Archive Preserves People’s Memories of South Asia’s Partition

Volunteers called citizen historians interview and record the experiences of those who witnessed the partition of British India in 1947.

Volunteers called citizen historians interview and record the experiences of those who witnessed the partition of British India in 1947. (Courtesy of 1947 Partition Archive)

This weekend, Indians and Pakistanis around the world celebrate their country’s respective independence days. It’s been 68 years since the subcontinent was hastily divided along religious lines into two countries.

People on both sides of the border share traumatic memories of partition. Now a new archive, located in Berkeley, is collecting the stories of people who lived through the partition.

Ravi Chopra shared his story as part of the archive. He says those kind of memories never fade away.

“You have played with them, you have lived with them, you have eaten together! And the same people [are] coming and burning your houses and killing you and looting everything,” Chopra says about the riots he witnessed in 1947.

Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, says she grew up listening to her grandparents’ frightening tales of partition.

“My grandmother had told me harrowing stories of the train rides that they took to come to India,” Bhalla says. “Also at one point how [she said] she was in a jeep with her brother and they literally were having to drive over dead bodies.”

Millions of people were displaced from their ancestral homes as partition divided South Asia along religious lines. Many refugees took the harrowing journey via train.
Millions of people were displaced from their ancestral homes as partition divided South Asia along religious lines. Many refugees took the harrowing journey via train. (Wikimedia Commons)

About 15 million people were displaced during the partition, the largest mass migration of the 20th century. But at the time, western media praised it as a triumph of democracy.

Bhalla says she never even learned about partition in her high school history class. Years later, she took a trip to Hiroshima that inspired her.

“I saw the oral testimony archives there,” she explains. “For me it was sort of that moment, it clicked. It was like OH. Wow. This is what we need to do. My grandmother needs to tell her own story.”

So she created the 1947 Partition Archive, in a small office in downtown Berkeley. In the last 4 years they’ve collected about 2,000 video and audio testimonies.They plan to publish them in a few years. Some people are telling their story for the first time, like Ali Shan.

He was 6 years old in 1947. His life changed when a mob attacked his ancestral town, near the newly created India/Pakistan border. In his video testimony as he struggles to tell his story, its evident that the memories still haunt him.

“I was standing there not knowing what’s happening. He, the gunman, was only about 10 feet away,” Shan says, with a shake in his voice. “You know, he shot at me few times. Every time he missed. So I start running.”

During that attack, Shan saw his mother and brother murdered and he was orphaned. It was months before he was reunited with some distant relatives. They already crossed the border into Pakistan.

British officials visit a scene from the Punjab riots. The province of Punjab was split in two during partition and in the aftermath had some of the most violent riots.
British officials visit a scene from the Punjab riots. The province of Punjab was split in two during partition and in the aftermath had some of the most violent riots. (Wikimedia Commons)

“When you don’t have a mother, father, and your own home and family, all the relatives are there to help you, but its not the same, it never was,” Shan says.

The archive has dispatched volunteers, called citizen historians, to record these stories. Most stories come from people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But many come from South Asians living in the U.S.

An event at Santa Clara University spread the word about the archive among the South Asian community here. As witnesses told their stories, a packed audience hung on their every word.

Bhalla says hearing these first hand accounts inspires others to share their stories.

“Because partition has been at the crux of so much politics in South Asia and even war that a lot of that memory has been sort of shoved under the carpet,” she says. “Maybe not on purpose, maybe that’s just been the circumstance. But yeah, the people haven’t had an opportunity to share their stories and that’s the gap that we’re trying to fill.”

Bhalla says she regrets that she never got the chance to record her grandmother’s story. And time is running out for other survivors.

“Those who experienced partition as teenagers are in their 80s today. And those who were young adults are in their 90s and over 100,” Bhalla says. “So there’s a really huge urgency in getting these stories recorded as fast as possible.”

The archive wants 8,000 more stories recorded by 2017, the 70th anniversary of partition, while witnesses are still alive.

Author

Paayal Zaveri

Paayal Zaveri is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently attends UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. She also contributes to KQED's The California Report and previously interned for them. Previously, she wrote for The California Aggie, the student newspaper at the University of California, Davis, the San Francisco Public Press and other publications. Find her on Twitter @paayalzaveri.

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