‘I wanted to change the lack of knowledge about Partition’

Dr Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a physicist from Berkeley and founder of the 1947 Partition Archives project talks about why she started this organization, how she runs it and what she hopes to accomplish through it

1.  Why did you start the Partition Archives project?

There has been some writing on this (about the way the project started).  Basically I grew up listening to stories about Partition from both sets of my grandparents, but mainly from my paternal grandparents who actually did the migration.  They never really got over having to leave their ancestral home and land behind, even 50 or 60 years later.  I knew it was a really traumatic and large-scale event, but I never learned about it in high school here in the US. 

In fact, it was not even mentioned in my textbooks while in contrast we learned about the Holocaust in Europe and Hiroshima/Nagasaki for a whole semester in my World History class.  At the time when I had tried to tell my classmates, and even years later when I tried to talk about it in college and graduate school, the reaction was always the same:  it was probably not "a big deal" because it was not written about in textbooks.  That bothered me because the sentiment contrasted so sharply with the stories I heard.  The thought that we could let such a massive historical event slip through the cracks without documenting it at the level that it should have been deeply troubled me. I feared we were going to live in a world where history would keep repeating itself.  In the early 2000s for example, I saw the same chaos unfold in Iraq on television, as had happened during Partition, when an entire system of governance was replaced very quickly.  In my mind, knowing what I had about Partition, the events I was seeing on television were predictable.

I also realized that first hand accounts validated the experience of Partition. They made it human and palatable and accessible. The numbers that we find on Wikipedia and in books simply cannot convey the true meaning of Partition and what it meant to live through that time and the decisions made during that time.  People needed to hear about Partition from my grandmother, and not me or books.  Only those with lived experiences could truly attempt to convey the horrors and trauma of that time.  A trauma that affected millions upon millions of people -- a population larger than many Western European nations combined!  Yet, no one was talking about it.  And most people I had known had not even heard about it.  This includes most South Asians I knew.

How it all started:  I had been living with the thoughts and sentiments I mentioned above for years and years. I knew one day I wanted to change the lack of knowledge about Partition.  I did not know how until I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008.  I was doing part of my PhD research at the University of Tokyo in Japan at the time, and happened to take a trip down to Hiroshima.  My great grandfather was stationed there during World War II and was not far from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped.  That was my motivation to visit.  However, when I came across the witness archives in Hiroshima, that's when it clicked.  It was so powerful to hear the stories of experiencing the atomic bomb from survivors.  Suddenly it was all very real and human and I felt their pain much more than watching videos of the mushroom cloud or reading written accounts of those hours that followed the dropping of the bomb.  It was an immediate click for me.  I knew the same had to be done for Partition.

I began recording witness accounts on a hobby camcorder I always carried with me, while on a trip to India in 2009 in a small ancient town (former kingdom) in the North called Faridkot.  In 2010, the last member of my family who remembered Partition as an adult died before I could reach him to record his story. I was living in Berkeley by then.  I was deeply troubled, not only by his passing, but by the tremendous loss of knowledge that my generation was facing.  My great uncle took with him an immense amount of knowledge and wisdom, and it was now gone forever.  We would have no other chance to learn from it.  It was the absolute totality of that moment that made me realize that this work needed to be done on a larger scale.  There needed to be many others like me out there collecting stories.  We, ordinary people from all walks of life needed to come together to build a library of stories from elders who experienced those times and were now spread across the world.

I began recruiting a team in late 2010/early 2011 and we registered The 1947 Partition Archive in 2011.  To collect stories from across the globe quickly and cost effectively, we decided to crowd-source the story collection.

Testimonies have been recorded from 14 countries, including India and Pakistan. Nearly 3,000 have been recorded, and they are 1-9 hours in length.  Today, our team is global and hundreds of volunteers have made this work possible. Currently, we have a total of 25 team members in South Asia, and 5 in the USA. Volunteer Citizen Historians have helped collect stories in 9 countries.  Together we have archived almost 3000 oral histories that are 1 to 9 hours in length and on video.


2  Where did you get the funding for it?

We are completely crowdfunded by donations from people around the world.  The number of stories we record is completely determined by the amount of donations we receive.  We have about 600 people waiting right now to have their stories recorded.  Once we are funded, we can ensure these and thousands more are recorded.

3  What will be the outcome of the project ( a book, library, video archives, research papers)?

We want to make The Archive publically accessible and available to anyone, not just scholars. We are currently working on that.  There are a few ways we are going to do this and we will announce the details soon: 1) We are partnering with a number of top universities across the world and in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to create local libraries of the stories that anyone can access, (more details will be announced soon) and 2) We are working on a master plan right now, with experts around the world in developing a research center that also serves as a museum and memorial on Partition. We will announce this soon as well.

4  If ordinary people like me want to contribute, how can we?

If you would like to make a donation in Pakistan, please send us an email ask@1947PartitionArchive.org and we will provide details.  If you would like to make a donation to our international team, please visit www.1947partitionarchive.org. You can also volunteer as a Citizen Historian and learn to record stories by signing up for a free class on our website.  Or you can join our team of Story Scholars who are recording stories all over Pakistan.

5  Share with us some of the most compelling stories you have come across so far?

I think every single story I have collected has impacted me in a significant way.  I always come away moved and having learned something new.  It is hard for me to put my finger on any particular story as having been a turning point for me.  A few stories though, especially those of young children that suffered untold atrocities, or those of women who played some unusual roles in those times, did change my perception of South Asian culture.  It gave my historical understanding of the world, and of South Asia in particular, more dimension.  

Story of Ali Shan (from a blurb I previously wrote): During August of 1947, Muslim refugees poured into Lahore just as quickly as the Sikh and Hindu inhabitants of the city fled for the newly defined India. One such refugee was an eight year old boy named Ali. He had witnessed the massacre of his entire village in Ludhiana District (East Punjab), including his family, by a furious mob that had rounded them up in a courtyard. One gunman shot at him 5, 6, perhaps 7 times, missing each time. Ali suddenly got the nerve to run. He ran fast and right into the knees of another gunman. Quite unexpectedly, the man grabbed him and gently led him away. They walked for two days before Ali was turned over to a Sikh family in a village. Not long after, he was discovered by the Pakistani military which transported him to Lahore. The refugee camp was a miserable place, he remembers. The air was thick with painful recollections, uncertainty, and suspicion. He remained there for a month before being discovered by his extended family.

Story about the women on horseback: I interviewed 93 year old Bhim Sharma in a dusty machine parts shop in Batala, Punjab. He recalled the day his village in District Narowal (West Punjab) was surrounded by mobs. The entire village was holed up in one house. When hope was nearly lost, three women rode in from behind a hill on horseback. Masked as men with turbans on their heads and straps of ammunition wrapped around their bodies, they caught the mob unexpected and lobbed grenades at the leader. He was killed instantly and the mob dispersed. The women then escorted the villagers to safety. Months later, and thousands of miles away in Morgan Hill, CA, KuldipKaur corroborates Sharma's story and re- calls the three women on horseback who defended the caravan she was in when it was being attacked by mobs.

6  Were there any Partition stories that left you happy? Like tales of courage, sacrifice, friendship etc?

Oh definitely.  Most of them leave you happy in the end, even if you may cry during the middle of the story, especially the part about personal losses and so on.

7  Are there other projects/people doing some good research on Partition? 

Yes indeed.  There are many scholarly researchers who have done great work on Partition.  In terms of organizations, the only other team I know that is doing good systematic work is the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan.

8  What are the one (or two) books on Partition you want everyone to read, and why?

There are so many books!  It’s hard to say which ones would be best.  I really appreciate Urvashi Butalia’s The other side of Silence, which is now a classic read in many university programs.  The first book, which is fictional, that I read on Partition was Train to Pakistan by the late Khushwant Singh, which is also a classic now.  Ayesha Jalal has also written some insightful volumes on Partition.

Ammara Ahmad is a writer and journalist based in Lahore. She can be reached at www.ammaraahmad.com. Follow her on Twitter

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