Writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India is based on the stories she recorded of those who lived through the nightmare of 1947. In this interview, she digs deep into these stories to explain why men killed their own families, the trauma of women who were abducted and raped, and why India and Pakistan are disinterested in Partition history. Excerpts:
Your book is based on the oral account of people who lived through the nightmare of Partition. How many of them did your interview?
I interviewed about 70 people, but not all were of the same length and intensity. I decided to use five or six substantively—these were very long and intensive ones, some of which I did over months—and quote from others in the book.
Of your interviewees, you say, “There had been, at Partition, no ‘good’ people and no ‘bad’ ones; virtually every family had a history of being both victims and aggressors in the violence.” What was the degree of their complicity in the Partition violence?
It was not necessarily complicity. We found in both India and Pakistan that Partition was difficult to confront and talk about. In order to talk about it, we would have to acknowledge that both sides were equally guilty, in case you can use that word.
For instance, it wasn’t like the Holocaust, where you had the Jews and the Nazis. Of course, you had a range of ordinary people who allowed the violence against the Jews or benefited from it—like companies which used concentration camp labour.
Unlike the Holocaust, in Partition, both sides were guilty of violence. Both sides were aggressors and victims. Often, there were histories of violence within families, which they silenced. There could have been a history of complicity in the violence they subjected their own women to. Or you might have known about somebody who was attacked, but you were too helpless to stop it—and you, therefore, let that history go. Or you might have participated in violence yourself.
So the complicity in Partition was at many levels.
Yes. For example, when I spoke to my father and people of his generation, they told me about how they were inspired by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and its stories of Muslim violence. It inspired them to make bottle-bombs at home. It was very strange because the closest friends of my dad, who worked for The Tribune then, were Muslims. He left the keys of his flat in Lahore with a Muslim friend of his. Yet they never saw that [making bottle-bombs] as being complicit.
Did they see it as an act of self-defence?
Yes. But it was more like junoon [obsession that borders on madness]—since everyone was doing that, they also did that. I, however, think it was much more complicated. The relationships of intimacy were much more intricate and, equally then, it became difficult for them to disentangle themselves from violence, from their complicity in it.
So there was a blurring of the line dividing victims from aggressors.
It gets very blurred. I interviewed a guy, Kulwant Singh, who was wounded in the March 1947 violence [that occurred in Rawalpindi] and lay on the ground for 24 hours with fire raging all around him. The Army subsequently rescued him. But he also told me of many stories of his own complicity and those of his friends in the violence.
The point I am making is that in case you want to look at Partition and what happened, you have to have a great deal of honesty and understanding that it was the time when everybody somehow got entangled in it one way or another. This kind of history becomes so much more difficult to confront.
Is this the reason why neither India nor Pakistan has done anything to memorialise Partition? Or is it because the two principal entities—the Congress and the Muslim League—ultimately got Independence, and the good news overshadowed the bad news?
It is both. Partition was the dark side of Independence for both countries. For Pakistan, it was its birth, and, therefore, kya zaroorat padi hai [what is the need?] to remember the bloody side of that birth. In India, it marked the triumph over the British and becoming a nation on its own.
But it is also that if India and Pakistan remember Partition with honesty, they would have to admit that politicians agreed for the sake of power to what became a bloodbath. The human cost was so heavy—and it continues even today. It is also very useful for India and Pakistan to demonise each other even today. It makes any dialogue on difficult issues impossible. This is because there is an unacknowledged history, which we do not talk about. This is another reason why there are no memorials, although some sporadic efforts are being made.
At Purana Qila in Delhi, lakhs of refugees stayed, but there isn’t even a plaque which mentions that history. Nor do you have anything at Humayun’s tomb, which was the place for Muslim refugees. You don’t have plaques at Tihar village or Kingsway Camp or Faridabad, a city which was established to house Partition refugees. [Social reformer and freedom-fighter] Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay begged and pleaded for money to establish Faridabad, and then went on to do it on her own—and got money later. Faridabad is next to Delhi, but we are not interested in these kind of things, we want to just…
It is not even about moving on, which doesn’t happen itni aasaanii se [so easily]. Had we wanted to move on, we would have been more interested in Partition history. Actually, we are disinterested in Partition history because we want to hold on to those enmities.
Your book provides accounts of men like Mangal Singh and his brothers who killed 17 of their family or Bir Bahadur Singh, who watched his father slaughter 26 of their extended family. In both these cases, only women and children were killed. What was the idea behind killing them?
Men feared that while they could get away, ride horses, wield weapons, move fast—women and children couldn’t.
The men thought women and children could be a drag on them.
Yes, but much more than that was the fact that women are supposed to be the repository of honour of the community. This we see even today, for instance, with khaps. This was more so among the Hindus and Sikhs than Muslims. They feared women would be abducted, raped and, therefore, they would be polluted by the blood of the other community.
Why was it less among Muslims?
Partly, it is because purity-pollution and caste don’t play the same kind of role among Muslims as these do among Hindus and Sikhs. Although it might sound far-fetched, marriage in Islam is a contract. In Hinduism, it is a sacrament. So if your wife is violated, the sacrament is violated. Islam has a far more practical point of view on this issue. So the fear that women would be abducted, raped, and polluted had Hindus and Sikhs think it was better to kill them.
To kill them was clearly murder. So they had to give the act a sheen, a cover, and so came the idea of martyrdom—that theirs were honourable deaths, or auratein shaheed ho gayeen [women embraced martyrdom].
We wonder why India and Pakistan haven’t talked about Partition. But if you look at the men who killed their own families, the cost must have been very heavy. You can’t murder your family and live your life without the terrible burden weighing on you. But they weren’t able to speak to anybody about it.
How did those who killed their family members live with it?
Many of them continued to be haunted by it. Of course, they rationalised it. The narrative of martyrdom played a big role in it. So in gurdwaras, they would be picked out as families of martyrs. The person who talked most about it was Mangal Singh [who, along with his brothers, killed 17 of their family]. When I asked him, he gave a rather moving answer. Turning to the fields, he said Punjab is called sone ki chidiya [a golden bird], and this is because we have put all our grief and forgetting into this land, that is, we have irrigated it with our grief and it has given back to us (prosperity).
It never occurred to these men to kill themselves as well?
It did, but I guess it takes a lot of courage to do that. Bir Bahadur’s father killed himself with a gunshot a day or two after killing his daughter and others. Obviously, he couldn’t bear it. But others lived with it, many of them in silence.
So what was it like for them?
I remember talking to somebody who was part of [political psychologist] Ashis Nandy’s project on Partition violence. One of his researchers spoke of having interviewed a man, a Sikh, who was a doctor in a hospital. He told her the story about how when the hospital was likely to be attacked, the nurses and other women workers had given him a gun and said, “Should anything happen, please kill us.” When the attack was imminent, he killed several of them. He had never, ever talked about it.
Finally, he told this story to the researcher. And she said she was never able to meet him because she could never face him. She said his wife was very angry with her and she couldn’t understand why. I thought to myself, “Really? You unleashed this whole story lying suppressed in somebody who has to live with the consequences of that.” In other countries, you have psychological support for such a person.
Many people lived in silence with such stories. Others who spoke had to live with the consequences of that. As researchers, we have to ask ourselves whether we can take the responsibility for making their stories public and what it will do to the person whose story it is.
There were some 100,000 women who were abducted. India and Pakistan signed the Inter-Dominion Treaty on December 6, 1947, for recovering as many abducted women as possible. Why was it that there were some women who didn’t wish to be rescued, and even resisted it?
The state assumed that all Hindu-Muslim or Sikh-Muslim man-woman relationships after March 1, 1947, had to be coercive [this provision was part of the treaty]. Life isn’t so straightforward, is it? There can’t be a cut-off date where relationships become coercive.
Even when terrible things are happening between two countries, people can still fall in love, can still have relationships across religions. Law is black-and-white—it can’t take life’s ambiguities and nuances. So the law itself was very coercive.
By the time the rescue team went out and found women who had been abducted, they were in relationships, coercive or otherwise. They had children and families, and they didn’t want a second displacement. Many such women said that marriage was abduction anyway. They said they would anyway get pushed into marriage with men whom they didn’t know and have sex with them, have children… For them, marriage through abduction was very similar.
Anis Kidwai, whose book [In Freedom’s Shade] I used extensively, talks about this. Many women whom Kidwai spoke to also told her that their abductors treated them well, gave them nice things to wear, so why should they leave them? Some of them also fell in love with their abductors. It is not impossible.
Well, it could be that. There is the famous story of Zainab and Buta Singh. They did fall in love and they were forced to separate. He had purchased Zainab.
[Interviewer’s note: Zainab was abducted from a kafila or caravan that was wending its way to Pakistan. She was passed from one hand to another until Buta Singh, a Sikh bachelor, purchased her. He married Zainab. They had two daughters. The rescue team tracked Zainab to the village near Amritsar. She had no choice but to go with the rescue team.
The entire village came out to bid her farewell. As she stepped out of the house with her younger child, she turned to Singh, pointed to the elder daughter and said, “Take care of this girl…. I’ll be back soon.”
Buta Singh applied to the Pakistan high commission for a change in nationality and a passport. However, the application was rejected. Subsequently, he was granted a short-term visa to visit Pakistan. In his rush to find Zainab, he didn’t report to the police station within 24 hours of arriving there, as is still the rule. He was arrested. He explained to the magistrate in court why he forgot to report to police.
Zainab was summoned to the court. Married to a cousin, and tightly ringed by her relatives, she told the court, “I am a married woman. Now I have nothing to do with this man. He can take his second child whom I have brought from his house…”
Shattered, Buta Singh put himself under a train and died. His body was taken to Lahore for autopsy and a huge crowd turned up. Some were reported to have wept. A suicide note found on him made a request that he be buried in Zainab’s village. But this wish was turned down by the members of Zainab’s community. Ultimately, Buta Singh was buried in Lahore.]
The Inter-Dominion Treaty must have set off yet another chain of disaster for abducted women who were repatriated.
It did. When they were brought back, many of their families refused to take them back. So they ended up spending time in ashrams in Karnal and Jalandhar and other places. Some took up jobs. In Pakistan, the All Pakistan Women’s Association worked quite hard to get these women married.
Perhaps it was easier there because of the point you made earlier—of marriage being a contract in Islam.
It was relatively easier there. But it wasn’t always the case. Recently, on Zindagi channel, there was an interesting serial based on a Partition novel, Bano, which was an abduction story from the other side [Pakistan]. A Muslim woman [living in Ludhiana] is abducted by a Sikh. She had been engaged to a boy whom she was in love with. She doesn’t want to marry the Sikh, who rapes her. She has a child by him. Finally, she finds her way back to Pakistan, after killing her abductor.
All this time her fiancé is pining for her. But after a long wait in which he is told that she has died, his marriage is fixed. It is around this time the abducted woman arrives. She is housed in a home for women, where she makes the lehenga for the woman whom the boy is to marry.
You quote from the RSS’s mouthpiece, Organiser, in which articles tend to convey that Hindus were victims, and those among them who did indulge in violence were very few who succumbed to what it calls “base passion”. Did the RSS depict this flawed picture because it wanted to turn Hindu vengeance into a permanent desire?
At that time, they did definitely project Hindus and Sikhs as victims. But it wasn’t just the RSS. If you read the SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] report of that time, as also GD Khosla’s report (he was commissioned to write on Partition violence by the government) which appeared as a book, Stern Reckoning, and the overall narrative of the RSS in the Organiser, you will find overlaps.
The RSS’s narrative is much more extreme, of course. It builds a narrative around the theme that the Muslim is strongly sexual, with an uncontrolled libido, and if you allow it free expression, then the Hindu and Sikh woman’s sexuality, till now kept in check by men of their communities, will be equally freed and become very dangerous. Built on it is the narrative of the masculinity of Muslims and the lack of it in Hindus—they are shown as weak, emasculated, non-meat eating—what rubbish. Thus, Hindus are shown suffering because of Muslims. The Hindu isn’t abducting or raping women. If he is indeed raping women, it is either because there has been a terrible provocation or it is an aberration. This is the narrative they are building all the time.
Even now. I am forgetting his name, but in 1992 or thereafter, there was an MP (member of parliament) in Delhi who would endlessly use Partition stories to ask Hindus to take revenge on Muslim women because of what was done to their women then. It is less so at the moment, but it isn’t because they don’t want to. Given a chance, they would like to even now. For instance, isn’t this what they actually say about “love jihad”?