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Keynote Address at the International Conference on Teaching History - Urvashi Butalia


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Presented at the International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 30 July- 1 August 2015.

Basically, despite the mistrust that traditional historians have of oral history and I know that some of them are in this room. . .and they don’t trust oral history and people’s testimonies for their supposed lack of factuality and the fact that there is no, within quotes, ‘proof’ of people’s memories are unreliable and so on and so forth. I am actually convinced that it is people’s stories and people’s lives that offer us the best kind of lessons. So, this is what guides my belief in oral history and this is the sort of work that I have done on partition. I want to start off by recounting three small incidents to you.

The first of these is about a recent book launch that I attended in Delhi—a new book on partition. I’ve sort of become like the partition lady—like the bag ladies who carry bags around—so now I go everywhere and listen to everything that’s being done. I attended this book launch and the author who has written a kind of a political history on partition, was in conversation with a young journalist. Both young men, the conversation went this way: The interviewer asked the author a question, ‘How come’, he said, ‘you’ve written a new book on the political history of partition? Because you know, this time there are all these oral histories around. All these sort of, supposedly, people’s accounts’. And he said it very, very dismissively, and the author agreed with him in the dismissiveness and said it was time to right the balance and bring in the political history. What I was actually very struck by was, how closed our adult minds are to new and different ways of thinking. Over here, as teachers, you have been talking about the importance of opening up the minds of students. But I think a pre-cursor to that has to be opening up the minds of adults and opening up our own minds. And I think that bringing in new forms of research that open up new areas need not be a threat to the old established forms of research. It can only add to them, stretch their boundaries and enrich them. And that’s the way we need to look at it.

A few months ago, I was in Islamabad. I was attending a literature festival and two things happened there that struck me strongly. First, I attended a session where students from the Army Public School in Peshawar, where killing of hundreds of students had taken place, spoke. On the stage were five students; a math teacher who was with them in the room when the shooting happened, an NGO leader, who had tried to put together families of people impacted by that violence, and a parent of one of the students. Some of these students—they were all boys—described how they had been wounded and how their colleagues had escaped the bullets. One boy had been hurt in the arm. And they talked about not only the shock of what had happened but also the depression that followed, the fear that they had felt at that time.

Parents spoke about their concern over how the children would recover psychologically after such a deep trauma. They spoke about the indifference of the system and the examination system, which could not accommodate the catastrophes that were overtaking society. Each testimony was moving and tragic but also very, very inspiring. What struck me was that all the students were firm in their conviction that the only way to deal with terrorism or violence was for them to continue with their education. Now, over the last two days, I have been reminded continually of this story and the lessons it provides for students and teachers. How would you, for example, textbook makers, teachers of divided histories, take the stories of these students and use them to teach the sorts of things you were talking about yesterday and the day before. The math teacher who was in the room when the gun men struck, reminded everyone that it was not only the student’s of the rich, but also the sweepers, the chaprasis, the guards, the poorer kids, who were hurt, wounded and who suffered losses. And I thought here are lessons that relate to violence, to class, to trauma, to courage, to state responsibility, to parental anxiety and how would traditional historians who scoff at oral histories learn the truth of an incident like this without attention to how it was lived and experienced.

A day later at the same festival I attended a session on the partition. For perhaps the second or third time in Pakistan I was speaking on this subject on a shared platform with Pakistanis. This in itself is a recent, and I think, quite significant development. At some point in my presentation, I made the mistake of saying something about Kashmir referring to it, as Indians often do, as ‘Kashmir’ thinking there is only one Kashmir. The moment the words were out of my mouth, I realized what I had done, and I corrected myself and said I’m sorry, I meant to say ‘our Kashmir’. And the entire hall broke up in laughter and then somebody said to me, don’t worry about this. You know, this whole India-Pakistan thing, we’re not bothered about it anymore. This whole Kashmir thing—forget that damn thing. We have so many problems in our own country—we need to turn our attention to that. I’m telling you these stories for a reason. It’s clear to me that not only children, but also adults need to be taught how to look at things differently. Second, there is so much we can learn from the courage and bravery of children. And third, which relates directly to this story about how the partition was being discussed and to the point that Dr. Christophe raised on the first day—is there a right moment when we can start dealing with divided and difficult histories? And I think in our countries that moment is now. It’s right there in front of us and it is a long moment and we can’t afford to lose it.

In the time that I have remaining, I would like to talk to you about my own journey as an oral historian in the study of partition. And to suggest or to look at some of the possible lessons that can be there for teaching through these oral narratives. I began work on partition some twenty years ago. As a child of refugee parents—my parents had lived through that history, and I had lived with that history in my family and yet I was remarkably ignorant and indifferent to it. Till events around me thrust me into this exploration and I decided that the first thing I needed to do was to seek out my own family history. In my family, there had been no violence of the kind faced by many at the time. But there had been a deep cleavage. My mother’s brother stayed behind in Lahore at partition and converted to Islam. He kept my grandmother back with him. She was also made to convert. For him, the decision to convert was not really problematic, but for her, it was deeply problematic because she was a believing practicing Hindu who followed all the rituals and practiced untouchability and so on and so forth. And it is reported that post partition she went a little mad. Now, this happens to many women when they have to deal with trauma and madness is a kind of excuse that is made. But many women do lose balance and I think that this is exactly what happened to her. When I decided to work on partition, I went to Lahore and found my uncle who lived in the family house. By just turning up at his house one night and knocking on his door and saying, ‘I’m your sister’s daughter from across the border.’ And there we began a conversation, which lasted for many, many years, on and off. I discovered and recovered a family. He did too, from across the border. I realized how deeply history influences the lives of ordinary people and in many ways how helpless people are to deal with it. At some point, my uncle was talking to me about many things and how he had felt at having converted, at living in Pakistan, at losing his family—because none of the family members ever saw him again. And I said to him, ‘Why are you talking to me like this? You don’t even know me. I could be anybody.’ And he said, ‘It’s the first time I’m talking to my own blood.’ These questions of blood ties across the border are so important. The questions of homes that people have in different places are so important. At one point, my mother who was never a religious person at all, said to me, ‘When you go to see him, ask him if he buried or cremated my mother.’ And I was deeply shocked at her saying this and I said to her, ‘What does it matter to you?’ And she said, ‘Just ask him.’ And I asked him. He told me that he had had to bury her, of course. So, I said to him, ‘Take me to her grave.’ And he would not take me to her grave because he said, ‘I’m not ready yet.’ Many years after he died, I went to his grave and I found her grave right next to his. But he simply was not ready to take me there.

The conversations that I had with my uncle opened up partition histories to me in a way like never, ever before. I was looking at these yesterday and I was thinking, what can we learn from this and how can we use these kinds of histories in schools? To me, the first lesson that a story like this can provide is that partition is a divided history. And there are people across borders—across the border who are part of you and whose lives were also torn apart. And whose families were also divided. So, in many ways, it is a divided history but in other ways it is also it’s opposite—a linked history. The family ties are what keep it linked. Why did so many people not see each other for years? When I went, in 1987, forty years after Partition, I learnt then that my grandmother had died in 1956. My mother never knew when her mother had died. It was when I went, forty years after Partition that we discovered that it was nine years after partition. And I wondered how would she have lived with the knowledge that all her children had abandoned her. She never saw any of them again. And if you know Lahore and Delhi, they are half an hour apart by air, eight to ten hours apart by road and if you fly to Amritsar and walk across the border, it’s two hours. It’s crazy what history does.

So, for children can you imagine having to leave your home tomorrow and never seeing it again? What does religion mean to people? Why do people convert? How can such division create deep cleavages even if there’s been no violence? How much deeper would that have been if there had been violence? And then, also about old age—stories like this can help people look at what happens to the old in times of trauma? How much agency do they have to decide their own faith? How dependent are they? What happens to old men? What happens to old women? When people migrated, many of the elderly chose to stay back. They were too ill to move, they did not want to leave their homes, those ties were too strong, what happened to their lives? I think stories like this can help us to look at all of these issues.

One day in the course of my research, someone pointed me in the direction of two brothers who were partition survivors. ‘Talk to them,’ they said ‘Their sisters were taken away.’ Now, you know, in the case of abduction and rape, people never use the words ‘abduction’ and ‘rape’. They will say, ‘their sisters were taken away’, ‘their women were taken away’, ‘their women disappeared’, ‘we don’t know where their women are’—all these euphemisms will hide a much more serious reality. I went and talked to these brothers. They told me about everyone in their family except the two sisters. I tried asking the question in every possible way—how many people were you when you crossed over? How many family members were you? Every name was listed except the name of those two sisters. So, as an oral historian, how do I find out this reality? Did these sisters actually exist or did they not? But everybody around them talked of the sisters. So, I took it as an assumption that the sisters did exist. Later I found them in a book which was a district by district listing of abducted women and which listed this family, the names of those two sisters—so there was what is called ‘factual evidence’ to prove that they existed.

As a feminist, going into research in the histories of partition I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about this history of rape and abduction during partition. A hundred thousand women were raped and abducted across the borders—both east and west—although much less in the east than in the west. But we knew nothing about them. No traditional history book based on facts has had anything to say about this. Zero. Despite the fact that the constituent assembly of India post partition is packed with debates about abducted and raped women. But no historian thought it worth exploring this history. Now, I didn’t know it, as a feminist. When I went in and found it, I started to explore this history, I started to look for women who had lived through this kind of violence. I couldn’t find them. I could find records of them in the courts. But I couldn’t find the women. And then gradually when I began to find women, I learnt something that shook my feminist beliefs, which was—it’s not so easy to talk about sexual violence. And you, as a researcher or as an interviewer can go into a situation and use the power that you have to extract these stories from women. But how right or wrong is it ethically? And what will be gained? To what do you owe a kind of loyalty? Is it to some abstract notion of truth which will impact people’s lives in very deep ways or is it to the people you’re talking about? These are questions of ethics for the oral historian. But these are also questions that give us lessons, which can be taught in schools. Children in the India of today are extremely exercised about the whole idea of sexual violence and what it means and how violence against women can be understood. Stories from the partition can provide a base to start talking about these issues.

During partition a lot of children were abducted, based on certain very strange beliefs. Hindus would pick up Muslim children because they believed Muslim children were very beautiful. And by incorporating them into their families, and especially by marrying young Muslim girls, they would bring a stream of beauty into their families. Muslims would pick up Hindu children because they believed Hindu children were intelligent and by doing this, they would get some sharpness of brain into their families. Look at how stereotypes operate—and we live with these stereotypes all our lives. This is an interesting way of talking to students about the building up of stereotypes—something that studying Nehru and Jinnah and Gandhi and Patel would not necessarily do.

In the course my work I learnt another story about violence that is completely hidden within the stories of the partition. Because when you speak about violence—the traumatic moments—people tend to ‘other’ the violence. It is the other community that is violent towards your community. But in fact during partition there was a huge amount of family violence towards children and women, especially among the Sikhs. Many Sikhs killed their own women in order to ostensibly protect them from rape, abduction and impregnation by people of the other religion. I talked to various men who had been involved in this kind of killing. I talked to a man who watched his father kill his young sister. And then whose mother had tried to jump into a well to kill herself, unsuccessfully, in a village where some eighty-three women jumped into wells to ostensibly commit suicide. We don’t know whether they did it voluntarily or whether they were actually encouraged to do so by their men. This young boy lived with this history all his life, unable to understand what religion and nationalism meant to his sister and how she had, within quotes, ‘offered herself up for death’. Feeling as a child does, grateful that he had a mother, because his father, unable to bear what he had done to his own family, killed himself shortly after partition, shooting himself with a gun. So this child had grown up feeling grateful that he had a mother, but also feeling terribly betrayed that because the mother had escaped death, the family did not get the honour of being the family of a martyr. So in many ways, this story alerted me to the stories of children that lived through that violence. How did they deal with it? What were the psychological impacts that they carried on their bodies? What were those they carried in their minds? Where did children who were lost and who were abducted go? And wouldn’t it be an interesting exercise to get young people to go on the internet to look at the records of orphanages at the time and to see how many children came in—how many were girls—how many boys? To look at the records of organizations that took in these children to offer them for adoption and to see where they went. I talked to somebody who had been in touch with the Delhi School of Social Work, which offered children up for adoption, who told me that even the adoptions were gendered. Many people adopted girls to have them work in the home. And when the girls were too lively, as children often are—they would bring them back and say, ‘She’s too lively. She’s not serious enough.’ Because she wasn’t somebody you could tame into being a domestic servant, which is basically what they were looking for. We know so little about how children lived through that moment and it would be an interesting exercise to get children in schools to work on researching these stories.

One day, I was talking to Maya Rani—a sweeper in a college—in a small village called Dina Nagar near Gurdaspur. I was talking to her about her experiences of partition, and she said to me, ‘Oh, you know, in our village, because it was on the border, it was not clear until a few days after partition, which country it was going to go to.’ So, sometimes the rumour would fly that it was going to go to Pakistan, and when such a rumour flew, all the Hindus abandoned their homes and ran away. And when the opposite rumour flew, the Muslims abandoned their homes and ran away. And she said, ‘I and my friends, five of us, would leap into every house that was abandoned, no matter that it was Hindu or Muslim. And we would steal everything that was there, including food, including quilts, including jewellery, including bartans – utensils and so on.’ She pointed to her room, in which she was sitting and said, ‘Look, all these utensils? I got them at partition. My entire dowry came from there. My friends’ dowries came from there.’ And I said to her but how did you escape the violence when it was all around you? And she said, ‘We’re not Hindu or Muslim, we are Dalit.’

And to me, it was like a light-bulb coming on over my head. I suddenly realized there is a way of looking at oral history beyond the majoritarian histories. Surely caste must have played a role in the movements of refugees and in the ways in which people face violence. And from that, I began to track the history of Dalits in the Punjab, where Dalits were actually quite strong in certain regions. Remember that this was the time of Ambedkar and his movement at that time was quite strong. Just as the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims had made a demand for a homeland, so also the Dalits put forward a demand for a land of their own called Achootistan. Now, how does this kind of history help students? It would be really interesting to get students to think of how mass-migration, how trauma, how violence impacts people differentially; according to class, location, geography, gender and so many other things. It’s not a homogenized experience. The Dalits were actually, very interestingly, politically located in such a way that both communities were wooing them to even out the numbers that they needed to get political clout with the colonial masters. So, that too is an interesting story about how people, who live on the margins of society, become important at certain moments.

I met, in the course of my work, a Hijra. A woman called Mona, with whom I have since been working and she told me a story which was that the Hijras too . . . transgender people, were divided at the time of partition and had to choose which country to go to. So, they did choose and there was a legendary couple of Hijras in Delhi called Sona and Chaman. Sona chose to go back to Pakistan because his family was there and Chaman stayed on in Delhi. But they refused to accept the boundaries of the nation state, as the state had created them. And every year, groups of Hijras would cross the border and they would get together for two days and they would celebrate. . . their gender togetherness by partying for two days. So they used to have big parties for two days, eat, drink, everything and then they’d go back to their countries. . . because they had to live there. . . then they’d come back together. Now, where would you think of stories like this and aren’t these stories fun to talk to students about?

And I want to end with one story that I want to read you. It’s a little story. I think we’ve been talking about very serious things and it might be nice to have something slightly funny. But before I do that, I want to mention two things that we have today, which I think can help us and lead us into looking at oral history as a tool for education and expanding its reach and I think those are the multiplicity of sources that we have today. So, we are no longer bound only to government documents as sources, but the sort of things, particularly, that feminist historians have drawn attention to: letters, diaries, notebooks, biographies, auto-biographies, shopping receipts, photographs, paintings and so on and so forth. All of these give us an indication—give us a rich way of approaching history. And the internet, which allows us infinite possibilities to access multiple histories. And I think those can be really, really useful. And finally I want to end by reading you a story of what happened with abducted women, in the camps that they were kept.

This is the story told by a woman called Damayanti Sehgal, who worked with abducted women and looked after them and helped to rehabilitate them—educating them—helping them find jobs. But there was a requirement that the women who could get jobs must be under the age of twenty-eight. Damayanti told me how they got round this requirement. So she says, the first group of women, some eighty of them were old enough to be grandmothers. Some were educated up to one point, some to another—some had studied in the vernacular. And a question came up—that of their ages. Most jobs had an age limit and these women were all different ages. We had to get together some affidavits, specifying their ages. They had to fill in their educational qualifications, but we needed an age certificate first. I told my staff that there is a government rule that anyone over the age of twenty-eight can’t get a job. I don’t know what the logic was, but that was the rule. So, we did some rough calculations in trying to make these women reach the age of twenty-eight from the ages that they were. We took off some time for the educational opportunities that many of them had lost. Then a year for something else, then a few months for job searching and all sorts of things and we tried to see how many women fit the bill.

But my workers said, ‘Behenji, these lists have now become very small, because really, nobody fitted that bill’.

So I said, ‘How will we find them jobs? Make the lists bigger!’

They said, ‘But, how?’

I said, ‘Just make it! Orders are orders’.

They looked at me thinking, Behenji has gone mad.

Then we had to get these affidavits done. So, what she does is, she goes to the magistrate to get the affidavits. I won’t read you that bit. And she tells him these women had to take the exam for the eighth standard and this is their first entry and so we need to get an age certificate.

He said, ‘These women—where are they? Bring them here.’

The women were outside. I said to him, ‘Why do you need to see the women?’

He said, ‘If I’m signing the affidavit, I need to see them’.

I tried to dissuade him. He said, ‘Don’t be funny. I have to see the women.’

I said, ‘For what?’

He said, ‘Am I being funny or are you?’

Then I said to him, ‘You want to see the women? You have to sign the affidavit, that’s all.’

He said, ‘Ms. Sehgal you’re a very strange person. At least bring the women in.’

I said, ‘All right, if you insist.’ And so we brought the women in.

And then she starts laughing. She says, ‘Poor man! We had written down their ages as twelve, fourteen . . .’

He looked at them and said, ‘These are the women? They are these ages?’

I said, ‘Look, you have to sign the paper. Why are you wasting your time and mine? What does it matter?’

He said, ‘Ms. Sehgal, look at this woman, her hair is white!’

I said, ‘Congratulations, well done! Don’t you know that people’s hair goes white even at a young age these days? Today even twelve year olds have grey hair! Haven’t you seen any? I can show you lots. Today one can’t rely on hair at all. You never know when hair might go grey—even at age twelve.’

He said, ‘Look at that one, she has no teeth!’

So I said to him, ‘Oho, you have such sharp eyes for a man!’ [laughs] Then I turned to her and said, ‘Bibi, you fell down the other day, did you not? And you lost all your teeth!’ [laughs]

She said, ‘Yes, yes, Behenji. Yes, I did and my teeth broke. What could I do?’

So he said, ‘Ms. Sehgal, you’re trying to make a fool of me!’

So, I said to him, ‘Puri sahib, the girls are in front of you. You can see the truth for yourself. Why should I fool you?’

He said, ‘They have wrinkles on their faces!’

So, I said to him, ‘How observant you are—you notice so many things!’ So I said, ‘Look, Puri sahib. Tell me what you ate at home this morning for breakfast.’

Then he says to her, ‘You’re trying now to fool me.’

So, then she says to him, I’m just paraphrasing it for you—So she says to him, ‘No, I’m not trying to fool you. You must have had an egg, you must have had toast, you must have had milk, you must have had fruit, you must have had this, this, this… and that’s your breakfast every day. Ask these women what they ate—they’ve had nothing to eat and for many years of their lives they have been eating like this. That’s why they look like this. So, she says, ‘Do you think these women can say when they were born?’

Neither can I. I was not there. Nor were you. So, what can we do?’

For forty-five minutes we argued and argued.

He said, ‘What should I do?’

I said, ‘I know nothing. I’m doing this in God’s name. Why don’t you do the same?’

‘If you can swear when they were born—which hour, which day—I’ll take your word for it and counter-sign it. But you don’t know. Neither do I. If you can’t, I can’t.’

He signed and with that those women got jobs.

So, partition and oral history can be fun too.


Urvashi Butalia co-founded Kali for Women in 1984 and in 2003 founded Zubaan. With over 35 years of experience in feminist and independent publishing, she has a formidable reputation in the industry in India and abroad. She also has a long involvement in the women’s movement in India, and is a well-known writer, both in academia and in the literary world. She has several works to her credit, key among which is her path-breaking study of Partition, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India which won the Oral History Book Association Award and the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture. She has also taught publishing for over 20 years and is on the advisory boards of a number of national and international organisations. She has received many awards, among which are the Pandora award for women’s publishing, the French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture and the Padma Shri, the highest civilian honour awarded by the Indian government and the Goethe Medal.

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