What Gulzar, Amrita Pritam & Manto Taught Us About Rape & Violence

The brutalisation of the eight-year-old girl in Kathua has shown us the inescapable link between communalism, communal violence per se, and violence against women, or, as it happened in Kathua, even very young girls and minors. Always more vulnerable to violence than men at any given time in any community, during communally-charged times, violence against women peaks and acquires an even more sinister form.

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Why is this so? Why do the bodies of women and girls become sites for violence when an overwhelming need for revenge, retribution, reprisal is coupled with a blind, monstrous rage? Psychologists and sociologists will no doubt have their explanations.

As a student of literature, and a literary historian, I want to point out that this is not a new phenomenon; it has happened in the past, and the creative writer has been quick to seize this aspect of violence when linked to gender and religion.

In the light of the nation-wide outrage sparked by the Kathua incident, it seems important to study the violence against women in a purely communal context —starting from the partition years and coming to contemporary times — as reflected in literature, because literature holds up a mirror to society, it shows the good and the bad in equal measure.

Visuals from Mumbai’s Azad Maidan during the protests against Kathua and Unnao rapes.

It also — sometimes through excess and rhetoric and exaggeration — shows us the beast that lurks within. But in portraying such violence, literature also shows us possibilities of redemption. And so, in these dark times, it seems to me there are lessons to be drawn from contemporary literature, though here, I will confine my examples to the literature I know — mostly Urdu, Hindi and English writings.

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History Repeats Itself

The stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chandar and Rajinder Singh Bedi come instantly to mind: Manto's Khol Do ('Open It'), Bedi's Lajwanti and Krishan Chandar's novel Ghaddaar ('Traitor') and collection Hum Vahshi Hain ('We are Savages'). Of these, perhaps Manto's Sharifan deserves closer study not merely for its depiction of the bestiality that can overcome otherwise decent human beings when communal passions run high, but also because Sharifan eponymous protagonist is only a few years older than Kathua's eight-year-old rape-murder victim.

Saadat Hasan Manto 

That a story written 70 years ago is still relevant to us in India today, is both shocking and tragic. What is more, in Manto’s story there are extenuating circumstances, though rape as revenge was as political then as it is now. Manto, like others of his generation, clearly holds the circumstances responsible, the time of madness that many of his peers allude to in their writings.

Kathua has no such fig leaf.

Bedi's Lajwanti draws attention to the issue of abduction as does Amrita Pritam's Punjabi novel Pinjar. We know that approximately 100,000 women and girls were abducted in 1947 though estimates vary, as so many of these abductions went unreported and unacknowledged. It was simpler for families to pretend that their daughters, sisters, wives had been killed rather than to acknowledge that they may well be alive but living either as sexual slaves or wives albeit in 'enemy' families through forced conversions.

The underlying reason — whether men forced women into unpaid labour coupled with sexual abuse or took them as forced wives — was the impulse to subsume, transform, or remove all traces of the other community, especially in places where the two communities had lived together for centuries.

The desire was to shame and corrupt ‘rival’ religious communities through explicit demonstrations of sexualized violence, including rape and mutilation.

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Partition-Era Violence Against Women Through Literary Lens

In their seminal study Borders and Boundaries, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin detail cases in which women’s bodies were tattooed with symbols of their attackers’ religion. Several attacks on women's bodies included men gouging out or carving political slogans, such as 'Pakistan Zindabad' ('Pakistan Forever') or 'Jai Hind' ('Long Live India') into a living woman’s skin — demonstrating the ways that women’s bodies became living trophies of war.

Warring factions also mutilated women’s bodies as a way of asserting domination over a section of the population that had almost overnight become hateful and intolerable.

Menon and Bhasin write about the graphic testimony that a doctor in Sheikhupura, in Punjab, gave to the government’s fact-finding team. The doctor cited 'amputation of breasts of women', adding that 'six such cases of chopped-off breasts were brought to the refugee camp and all of them proved fatal.'

Vultures feeding on corpses, Calcutta, 1946. 

The linking of sexual violence with notions of shame and honour has been repeatedly picked up by writers such as Bapsi Sidhwa in novels such as Ice Candy Man and The Bride. There is the iconic image from Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas, of women jumping into wells to save their honour, for death is preferable to the certain violence, cruelty and shame that awaits them at the hands of their abductors.

Scholars such as Andrew Major have noted that the large-scale abduction and rape of girls seemed to have been a part of systematic 'ethnic cleansing' in large parts of the Punjab, and most notably in the Gurgaon region.

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Women — Every War’s ‘Collateral Damage’

More recently there is Gulzar's novel Two which deals very sensitively with the issue of sexual violence in a communal context, and the toll it takes on a woman's mental health and its long-term consequences. Researchers such as Urvashi Butalia, Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon have talked of the silencing of the trauma in the early decades after partition, and how suppressed memories scarred women for the rest of their lives.

Oral testimonies and survivors' accounts are still surfacing; memoirs, autobiographical essays, interviews etc are still recording some of these experiences and contributing to our understanding of communal violence against women in the years leading up to the Partition, and immediately thereafter.

Rape of the Sabine Women by Pietro da Cortona, 1627–29.

However, it isn’t as though violence against women in communally-charged times ended with the Partition and the coming of Independence. It continues; each time a communal riot breaks out, women are the worst victims of the worst excesses. Be it Gujarat or Kashmir, Assam or Uttar Pradesh, women have been subjected to violence as a measure of revenge, reprisal, teaching a lesson and so on.

Now that the enemy is within and there is no third party to blame for the divide and rule (as was often the simple formulaic approach of many Partition generation of writers), contemporary writers have become more circumspect.

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Rape Must be Seen Through Lens of Politics

They do wish to draw attention, but are careful not to indulge in blaming any one community. They draw our attention to genocide and communal violence, but prefer to use an obliqueness and allusion bordering on political correctness.

The rawness of the Partition generation is missing in contemporary fictional accounts save for an Asghar Wajahat writing his sharp haiku-like Shah Alam Camp ki Roohein or Gulzar writing about the atrocities committed by the paramilitary forces against women in Kashmir in the guise of internal security, in a short story such as Search.

While it may be argued that in the annus horribilis that was 1947, the suddenness and ferocity of the violence caught many — including possibly the perpetrators as we saw in Manto’s Sharifan — unawares, the same cannot be said for post-Partition violence towards women in communally-charged times.

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Much planning and strategising goes into the execution of these hate crimes, not to mention copious amounts of sophistry, equivocation and whataboutery in their aftermath.

The 'retributive genocide' that Paul Brass talked about in the context of Partition acquires a much more sinister meaning and an altogether larger scale when hatred is aided and abetted by technology, not to mention power and privilege. Both history and literature hold out many lessons for us — if we don't pay any heed, if we feel no outrage, if we still say 'Let's not make this political!' or 'Why get religion into it? A rape is a rape!' — we are willfully missing the point.

And in our willfulness, the list of Bilkis Banos, Bhanwari Devis, will go on and on ...

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(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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