You’ve Seen Violence Against Women In Partition Movies, But Reality Was Much Worse

Urvashi Butalia speaks to real women survivors in The Other Side Of Silence, the biggest casualties of the Partition, suffering in war zones that see men come out at their worst. 

Urvashi Butalia, the writer, has impressive credentials. Along with Ritu Menon, she set up Kali for Women, the first feminist press in India, in 1984, and later, Zubaan Books. Born to in Ambala, India, to parents who were refugees from West Punjab, now in Pakistan, she grew up hearing stories of  the Partition, which tore apart the Indian subcontinent at the time of its freedom from British rule.

She began her research as a process of making sense of her family’s personal tragedy. One thing led to another, and over time she realised that what history tells us of the Partition are the bare political facts: tales of warring political parties and the British involvement in the whole gory process, the loss of property and lives, the statistics of the largest mass migration in recent history and violence in the riots between the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs caught in the unfortunate event.

There was not much data on the renting apart of the closely enmeshed fabric of society and the actual sufferings of the flesh-and-blood people caught in the crossfire. The feminist in her also became aware of the huge conspiracy of silence (this term has also been used in reference to the victims of that other regrettable horror of the same time, the Holocaust) that enfolded the suffering of those considered to be of ‘not much account’ and therefore on the margins of citizenry- the women, the children and the harijans.

“But the ‘history’ of Partition seemed to lie only in the political developments that led up to it. These other aspects – what had happened to the millions of people who had to live through this time, what we may call the ‘human dimensions’ of this history — somehow seemed to have a ‘lesser’ status in it. Perhaps this was because they had to do with difficult things: loss and sharing, friendship and enmity, grief and joy, with a painful regret and nostalgia for loss of home, country and friends, and with an equally strong determination to create them afresh. These were difficult things to capture ‘factually.’ Yet, could it be that they had no place in the history of Partition? Why, then, did they live on so vividly in individual and collective memory?”

Ms Butalia takes us through these events as pieced together from first-person accounts of survivors. The stories seem fantastic, the violence, the bloodiness ant the loss inexplicable, as does the almost mythological account of a society where the different religions had lived together in harmony, love and trust. Surely something had gone seriously wrong somewhere for the anger to have erupted as it had, killing and maiming millions, and creating a legacy of communal disharmony, and an almost pathological enmity between the two countries which were once part of one whole. A whole that had effectively driven their colonial rulers away.

The feminist in the writer notes some very interesting aspects of the problem. Even the interviews were necessarily taken in a family setting, where men did most of the talking, and women were often silenced. While men spoke of the politics, the killings, the violence, the women’s experience of Partition was largely defined by the death of children, abductions, sexual violence, honour killings, forcible co-habitation/marriages with their abductors, their making peace with it, especially after children were born of these relationships.

During their interviews, Ms Butalia tried to listen to the unsaid, the silences, the sudden breaking-off of the narrative, the nuances. “In my work, the more I looked at women’s voices and found them inserting themselves into the text, the more I realised that the silences did not exist only around women, but also around others, those whose silences have been even less important to society. The search for a history of women was what then led me to a search for a history of others. The voices of women, of children, of untouchables, to me provide not only a different perspective on the history of Partition, but they also establish this history as a process, a continuing history, which lives on in our lives today in a variety of ways.” 

Then there was the ultimate insult to injury- the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act, 1949. A lot of this has been pieced together from accounts of social workers who were actively involved in the operation. Ostentiably to recover abducted women and children and return them to their families, the Act would not take into account the women’s choice in the matter, something that all citizens were given upto the late fifties. After being abducted, these women often got assimilated into those families, bore children out of those relationships, but were torn from these children when they were ‘recovered’ to return to their families of origin. The original families would often refuse to accept these ‘children of sin’ which were left with their abductor-fathers. Quite often these children ended up on the streets with the other children who had been displaced or orphaned in the Partition. Both the women and children were refused the ‘choice’ that citizens of both countries had at the time.

First-hand accounts by some of these children, adults at the time of interviewing, underscore the same conspiracy of silence. Many of them glossed over their accounts, unable as adults to relate their memories of the horrors. Some of them, like a Sikh survivor who was just 9 at the time of Partition, had memories overshadowed by one particular incident- the death of their own familiy’s hands of almost a hundred girls and women to ‘save’ their honour – an incident immortalised in the book and later movie Tamas.

In fact, most of these personal stories have been found to a large extent in a multitude of short stories and novellas written by many noted authors who have lived through the Partition– Amrita Pritam (Pinjar), Saadat Hasan Manto (Toba Tek Singh, Kingdom’s End and other stories), Gulzar (Raavi Par and other stories), Khushwant Singh (Train to Pakistan), Bapsi Sidhwa (Ice-Candy Man), Bhisham Sahni (Tamas), and more. Many of these stories have been made into film, reaching a larger audience. Many bollywood movies, too, speak of the Partition or ‘Batwara’ as it is called in Hindi.

History, as told in history books, however, sticks mostly to the bare facts and statistics of the Partition. ‘The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India‘ tries to address this deficit in a more factual way, that can be corroborated, than the fictionalised accounts. Showing us that the fiction is not a very long way off reality.

More than twelve million people left their roots and migrated, about ten million of these crossing the western border. Around two million died in the violence. An estimated  75,000-1,00,000 women are thought to have been abducted and raped by men of religions different from their own (and indeed sometimes by men of their own religion). An estimated 50,000 children were born to the abducted women, an an unaccounted number of children were abandoned or simply lost. “People travelled in buses, in cars, by train, but mostly on foot in great columns called kafilas, which could stretch for dozens of miles. The longest of them, said to comprise nearly 400,000 people, refugees travelling east to India from western Punjab, took as many as eight days to pass any given spot on its route.”

Ms Butalia has very honestly admitted that her work does not represent the whole of the history of Partition, but is a very personal history, her reading of the interviews she took. She also candidly admits that it is probably a very one-sided view of the whole thing, as by 1984, when she began her research, it was no longer possible to obtain access to those on the other side of the border, and cautions communal groups from using her research to reach their ends.

Here are some more excerpts from the book for those interested in knowing more.

A version of this has been earlier published here.

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Image source: stills from the movies 1947 Earth & Tamas

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