A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

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Was it Really for her? Gendered Perspectives on Nationalism

Neha Gaur

The title of this article poses a question much serious in its intent than words can possibly express. The argument here draws from the politics that was played in building a national identity by using the body of a woman as a commodity, a token to gain monopoly over the other.[i] I would also like to highlight that the “her” in the title stands not just for woman but also for the country, thereby emphasizing my focus on the rhetoric of viewing the nation as a woman and woman as the nation. Marx and Engels in The German Ideology stated:

For each new class, which puts itself in the place of the one before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society, i.e., employing an ideal formula to give its ideas the form of universally valid ones. (Marx and Engels, 1976, p. 65-66)

The new class that was to appear in the forefront after the foreign rule was removed from the Indian subcontinent was the bourgeois middle class, and I do not hesitate to clarify here that the quote applies to both India as well as Pakistan. The identity of both countries was being formed at the time, and India particularly was recovering from the loss of land to Pakistan. In building a new national identity, the body of the abducted woman became the specific focus, and recovering her was the redemption that was offered by the nation to the communal madness, bringing about the desired reinforcement of national identity. In the classic transposition, hers therefore became the body of the Motherland (woman-as-nation), violated by the marauding foreigner. Though it would be a cliché to say that in reality no nationalism in the world has ever granted the same privileged access to the resources of the nation-state, and thus it can be said that women have been subsumed only symbolically into the national body politic.

I would like to develop my critique of the idea of nationalism further by using Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas about nationalism as expressed in his novel The Home and the World. In the novel, through the voice of the protagonist Nikhil, Tagore clearly expresses his discontentment with the idea of nationalism. According to Tagore, the country was an object worthy of love, while nationalism, or nation worship, was a deeply suspect emotion. Tagore viewed nationalism as a very powerful but devastating force as opposed to the constructive ideals of universal humanism and morality.[ii] He recognized the interconnectedness of countries via colonial domination and competition, and also realized that nationalism was founded on a destructive competitiveness which inculcated willingness towards violence. He watched with dread the violence, and without mincing words declared that behind this violence lay the dark force of nationalism. He anticipated the harm that was about to be caused by the growing spirit of nationalism among the people of the world.

The mind of the Indian male as well as the public arena had already been affected by the colonial rule; the only thing that remained unfettered by it was the domestic realm. Tanika Sarkar points out that the Indian male idolized womanhood rhetorically while controlling or oppressing his wife within the ancient Hindu traditions. From here began the valorization of woman as mother on the one hand and the jeopardizing of her female subjectivity on the other. As has already been stated, the Indian male had been forced to surrender under an alien system of rule; the burden of protecting the nucleus of nationhood therefore now fell on the woman. It is not surprising that Bimala was invoked by Sandip as the representative of the nation, “I shall simply make Bimala one with my country” (Tagore, 2001, p.106). Speaking in the same vein, Bimala conjoins herself with the nation, and seeks, in the awakening of the enslaved country, an analogue to her own self-assertion: “In that future I saw my country, a woman like myself, standing expectant. She had been drawn forth from her home…by the sudden call of some Unknown…” (p. 120).  Sandip also pulls the lover and the country together, “My watchword has changed since you have come across my vision…It is no longer Hail Mother but Hail Beloved, Hail Enchantress…The mother protects, the mistress leads to destruction…”(p.241). Tagore found in the interchange between the mother and the beloved, between nurture and sexuality, a disturbing trajectory for nationalism. He saw it as a movement which discarded the welfare of the people in favour of politics of passion and destruction.

But a country that comprised of people looking towards modernity and liberalization but still holding onto the traditional values could not have allowed Bimala to experience her liberation (although  sexual). Bimala is left alone in the end, hinting that a woman always has to tread alone on the path of her freedom. Sadly, evil reared its ugly head, and competitive nationalism had a devastating effect on women, who symbolized the nation. The equation of national integrity and female chastity resulted in an obsessive preoccupation with “the signs of the final surrender, the fatal invasion of that sacred space”. It would not be wrong to say that nationalism produced a gender discourse that was ultimately repressive for women.

The gender discourse focused on “honour” during independence and Partition. Women were disenfranchised as sexual objects, communal commodities, and patriarchal property by both the nation-state as well as their families. Daiya discusses Butalia’s critiquing the role of the patriarchal Indian state and the dominant ideology in abducted women’s disenfranchisement and exploitation suggests:

If colonialism provided Indian men the rationale for constructing and reconstructing the identity of the Hindu woman as a ‘bhadramahila’, the good, middle class Hindu wife and mother, supporter of her men, [then] Independence, and its dark ‘other’, Partition, provided the rationale for making women into symbols of national honor. (Daiya,  2008,  p.65)

I will discuss this argument further through two novels written about the condition of women at the time of Partition, Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar and Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man. Both Pritam and Sidhwa witnessed the Partition and give us a firsthand gendered account of the violence and displacement it caused. Pinjar is the story of Pooru (a Hindu girl of the Sahukar community) who is kidnapped before her marriage by Rashida (a Muslim, member of the Sheikh community) to avenge the injustice done to her aunt by Pooru’s uncle. The kidnapping took place before Partition because of family rivalry. Pooru managed to escape and got back home within fifteen days of her kidnapping, but her parents refused to take her back. She gets married to Rashida, is converted to Islam and gets a new name Hamida. But Pritam here notes, “She was neither one nor the other, she was just a skeleton, without a shape or name” (Pritam, 2009, p.25).

At this point, the entry of a mad woman in the narrative stirs up the anxieties of the masculine and communalized groups. The mad woman gets pregnant and dies while giving birth to a boy. The people who had earlier refused to accept her, now call for meetings to discuss the custody of the male child. They argue that the mad woman was Hindu and the child, who is in the meanwhile being taken care of by Hamida, will be converted to Islam. One of the men in the Panchayat asks, “Are we sure that the mad woman was a Hindu?” (Pritam, 2009, p. 57) Another man asserts the tattoo of “Om” on the hand of the mad woman proved that she was Hindu. There is more to this dispute than the custody of the child; behind it lies the politics of communal identities and the identity of the nation-states representing the two communities. 

The injustices done to women were not a recent phenomenon during Partition. The movie Pinjar uses The Ramayana as a contextual background which permeates the narrative through songs and allusions. One explicit link to the epic is the name of Pooru’s betrothed husband, Ramchand, who sings a song about Sita’s fire ordeal. The song ends on the note that although Sita survived the fire ordeal to be united with Rama, who stood on the other side with outstretched hands, her real exile began on that day. In the epic, Sita chooses to be subsumed by the earth and not be united with Rama. In the same way, Pooru chooses to stay in Pakistan and says, “My home is now in Pakistan”. (Pritam, 2009, p. 125)

In the meantime Partition takes place and what happened to Hamida/ Pooru in the wake of familial revenge, is now experienced by thousands of women of both religions. A recovery programme is started by both the countries in which women are sent back “home”. It is interesting to note that one “impure” Pooru was not accepted by her parents and the community, but now thousands of women are exchanged across borders and are accepted by their parents. Pooru/ Hamida does not go back to her parents after Partition. She says to herself, “Whether one is a Hindu girl or a Muslim one, whosoever reaches her destination, she carries along my soul also.” (Pritam,  2009,  p. 125)

Thus Pritam shows how Pooru/ Hamida defies the patriarchal and territorial boundaries, and effectively uses her agency to critique the reality of Partition by choosing to stay in Pakistan. Pooru’s choice resonates with the attitude of women who resisted the “recovery”, and legitimized their cross-religious relationships.[iii] Pritam has presented before us the feeling or more clearly the question that troubled Hamida’s mind while reflecting on her abduction, religion had acted as an obstacle earlier and then became so accommodating.

It is pertinent to recall Shibban Lal Saksena’s (the then General of the United Provinces) words in relation to the situation of women:

Sir, our country has a tradition. Even now The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are revered. For the sake of one woman who was taken away by Ravana (the demon in The Ramayana) the whole nation took up arms and went to war…reminding the House of its “moral duty” to behave honorably. (Jeffrey and Basu, 1999, p. 21)

Here, apparently two “traditions” are being invoked. First, an ancient Hindu “tradition” of chivalry towards women and the fierce protection of women’s honour. Second, a “tradition” in making of a responsible government, secular principles, and democratic practices. Another important aspect of the story that can’t go unnoticed is that from the very beginning, the concern with abducted women went hand in hand with alarm over “forcible conversions”. This preoccupation was at the centre of all the important debates of the All India Congress Committee with regard to Pakistan. Menon and Bhasin observe:

Abduction and conversion were the double blows dealt to the Hindu “community”, so that the recovery of their women, if not land, became a powerful assertion of the Hindu manhood, at the same time then it demonstrated the moral high ground occupied by the Indian state. (Menon and Bhasin, 1998, p.54)

Recovering Hindu women (in most cases forcibly) also meant, ensuring that a generation of Hindu children was not lost to Islam, and this was very clearly reflected in the case of the mad woman’s child in Pinjar.

In the movie Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (Keni and Sharma, 2001), a stereotypical representation of masculinity in the working-class Sikh Tara Singh (played by Sunny Deol) is employed to instigate a jingoistic, hyper-masculinist Indian nationalism. This nationalism is based on the demonization of Muslims and Pakistanis as the menacing, unregenerate and mercenary “other” that threatens the Indian state. The politics of nationalism is equally potent in Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man, where a small polio-ridden girl witnesses how Partition reduces people to tokens rather than complex human beings:

Ayah is no longer my all-encompassing Ayah- she is also a token. A Hindu. Carried away by renewed devotional fervor she spends a small fortune in joss-sticks, flowers and sweets on the gods and goddesses in the temples. (Sidhwa, 1988, p. 93)

Sidhwa also shows how the gendering of the nation, and the emphasis on manhood which involves protecting the nation and its (or “their”) women, has terrible consequences for actual women. The novel dramatizes the abduction of the Ayah as a visual spectacle; its telling details about her lips, throat, mouth, bare feet, torn sleeve, the stitching of the blouse seams, her eyes and hair signify the material and bodily rupture of her routine life in postcolonial Pakistan. (Diaya, 2008, p. 65) Such an account marks the communalization and reification of sexual desire. For the ice-candy man who desired Ayah, but had been rejected by her for a masseur, identifying Ayah as “Hindu” facilitates her objectification and violation. On the dominant gendered ideology about Partition violence in India, it can be said that the women who survived rape and other such heinous crimes were refused entry into the domestic space. They were left with the only plausible choice of committing suicide in order to render the nation state as pure. This, however, was not a choice at all.

One is reminded once again of Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, where while on a train to India, Tara Singh’s mother gives her daughter a packet containing poison, telling her that she must die “chaste” and  “pure” rather than getting raped. In the novel however, it is the ayah who refuses entry into the domestic space of the new nation Pakistan, offered by ice-candy man’s ideas about romantic partnership.

The three novels that I have used in this paper help to describe different aspects of relating woman with the identity of the nation. Tagore’s anticipation of viewing the spirit of nationalism as a devastating force was not wrong. How nationalism led to the destruction of women’s lives is seen very clearly through these novels. The dichotomy that while we want freedom but do not believe in freedom for others is apparent. The Indian state, in its eagerness to restore normalcy, and to assert itself as the “protector”, became an “abductor” that forcibly removed adult women from their homes and transported them out of their country. It became, in effect and in a supreme irony, its hated Other. (Jeffrey and Basu, 1999, p. 31) It can be said that what went into the making of a national identity was more than just the lives of our brothers; it was not the physical but the spiritual death of our sisters.


Daiya, K. (2008). Violent beginnings: Partition, gender, and national culture in postcolonial India. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Karl, M. & Engels, F. (1976). The German ideology. Moscow: International publishers.

Menon, R. & Bhasin, K. (1998). Borders and boundaries: How women experienced the partition of India. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Mitra, I. (1995). I will Bimla one with my country: Geder and nationalism in Tagore's Home and the world. Modern Fiction Studies, 41(2), 243-264.

Keni, N. & Sharma, A. (2001). Gadar: Ek prem katha. India: Zee Telefilms.

Jeffery, P. & Basu, A. (Eds.). (1999). Resisting the scared and the secular. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Pritam, A. (2009). Pinjar. (K. Singh, Trans.) New Delhi: Tara Press.

Sarkar, T. (2009). Rebels, wives, saints: Designing selves and nations in colonial times. Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

Sidhwa, B. (1981). Ice-Candy-man. London: Penguin.

Tagore, R. (2001). The home and the world. (S. Tagore, Trans.) New delhi: Macmillan.


[i] I use “other” as a representative of Pakistan in general and the Muslim community in particular in the context of India.

[ii]The feeling was thus echoed in his essays on Nationalism.

[iii]Butalia’s comment cited in Resisting the sacred and the secular


Neha Gaur is Assistant Professor in Department of English, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. Her areas of interest include postcolonial studies, women’s studies and Indian English Literature. She writes poetry in both English and Hindi.