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Thursday, 23 July 2015

THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE – Voices from the Partition of India

Contributed by Nidhi Shendurnikar-Tere*

This review was originally published in ‘WSRC Communique’, February 2015, a newsletter of The Women Studies Research Centre, M. S. University of Baroda and has been reprinted with the permission of the author.

Author: Urvashi Butalia
Publisher: Penguin Books India, 1998
Pages: 371


The partition of India – into two separate countries namely India and Pakistan on the basis of religion on the eve of the Indian sub-continent’s freedom from British rule is remembered as a cataclysmic that transformed the lives of innumerable people in unprecedented ways. The after effects of the division of the Indian sub-continent can be felt even today as we reel under tensions along the line of religion, ethnicity, language and community. The partition was not simply a division of land and property or a demarcation of lifeless boundaries; it was rather an event that had far reaching consequences on the life and history of people of South Asia. Works on partition related history have majorly documented details such as the number of people killed, dislocated, maimed or rendered homeless. The versions of the partition that historical accounts offer to us are often laid out with disconnected figures, official accounts and statist representations. Memories of the partition revolve around the creation of two independent states and the enmity among major religious communities. These serve as important but limited sketches; and somehow relegate people’s experiences to the background.

It is this limitation in historical representation that Butalia’s seminal and first of its kind work addresses as it traces the voices and stories of people who were impacted by the creation of India and Pakistan. The politics surrounding the partition was not merely about two newly creates states, their disputes and their contradictory and hate-filled versions of the ‘other’. The partition was about ‘people’ – people on both sides who had to leave their homes and undertake an extremely painful journey of dislocation, search for a new identity to an unknown land – purportedly created in their very name. Butalia’s work on this historical event stand out from among the enormous literature on this issue for a very simple reason that it looks at partition from the prism of people and their sufferings. Employing a qualitative, interview-based, oral history approach the focus is on the smaller and invisible players of the partition, whom mainstream history and politics have sidelined – namely ordinary people, women, children, schedule castes (pp – 11). 

Rarely would you discover a work on the partition that so effortlessly weaves the stories and sufferings of common people on both sides of the border. Surprisingly though the most affected lot in the partition were the people of India and Pakistan, their accounts and experiences are missing from mainstream partition literature. This, in essence is the triumph of the author’s attempt in relocating and re-describing the partition from the lens of those for whom it served as a life-changing event. Presently, there have been many attempts at recording the voices of the generation that went through the trauma of partition, in the form of projects that have used technology to build a recall value to that era. However, this work which was published in the year 1998 stands out as a brave and singular attempt at charting the unknown and untold history and politics of the event.

In a narrative that is told through the use of stories and personal accounts, Butalia offers to readers a gendered telling of the partition (pp – 16). Her work constantly questions the mainstream and macro accounts of history told from a dominantly official perspective. She asks if there is some way in which history can make space for the small, the individual voice (pp – 13). Along with the use of interviews as primary data sources, she has also looked at secondary sources such as government records, newspaper reports, memoirs and diaries to come up with a comprehensive and eye-opening reality of an event that still continues to shape discourse on religion, communalism and identity in the sub-continent. She also successfully shatters the illusion surrounding history and objectivity. How can people’s experiences, their sufferings be presented objectively? Would it not be a disservice to the trauma they underwent? These and other disturbing questions are raised throughout the work, eventually persuading the reader to question her own understanding of the partition.

The work also comes across as extremely personal, laced with narratives of those who actually witnessed the partition and struggled to deal with the bitter reality of having to leave their homes. These direct accounts of what people went through bring to the reader an ‘alternative’ understanding of the partition. Something that we may not find in official versions and history textbooks. The effort is to uncover the silence shrouded in speech, memory, healing, pain, violence, identity and even a disregard of the ‘uncomfortable’ associations with partition. Who would wish to remember the gender based violence that accompanied the creation of India and Pakistan? The rape, abduction and forceful conversion of countless women? The rejection of women were rehabilitated to their homes? The abandonment of young children and erosion of the very fabric of Indian society and culture? These are among the few questions that are vividly dealt with in the book. At the heart of this work lies the uncovering of an indescribable silence that persists in society – a silence that has been marginalized and needs to be addressed. A total of eight chapters in the work deal with the memories and experiences of sections that were ‘otherized’ in the realm of partition and its consequences, namely – women, children, marginalized sections of the society like Dalits and scheduled castes. These experiences have been aptly captured throughout the work.

Through a journey in which the author has uncovered the many silences surrounding the partition, the most significant one deals with notions associated with women’s honour and the violence inflicted on them. There is no doubt that the partition was violent, but the most affected of all were women on both sides. The notion of ‘purity’, ‘honour’ and ‘protection of one’s faith’ was attached to women. Not only were women subjected to violence from outsiders, they were also a victim of violence within families. Many women readily gave up their lives in order to protect patriarchal notions associated with family and religious honour. A severe critique of this practice is subtly expressed in Butalia’s work.

The book is based on the theme of partition based violence and attaches importance to personal experiences of the same. It however fails to adequately present that side of the partition which provided hopes to millions of people as they passed through this juggernaut. The bonds and friendships that got nurtured during this period and stayed on with people even as barbed wires separated them are brought to the fore only towards the end of the book. If the partition was about people who mercilessly killed each other, then it was also about people who crossed religious barriers to lend a helping hand to the ‘other’. It is this narrative of humanity that is missing in the narration of events that signify the partition. The articulation of a bitter reality leads to losing sight of a glimmer of hope that sustains human bonds even today.

As an event, the partition shall remain ever etched in the body politic of India and Pakistan. It will continue to affect the lives of people and shape their identities in times to come. It will also determine the future course of relations between the two countries. While some may view it with extreme negativity; the reality of partition has to be eventually accepted and lived with it. It is time that we reconcile to this reality. Even today, the partition of India continues to be explored from varying scholarly dimensions – history, literature, sociology and politics. It is however works such as this that bring out the underlying sentiments of people who were associated with this momentous event. 

*Nidhi Shendurnikar is an independent researcher interested in peace, politics, gender and popular culture. She is based in Vadodara, Gujarat and has recently defended her doctoral thesis in Political Science on 'Conflict Mediation between India and Pakistan: Role of the English Press and New Media'. She tweets at @mailtonidhi