Zainab and Buta Singh married in 1947 in circumstances about which there is no unanimity. It is said they, nevertheless, grew to love each other. After they sired two children, the couple was forcibly separated. Their story is emblematic of Partition because their relationship was simultaneously warped, and redemptive, and tragic. Like Partition, it has several versions, of which two will be recounted here.

There is the version that writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia narrates in her magisterial work, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The other is narrated by eminent Hindi fiction writer Krishna Sobti to Alok Bhalla in Partition Dialogues, a collection of his conversations with writers on their experiences of the 1947 catastrophe.

In Butalia’s version, Zainab was abducted from a kafila or caravan headed to Pakistan. She was presumably passed from one man to another until she was sold to Buta Singh, a Jat Sikh from Amritsar district. Butalia does not give us the name of the village.

Buta Singh married Zainab. Despite the ignominy of being purchased, that too by a member of the community engaged in cleansing East Punjab of Muslims, Buta Singh and Zainab came to love each other. Two girls were born to them. Partition ostensibly seemed to have been symbolically overcome through their relationship.

But the ghosts of Partition had not been put to rest. On December 6, 1947, India and Pakistan signed the Inter-Dominion Treaty, which made it incumbent upon the two nation-states to recover as many abducted women as they could. To implement the treaty, an ordinance was issued. Under it, a woman was deemed abducted if she had entered into a relationship with a man not belonging to her community after March 1, 1947. Search parties were deployed to track abducted women and return them to their families.

One of these search parties came knocking on the door of Buta Singh’s house. It is said his nephews had snitched on Zainab to the search squad. They thought that once Zainab and her children were packed off to Pakistan, their share in the family property would increase.

Such was the law that Zainab’s opinion on whether she wanted to leave Buta Singh, and India, was not required to be elicited. The entire village turned up to see Zainab off. She came out holding her younger child and a bundle of personal belongings. On reaching the jeep, she turned to Buta Singh and, pointing to their older daughter, said, “Take care of this girl, and don’t worry. I will be back soon.”

Buta Singh was distraught. His anxiety was compounded when he received a letter from Pakistan. It asked him to hurry over to Pakistan as his wife’s family was pressuring her to marry. Buta Singh sold his land to raise money and arrived in Delhi, where he converted to Islam and took on the name of Jamil Ahmed. He thought it would be easier for him to travel to Pakistan as a Muslim wishing to become its citizen.

He applied for a Pakistani passport. He waited and waited but his passport did not come. His frequent trips to the Pakistan embassy made him such a familiar figure among Pakistani officials that they granted him a short-term visa for Pakistan.

In Pakistan, Zainab’s life was threatening to take a course she had not anticipated. Both her parents were dead. Since the family had been granted a plot of land in Lyallpur in lieu of the property it owned in East Punjab, its legal heirs were Zainab and her sister. Adjacent to their land was their uncle’s. Keen to keep all the land within the family, the uncle began to mount pressure on Zainab to marry his son, her cousin.

She resisted. Zainab’s cousin, too, did not wish to marry her, not least because she had been the partner of a Sikh. It was during the days Zainab was resisting this familial pressure that Buta Singh received a letter from Pakistan, written by a neighbour of hers, presumably at her behest.

When Buta Singh reached Pakistan, Zainab had been married to her uncle’s son. Perhaps she thought Buta Singh would never come for her.

In his rush to locate Zainab, Buta Singh forgot to report his arrival to the police within 24 hours of reaching Pakistan, a requirement mandatory even in 2017. He was arrested and produced in court. He narrated his story to the magistrate, who issued summons to Zainab.

Zainab came to the court, ringed by his relatives. She told the magistrate: “I am a married woman. Now I have nothing to do with this man. He can take his second child whom I have brought from his house…”

Hours later, in the night, Buta Singh threw himself before a running train. His body was taken for autopsy to Lahore, where a large crowd of people, some weeping, gathered to witness the man who had defied Partition, and overcome his own warped conception of women, to love – and die. A suicide note was recovered from his body. It said he wished to be buried in Zainab’s village.

But her relatives did not allow the police to execute Buta Singh’s last wish and he was buried in Lahore. Of their love, Butalia writes:

“It was said that Zainab and Buta Singh were happy, that they were even in love. Yet, the man actually bought her, purchased her like chattel: how then could she have loved him?”

In Urvashi Butalia’s book, Zainab was abducted from a caravan headed to Pakistan, presumably passed from one man to another until she was sold to Buta Singh, a Jat Sikh from Amritsar district. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In Urvashi Butalia’s book, Zainab was abducted from a caravan headed to Pakistan, presumably passed from one man to another until she was sold to Buta Singh, a Jat Sikh from Amritsar district. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Two versions

Butalia created their story through a piecing together of newspaper accounts, documents and an unpublished memoir. Butalia could not get a glimpse into Zainab’s feelings about the two men she married. Given the stigma associated with abduction and rape, did Zainab overcome Buta Singh’s warped notion of love because of the hope he held out to her for rebuilding her life? Was her love for Buta Singh a strategy of survival? Or was it both?

These questions are rendered redundant in the version that Krishna Sobti narrated to Alok Bhalla. Sobti did not claim to have researched the story. Her version was presumably based on hearsay. Yet, it provides a peep into the politics of remembering Partition.

In Sobti’s version, Zainab does not have a name. She is “the Muslim girl”, plain and simple. It was while fleeing a riotous mob that the Muslim girl ran into Buta Singh’s house and hid under a haystack in the courtyard.

In the evening, Buta Singh, a bachelor, returned home and noticed a chunni sticking out of the haystack. He assured the girl, to quote Sobti, “Don’t be afraid, you are safe here. Stay indoors till the riots are over.” The girl came out and began to stay at his house. Though Buta Singh cooked for her for days, they did not speak to each other.

A few days later, a child chanced upon the Muslim girl in Buta Singh’s house. The word was out. In the evening, Buta Singh returned to a clamorous crowd outside his house.

Sobti tells Bhalla:

“He defended her with great courage and warned his neighbours not to harm her. His honesty and courage touched the girl. She continued to stay with him. Soon they fell in love with each other. In any case… she didn’t have many choices.”

The villagers suggested to Buta Singh that he marry the Muslim girl, who, according to Sobti, thought he was “handsome and decent”. They married, but did not have children at the time the search party arrived at their door. We are not told how the search party sniffed her out.

In the search party were her brothers. They insisted on taking the Muslim girl back to Pakistan. Buta Singh beseeched the authorities to allow her to stay with him as she was legally married to him, of her own free will. But it was to no avail.

In Sobti’s version, too, Buta Singh followed her to Pakistan. The matter of their marriage went to court. The Muslim girl was asked whether she had indeed married Buta Singh. But she refused to speak, not even when he told her that he would die without her.

Of her silence, Sobti explains to Bhalla, “Her brothers had obviously threatened her. It wasn’t difficult to imagine her psychological condition. The court decided against him. Buta Singh was so shattered that he committed suicide.”

Politics of remembering Partition

Oral stories from the past often undergo dramatic changes as these are passed from person to person. By the time it reached Sobti, the love story of Zainab and Buta Singh had morphed into a tale extolling the ideas of Sikh valour and honour.

That Buta Singh had purchased Zainab was elided from Sobti’s version. Instead, she is said to have strayed into the house of Buta Singh the bachelor who could have done anything to her but did not. Because of his impeccable conduct, the Muslim girl fell in love with him, his handsomeness a bonus.

Their love was torn asunder because of her brothers, who shifted from India to Pakistan and returned to take their sister away, unmindful of the suffering they inflicted all around. The story of Zainab and Buta Singh in its retelling indicts the Muslims of India for partitioning the country.

This love story of the Partition era is crying out for a Bollywood producer. Though Butalia’s version is undeniably more layered and captures the heartlessness that Partition was, it is very likely that Bollywood will opt for Sobti’s version in these times of Hindutva domination.

No touch of love jihad there. No depiction of Indians being overtaken by their baser passions – rather, they are always honourable in their conduct, for which they almost always pay a heavy price. A Hindu-Muslim love relationship in 1947 had to countenance the partitioning of the country. A Hindu-Muslim love biopic must be conscious of political sensitivities.