s office to meet Sudarshana’s father and brother, she understood immediately that these were well-connected people. She suggested to them that if they followed the process of reporting an abducted woman to her, she would have to report the matter to the police and work with them to trace Sudarshana, risking leaks along the way. Police on both sides of the border often warned families housing abducted women beforehand, so that they could move or hide before the social workers arrived. Instead, she recommended that they reach out to the Deputy Inspector General of Police in Punjab, who she discovered they knew personally. The police brought Sudarshana to the camp later that evening.

As with the majority of the abducted women of Partition, Sudarshana’s story is documented by the social workers who met her and heard her story. We don’t know how Sudarshana felt or what she was thinking, but we know what happened. Sudarshana, while in college in Lahore, had met and fallen in love with a Muslim boy. She decided to marry him despite knowing her parents wouldn’t approve, but was whisked back home to Delhi in the face of the communal riots that plagued Lahore just weeks before Independence. Her then-fiancé flew to Delhi to pick her up and brought her back to Lahore, where they married in a traditional Muslim ceremony.

In November 1948, India and Pakistan signed the Indo-Pakistan Agreement, which required both countries to commit to finding and returning abducted women. Each country then created a legal statute, a recovery ministry, and a bureaucracy of refugee camps, social workers, and tribunals to support the effort spearheaded by Rameshwari Nehru, Mridula Sarabhai, and Edwina Mountbatten. The Abducted Persons Recovery and Restoration Act, passed in 1949 in Delhi, dictated a process for rehabilitation that defined abducted persons as follows:

a male child under the age of sixteen years or a female of whatever age who is, or immediately before the 1st day of March, 1947, was, a Muslim and who, on or after that day and before the 1st day of January, 1949, has become separated from his or her family and is found to be living with or under the control of any other individual or family, and in the latter case includes a child born to any such female after the said date.

Bombay High Court, 1949.

As a result, all women in India who were Muslim before Partition were categorized as abducted, though the recovery process would only begin with a formal request from family in India. The Pakistani law equivalently considered Hindu women in Pakistan abducted as soon as a male family member filed an appeal. Despite the vocal commitments to secularism from both Nehru and Jinnah at the time of Partition, women were legally classified as victims based on religion alone. While the act did put into place a tribunal to adjudicate cases that challenged the law’s definition of ‘abduction,’ in practice the tribunal judges usually continued to uphold the rule that Hindu women and children belonged in India while Muslims belonged in Pakistan. Sudarshana’s family depended on this law to find her and ultimately to bring her back to India.

When Sudarshana arrived at the refugee camp, she was invited to spend the night with the social worker who was then in charge. She shared her story with an audience of relief workers, explaining her decision to leave her family. According to the law, the social workers were required to hand her over to an escort that would take her across the border and then hand her off to her family, but given the story, they offered to ‘lose’ her so that she could return to her husband. After a long night, Sudarshana ultimately chose to return to India and attempt to rebuild relationships with her family of birth, only to run back to Lahore within a week.

However, by this point, the Recovery Department in Pakistan had also gotten involved. By the next morning, the recovery minister had insisted that since this was clearly not an abduction, Sudarshana’s case could not be resolved by simply taking her to India. Because she had requested it, Sudarshana was taken to India by social workers while police followed the minister’s orders by searching for her in the refugee camp in Lahore. The minister also asked other officials to stand at the border waiting to stop the caravan, but it was too late.

2016. My student had been missing for two weeks. It was my first month of teaching, so I hadn’t immediately noticed when she hadn’t come to class – I was still learning the names of my 90 students. But I had heard whispers from her classmates that she was gone, that no one knew where she was, and I had asked for details. I discovered that my thirteen-year-old 8th grade student had been taken by her 21-year-old boyfriend after her brother had discovered their relationship and threatened the boyfriend. Days later, I found myself in the police office with her parents, filing an FIR (first information report), and calling the social worker on staff at Teach for India.

Veera’s father, like Sudarshana’s, filed an appeal to the Indian recovery team to find Veera, like Sudarshana, was in Pakistan while her parents were in India. When she was brought to the Lahore refugee camp, she scolded the social workers. “Do you not feel ashamed to forcibly bring over a married woman?” she asked the camp superintendent. Mridula Sarabhai, however, felt that women should spend several days separated from their husbands before being questioned or sent to the tribunal, and so Veera spent several days at the camp in Lahore against her will.

A few days into her stay, however, Veera told a more detailed story to the camp superintendent and to the senior social worker. Veera’s family had been in Lahore before Partition. They had lived next door to a sub-inspector for the Pakistan police, who had told them that he would exchange safe passage of the family across the border for a marriage to Veera. The families had been close and Veera’s father had agreed to the deal. When Veera was brought to the refugee camp, she had admitted that she was furious with her family for trading her away, and that the sub-inspector had treated her well, though his first wife, a Muslim woman, had not. She did not want to return to India to be with her parents, she said, and instead wanted to work with her husband to figure out a new life in Pakistan.

Because Veera’s husband was on the police force, the Pakistani leadership of the recovery operation wanted him to be present at the tribunal hearings, a practice that for obvious reasons was not standard. However, given the story and the fact that he hadn’t mistreated Veera, the social workers allowed this. At the tribunal, Veera’s testimony was again different – she said that she was eager to return to India, that the marriage had been forced, and that she wanted her marriage jewelry returned. In court, the sub-inspector grew increasingly angry with Veera’s testimony, finally screaming profanities at her mid-hearing.

2016. Standard procedure, once the police find a missing girl under 18, is to take her to a center in Byculla where they go through physical checkups and a mental health evaluation. Two weeks after her family and I had reported my student missing, the police traced a phone call that she made to a friend and found her in a semi-rural home belonging to the boyfriend’s aunt. She had been stashed away while he had returned to Mumbai to work. She had been missing from her family for over two weeks, and now it would be at least three more before she could come home. The other Teach for India fellow and I used the time to invest our community in her return.

 We spent every evening in her home, slowly working with her father, persuading him to allow her to return to school. During lunch and break, we talked to the principal and the other staff. Almost everyone wanted her expelled from school because they suspected she now knew what ‘married life was like.’ Changing their minds in three weeks felt both potentially impossible and exceedingly high-risk, so we instead insisted on her return without justification or explanation, hoping that the weight of Teach for India would be enough. In the classroom, we partnered with a sex education non-profit to host open discussions every morning before she returned. We knew that the best route to a safe classroom was to welcome every question, judgment, and opinion so that students wouldn’t still be muttering debates as to whether she had ‘asked for it’ or not when she finally returned to school. We then worked with students on how to be supportive rather than intrusive, and re-designed the seating arrangement so that she would be buffered by friends and students who would leave her alone on all sides.

Social workers of influence asked Nehru to give speeches to families of abducted women, begging them to welcome them home when recovered. These speeches aimed to address the problem of women accumulating at ashrams and refugee camps in India while their families refused to pick them up and bring them home, now that they had lived with another husband or had borne Muslim children. Some of the police officers and social workers who worked in Pakistan glorified the women who famously jumped into a well to avoid rape as courageous. Others called those wells shameful. Women who were transferred by police unescorted by the volunteer social workers were sometimes raped or given as gifts to other police officers. More than half of the women who were relocated safely were those whose cases were handled exclusively by the social workers, without police or court involvement. At the border, Indian police officers stopped women from crossing into Pakistan until they had seen an equivalent number of women crossing into India on the same day.

“You will get the same number of Muslim women from here, that you sent us over from Lahore,” one police officer said.

“We are not concerned with your work. We do not wish to send Indian women back from Pakistan,” said another.

Courts in both India and Pakistan ruled repeatedly that they would stop cooperating with the recovery workers in order to keep women in the country, only for these judgments to be reversed either through bilateral agreements or by Supreme Court verdicts.

Veera’s tribunal sent her back to India, where she ultimately remarried and had children. Sudarshana decided to return to Delhi, changed her mind, and ultimately returned to Lahore. But as an educated woman with a degree and both a powerful father and a husband, Sudarshana’s story is far from typical. Veera’s ambivalence is more typical, though she too was privileged in a way, coming from a family that welcomed her home after her first marriage and helped her build a new life. One unnamed Muslim girl from Alwar said to officials, “I cannot make up my mind. I am all confused. I will do what you tell me.”

2016. When my student was allowed to return to school, she was required to write a letter of apology to the principal for her poor character. She alternated between a need for complete privacy and a desire to share her experience with her peers. She was picked up and dropped off at school by a parent or her brother daily, which she sometimes found comforting and other times constraining. She completed secondary school and is currently enrolled in a junior college in Mumbai.

To date, there are centers that still house women who survived the violence of Partition and have not been reunited with their families. Most have no memories of how they arrived at the ashrams and resettlement centers where many still live. Others reject the assumptions that come with the label ‘abducted woman’ and set themselves apart from the rest.

2020. I don’t put myself in this narrative to imply in any way that the work I do is comparable to that of the social workers who rescued thousands of women from abuse, rape, and slaughter. It is not. But I am an educator, not a historian, and these stories resonated with me because they capture the difficulties of working with flawed policy, the tensions between personal ethics and professional necessities, the discomfort of having privilege relative to the communities we serve, and the importance of telling and amplifying the stories of others with our privilege, rather than emphasizing our own. I interweave myself into this narrative to be honest about the project and my interest in it.

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