Tom Deegan on an important new examination of one of history’s great human tragedies

Most people concerned with history know something of the dreadful events of 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned to create Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Most also know that an estimated 20 million people migrated from one side of the Radcliffe Line to the other. Many historical accounts of this mass migration, and the associated communal violence, exist, so one can be forgiven for thinking the subject is somewhat jaded now, due to the plethora of books and the 70-year passage of time that obscures the events.

But this latest work by Dr Pippa Virdee, a senior lecturer in Modern South Asian Historyat De Montfort University, breaks new ground.Itis not an examination of the political situation in India leading up to Partition, nor is it a criticism of any of the national leaders – Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi or Mountbatten and others – who had charge of the pervading political ideologies and government of the time. It is not at all partisan,and covers those political aspects of the tragedy in a more superficial way because its principal focus is on the experiences of the people most affected by the uprooting of families and communities. This is a ‘history from below’ rather than a ‘great men of history’ narrative, and also a search for truth and meaning behind the catastrophe.

Punjab was the state where the greatest upheavals and violence took place and the author gives us a potted history of the geographic, demographic and religious situation in Punjab leading up to and after August 1947. The divisionwas carried out hurriedly, with no real consideration of its impact on the people most affected. This ‘cut and run’ policy devastated the lives of millions.

However, it is Virdee’s account and discussion of the widespread abuse of females that makes this book different from most other histories. That is why it will undoubtedly become an important part of the historiography of Punjab and Partition.

Throughout history, there are many examples of the use of rape as an instrument of subjugation.‘Women are the upholders of community honour and are then tainted by the “other” and forced to take on the burden of dishonouring the community,’ says the author.We know that in Bangladesh in 1972, rape victims were shunned by their own communities as if they were guilty of an immoral crime. In Punjab in 1947, countless numbers of young females, having seen their mothers and infant siblings butchered, survived only because they could be used sexually by rabid men. It is this aspect of Partition that Virdee’s book examines in a way that no other work has, to my knowledge. Abductions, forcible conversions and the sexual abuse of young females were prevalent during this period, and the author provides many case-histories and accounts that are both shocking and poignant.

Sadly, that legacy lives on. The author quotes Mustaq Soofi:‘When the wound stops hurting what hurts is the scar.’

The book concludes with a look at the aftereffects of the forcible mass migration on cities such as Delhi. I was surprised to learn that New Delhi was essentially a centre of Indian Muslim culture before Partition brought a massive influx of refugees from Punjab, making the city now predominately Hindu.

Much more could be said of this book but space forbids. I recommend it to all students of history and humanity, and trust that a more affordable paperback edition will soon be available

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