Beyond Partition – Gender, Violence and Representation in Postcolonial India by Deepti Misri

beyond partition book cover

Review by
Dr. Michaela Rogers, Salford University

Beyond Partition adds to a rich body of work through an ambitious project, drawing on a range of texts and materials, to offer an analysis of postcolonial India. In particular, Misri seeks to illustrate post Partition political and community tensions and violence through an exposition of the intersections of gender, religion, culture and caste. The text illuminates the brutality of the post Partition period through this intersectional framing by posing difficult questions about the experiences of men and women. The introduction begins from an uncompromising position pointing the reader to recall the brutal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2013 to index the continuing problem of gendered violence in contemporary India. Whilst such a forceful beginning does serve to set the contemporary backdrop to the subsequent chapters, I found myself anchored to a reflexive location reminding myself that I was viewing this analysis with a white, Western feminist gaze.

 

Centring on masculinity the first chapter sets out a textual analysis using the literary works of Manto, and others, which, Misri claims, are critically under-explored, to survey the vulnerability of male embodiment in the early days of communal rioting after Partition. Misri approaches this using a cultural lens to explore community divides and  symbolic practices – such as the deturbannning of Sikh males – as forms of cultural and political violence. This chapter provides the reader with a categorical impression of the human capacity for cruelty; actions which see age or gender as no barrier. The central aim here is on  the foregrounding of the vulnerability of the male body, but in doing so it obscures the consequences of patriarchy in term of male and female power differentials and the specificity of caste, whilst caste inequity and female experience is inevitably referred to within this chapter too. However, Misri stands her ground by arguing that foregrounding male vulnerability helps to provide the undergirding cultural context of violence and its communal reach. Moreover, she notes how it is cogent to highlight the vulnerability that men succumb to during communal riot within the patriarchal rules that appoint them with male privilege in the first place.

 

The gaze is subsequently directed towards female experience to illuminate the ways in which women become targets for communal violence in wartime in particular. In addition, Misri acknowledges how feminist historians commenting on the Partition are in agreement about the extraordinary levels of sexual and physical brutality perpetrated against all women irrespective of their Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faith. In the chapter entitled ”Are you a man?’: Performing Naked Protest in India’, Misri begins with the story of Draupadi, a revolutionary who after being taken into custody and gang raped by soldiers, refuses to put on her clothes in a rebuttal of the disciplinary power of shame. At the end of the story, Draupadi is faced with Senanayak, the army officer who sanctioned her rape and he is in ‘a state of terrified paralysis’ (p113); in a juxtaposition of vulnerability, Senanayak is the ‘unarmed target’. All in all, Misri offers an analysis of the way that naked protect is utilised as a tool for resistance to male violence perpetrated against women and, more generally, to rebuff the usual modesty adopted by women in Indian culture.

 

In this well crafted articulation, Misri achieves an expansive and careful analysis of violence in postcolonial India showing how violence is entrenched across factions, and is concurrently shaped by and shapes the socio-political contexts of the masses. As such, this nuanced and detailed work, with its uncompromising questioning of some of the cruellest acts perpetrated against humanity, adds to the understandings of post Partition India. This is not an area where I have expertise, but I embraced the unique views that Misri offered to engage me in a journey that expanded my knowledge and understanding. I have read it, and reflected upon it, from a feminist position considering the exposition of male and female vulnerability in postcolonial times. I found myself mapping some of the atrocities to contemporaneous discourses of female victimhood, considering the reported continuation of female rape and violence in contemporary India (and other places); whilst also noting that socio-cultural-political contexts, prevalence and presentation differ. I would recommend Beyond Partition for anyone wishing to extend their insights of communal gendered violence in postcolonial India.