Volumes of India's past are housed in the body

The Other Side of Silence

August 18, 2000

The partition of India in 1947 was one of the most traumatic and violent events in modern history. "Never before or since," writes Urvashi Butalia, "have so many people exchanged their homes and countries so quickly. In the space of a few months, about 12 million people moved between the new, truncated India and the two wings, east and west, of the newly created Pakistan." The scale is astounding: 12 million people displaced, a million dead, 75,000-100,000 women abducted and raped, thousands of children orphaned or separated from their parents.

Most histories have traditionally confined themselves to analyses of the political, legal and economic realms, where records exist. Butalia's archives, on the other hand, lie in the memories of partition survivors, often hidden and silenced. Getting people to talk about their memories of this period was one step to the other side of silence. Beyond that is the altogether trickier task of probing the gaps in their narratives for the truths those lacunae conceal. The result is a work of oral history that captures both the variety of people's lives, memories and experiences, and the ethical challenges facing a researcher of oral histories.

The book opens with the story of Butalia's own family, who were forced to flee from Lahore and migrate to Delhi, leaving behind one of her uncles and her grandmother. The story of her uncle, Ranamama, and the partitioning of her own family is vivid and personal without being mawkish or lapsing into the self-obsessed confessional style that is the downfall of much feminist historiography. This section was anthologised three years ago in the Granta special issue on India, and was one of the few outstanding pieces in the volume.

In this book, she links this very personal story to others, far removed from her own. There is Damyanti Sahgal, a Hindu woman, who played an important role in the years after partition helping to rescue and rehabilitate abducted women as part of the Central Recovery Operation; Mangal Singh who, with his two brothers, killed all 17 women and children of his family rather than let their "honour" be stained by the Muslims; Basant Kaur, one of few women of the 90 in one particular community who jumped into the village well but did not drown.

Butalia focuses on the violence experienced by women. At a symbolic level,the land itself was frequently represented as a violated woman, Bharat Mata . Women's bodies were seen as the repositories of their community's religious identity. For example, the rape of a Muslim woman by a Hindu was seen as an attack on the Islamic faith. At a material level, it was often a woman's property rights that determined whether she was claimed by India or by Pakistan.

Those involved in the recovery operation of abducted women faced many ethical dilemmas. What should one do with a Hindu woman who wished to stay with her Muslim partner in Pakistan and who may have had children by him? The forcible recovery of such women subjected them to the double trauma of being torn from their immediate family once, and then separated again from their husband and children. Added to which, Hindu tenets of purity made the rehabilitation of such women - and their children - a far more difficult proposition than it was for Muslim women. The Indian state financed mass abortions at a time when abortion was illegal to try to contain the "problem" of children from such unions.

Butalia's sensitive historiography demonstrates that a feminist approach results not only in a deeper understanding of women's history, but that it allows a plethora of other "silenced" groups, such as Dalits, to come to the fore. She has written a rare book that displays honesty and integrity in equal measure. "Who takes responsibility for what the silence unleashes?" she asks. Butalia is all too aware that in asking people to recall past horrors, she herself is not exempt.

This is an essential book for anyone interested in India. As the massacre of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, or the sinister deployment of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has fuelled the rise of fundamentalism and the rise to power of the Hindu right in recent years shows, India and Pakistan have a long way to go before the lessons of the past are learnt.

Anita Roy was formerly a commissioning editor at Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India

Author - Urvashi Butalia
ISBN - 1 85065 542 1 and 533 2
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 8

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