“When we first came, everyone used to say they [Partition survivors] are sharanarthi [refugees]. So after being called sharanarthi, in many places people started protesting [figuratively]. We started saying that we are not sharanarthi, we are purusharthi. […] We are earning through our purusharth. We are earning through our hard work [“mehnat”]. We are hard-working people. Sharanarthi is if we came to seek refuge [“sharan”] then sharanarthi; [speaking forcefully] we are not that. We are recovering through our purusharth, we are recovering through our hard work. What refuge did they give us? Did they give us their houses? Or did they give us employment? We sat on the streets and sold rice, we sat on the streets and sold blankets, we sat on the streets and worked, and it is through that, that we have recovered. So we have done our purusharth, we have worked hard ourselves.”

I still vividly remember that warm August morning six years ago when my question about his community’s experience as refugees triggered the above response from Bhanwarilal uncle. Bhanwarilal uncle was a Partition survivor who was born in the city of Mianwali (now in Punjab, Pakistan) in the year 1931. In 1947, at the age of 16, he spent four months struggling with chronic thirst, starvation and uncertainty on the refugee trail while the rest of his immediate family waited for him in Delhi. I first met him in the summer of 2017 in Delhi while doing fieldwork on the memories of the Partition of India for my PhD thesis. He was among the first people to draw my attention to the purusharthi-sharanarthi dichotomy which ultimately became a major theme in my book Memories in the Service of the Hindu Nation.

Bhanwarilal uncle’s story typifies the experience of the roughly 17 million people who were displaced by the Partition of India. What was also typical in his narrative was the insistence on being remembered as a hard worker rather than a refugee. In 2017-18 when I met and conducted participant observation with over 50 Partition survivors from West Punjab and the North West Frontier Province almost everyone had a story to tell about how hard they had worked to rebuild their lives following the Partition.

I spoke to a Partition survivor who at the age of 15 had paid his school fees by riding a rickshaw through the streets of Ambala. Another had supplemented the family income by selling toffees in trains. I met several people who had worked as daily wage labourers at construction sites and in factories. I heard several stories about people who built houses in Delhi by selling small things like buttons and vegetables on the street. I also heard the famous legend of a Punjabi sugar seller who had made a fortune by selling small quantities of sugar at the very same wholesale prices at which he had procured them. His profit lay in selling the gunny sacks that the sugar came from the local scrap dealer. This particular story even finds a mention in Ravinder Kaur’s book, Since 1947: Partition Narratives Among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi.

In story after story, I was told that hard work and “self-sufficiency” were the innate qualities of the Punjabi refugee. I was told that the people of their community had gone hungry but had never begged. That they had rebuilt their wealth through sincere and persistent purusharth. One Partition survivor analogised his community’s post-Partition struggle to that of a seed. One must destroy oneself in order to bloom and bear fruit, he explained. But how far could these stories be taken literally?

The karmic philosophy of purusharth

As I listened to these stories, I was struck by their fable-like quality. Stories of purusharth almost always comprised dramatic tales of struggle and back-breaking physical labour. Often these stories were followed by jibes – tinged with envy and remorse – directed at their own grandchildren whom they saw as incapable of hard work and struggle. For Punjabi refugees, stories of purusharth are not merely stories of the hard work they did in the immediate aftermath of the Partition but stories that in their retellings have become part of the very essence of what it means to be Punjabi. This essentialism comprises a self-orientalising discourse where the innately hard-working character of Punjabis is connected to the harshness of agrarian life.

What is interesting is the way in which Partition survivors used the word “purusharth” to describe their hard work. Purusharth (also spelt as puruṣārtha) is a Sanskrit word and occupies a central space within Hinduism. Canonically, Purusharth is intimately linked to the Brahmanical order of varnashramadharma which connects a person’s caste (varna) to the work and duties (shrama and dharma) they must perform in life. The philosophy of purusharth is closely related to karma. By constructing persistent and sincere hard work (or “struggle”) as a virtue, purusharth reinforces the karmic philosophy that “one reaps that which one sows”.

But Partition survivors describe both hard work and acts of street-smartness as purusharth. The latter is evident in the aforementioned story of the sugar seller who allegedly undersells the entire market by restricting his profits to the resale of used gunny sacks. The result of this slippage is the valourisation of harsh struggle as a redemptive sacrifice. While the Partition and the loss of their ancestral privilege are felt as a deeply humiliating (even emasculating) experience, these stories that valourise the hard work and struggle of men – and it is always men in these stories – seek to recover the pride and agency that was lost in 1947. These stories sift through the rubble to recover a sense of honour; a sense of who they are as a community. The most immediate function of this narrative is to rationalise what is perceived as the futility of their suffering; that hauntingly unanswerable question of “what was it all for?”

These stories comprise a masculine discourse (Memories and Postmemories of the Partition of India, 2019) that makes several political claims. Stories of purusharth are part of how Partition survivors (especially those from Punjab) identify as middle-class Hindu citizens of India. These narratives are rich in comments that disavow their status as sharanarthi, as refugees or “passive victims” dependent on the “charity” of the state. Instead, by emphasising how hard they worked to rebuild their lives, they not only express agency but also position themselves as citizens deserving of their place within the state. In doing so, this narrative presents their recovery from poverty as a story of social mobility. These stories legitimise their caste privilege, wealth, and social status in the context of India’s stark economic inequality. Implicit within this discourse is a memory of having been treated as outsiders during their initial years in post-Partition India. Their insistence on being seen as hard workers rather than as refugees was a way of asserting their belonging within the new nation.

This is not to say that Partition refugees did not work hard following their displacement. Rather, these stories present their lives as a dramatic struggle of resilient refugees against an apathetic state. Stories of purusharth did not include stories of everyday office work or any other kind of stable, long-term employment. Ravinder Kaur has shown that such stories diminish the role of the state in the resettlement of refugees. In reality, the state not only provided education and compensation to the refugees but also structurally privileged upper-caste and land-owning refugees over others. For example, by creating a compensation system that awarded land (up to Rs 10,000) on the basis of previously owned land, the Indian government created two classes of refugees: the landed and the landless. This reproduced past social hierarchies by ensuring that the zamindars remained land owners, while those who had lived on the margins of society prior to the Partition continued to do so in the post-colonial state.

Where are the women?

The most conspicuous absence in these stories is that of women. As stories told by men about the backbreaking physical work performed by men, these are essentially stories of man-work. These stories remember male refugees (especially fathers) as hard workers who upheld the pride of their community by doing whatever it took to survive. As Partition survivors constantly reminded me, these men were not refugees but hard-working citizens. But where are the women? What were the ways in which women struggled to earn a living during the Partition? What of the immense care work and domestic work they did to support their families amid genocide?

In the memories of the Partition (especially those of men) women largely feature in passive and sacrificial terms as victims and martyrs. The most popular tropes are those of the “abducted woman” who needed rescuing by the state and that of the “self-sacrificing woman”, one who would rather commit suicide than face dishonour at the hands of the Other. This masculine memory of the martyrdom and sacrifice of women is starkly different from the stories women tell of themselves. For example, Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar tells the story of a woman who is abducted and then abandoned by her own family. Caught in the crossfire of competing religious patriarchies, she uses what little agency she has to build a new life for herself.

Urvashi Butalia (The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, 2000) and Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s (1998) feminist oral histories have problematised such common-sense understandings of the violence of the Partition. Documenting the experience of “abducted” women as well as the Indian and Pakistani state’s “recovery” operations, Butalia and Menon and Bhasin – like Amrita Pritam – argued that in the cases of many “abducted women, returning them to unaccepting families often amounted to a second displacement. “Recovery” in these contexts served only to appease the patriarchal pride of the newly independent nation-states at the cost of uprooting women from a home where – although not of their choosing – some had nevertheless managed to build a new life for themselves. Their work also demonstrated that contrary to the popular memory of the alleged sacrificial “suicide” of Hindu and Sikh women at Thoa Khalsa (and other sites), women did not go to these deaths willingly.

Closer examinations of the surviving witnesses, especially women, revealed that in their memory, the men presented the honour killings of women of their own community in the hallowed terms of martyrdom and sacrifice. John Gillis has observed that “women and minorities often serve as symbols of a ‘lost’ past, nostalgically perceived and romantically constructed, but their actual lives are most readily forgotten”. Women are eulogised for their “sacrifices” even as their actual lives are forgotten (Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, 1994). Within nationalist discourses, the image of the suffering, sacrificing woman comes to symbolise the suffering nation. Relatedly, Nira Yuval-Davis has written extensively about how women carry the “burden of representation” and are “constructed as the symbolic bearers of the collectivity’s identity and honour” (Gender and Nation, 2003). Yuval-Davis observes that in the nationalist imaginary, men go to war (or work) for the sake of the “womenandchildren [sic]”.

My attention was drawn to this early on when a male Partition survivor contrasted his community’s experience as “purusharthis” with the poverty of a nearby community of Assamese Muslim migrants. He said, “But their women come here to collect scrap paper. Our women did not do any work. […] That community, I understand, is still backward. They are weak. Understood?” The implication was that far from being a form of redemptive purusharth, the labour of “their women” was a sign of “weakness” and a source of “shame” and “dishonour”. It was seen as a disruption of the “natural” patriarchal order; a sign of “male failure”.

In the memory of the Partition, the hard work of women has been similarly obscured to assuage patriarchal pride. Returning to the women Partition survivors I had met, I began to ask them about the various ways in which they had taken care of their families during the Partition. Moving away from the masculine memory of sacrifice and martyrdom, I wanted to know more about their actual lives as women under a patriarchal order. And, it was through this that I became aware of the role that needlework had played in the economic recovery of Punjabi families.

My fieldwork brought me in touch with Bhagwanti aunty and her tragic story. Aged 19 years at the time of the Partition, she and her mother-in-law arrived in Delhi in August 1947. Her husband had stayed back in Karachi to manage the family business, hopeful that the violence would eventually settle down. Meanwhile, sharing a small room in Tibbia College, Delhi with a couple of other refugee families, the women had neither money nor a support system. To support themselves, Bhagwanti aunty made a deal with a local shopkeeper. He would supply them with wool and give them five annas for every sweater they knitted. She and her mother-in-law would knit till 12 in the night to finish a sweater each, every day. Later, she bought a sewing machine and started stitching kurtas, pyjamas, and underwear.

During this time, Bhagwanti aunty received news that her mother had died shortly after reaching Rohtak, Haryana. She had contracted Cholera somewhere along the journey and had continued to breastfeed her infant son despite having access to very little food or water. The toll this took on her body was irreparable. Her illness was quick and severe. Her death was so sudden, and their family so scattered, that Bhagwanti aunty’s father never made it to his wife’s funeral. While Bhagwanti aunty did attend the funeral, she was forced to return to Tibbia College soon after to care for her mother-in-law. The violence in Delhi and lack of news from her son – Bhagwanti aunty’s husband – had taken a severe toll on her mental health. Yet in all of this, Bhagwanti aunty continued to spend her days taking care of her mother-in-law and her nights knitting and stitching.

I met Falguni aunty, a Partition survivor from Karor Lal Esan in Punjab, Pakistan, who for several decades ran a small tailoring shop from inside her home. Although she had a double MA in Hindi and had completed her teacher training, her family and in-laws had never let her work outside the home. The tailoring shop had been a happy compromise that provided much-needed income without compromising patriarchal pride or authority. The savings from her shop gave her some financial freedom and also contributed to the family home they built in the 1980s.

My fieldwork also brought me in touch with a number of women who had been the primary earners of their families. For example, I met Chandini aunty who had worked in the Reserve Bank of India for close to 30 years. By contrast, her husband had been a car mechanic. Her salary, benefits and pension were what had substantially provided for their family over the years. I also met Lakshmi aunty who was a Shastri by qualification: a degree awarded to students after seven years of higher education in the Sanskrit language. She was a scholar of both the Sanskrit language and the Vedas, and had worked as a government school teacher. Like most women, this was all in addition to taking care of the home. In their stories, I found the absence of the valourisation of struggle and hard work that I had encountered in the memories of male Partition survivors. They never extolled their career as an example of “sacrifice” or “purusharth”. The contrast was telling…

These stories ultimately became a significant part of my book and served as an important counter–narrative to this mainstream masculine memory of purusharth and sacrifice. The stories of women also raise important questions about the continued curation and publication of Partition oral history. Are scholars willing to challenge the caste and gender biases of the survivors they interview? Do the recently established oral history archives and museums challenge the biases, bigotry and hatred that proliferates in the memory of Partition survivors? In what ways do they oppose efforts that seek to weaponise this memory for contemporary majoritarian mobilisation? The Partition remains a living memory and an unfinished history. And, because of the way in which its stories touch upon the themes of caste, gender, religion, nationalism, violence and inequality, we must be extremely mindful of their use in the public domain and the lessons that are drawn from them.

Pranav Kohli is an anthropologist. His book on the Partition of India titled Memories in the Service of the Hindu Nation: The Afterlife of the Partition of India is forthcoming in 2023 from Cambridge University Press.