The Other Side of Silence

Thanks to Conrad Barwa who recommended this book to me.

This is a good book which collects some stories of the riots and migrations that accompanied independence and partition of India in 1947. The book focuses on the Punjab, rightly so in my opinion since the Punjab is where most of the “action” happened.

Partition was a cataclysmic event which affected millions of people. Most other migrations, riots and ethnic cleansing in the 20th century pales in comparison to the numbers who were killed or migrated at the founding of Pakistan.

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. By far the largest proportion of these refugees —- more than 10 million of them —- crossed the western border which divided the historic state of Punjab. […] Slaughter sometimes accompanied and sometimes prompted their movement; many others died from malnutrition and contagious diseases. Estimates of the dead vary from 200,000 (the contemporary British figure) to 2 million (a later Indian estimate) but that somewhere around a million people died is now widely accepted. As always there was widespread sexual savagery: about 75,000 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).

Butalia has about a dozen narratives of people who lived through the hell that was Punjab in 1947. She especially focusses on women and children. Lots of women were abducted, raped or killed at the time. There were also cases of women and children killed by their own families to save their ‘honor.’ Some women committed suicide or were ‘encouraged’ to commit suicide for family honor.

In the case of abductions, the governments of Pakistan and India signed a treaty to recover such women. These operations continued well into the 1950s. According to the treaty, abducted women were defined as any women who were “seen to be living with, in the company of, or in a relationship with a man of the other religion” after March 1, 1947. This did create problems for interfaith relationships (which were not very common, but not nonexistent either). There were also issues regarding the consent of the women themselves in such recovery operations.

Though Butalia has written a good book on an important topic, sometimes she goes too much into meta-comments and her own thought processes.

The Other Side of Silence is also important because not many good books have been written on the topic of the riots and the migrations that accompanied partition.

Strangely, however, there is much good literature which is based on those events. For example, there is the short story Toba Tek Singh by Manto (English translations). There is also the book Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh.

I have previously posted about my Dad’s experience of the riots in Jammu and his migration to Pakistan.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

5 thoughts on “The Other Side of Silence”

  1. How about Surkh Feeta by Qudratullah Shahab. I would consider it the most authentic even in its so simplistic and minimalist details. That’s because of the humble nature of the writer. But it sure gives a very true account of partition’s different perspectives.

  2. Thanks to Conrad Barwa who recommended this book to me.

    I am glad you liked it, I hope you enjoy the Maloba one as well; though I have a small suspicion that you will find it less rewarding and I think it is less of an impressive read.

    This is a good book which collects some stories of the riots and migrations that accompanied independence and partition of India in 1947. The book focuses on the Punjab, rightly so in my opinion since the Punjab is where most of the “action” happened.

    I think this is true of 1947 in particular, since in Bengal most of the violence and rioting had a longer history but by the 40s things had become more complex with the nearing of the Japanese and the 42 Great Famine. Still the east was seen as the political epicentre in many ways and it is instructive that Gandhi went to Calcutta first to try and calm things down and reduce the levels of violence.

    Butalia has about a dozen narratives of people who lived through the hell that was Punjab in 1947. She especially focuses on women and children. Lots of women were abducted, raped or killed at the time. There were also cases of women and children killed by their own families to save their ‘honor.’ Some women committed suicide or were ‘encouraged’ to commit suicide for family honor.

    Yeah it was pretty bad; it makes a certain sense I suppose given that at a collective social level women are key for any cultural-religious community to be able to reproduce itself from one time period to the next. In this line, attacking or removing this capacity strikes an important blow both at the physical level and also at the psychological in telling one community just how insecure or weak its position is. The sad truth is that even today when our respective religious communities decide to indulge in this kind of religious nationalist warfare, the site of battle is all too often the body of women – I think Butalia refers to an issue of the Organiser that shows Nehru standing over a bleeding and divided women representing India with a bloody dagger in his hand. The series Tamas which was aired in India a few years back covered most of these aspects, though it too was criticised for one reel in particular where Sikh women were shown proudly marching to commit suicide when their village was isolated and surrounded by a mob they decided to commit a modern day version of jauhar; there was seen to be an implicit endorsement that this was a preferable course of action to take under the circumstances.

    In the case of abductions, the governments of Pakistan and India signed a treaty to recover such women. These operations continued well into the 1950s. According to the treaty, abducted women were defined as any women who were “seen to be living with, in the company of, or in a relationship with a man of the other religion” after March 1, 1947. This did create problems for interfaith relationships (which were not very common, but not nonexistent either). There were also issues regarding the consent of the women themselves in such recovery operations.

    Understandable given the patriarchal attitudes of legislators over time; some of these interventions were badly misjudged to say the least leading to a second trauma for some abductees who often found it difficult to be reintegrated back into their original communities. Like almost all debate revolving around the ‘woman question’ at the time, the controversy ranged reformers and progressives against conservatives and reactionaries who were all male; the womens’ point of view was conspicuous by its absence.

    The Other Side of Silence is also important because not many good books have been written on the topic of the riots and the migrations that accompanied partition.

    Hmmm, interesting that you should say this. Maybe because I am in academia but I find it a very common topic; of the six seminars held at my college this term alone two were about the partition riots directly and two more about various elements of their aftermath but perhaps it is easier to generate this discourse in academia than in the public literary market. The other reason is that I think much attention has been concentrated on the periods falling on either side of the Partition; historians have concentrated on investigating the ‘origins of communalism’ the impact of British policy and what the situation in pre-colonial India was like between religious communities as well as trying to decipher how events developed in the leadup to independence; while political scientists have very much concentrated on modern versions of communalism and the role of religious extremist violence in political struggles and scenarios in the recent and current periods. There has been much good work done on the fundamentalist parties, riot systems, incidences of communal violence and the ‘ethnography of riots’ here. Partition itself is seen very much through the prism of ‘high politics’ a carryover I think from the mindset of the Raj which tended to see things in terms of formal politics at the national level and played less attention to processes closer to the ground – what studies have been done have been mostly at a regional and local level here. This might change over time; but given that in India at least the link between contemporary communal violence and the Partition is so clear there is a temptation to see the latter merely as the prologue to the former. This shows up in some odd ways as she also has a section, which compares the reactions and experience of the Partition riots with the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 bringing forward some unpleasant comparisons.

    Though Butalia has written a good book on an important topic, sometimes she goes too much into meta-comments and her own thought processes.

    Yes, though I assume this is partly due to her own personal connections with the topic. I did differ from her on the tale of Buta Singh/Jamil Ahmed, which I found incredibly depressing, the man gave up everything he had that formed his identity: his religion, his kin, his nationality and even his name without avail. In a communitarian and divided place like Punjab in the immediate wake of Partition this couldn’t have been an easy thing to do. But then I am probably seeing the whole thing through a male perspective.

    I found the part where she recounts the dialogue with her Mamu who remained in Pakistan and converted very poignant:

    “You see my child” he said, repeating something that was to become a sort of refrain in the days we spent together “somehow a convert is never forgiven. Your past follows you, it hounds you. For me, it’s worse because I’ve continued to live in the same place. Even today, when I walk out to the market I often hear people whispering, ‘Hindu, Hindu’. No you don’t know what it is like. They never forgive you for being a convert.”

  3. in Bengal most of the violence and rioting had a longer history.

    True. I am surprised how well Bengal held up actually since there had been violence there as late as 1946.

    Maybe because I am in academia but I find it a very common topic;

    You definitely know much more about this topic than I do. I might just be ignorant in this regard or it might be a case of not much of such history being written for the masses.

    sometimes she goes too much into meta-comments and her own thought processes.

    Yes, though I assume this is partly due to her own personal connections with the topic.

    I found her recounting of her uncle’s story quite good. I did at times find the meta-discussion of her feminism etc. a bit distracting.

  4. Slavery in the Sudan: The Burden of the Past

    In a rare article available online to non-subscribers, the journal African Affairs, has a good review by Mark Leopold of several books that deal with the issue of Slavery in Sudan and its broader impact on the region’s troubled conflict…

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