As India and Pakistan celebrate 70 years of independence this week, the legacy of the August 1947 Partition of British-ruled India that resulted in the birth of these two nations is something both are still coming to terms with.
Religious violence exploded as Hindus and Sikhs fled toward India, and Muslims toward Pakistan, the newly created homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. Millions of people were uprooted and displaced from cities, towns and villages where their families had lived for generations.
It was the largest mass migration of the 20th century. Over the course of a year, an estimated 15 million people crossed borders that were drawn up in haste by the British Empire.
Along the way, scenes of brutality played out: Mobs rampaged through cities and countryside, attacking and killing members of religions not their own. “Ghost trains” full of refugees’ corpses plied the railway tracks in eerie silence. Women, desperate to avoid abduction and rape, committed suicide. There was arson, looting and bombings.
By the time it was all over, a million people — maybe more — had died.
Only in recent years have the memories and insights of those who lived through the trauma and chaos of Partition been recorded in a systematic way. For such a central and defining set of events in both India and Pakistan, the stories of Partition witnesses and survivors were, for the most part, not given voice outside their own families.
“Because their experiences weren’t given importance for so many decades, they just learned to feel that what they experienced wasn’t really worth talking about,” says Guneeta Singh Bhalla.
She is the founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, a nonprofit based in Berkeley, Calif., that is highlighting the stories and honoring the memories of those who lived through Partition. This grassroots project is racing against time to make sure as many Partition witnesses’ voices as possible are heard and their stories are documented for posterity.
“There is a huge urgency,” Bhalla says, “because the generation that remembers isn’t going to be with us for very long.”
As a child in India, Bhalla, now 38, used to listen to her own family’s stories from Partition. She is originally from Punjab — a region split between India and Pakistan that, along with Bengal, which was also split, saw some of Partition’s bloodiest violence.
Her paternal grandmother, a Sikh, fled to India from Lahore, which ended up on the Pakistani side of the new border.
“My grandmother’s experience was very harrowing,” she says. “She was in a refugee camp for awhile until her brother found her by chance and they drove away in a Jeep. And all the stories of the dead bodies they saw and had to run over at the time just kind of blew me away as a kid. It seemed really unreal.”
She knew her grandmother had been traumatized. But at school in India, there was silence.
“You know, with Partition, we’ve been hearing these stories from our grandparents, but it’s not even covered in the history books,” she says. “Basically, the thing that really hit me was the disconnect between the folk history I’d grown up hearing versus the lack of it in our textbooks. There was a disconnect between what we learned in school and what we learned growing up in our families.”
In 2009, Bhalla, a physicist, visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, and listened to the recorded testimony of those who survived the U.S. atomic bomb attack. The power of their voices hit her hard.
“It was just like a very huge aha moment,” she recalls, “like, whoa, this needs to be done for Partition.”
The oral histories, she realized, could bridge the disconnect she’d perceived between what was learned at home and what was taught in schools. She did some research to see if an oral history project existed for Partition, but found nothing. So, she says, “For my own sake, I started recording stories.”
She sought out Partition witnesses in India and began documenting their memories. At first, she says, “Everyone thought it was kind of a really nuts idea. People had learned to subdue this history and to take it as not serious. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, that thing that happened, but we don’t really talk about it.’ I thought that was a problem in itself.”
Bhalla moved to the Bay Area to take a job at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. But in her free time, she continued recording interviews with Partition survivors.
“I just showed up randomly,” she recalls. “I looked up the Sikh temple, mosques and Hindu temples in the area.” At her first stop, the Fremont, Calif., Sikh temple, she set up a table and a sign saying “1947 Stories,” she recalls, and “a huge line of people formed.” She quickly realized the enormity of her task – and that she’d tapped into a great need.
The stories poured in. Bhalla started recruiting others to help and founded the 1947 Partition Archive. Now, running the archive is her full-time job. The project has recorded more than 4,300 oral histories. More than 500 volunteers have helped record the stories in 22 different languages, from 12 countries — primarily in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (which became independent from Pakistan in 1971), but also in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. Bhalla herself has conducted interviews with 100 Partition witnesses.
The archive’s goal is to document 10,000 stories. But time is running out. The stories come from people in their 70s and older, sharing sometimes horrific memories from their childhoods: witnessing train massacres, seeing corpses and decapitated heads, watching parents and other family members attacked and murdered.
Reena Kapoor, an engineer in Silicon Valley, is one of the 1947 Partition Archive’s volunteers, known as “citizen historians.” Her grandmother — a widow who fled with her children from Peshawar, in Pakistan, to India — crossed back over the border alone to retrieve valuables. Like many, she’d thought the move would be temporary and they could return home after things calmed down; they brought little with them. On her way back to India, she survived a harrowing journey on a train that was attacked.
“She just sat quietly in a corner pretending she’d been killed too, so she wouldn’t be noticed,” Kapoor says.
Kapoor says she’s recorded at least 50 stories from Partition survivors. “It takes me two or three days to decompress from it,” she says, “because I hear a lot of things that are very disturbing.”
She says strong bonds can form between interviewers and interviewees — and for the Partition survivors, having the opportunity to share long-held, traumatic memories can be cathartic.
“Many haven’t really told the story before,” she says. “They’ve told it in bits and parts, there and here. But they haven’t told the details or had the chance to tell their own family members. Some find it easier to tell some of these secrets, for lack of a better word, to someone who they don’t know very well.”
What can be harder, Kapoor says, is confronting uncomfortable truths about the violence surrounding Partition.
“I’m still a little surprised by how folks don’t understand why this happened and what it was caused by,” she says.
Many of those whom she’s interviewed have told her they recall that things were relatively harmonious prior to Partition. But it’s not so simple, she believes.
“Who were these people who came and killed?” she says. “It was us. We did it to each other. There were deep rifts beneath the surface, deep divides that were easily inciteable.”
She says the lessons from 70 years ago resonate today.
“It’s very easy to dehumanize the other side,” she says. “And I think that’s the key. It allows us to do horrific things. When we start talking about ‘them’ and how ‘they’ are, it absolves us of the responsibility of recognizing them as human. And of our values as being universal.”
In addition to the 1947 Partition Archive, similar projects to document Partition memories have also taken root recently in both India and Pakistan. After decades of silence, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of preserving the voices of Partition and making them heard more widely.
Being based outside the region means the 1947 Partition Archive is able to gather memories from all sides. In addition to its own website and YouTube channel, the archive’s holdings are also available now through partnerships with Stanford University and several universities in both India and Pakistan.
“I think being outside of South Asia, having a team of such diverse backgrounds, we were able to create something that catered to sort of everybody,” says Bhalla. “The narratives are different across the borders, the official narratives, and I think what the stories do is they bridge that gap.”
And in the end, Bhalla says, that’s what the 1947 Partition Archive is all about — bridging gaps and building empathy. The best way to create understanding, she says, is to see that everyone went through similar struggles 70 years ago. People’s personal stories, she says, are the most powerful way to bring that out.