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.

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