x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

One woman abducted in 1947, and the hidden cost of war

Memory of a long-ago kidnapping prompts a reflection on how women pay so much of the price of the wars and other conflicts started by men.

'You have to help me to finish my maths homework," exclaimed the pretty, 14-year-old girl with mischievous eyes. She was Shantidevi, my neighbour in Tandaliawala, in what is now Pakistan's Punjab. We were young in 1940, and strong friends. She sought my help with her homework, and I was happy to spend hours with her on the terrace of my house.

In those days, we discussed a million topics, from stars to schoolteachers, from geometry to games. As we grew, we drifted apart. I moved to Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) to continue my studies, while Shantidevi stopped after primary school.

Then came the nightmare of partition that began August 15, 1947 - almost 65 years ago to the day. The attacks always came late at night, with crowds carrying torches and swords descending on people's homes. Families barricaded the doors with sacks of grain or with furniture.

Women in many families, including my own, carried poison capsules, and many girls kept them in their headscarves to commit suicide in case they were abducted.

Some women did kill themselves to avoid the mobs, and many men were killed. A relation of ours, Veeran, jumped into a well to hide, was trapped and drowned. Everyone and everything was tumultuous in that dangerous time as we moved our families across the new border.

It was then that a close friend told me. "Shantidevi is missing. Her parents are wailing. Nobody knows where she is." Apparently several young men had broken into her home and abducted her.

My heart sank when I heard the news. What must be happening at that moment to my childhood friend who used to run to me to solve her maths problems? Her parents must be in absolute anguish.

We had heard of young girls who had been kidnapped and forced into marriages with strangers. We were afraid of even worse.

Shantidevi's parents would not eat or drink, immersed in a complete grief. They refused to leave with the army convoys without their daughter. However, as relatives and well-meaning friends explained to them, they would not be able to find their daughter without the help of the Indian army. Staying in their troubled town would only endanger their lives, and then there would no way they would be able to help Shantidevi. Finally, her parents left, their hearts turned to stone.

In Amritsar, we were all determined that Shantidevi would not become a nameless statistic. Social workers introduced Shantidevi's parents to senior army personnel. An eyewitness provided details about the kidnappers. The armies on both sides of the new border liaised to identify the captors.

Six weeks later, Shantidevi returned to her parents. What happened in those six weeks after Shantidevi was carried away - where she stayed, how she was treated by her captors - are questions nobody has ever asked her. Nor should anyone.

A few months later, she was married to a young man who had lost his entire family in the partition. I was told that he loved her dearly.

And much later, I went to meet her in the city of Rohtak, not far from Delhi, where she then lived. Her eyes, which had always been so lively and vibrant, no longer danced.

We talked about our parents and our friends, our new lives in this new country. As I was about to leave, we were alone for a few moments. I told her: "You will have to erase those six weeks from your life. As if they did not exist."

She did not reply at first. Finally, she said: "Yes. I try." Her soul, I knew, still remembered.

The years flew by. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was not so easy to stay in touch and people often drifted away from each other. Shantidevi had married and begun a new life. That was what mattered.

Yet, over the years, I have wondered why men's wars inflict so many crimes against women. Partition is estimated to have seen 83,000 women abducted on both sides of the border.

This is not India's shame alone. From Bangladesh to Sierra Leone, Bosnia to Rwanda, Afghanistan to Iraq, and present-day Congo and Syria, women always bear the hidden cost of conflict. This is the price that presidents and prime ministers do not consider when they order men into battle.

Why are innocent girls like Shantidevi so often considered trophies by men when nations and tribes go to war?

 

Hari Chand Aneja is a 90-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work