The Untold Stories of Partition

Vidhi Maheshwari

Through the reviews of Urvashi Bhutalia’s “The Other Side of Silence”, and Deepa Mehta’s “Earth”, the author challenges the writings on partition that have mostly focused on Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men

Content Warning: Violence Against Women, Suicide 

The partition of India and Pakistan is one of the bloodiest upheavals in human history. During this time about 9 million Hindus and Sikhs fled to India and almost 5 million Muslims fragmented into East and West Pakistan. This migration between the newly formed countries was accompanied by mass communal violence that left an estimated one million people dead. Even though it has been 74 years since partition, the impact it had on peoples’ lives persists. 

“These accounts highlight how the Hindu and Muslim rivalry dominated the dialogue of partition, silencing the voices of women and minority groups in historiography.”

Urvashi Bhutalia in her book,“The Other Side of Silence” attempts to analyze the partition of Indian society through oral recollections. The collection of traumatic and painful events ­­from people who lived through partition helps shed light on the fact that decades later history has finally caught up with these silenced voices. Similarly, the movie “Earth” by Deepa Mehta portrays the bitterness of partition and the impact of violence on the lives of the individuals, families and friendships through the innocence and silence of a 7-year-old child, Lenny. These accounts highlight how the Hindu and Muslim rivalry dominated the dialogue of partition, silencing the voices of women and minority groups in historiography.

The division of Hindus and Muslims into India and Pakistan during partition aggravated religious differences. It is no surprise that the impact of religion on the lives of people forms the root cause of the issues raised by Bhutalia and Mehta in their respective accounts of partition. The movie “Earth” shows how religious feelings turned Muslim, Hindu and Sikh friends into enemies, willing to kill each other during the religious catastrophe. Additionally, the interview of Rajinder Singh in Bhutalia’s book shows how the fear of death and violence uprooted villages and communities overnight – “Now there were thousand people or so…Hindu, Sikhs…they picked up whatever they could and then they joined the khalifa”. Such accounts show how partition not only aggravated tensions between Muslims and Hindus but also was the cause of broken friendships and families. This division of hearts with the emerging feelings of hate towards members of the other religion is what led to mass murders and violence during partition.

“The narratives of women are crucial because they not only highlight the patriarchal nature of Indian society but also represent the voices that have been suppressed and are less likely to be found in the historical accounts of partition.”

While friendships and families were affected during partition, women were symbolized as national subjects and faced the worst procurement of this religious catastrophe. In her book, Bhutalia dedicates an entire chapter to address the silenced voices of women from the partition. The narratives of women are crucial because they not only highlight the patriarchal nature of Indian society but also represent the voices that have been suppressed and are less likely to be found in the historical accounts of partition. Bhutalia mentions that: “I found that even in the closest of relationships in families, people could be so ignorant of – and indifferent to- what was going on in the life of someone so close to them”.

Partition was also the time when women were abducted, murdered and raped. In the movie Earth, a young Muslim boy tells Lenny and her friend how Hindus attacked their village and killed everyone including his mother. He goes on to tell how after he escaped and went to look for his mother, he found her hanging by the ceiling fan in the mosque, completely naked. This is one of the many accounts describing the violence that erupted against the women of the other religion. To prevent themselves from being “polluted” by the men of another religion, women jumped in wells with their children, burnt themselves alive or offered themselves to be martyred by the hands of their own family members. 

Sardarni Gulab Kaur, an important figure in the village of Thao Khalsa fearlessly led over eight women to the well to commit mass suicide. Bir Bahadur Singh’s daughter offered herself to be killed by her father to prevent falling prey to the Muslims. Gurmeet Singh, a survivor of the village of Thamali says that “We gave them the order to kill all the girls… we felt totally helpless… we killed the girls with our own hands; kerosene was poured on them inside the Gurudwara and the place was set on fire… women and children where could they go”. These are just a few accounts that represent the sufferings of women during partition. 

“the records of history have negligible accounts that represent the voices of women, their sufferings, the torture and torment they went through”

However, the records of history have negligible accounts that represent the voices of women, their sufferings, the torture and torment they went through. Thus, Bhutalia’s book, by emphasizing the oral accounts of women who survived the disasters of partition, helps give them a voice in narrating the history of partition. While multiple accounts in Bhutalia’s book show how women willingly gave up their lives to avoid falling prey to men of the other religion, the movie Earth shows how a Hindu maid, Shanta, who worked in the house of a Parsi (Zoroastrian) family was mercilessly abducted by the hands of her Muslim friend, Dil Nawaaz. Even though Dil Nawaaz ended up despising Shanta because she fell in love with their other Muslim friend, Hassan and not him, the fact that he led the Muslims to abduct Shanta shows how women were treated as commodities and subjects used by men to release their aggression during partition.

“Bhutalia recognizes that the stories of women and children were not the only ones that lay shrouded in silence. She mentions that most of the writing of partition has focused on Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men, as if no other identity existed.”

Further, Bhutalia recognizes that the stories of women and children were not the only ones that lay shrouded in silence. She mentions that most of the writing of partition has focused on Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men, as if no other identity existed. This makes it important to consider the hidden voices of Dalits and other minority religious groups in the history of partition as their lives were also touched in unexpected ways during partition and little is known about their sufferings. Even though Dalits (lower caste Hindus subjected to the practice of untouchability) have been considered as outcastes and invisible in the society, there was no way to distinguish a Dalit from a upper caste Hindu or a Muslim. However, in the book, Maya describes how she and her friends fearlessly looted houses in their village to stack up ration, “we thought, who’s going to take us away, who’s going to kill us? We call ourselves Harijans; Hindus, Christians, no one can take us away.” 

Even though this representation of Dalits by Maya should have been considered as a protective shield in the fight between Hindus and Muslims, Dalits also faced the consequences of partition. After being forced out of their homes, they were denied entry from the refugee camps leaving them with nowhere to go. This also made it harder for them to gain access to rations, clothing, etc. Additionally, the movie Earth shows how to escape the wrath of partition, a young Dalit girl was married to an old Christian man. Shanta explains to Lenny that: “fear is making people do crazy things these days”. These accounts highlight the sufferings of Dalits during partition and help bring their silenced voices to the forefront.

“The accounts of these marginalized groups help understand how the predominant focus on Hindu and Muslims during partition overshadowed the sufferings of other groups and people thereby eliminating their voices from the historical accounts of partition.”

Apart from Dalits, Bhutalia also describes how Christians occupied a rather ambiguous space during partition. They were a small community in numbers and had no special identity in terms of their work. Due to their closeness with the colonizers, they were not seen as “acceptable” figures in the national discourse. Bhutalia mentions the story of two young Christian Air Force officers who came very close to being killed because no one understood what their religion was when they were forced to crash land in Rajasthan.

In “Earth”, Lenny’s mother tells her that Parsis (Zoroastrians) are like chameleons as they take on the color of the people around them to survive. She says that since there are such few Parsis in the world, it is safer for them to be invisible and not stand out. The accounts of these marginalized groups help understand how the predominant focus on Hindu and Muslims during partition overshadowed the sufferings of other groups and people thereby eliminating their voices from the historical accounts of partition.

Bhutalia’s “The other Side of Silence” and Mehta’s “Earth” both put forward the experiences of women, children and Dalits in historiography. They place at the center the silenced voices of these marginalized groups and women that helps us better understand and expose the themes of violence, abduction and belonging. These two accounts of partition also show how the histories of these suppressed voices lie at the core of partition. One can never truly learn about partition without hearing these voices and acknowledging the fact that history dwells into the lives of individuals, making it important to hear their stories and experiences.

Vidhi obtained her undergraduate degree in Psychology and International Studies from Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia. She is currently pursuing her MA in Mental Health Counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University in New York.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

Non-Violence in the Private Sphere

Kaushiki Arha

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

For Virginia Woolf, what keeps a woman from writing literature is the absence of a room of her own, a room that lets her mind run wild, a room where she is free above all to encounter serendipity and experience what leisure is, a room that lets her write for herself. In mapping the boundaries between public and private spheres what is often missed is the porosity between these borders, so delicate yet definitive. Definitive enough to let philosophers welcome the state and the society into the bedrooms of individuals and pry upon what it calls the “private” and alter it as it suits the public. The access to this room or the lack of it brings in the question of violence. This question was conceptualised by Johan Galtung “as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual” This article is an attempt to situate non-violence in the private sphere.

The distinction between the public and the private is maintained primarily on the grounds that this separation is “natural”. Whether or not the public and private divide existed across time in societies, the idea is rooted in modern common sense, that each gender has a distinct sphere (the public – man and the private – woman) to which one “naturally” adapts. While rejecting the “mechanistic separation of the two spheres” and not denying the real consequences following from it, it is useful to consider the private/public as an analytical concept for its decisive role in the allocation of powers and resources, an issue raised by Woolf. To question the natural premise of this separation is not to forget the vital role played by private/public in the beliefs we tend to hold about how society ‘works’ and should work.

“The contemporary question of sexuality too is deeply entrenched within the family”

Within the Aristotelian teleological system, the function of the household is to maintain a biological existence, thereby a gendered division of labour and a lack of freedom of choice, speech, and justice are all subsumed under the banner of the ‘natural’ and the biological. The modern equivalent of an Aristotelian household is the conjugal family based on heteronormative sexual ideals. This conjugal family, just as the Aristotelian household, is constituted of hierarchically positioned gender identities shaping their relation vis-à-vis the public. The contemporary question of sexuality too is deeply entrenched within the family. This ends up taking away from the non-normative genders their right to form one of their own.

“An individual is firstly defined by their position within the family and secondly within the deeply hierarchical social structure is as free in the market as a woman in the patriarchal family to decide for herself”

The private sphere, however, steps outside the household to enter the market whose relation with the individual (within or without the family) is again deemed to be outside the purview of the public domain; the state is reduced to operating as an intermediary and any intervention is deemed to be an intrusion of the “free” market. An individual is firstly defined by their position within the family and secondly within the deeply hierarchical social structure is as free in the market as a woman in the patriarchal family to decide for herself. Formal freedom provided by the public realm sanctions commission of omission with regard to questions of right and justice in what it construes as the personal. Accruing to a remarkably similar modus operendi deployed in family, the private adds to the power of the market in dispossessing the individual of any agency to strike a fair bargain. 

Examples range from the recent farmers’ agitation in India where the crisis could have been postponed in the name of being agrarian. However, it has reached the urgency of a civilizational lacuna that forgets and masks the number of farmers committing suicide every day. This is not only because of market inequities but the sheer lack of acknowledgment of the nuances that a farmer’s identity entails, the policy intervention it requires only to not mention the trauma and social handicap their families face after subsequent suicides. 

“the social construction of a woman’s identity that defines how the market views her as a customer, from selling life-threatening beauty standards to limiting the actual choice of a woman in education and jobs”

Other examples include the social construction of a woman’s identity that defines how the market views her as a customer, from selling life-threatening beauty standards to limiting the actual choice of a woman in education and jobs; the stereotyping of minorities (social, cultural, sexual) by a cultural industry that feeds off an unjust private life premised upon a superficially autonomous idea of entertainment, one that does not concern itself with the social and political reality within which it is produced. This brings us to the question of violence – what constitutes violence? and is non-violence adequate to challenge violence? 

As noted earlier, violence according to Johan Galtung is not simply a coercive physical act intended to cause harm but one that limits the very possibilities of one’s being. Violence is systemic and structural so much so that the very nature of the structure invisibilises the violence inherent to it. Within the institution of the family, the question of justice has been ridiculed to be too petty since family is made of “higher virtues” such as love. The existence of love external to the concept of justice fails to register any concern among progressive theoretical discourse on substantive justice. 

“The family, therefore, has failed to address the violence that is both physical – domestic violence, sexual abuse, and female infanticide – and structural – gendered division of labour, inequitable distribution of resources, and construction of oppressive gender norms”

The question of gender in this regime of love is unheard of as it confronts the family with seemingly lower, pettier concerns of unequal access to resources to women, higher unpaid working hours among others only to be met with the there is no “I” is the “us” of a family response. The family, therefore, has failed to address the violence that is both physical – domestic violence, sexual abuse, and female infanticide – and structural – gendered division of labour, inequitable distribution of resources, and construction of oppressive gender norms. The market, on the other hand, works in conjunction with existing pre-capitalist forms of oppression, leaving little scope for the individual to act freely upon their choices since their identities shape their bargaining power. 

Non-violence too is not simply to be seen as a negative: as only the absence of violence but a positive condition that requires conscious action. For Gandhi, non-violence requires one to reform oneself through action. It is both a means and an end in itself. He has a  teleological understanding of non-violence or ahimsa, which serves as a basis for his search of truth, for truth can neither be found nor realised in the presence of violence. For him, non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It implies a positive quality of love for one practicing non-violence is to not hate their oppressor and every person has a role to play in society and in family which they must fulfill. He laid great emphasis on physical work. According to Gandhi, everyone must contribute their labour to the best of their abilities to become self-reliant. 

However, even Gandhi preferred violence over injustice and cowardice, for him any sort of injustice should be resisted even if it calls for violent measures in extremities since he did not tolerate the prevalence of injustice out of fear. The emphasis on injustice here is crucial because it brings us back to the assertion that the supposedly ahistorical separation between the public and the private sphere invisibilises violence which is inherent to any dichotomous conceptualization of the simultaneity of our lived experiences. 

“The political and legal battles being fought on the streets of Delhi by farmers, in media by women, in the courtroom by the LGBTQ+ community and struggles world over are exemplary of the need of porosity between these neatly drawn borders”

It is imperative to repetitively note that the public and the private distinction is politically and historically constructed so much so that the claims to universality and natural necessity are a legitimation technique employed to downplay the violence that holds this distinction together. This argument is being made in light of the politically charged assertions being made by groups and individuals seeking to reconcile this gap between the two spheres which continue to oppress them. The political and legal battles being fought on the streets of Delhi by farmers, in media by women, in the courtroom by the LGBTQ+ community and struggles world over are exemplary of the need of porosity between these neatly drawn borders. There has come about a need to discard these boundaries with questions of justice, equality, democracy, and freedom which through a long drawn historical struggle laden with nuances of diversity in our communities have acquired a universal status. A universal that has so far been external to the regimes of “love” (family) and “choice” (market).

Kaushiki is currently pursuing a Masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Design By Hemashri Dhavala