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The Other Side Of Silence

A Book Review by MANJIT SINGH




The following is the BOOK OF THE MONTH for May, 2012.



THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE, by Urvashi Butalia. Viking/Penguin, India, 1998 and Duke University, U.S.A., 2000. English, pp 328. ISBN-10: 0822324946; ISBN-13: 978-0822324942.


The November 1984 pogroms and ethnic cleansing of the Sikh-Indian community by Congress Party led mobs in many parts of India were the catalyst for this book.

Those events motivated Urvashi Butalia to explore the human cost and psychological impact on the lives of ordinary people resulting from another, similar tragedy - namely, the 1947 Partition of Punjab and the subcontinent.

Fourteen years after 1984, Urvashi published “Tthe Other Side of Silence,” detailing first-hand accounts of the horrors of Partition.

She had managed to contact a few survivors who were in their sixties and seventies and clearly recalled their experiences. The book consists of the recorded stories, from both sides of the divide, of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men, women, dalits and children.

The memories of 1947 were still painful to these individuals at the time of the interviews, over thirty five odd years later.

Separate chapters detail the plight of women, children and dalits as the suffering of these three groups has not been given due attention by other writers.

Urvashi Butalia volunteered to do relief and rehabilitation work at the refugee camps in Delhi to aid the Sikh survivors of the November 1984 massacres. In the Delhi camps she heard many victims ask how this sort of thing could happen twice in a single lifetime?

How could this happen to us in our own country?

She had heard her mother narrating their family’s flight to a newly-minted India from Lahore to escape the communal rioting that had engulfed all of Punjab in 1947. She states, “I would listen to these stories with my brothers and sister and hardly take them in. We were middle-class Indians who had grown up in a period of relative calm and prosperity, when tolerance and secularism seemed to be winning the argument. These stories of loot, arson, rape, murder came out of a different time. They meant little to me”.

Seeing the conditions of the victims in the 1984 Delhi refugee camps, she was able to understand more deeply what must have happened in Punjab in 1947. She could “no longer pretend that this was a history that belonged to another time, to someone else”.

Urvashi had a lot of empathy for the victims of the November 1984 pogroms as he thinks of herself as being part Sikh. Urvashi is descended from a Punjabi Hindu family that used to raise its oldest sons as Sikh. Her grandfather and her father were Sikhs while the rest of the family remained Hindu. She is a product of two cultures.

Their family marriages were done according to Hindu tradition while death ceremonies were according to the Sikh tradition of Akhand Paatth.

Some years later, when the Babri Masjid tragedy happened, she felt further ashamed of the system that can produce and tolerate ethnic cleansing of minorities under the watchful eye of the Central government in New Delhi.

The Other Side of Silence does not talk about the politics of Partition nor the decisions made by Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Jinnah, Maulana Azad, Master Tara Singh and other politicians of the day. There is no reference to the role played by the British and Lord Mountbatten which resulted in dividing India into two countries and three segments.

Urvasi has focussed on the human dimension of the Partition tragedy, ignoring the political developments that led to the split between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Urvashi laments the fact that to-date neither the Indian nor Pakistani government has erected a monument in memory of the ten million innocent Punjabi civilians who became refugees and had to flee their homes, the million who died, or the 75,000 women
belonging to the three communities who were abducted.

There is no count of how many children were lost in the process or how many women were raped.

This is one of the most powerful accounts of the 1947 Partition that I have read. It impacted me deeply as I was eleven years old when the Partition took place. I was a witness to many things similar to the experiences of people interviewed by Urvashi, whose accounts appear in this book.

Reading this book brought back memories of that horrible period which millions of us experienced.


May 1, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), May 01, 2012, 12:26 PM.

Life constantly renews itself in cycles of life and death. Those who are shy of death hardly understand life.

2: Ravinder Singh Khalsa (U.S.A.), May 01, 2012, 12:59 PM.

The same story has repeated itself in "Indian" Punjab, not just in Delhi or 1984 alone. The great Sikh holocaust is still under-reported and Sikhs are still claimed to be terrorists by the criminal Indian establishment and media. Sikhs have lived, and continue to live under repression, murder and rape in Punjab. K.P.S. Gill and Sumedh Saini are back leading and advising the Punjab Police (one of the most corrupt and evil entities in the world - comparable to the Nazi SS units).

3: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), May 01, 2012, 3:36 PM.

This article highlights an important element of the violence against Sikhs in Delhi. A lot of the Sikh families in Delhi are descendants of refugees from West Punjab who fled Partition - or are refugees themselves. I would recommend the book, "Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?" by Anita Rau Badami to truly understand the historical and emotional devastation against a community which suffered two man-made cataclysms in a a single generation.

4: R. Singh (Canada), May 01, 2012, 8:29 PM.

After dead silence of a quarter of a century, it has become in vogue to interview survivors. Where were these people when protest marches and sympathetic voices were needed the most? The children of 1947, especially the refugees of Delhi, left it to a few brave ones like Ram Naryan Kumar or Jethmalani to speak out.

5: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), May 02, 2012, 6:40 AM.

History is a great teacher but history is also a brutal teacher. If we do not learn from history, it will keep repeating itself till we understand it. Oftentimes the punishment meted out at every lesson will be harsher than the previous one. The Germans learnt it and have taken control of the worst chapter in their history, i.e., Nazism. The Indians are poor learners, hence we will keep having the 1947s, the 1984s, the Punjab genocide, the Kashmir and Gujarat mass killings, the Assams and Manipurs and the Maoists - it is a never-ending list. Why - because we never learnt the first lesson of history. This is also the reason why different rulers invaded India repeatedly ... till the Sikhs came on the scene.

6: Bsljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), May 06, 2012, 6:31 PM.

Kanwarjeet Singh ji, you have summed it up so well. The path to peace and prosperity has been defined so well by the Gurus, Bhagats and spiritual and enlightened minds as contained in the Guru Granth and yet the masses fail to learn and follow, choosing instead to suffer unnecessarily for ever.

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