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Inside Divisions: Representation of Women's Agency and Women as Sites of Nationalistic Appropriation

This article is an attempt to scrutinize the period television drama ‘Tamas’ to understand the way women's agency during times of mass violence is dealt with in popular culture, thereby identifying the discourses that are at work behind such representations. This television series is based on a novel of the same name written by Bhisham Sahni. The rationale for choosing a television series rather than a movie is that it allows the storyteller to portray several characters rather than focusing on only a few central ones.

Tamas captures the lives of women belonging to different communities with varied economic standings and several such instances are relevant for examining women agency, and how women are used as sites of nationalistic appropriation. However, it should be made clear that in elucidating the concept of agency this article in no way attempts to suggest that women are not one of the worst affected groups during instances of mass violence. In fact, rape and sexual violence are the most common instruments of subjugating women on such occasions particularly because patriarchal order associates the “honour” of women with the dignity of the community, and this perpetuates even more emotional burden on the women who are the victims of various acts of sexual violence.

The partition violence happened at a time when the British were still exercising a degree of authority's like the complete transfer of power had not taken place. The first instance is of Lisa Hamilton, the wife of the British administrator Richard who is too bewildered by the violence she confronts in India. She is unable to grasp the full force of the communal hatred and her racial difference does not make her feel threatened by the violence ensuing outside their Bangalow. Although she is seen urging her husband to prevent the situation of communal hatred from escalating, she has very little understanding of the same. The only time we see her moving out of her enclosed space is when she goes to treat the people in the camps set up for the victims of communal violence. What kind of agency does a ‘white lady’ exercise when we see her helping the wounded and homeless victims of communal violence? This question automatically leads us to acknowledge the fact that the British colonial enterprise derived its legitimacy from the so-called civilized behaviour of the colonizer as opposed to the uncouth colonized people. Civilizing behaviour of the colonizers was to a great extent dependent upon the ladylike behaviour of their women who fitted well into the public/private dichotomy and would not transgress the boundaries set out by the colonial patriarchal structure. The agency she exercises does not in any way serve to threaten the hegemonic order of society she inhabits. She compares her duty to serve the victims of the religious pogrom to her service for the British soldiers in England at the time of the war. She does not express any desire to understand the dynamics and causes behind the violence and plays into the roles set out for women being the ‘caregiver’ and ‘nurturer’ while at the same time remaining apolitical, thereby not stepping into the public space.

There are two female characters in the feature whose display of agency pushes the boundary of the hegemonic order but remains contained within it.

At one instance in the series, we see a Sikh female character running to help a young Muslim man called Kareemdim, a school teacher, whose house is surrounded by other young Sikh rioters. She takes up a sword and warns the men of her community to dare touch this man and finally helps him find a haven.

Another scene in the feature depicts a Muslim woman named Rajo, hiding a Sikh family in her house, giving them refuge and attempting to protect them from the male members of her family.

It should be borne in mind that the subject positions of women are constituted in and through their familial and communal discourses. The question that arises here is the extent to which women can exercise agency while remaining within the boundaries of their communal identity which is based on upholding the gender differences and where the dominant discourses allocate to women the role of the potential victims whose dignity needs protection from the men of the ‘other’ community. The two instances described earlier, nonetheless point out that women are often capable of acting as protectors in particular contexts even if they fail to radically transform the patriarchal hegemonic order. It is crucial to make this argument because the dominant narratives of partition have barely managed to document such events.

The other example defies our usual conception of agency in a much more profound manner. The scene being referred to here is one where a group of Sikh women resort to taking their own lives lest they are left at the mercy of men belonging to the ‘other’ community. This episode was inspired by true events that transpired in 1947 where several Sikh women resorted to mass suicide at Thoha Khalsa, Rawalpindi in Pakistan.

Considering that women are often subjected to humiliating sexual atrocities at the hands of rival groups during communal violence, can take away one’s own life imply agency? Or are these women simply abiding by the dominant narratives that associate the violation of their bodies with the debasing of their community as a whole and therefore acting as sites of nationalistic appropriation? This question is also linked to our perceptions of violence and whether the symbolic meanings attached to such acts take them outside the conventional interpretations of violence. These questions elude any simple answer because in the dominant discourses of violence against women such acts of mass self-immolation are usually seen as acts of bravery. The agency here is immensely problematic as the women unquestioningly accept the narratives of patriarchy as well as the practices and rhetoric that construct one’s community vis-à-vis the ‘other’ which is demonized. The nationalist struggle for India as mentioned earlier in the article juxtaposed the inner spiritual core of women’s lives from the material struggle of the men and for the men to succeed in their nationalist ambitions the inner-spiritual-feminine core needed to be protected. The act of symbolic mass self-immolation can be viewed as an extension of this nationalist discourse which now informed the predominantly Hindu Indian nation-state or ‘Bharat Mata' whose identity and purity had to be protected at the expense of these women because of the failure of the state and community to protect them from the ‘other’ community would entail an emasculation of the nation’s patriarchal identity.

Urvashi Butalia (1993) in her research draws attention to one such government policy launched after the partition whereby India and Pakistan agreed upon exchanging the women abducted during partition violence and returning them to their original families. This policy was executed much against the wishes of many women on both sides who were reluctant to return to their original homes for fear of the stigma they would have had to confront once they were forced back to their former families. However, both nations felt the need for getting their women back as it was more a means of fortifying the patriarchal identity of the newly formed nation-states. This move was even more perplexing on the part of India which projected its identity as a secular state but took up this rather contradictory policy of demanding the Hindu women abducted during the partition to be returned to India and returning the Muslim women to Pakistan. Here the secular state of India was once again drawing from the Hindu nationalist identity which was based on the dichotomy of the inner-spiritual-feminine core and the materialist-outer-masculine core. Protecting the purity of the inner core was the prerogative of the new Indian nation-state.

Agency as illustrated in the above discussion was displayed in a variety of forms during the time of the post-partition violence. Although this article is focused on the discussion of women’s agency and the dilemmas involved in interpreting such agency, it should be noted that social identities can be equally oppressive for men and agency exercised by men is also embedded within the dominant structure. A very telling example of this is demonstrated in Tamas when Nathu, a lower caste man is ordered to kill a pig by a local administrator. Without knowing the reason for such an order, he complies with it, only to later realize that the animal killed by him was placed outside a mosque, which in the film becomes the reason for antagonizing the Muslim community. In this case, gender identity is subsumed under the more pre-dominant caste identity. A man occupying the lower rung of the caste ladder, here, can only obey instructions and not exercise any effective agency.

This article, through its discussion of agency, has thrown light on how the absence of discussions related to women’s agency in official histories plays a role in creating these essentialist categories of women as “victims” and men as “perpetrators”. Identity, including gender identity, is always subject to a process of change and transformation. This discussion of the agency shows how the boundaries separating gender identities are often fluid. Moreover, the identification of women as mere victims of mass violence also plays a role in the formation of national identity.

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