Urvashi Butalia: Partition Violence, 1984, and Public Memorialization

Urvashi Butalia gave a talk today at Yale through the Department of Women's Studies. Butalia is a publisher rather than an academic, but her book The Other Side of Silence has been one of the most influential books in South Asian studies of the past decade. The book is the product of more than 70 interviews Butalia conducted with survivors of the Partition, and emphasizes particularly the role of violence against women in the collective experience of the tragedy.

Judging by the comments and syllabi of friends and colleagues, Butalia's book is widely taught in classes in anthropology, South Asian literature, and Women's Studies classes (it should also probably be taught in History -- but I haven't spoken with any historians who say they've used it). In her talk, Butalia broke down the basics: the Partition occurred in the shadow of the independence of Pakistan and India in 1947, and resulted in the largest mass-migration in human history. 12 million people relocated in the course of a few months, and in the violence that accompanied the dislocation of so many, about 1 million people were killed (no one is quite sure). Butalia pointed out that the Partition is, like the Holocaust, still very much a "living history," in the sense that many survivors are still around and can be interviewed. In contrast to the many projects that have undertaken the documentation of oral histories of the Holocaust, however, no comparable initiative has been undertaken in India. Nor is one likely.

Just as in memories of the Holocaust, however, the attempt to bring the memories of survivors out into light of day is not easy. To begin with, many people have deeply submerged memories they would rather forget. Some have a lot to hide, and a lot to lose by publicly recounting what happened to them. For instance, tens of thousands of women were abducted at the time, and forcibly married into households of men belonging to another faith. Some women were later "returned" in a rather poorly-conceived fashion through an agreement between the two governments. But many converted and then proceeded to conceal their former identities. The prospect of digging up this past is not one that people jump into willingly.

There is also the question of how to approach people who themselves committed acts of violence. Unlike in the Holocaust, where the aggressors and the victims were clearly identifiable, in the Partition very often people who were victims (say, of displacement) themselves committed acts of unthinkable violence on a small scale, sometimes against members of their own families. Violence was done by ordinary people on other ordinary people, rather than by the state. No process of "Truth and Reconciliation" has ever been undertaken in India -- nor is one likely anytime soon. For example, in doing the interviews for her book, Butalia encountered several men who had been involved in various kinds of atrocities, including some who had murdered sisters, wives, and mothers in the interest of protecting them from violence by the other side. While the violence against women is in actuality unforgivable, these 'honour killings' are not actively condemned in India. (Incidentally, Butalia has written a recent piece for the New Internationalist on Honor Killing of women in the Muslim world. It is here.)

In her talk, Butalia also referenced the violence against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, in the wake of the murder of Indira Gandhi. Her participation in the relief efforts there were what initially started her on the path towards The Other Side of Silence. It was there that she became aware that Partition memories are still very much alive: family members recounting violence in 1984 were themselves in many cases people who had been dislocated in the Partition. Butalia discovered that their memories of the earlier event were still active in the experience of the present.

Two very interesting issues came up in the Q&A. One was the question of methodology. Of particular import is whether one can use methods like psychoanalysis in analyzing memories of partition violence. Is collective psychology of any value? Butalia expressed some reservations about this -- I share them. In my view, using collective psychology, or the idea of "group trauma," to talk about partition violence makes the stories of the aggressors and the victims effectively equal. Rather than drawing out or clarifying particular histories, collective psychology potentially makes everyone a victim, including individuals who might have killed a dozen or more people.

Of course, refusing group psychology in dealing with memories of Partition leads to a problem in how exactly to approach the question of healing or working through at a broader, societal level. This leads to the second Q&A topic, which is the issue of whether official memorials might be of value. These have been widely used in the West, especially in dealing with the Holocaust, and they have largely been a positive development. Still, most in the room seemed skeptical of how this might play out in India, since the current right-wing government would likely use such memorials to actually incite communal feelings rather than aid in the collective working-through of memories of Partition. Indeed, the government has been planning a Partition Museum, which Butalia feels is likely to be extremely one-sided.

I agree, and yet I do feel that some public/state memorialization would be of great value. Oral narratives are important -- and Butalia's book is a major breakthrough. But it is much easier to ignore them than it is to ignore a monument that might sit in Delhi alongside Rajghat (the memorial for Gandhi). In an era when history is being methodically erased by zealots, authority is important.

More stuff by Urvashi Butalia

1. Here is a helpful piece from 2002 on the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. Butalia pays special attention to the women who've joined the militants.

2. And here is a piece focusing on signs of hope in the Indian subcontinent, including special emphasis on the October 2002 elections in Kashmir as well as the peace accord in Sri Lanka.

3. A fascinating account of the messy border between India and Bangladesh. There are dozens of "chitmahals" -- fragments of Indian territory in the midst of what is today Bangladesh -- and people who get caught in between.

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