How do you solve a problem like Partition?

For 70 years, the country has played hide and seek with one of the most brutal chapters of its history that devastated millions of lives. We are still struggling to come to a conclusion.

Photo courtesy: The 1947 Partition Archives
Photo courtesy: The 1947 Partition Archives

Vandana Shukla

The stories of the nation states, the story of politics and wars make it to the text books. What is not written in the text books somehow slips public memory; it fails to find a legitimate place in history. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, Executive Director, The 1947 Partition Archives, confronted this dilemma as a child—on what constitutes history—she had heard stories of the partition from her grandmother but her school teacher dismissed her experience since it was not part of the curriculum. “If it was important, it would be in your text book” her teacher said.

For 70 years, the country has played hide and seek with one of the most brutal chapters of its history that devastated millions of lives for no fault of theirs. Still struggling to come to a conclusion; we are not sure whether to write the partition with a capital P or, in lower case!

The failure of the political forces notwithstanding, Guneeta’s struggle to come to terms with the personal histories of her family members, whose lives were catapulted overnight, made her do something she had never imagined. An experimental condensed matter physicist, having completed her post doctoral research at Berkley National Laboratory, Univ. of California, she decided to devote her life to creating oral history archives of the Partition, recording first hand accounts of the Partition of India, to plug a missing part of our history. Guneeta is presently in Delhi, managing several events around The 1947 Partition Archive, which crowd sources the collection of Partition witness interviews and conducts free online Oral History Workshops.

Here are the edited excerpts of the interview

The memories of tragic events of such magnitude always come with a dilemma; to forget and move on or, to record and archive. You chose the latter, what triggered it?

Its a combination of many things; the way I grew up; my summers were spent in Punjab, at my grandparents’ home. We used to get reception for both Doordarshan, the only TV channel that was at the time in India, as well as Pakistani channels. Then, my grandparents from the paternal side had come from Pakistan. When i was young, I knew my grandparents went through the Partition. I had heard stories from them.

But when I mentioned it to one of my teachers in the US, she told me, if it isn't in the textbook, it mustn't have been a big deal. The Partition doesn't find a place in the textbooks of India as well as in the US.

In 2008, I was on a US National Science Foundation summer fellowship at the University of Tokyo. During my research I took a trip to Hiroshima, and visited Peace Memorial, listening to the oral histories moved me, it was extremely powerful—the voices of the people who suffered. I realized, there was a similar need to document what happened to people during the Partition.

How did it grow to its present status? Do give a detailed account.

Through a lot of hard work. Basically I started recording people’s experiences on my own in 2009, at Faridkjot, in Punjab. I wanted to record my dadi’s brother, the only one alive from my family who was an adult at the time of Partition as he was in his mid 90’s, but he died before i could reach him. That moment I decided, I had to do it in a systematic way. I started visiting temples, mosques and Gurdwaras, in and around California, 2010 onwards. The response of people surprised me; many more than expected number of people were living with these horrible memories, they’d never shared before. I knew I could not do this on my own and so I began recruiting others to volunteer with me. The number of volunteers exceeded my expectation too. In 2013, I left my job and started working on recording oral histories full time. I had exhausted all my savings by 2013 and started looking for donations to carry it further.

As I understand, you weren’t even professionally equipped to carry such a project, what were the hiccups? Fund raising was, initially. I did manage lot of people, as the numbers grew I designed a system for crowdsourcing oral histories. The only way to ensure authenticity of data was to cross check the details, by getting in more people’s narratives that would offer cross checking, by default.

Before you started archiving the live recordings, there was a long lull since the publishing of ‘The Other Side of Violence’ by Urvashi Butalia, perhaps the only document of people’s voices uprooted by the partition. Why did people lose interest-- in your understanding?

We definitely feel our organization played a big role in reviving people’s interest in this part of our history; after thousands shared their experience on our platform, and millions viewed and reshared their stories on social media, eventually there was a critical mass and it made it ok to talk about the Partition. Film maker Gurinder Chadha’s team contacted us in 2010, before making Partition : 1947, released recently. We said, we don't have enough information. That was true at the time. In 2015, when she was making the film, I visited her set during parts of the shooting.

Do you think availability of technology worked in your favour despite a long time lag?

Yes, absolutely, I came up with crowd sourcing; I was at the University of California at Berkeley then; the concept for crowd sourcing data using digital technology was developed in the Physics Dept. of Berkeley, for the protein folding problem. I borrowed from this concept.

Did you ever face any political pressure to stop/curb/edit people’s narratives, from either side of the border?

No, because our aim is to remain objective, we accept stories from all spheres, that includes many politicians across the political spectrum. We have recorded Sardar Tarlochan Singh, MP, we have recorded narratives of RSS affiliated members, of those who have conservative beliefs in Sikhism and Islam as well. We don't accept edited interviews into the Archive. We ask interviewers to record things as they are in people’s voices. Every week we conduct a workshop online, on how to conduct these interviews and record.

Were there moments when you thought, its better to wind up the project and forget about this ugly chapter?

Even if I did, I ignored it because what they went through is more important than my personal feelings.

The challenges, if any, encountered dealing with the sensitivity it involves from both sides of the border, did you exercise self-imposed censorship to deal with such challenges?

We understand the sensitivity involved in these narratives, we are careful the way we present them. Stanford University Library will release a portion of these oral documents online , rest will be available at several university libraries, including Ashoka University, Delhi University and Guru Nanak Dev University; Tata Trusts is funding this pilot project. In Pakistan, Habib University, Karachi, Lahore University of Management Sciences, are releasing these documents, we are working on Bangladesh too. More documents will be released as we progress.

Some of the people have experienced double exile; does it change their perspective on the Partition?

Not too much in their memories of partition. Only that people who migrated to other countries have more experience of adjusting with a different culture.

What is the general reaction of the people who suffered uprooting due to communalisation of politics on the continuing communal scenario, 70 years since the independence? What do they want?

They tend to connect these kinds of feelings with the Partition.

How did the people support this project, did major support come from the victims of Partition?

Support came from all kinds of people, even Jewish Americans and young entrepreneurs have donated.

Did your project of involving the young to record their grandparents’ narratives bring about a shift in the perspective among the young towards communal politics?

Hundreds of them took part in this initiative, the youngest of our Citizen Historians is 13, while the eldest is 87. Certainly, there will be some influence of what they get to hear from their grandparents on their bearing.

It’s been close to a decade of your association with the Archives, how has it changed you and people associated with the project?

I had to learn many things; from raising funds to managing people. I started looking at the complexity of our history, it is very different from what we were taught, British India was not the only reality, though, our identity is constructed around that period…

How many testimonies are recorded so far?

So far 4,300 testimonies are recorded, the largest oral history archives in South Asia, and still growing.

Where do most stories come from—India/Pakistan/UK? Did you focus only on Punjab or stories have come from other regions like the North East, Ladakh, Bangladesh etc, where people were affected by the events of 1947?

India and Pakistan most stories have come from, but they have also come from several European countries, America, Australia and even Middle East.

The political stance on both sides of the border is of not letting go of the past, what message do you get from the people you interview –do they want a closure?

Majority of people interviewed want a closure, people want to move on.

Did Govt of India ever approach you or showed interest in your work?

No, not yet.

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