Workshop: The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (May 2011)

The Gender Studies Program at Mada al-Carmel hosted writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia on Friday, May 13th to speak about her book on the partition of India, “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.” The director of the Program, Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, opened the discussion with comments about the parallels between the partition of India and the partition of Palestine, and the ways that partition continues to affect and bring violence into the lives of Palestinians, particularly Palestinian women.

Butalia spoke about being the child of partition refugees; her Mother’s family migrated from what became the state of Pakistan to Delhi, India, although her grandmother and one of her mother’s brothers stayed behind. Butalia was compelled to think about the historical circumstances of partition when collecting testimonies from Sikhs experiencing violence after the assassination of India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s. Her interviewees would comment they “never thought this would happen again,” referring to the violence during the population migrations of the partition. Butalia noted that the partition was discussed in school textbooks through a political lens, rather than from the perspective of what “ordinary” people had experienced and witnessed during this time.

Butalia gathered stories about the rape, kidnappings, abduction and forced marriage of women that occurred as communities left from one newly-created state to the other on foot. She found that histories of the partition “lived on inside families and communities.” Butalia’s focus in gathering oral histories was to reach women and hear their stories, although many of her encounters were mediated by men who were, most of the time present during the interview. Because of this, she learned to “listen to the silences” and what was not said to better understand these histories. Women who had been abducted or raped were blamed, and most of them asked Butalia not to write about the rape and kidnapping; which raised a dilemma between the importance of telling these histories and respecting the women’s wishes.

Nation-making, Butalia asserted, is a violent process, whereby it is not easy to separate the victims from the aggressors. The partition of India and the movement of peoples represent belonging, loss and desire. Sometimes, Butalia said, “home is always on the other side.” Exploring and recovering women’s lived histories of the partition raises further questions about who history is for, and how historical political events and processes effect everyday lives in the present.

After the lecture, a discussion was held focusing on the commonalities and differences between the partition of India and the partition of Palestine.