Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Pakistan Partition outside
AMRITSAR, INDIA: Pakistan's Rangers Wing Commander Aamir and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) commandant Jasbir Singh exchange sweets on the occasion of Pakistan's Independence Day, at the India-Pakistan Wagah Border, on August 14, 2022 [Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images]

Casualties of Partition - telling the story of Zainab and Boota

On the 75th anniversary of the Partition of Pakistan and India, a writer recalls his efforts to uncover the mystery of a family divided and asks if we always have the right to push for the 'truth'

 

I wasn’t sure how visiting this particular village would have helped me with the story. I was at a border village, Nurpur, on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan. It was here that Zainab had moved after she had been “recovered” by the Pakistani authorities a decade after the Partition of British-India in 1947. 

Zainab’s family was originally from East Punjab, which became part of India. But, following the riots of Partition, the family had moved to this village. Zainab, however, was separated from her family during these riots and left behind. While separated from her family, she is believed to have been rescued from the violence by a Sikh man, Boota Singh, who married her and had two daughters with her in India. 

Almost a decade after Partition, the Indian and Pakistani governments decided to help recover the “abducted” women on both sides of the border and send them to their respective “homes”. I am using both “abducted” and “homes” within quotes here as these terms were defined by the paternalistic, patriarchal states of India and Pakistan, without the consultation of thousands (perhaps even more) of girls and women, whose lives these decisions were going to impact. 

In the name of trying to correct the violence of Partition, both of these states committed acts of violence of their own, which has been well analysed by several historians and scholars, including Urvashi Batalia. The quotation marks do not mean to undermine the gruesome sexual and physical violence that countless women experienced at the time of Partition. 

Therefore, after a decade of being separated from her family, Zainab was “recovered” and repatriated to Pakistan, along with her younger daughter who happened to be with her at the time that she was “recovered”. She came and settled at this village, sometime around 1957. 

Here I was at the same village more than five decades later. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for. It was a warm summer day, as I walked around the deserted streets of the village. I wasn’t there to find answers, to interview people, to get the “real” story, but rather to just physically connect with the space I was writing about. I came across the village graveyard, where Boota Singh wanted to be buried. 

Partition
A photo of the graveyard at Nurpur, Pakistan, which the writer took while visiting the village. Boota Singh, an Indian Sikh, had wanted to be buried here, but the family of his Pakistani wife, Zainab, refused permission [Haroon Khalid]

Following his wife and daughter, Boota Singh reached Lahore but Zainab’s family barred him from meeting his wife. He changed his religion, expressed the desire to settle in Pakistan but her family refused. There was a case in the Lahore High Court, in which Zainab presented herself and said that she wanted nothing to do with Boota Singh and that her younger daughter should also be taken away from her and given to Boota Singh. Dejected Boota Singh committed suicide. His last wish was to be buried at Nurpur but Zainab’s family refused that as well, so he was buried at Miani Sahib.

The only people I saw were at a local barber shop, so I joined them, sitting next to an old man reading the newspaper, with the barber busy trimming the beard of a young man. I was accompanied by my friend and mentor, Iqbal Qaiser, who after polite small talk asked the folks about the story of Zainab, a casual question, if they had heard anything. The reaction of the people however was surprising. They were offended. “Why are you asking?” asked the barber. “Kindly leave the village without asking any more questions,” he said. We were told that members of Zainab’s family still lived in the village and were sensitive about the story, given the attention it had received at that time and after. 

The story of Boota Singh and Zainab became national news when their case was being heard at the Lahore High Court, however their legend only grew further after Boota Singh’s death. He became a symbol of a martyr for love, Shaheed-e-Mohabbat. His grave at Miani Sahib became a shrine for young lovers. On the other side of the border, many books and movies were written about their “love”. In these stories Zainab became the victim of her family’s villainy. It was them to be blamed. In this narrative, there was no doubt that Zainab gave the statement under pressure. Her true side remained unheard. 

I was surprised that even after so many years, the topic struck a nerve at the village. I didn’t want to find out what Zainab’s family would do if they found out that a journalist was asking questions about her, so we decided to leave. As we were about to exit the barber shop, the old man reading the newspaper told us casually that Zainab was alive. 

The year was 2010. It had only been 63 years since Partition. So even if Zainab was around twenty at the time of Partition (she probably was younger), there was a good chance she was alive. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that. 

For the next couple of months, I became obsessed about finding a way to speak with Zainab, of getting the chance to present her side of the story, the untold side, which of course I believed was that she was pressured by her family to renounce Boota Singh and her daughters. I wasn’t the only one. 

Partition
The graveyard at Nurpur, Pakistan which the writer visited when he was interested in the story about Zainab, who was 'recovered' from India by the Pakistan authorities 10 years after Partition [Haroon Khalid]

I did an initial article on the story for a local Pakistani newspaper and began receiving emails and requests from not just readers, but other journalists, Indian, and South Asian diaspora journalists from other parts of the world, who wanted to pursue the story. All of them wanted to present Zainab’s version of the events. I tried finding connections. I reached out to people, who knew people in the village. Even found a couple of connections, but eventually when they found out who I wanted to interview they told me they couldn’t help. Zainab doesn’t want to be interviewed, I was told. 

It's been 12 years since I first did the story. I still occasionally get requests by other journalists to somehow connect them with Zainab. I don’t know if she is still alive. Even if she is, I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to interview her, to present her side of the story. However, while I haven’t been able to present “her side” of the story, I have had a lot of time to reflect. Like several other journalists, I was convinced that there was another side to the story; that Zainab did not “betray” Boota Singh and his daughters, and if given an opportunity she would say so, a narrative that has been constructed by all the books and movies. But maybe that wasn’t the case. Maybe Zainab wasn’t pressured by her family. Maybe Boota Singh was her abductor and this was another story of sexual violence. 

But let’s assume, however, that that is not the case. That there is another side to the story that has not been told. What right do we as journalists have to push for that story? Isn’t that Zainab’s decision? Some might respond to that question by saying what if she is still being pressured by her family? Is that really her decision then? I would argue that yes, it is, because she is the one who has to live with the consequences of her decision. We, as journalists, will move on after the story, in search of another Zainab and Boota Singh, but Zainab will have to continue living with her family. Maybe she remarried. Perhaps she had other children. How will they react to Zainab’s version of the story? What about Zainab’s daughters with Boota Singh? Do they still want to hear their mother’s version of the story? Could this story be a source of emotional turmoil for them and their families, if they have them? 

These aren’t questions that I, or other journalists have to grapple with. But maybe we should, before we push for the “real” story in any instance. These questions become even more important when we are talking about human-interest stories. We will probably never hear Zainab’s side of the story, if there is one, but that is alright. That is her story to tell, or not to tell. 

 

More Articles

Covering the War on Gaza: As a Journalist, Mother, and Displaced Person

What takes precedence: feeding a hungry child or providing professional coverage of a genocidal war? Journalist Marah Al Wadiya shares her story of balancing motherhood, displacement, psychological turmoil, and the relentless struggle to find safety in an unsafe region.

Marah Al Wadiya
Marah Al Wadiya Published on: 29 May, 2024
Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023