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Chandra S. Mallampalli
Historians who write about horrific events such as ethnic cleansing or civil war must often sift facts from a muddle of emotion, prejudice, and faint recollection. And yet this very pursuit of an antiseptic or impartial truth threatens to strip history of vital aspects of human experience. To what extent might so-called facts of recorded history actually serve to conceal or silence voices of those who have endured catastrophe? Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence attempts to recover the "underside" of the Partition of India—stories of women, children, and outcasts that have been buried beneath priorities of more conventional approaches to history writing. At the same time, Butalia's narratives shed light upon the role of religion in shaping identities of families and communities. With tensions between India and Pakistan threatening to boil over into war, this revisionist history is all too timely.
On June 3, 1947, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, an event that resulted in the largest single planned migration in world history. Roughly 12 million people were compelled to leave their homes and resettle in another territory, designated primarily for persons who shared their religion. In the process, hundreds of thousands died, as communities were convulsed by an orgy of communal violence and anarchy. More than 75,000 women were abducted or raped; but their stories have found no prominent place in history. Historians have preferred instead to focus on the "high politics" of the Partition: state-level negotiations, conflict between political parties, and, of course, the "surgical" boundary line that divided two nations, drawn by the infamous colonial Boundary Commissioner, Cyril Radcliff. This conventional "gaze on the past," says Butalia, has tended to pass over "feelings, emotions, [and other] indefinable things that make up the sense of an event." Moreover, the preoccupation with high politics has marginalized ...