Why remember Partition? And what to remember? Ayesha Kidwai

AYESHA KIDWAI reflects on the injustice done to Bilkis Bano on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, by the release of the 11 convicted rapists (who raped her during the Gujarat carnage of 2002, and killed her 3 year-old daughter), by way of her translation of Krishn Chander’s short story written in 1948, entitled Ek Tawaif ka Khat, 

Our readers would remember that Ayesha has had translations posted here on Kafila earlier, some into Hindustani from English. Now you can visit her site to read all of her translations as and when she posts them there.

Here is the link to Ayesha Kidwai’s site.

Here we publish her preface and an extract from the translation. The whole story may be read on her site.


There have been many in India and Pakistan (and what eventually became Bangladesh) who have always remembered the Partition of 1947. They remembered it as it the long Partition of India drew out, because they bore the marks of it on their bodies and in their families, they remembered it as they were in Parliament trying to build a state that would never face such a terrible event of rupture ever again; they remembered it even when they apparently appeared to forget it, because the only way to not let the events of terrifying trauma — of the looting, abduction, sexual violence, exile and murder— overshadow the present and the futures that had to be built. At every stage in the last 75 years, there have been people in both countries who have taken instruction from the horrors of the long Partition to interrogate what must not be done, what was must be changed, what must be erased.

That was until the 74th year of India’s existence as an independent nation. In 2021, the government of India designated August 14 as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ with the objective of reminding— and I quote an official pronouncement here — “the present and future generations of Indians of the pain and suffering faced by the people of India during the partition”. August 14 is the day before India’s official Independence Day (and coincides with the day that Pakistan celebrates its freedom). It is in this sequencing of dates that the true horror lies, as it aims to recast the social, cultural and political meaning that Partition has had in most Indians’ lives until now.

First of all, in this act of designating a day, we are asked to memorialise the actual religious violence, to nurture specific feelings of Indian injury, and not to focus on the population here being the cause of suffering for Pakistani and Bangladeshis as well.

Second, by focusing on the sufferings of Indians alone, we are being told to see our citizenship of India as always having been a choice between competing exclusionary religious nationalisms, rather than the positive choice it actually was—for inclusion in a secular state.

Third, by sequencing this Partition Horrors Day before Independence Day, our freedom is being misrepresented to us and the generations that are to come. Freedom did not come from the ethnic cleansing and genocidal intentions that Partition represents; it did not spring from a moment when the ‘other’ nation separated from ours, but was the achievement of a long and valiant anticolonial struggle fought by people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for over 60 years.

Finally, and most importantly, this seemingly innocuous sequencing of dates is telling us to forget why, all these years, we have been remembering Partition at all. Thus far, we usually return to the events of Partition particularly on Independence Day, not to resurrect the enmities of the past but to inspect the here and now and our tomorrows, to reflect on Partition’s afterlife, and to inspect the India of today and diagnose whether there still remain the ingredients of what made us partition in 1947 in this brutal and brutalising way. We go back to the events of Partition also to attend to the voices of those who did not ‘win’, who raised important questions at that moment, and to speak of how those questions still remain, and what the answers to these questions should be.

On Independence Day this year,  Bilkis Yakub Rasool’s eleven attackers walked free out of jail in the early evening after being granted an early release by the Gujarat state . These men had murdered 14 members of Bilkis’s  family, including her three year old child, and gang-raped her. No rules governing the early release of convicts seem to have been respected in this release, all of which restrict the Indian State from freeing prisoners that have committed heinous crimes. After the convicts were duly garlanded and felicitated at the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad office, Bilkis issued a moving statement, in which she asked:

How can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts. No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision. I appeal to the Gujarat Government, please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe.

How can justice for any woman end like this? Bilkis asks.

She speaks not to her rapists, but directly to the state and the judiciary. She speaks not only of herself but of the rights of all women. She speaks of a justice system that does not react to sexual violence in patriarchal panic, but rather attends to the needs of the victims, their health and safety, as an essential component of justice that extends beyond the trial and the conviction— “no one enquired about my safety and well-being”, she says. And she speaks to the state and the necessity of its taking a political responsibility that she may live without fear and in peace.

Bilkis Bano’s undaunted courage is why we must remember Partition. Not in sorrowing acknowledgment or celebration of the genocidal intent of religious nationalisms, but to see where the courage of women has succeeded and the several areas in which we remain stuck at the same questions. The fact that Bilkis can ask her questions, the fact that she could pursue her fight for justice over several years in a trial that lasted well over a decade is something that the women abducted in both India and Pakistan during Partition could not do— they were only property that had to be recovered and exchanged. But many other aspects of Bilkis’s case signify how little we have moved beyond the point of Partition. Just as it was during the Partition, the state and the judicial system we have constructed continues to fail the survivors of communal violence. Just as it was during the long Partition, the women who join the fight on the side of the  victims are branded as traitors, antinationals, and incarcerated—Mridula Sarabhai was called these very names in the 1960s and put under house arrest. Just as it was during the Partition, the voices of women who seek to craft a state and a society that recognises it has a responsibility to the victims of sexual violence are drowned out, imprisoned and chained— who acknowledges what Rameshwari Nehru, Mridula Sarabhai, Anis Kidwai, Kamlaben Patel, Savitri Nigam, Mrs. Bhag Mehta, and Teesta Setalvad did?

For me, for now, the most important reason why we must remember Partition is the final appeal that Bilkis makes, where she asks the Gujarat government to ensure that she is kept safe and given back her right to live without fear and in peace. Implicit in her appeal is the question of who takes the political responsibility for sexual violence and its cessation. Is it just the courts or does the government and the society it creates have a crucial role?

Although there have been many ways that this question was asked during Partition by several writers (including by my grandmother Anis Kidwai), perhaps the starkest, most gut-wrenching challenge can be found in a short story by Krishn Chander, written in 1948, entitled Ek Tawaif ka Khat, which translates to English as “A Letter from a Prostitute”. In this story a prostitute writes to Nehru and Jinnah and recounts the tales of the two young girls who are now to be found at her place of business.

In Bilkis’s appeal, we should hear the stories of Bela and Batool. Not just Bela’s, not just Batool’s. And that is the only lesson worth remembering from Partition.

Extract from A Letter from a Prostitute by Krishn Chander

(Translated by Ayesha Kidwai)

Bela returned home from school to see a huge mob swarming outside her and other Hindu homes. The mob was armed and it was setting fire to the houses, dragging the people, their children,  their women, out of their homes and murdering them on the street. As they did so, they chanted the slogan of ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ all the while. Bela saw her father being done to the death before her eyes. And then she saw her mother breathe her last before her eyes. The savage Muslims had cut off her breasts and thrown them away. Those breasts with which a mother, any mother, a Hindu mother or a Muslim mother, a Christian mother or a Jewish mother, suckles her child and ushers in a new chapter of creation in the world of humans and the universe’s multitudes. Those milk-laden breasts were hacked away to the sound of  slogans of Allah-o-Akbar.  Some had thought up such creative brutality. A cruel darkness had inked their souls with blackness. I have read the Quran and I know that what was done to Bella’s parents in Rawalpindi was not Islam. It was not human. It was not even enmity. Nor was it revenge. It was a brutality, a callousness, a cowardice, and a satanism that burst darkly in the breast, which stains even the last glimmer of light.

Bela is now with me. Before me, she was with the bearded Muslim procurer, and before that she was with the Muslim procurer from Delhi. Bela was no more than twelve years old, when she studied in the fourth grade. …Now Bela no longer looks as if she is twelve. Her years are young, but her life is very old. The fear in her eyes, the bitterness in her humanity, the blood of her despair, her thirst for death; if you could see it, Qaid-e-Azam Sahib, you may be able to understand. Perhaps you could divine what lies behind the bleakness of those eyes.  You are a respectable man. You must have seen the innocent girls from respectable families. Hindu girls, Muslim girls. Perhaps you would see that innocence has no religion, that it is something that all humanity holds in trust. It is a bequest to  the whole world. The man who destroys it can never be forgiven by any god of any religion.

If Bela came from Rawalpindi, Batool came from Jalandhar. She is the daughter of a Pathan from a small village named Khem Karan. Batul’s father had seven daughters –three were married, four were unwed. Batool’s father was an ordinary small farmer in Khem Karan. A poor Pathan, but a proud Pathan; who had been settled in Khem Karan for centuries. Only three or four households were Pathans in the village of Jats.

Batool was the most beloved of her father’s daughters. The youngest of the seven, she was the sweetest, the prettiest. Batool is so beautiful that her skin flushes if you even touch her. Panditji, you are yourself Kashmiri by origin, and being an artist, you know what such beauty can be. Today this loveliness lies in disarray in my piles of filth, so much so that finding a decent man who will appreciate it will prove difficult. All one ever sees is rotten, dissolute Marwaris, contractors sporting bushy moustaches, and black marketeers with lascivious stares.

Little, unlettered  Batool. It’s  only been a few days since she has come to me. A Hindu procurer brought her to me. I bought her for five hundred rupees. This Hindu procurer had brought her from Ludhiana, from a Jat one. Where she was before this, I cannot say. Yes, the lady doctor has said many things to me, but if you were to hear them, you would perhaps go mad. Batool is half mad herself. The Jats killed her father with such mercilessness that the past six thousand years of Hindu culture was stripped of its skin, and human barbarity in its savage, naked form has been laid bare for all to see.

First, the Jats gouged out his eyes. Then they pissed into his mouth. Then they slit him from the throat down and disembowelled him. Then they forced themselves on his married daughters and sowed their own humiliation. Right in front of their father’s corpse. Rehana, Guldarakshan, Marjana, Sausan, Begum… one by one, barbaric man defiled each one of the idols in his temple. The ones that gave him life, who sang him to sleep with a lullaby, the ones that had bowed their heads to him, in shame, in subjection, in chastity. With all these sisters, these daughters in law,  these mothers, they engaged in fornication.

The Hindu religion lost its honour, it destroyed its tolerance, it erased its own greatness. Every mantra of the Rg Veda was silent today, every couplet in the Granth Sahab was ashamed, every verse of the Gita was wounded. Who is it that would dare speak to me of the artists of Ajanta? Narrate to me the texts of Aśoka’s inscriptions? Sing praises to me of the idol makers of Ellora? In Batool’s forlorn, tightly bitten lips, in her arms marked with the teeth of the feral beasts, and the instability of her leaden legs is the death of your Ajanta, the hearse of your Ellora, the funereal shroud of your culture. Come, come, let me show you the beauty that once was Batool; come let me show you the stinking corpse that Batool is now.

Bela and Batool are two girls, two communities, two cultures, two cultures, two mosques and temples. These days, Bela and Batool live with a prostitute, who runs her business in a shop close the Chinese barber’s on Farris Road. Bela and Batool do not like this trade. I have purchased these two girls; if I want, I could get the work done by them too. But I think that I will not do that which Rawalpindi and Jalandhar have done to them. So far, I have been able to keep them away from the world of Farris Road. Even then, when my customers go to the back room to wash their hands and faces, Bela and Batool’s gaze begin to speak to me. I cannot bring to you the heat of their gaze. I cannot also adequately convey their message to you. Why don’t you read the ciphers in their gaze yourselves?

Panditji, what I want is that you make Batool your daughter. Jinnah Sahib, I wish for you to consider Bela your ‘daughter of the auspicious stars’. Just for once, extricate them from the clutches of Farris Road, keep them in your homes. Pay heed to the laments of the lakhs of souls, that dirge that resounds all the way from Noakhali to Rawalpindi, from Bharatpur to Bombay. Is it only in the Government House that it cannot be heard? Will you attend to this voice?

Read the full translation here.

Ayesha Kidwai is Professor of Linguistics at JNU, Delhi

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