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1947 Partition Archive Project Director Interview

October 19, 2016 by California Humanities

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This project brings together oral histories from Central Valley and San Francisco Bay Area residents who witnessed the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent – which produced the largest movement of people in the 20th century -- and will bring to light untold stories of survival, displacement, resettlement, and cultural integration within the contemporary California landscape. Project Director, Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, shares with us her journey. 

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I am a condensed matter physicist by training. In my free time, I enjoy hiking, rock climbing, and exploring San Francisco and spending time with my friends and family. I was on the academic track and completing my postdoctoral research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the Department of Physics at UC Berkeley, when I was completely swept away by the idea of creating The 1947 Partition Archive… My passion for ensuring the memories of Partition weren’t lost really stems from my family history and my upbringing as an “army brat” in India.

What is the Partition Archive and how did you become involved with it?

When the British departed South Asia in 1947, a lot of borders between the then British India and native South Asian kingdoms and states were redrawn or completely obliterated. Modern India and Pakistan were born. Being of Sikh faith, my paternal grandparents found themselves on the wrong side of the border when their home city, Lahore, was declared to be a part of newly created Pakistan. Like millions of others they became homeless overnight as they escaped to the correct side of the border (India in their case), but managed to survive the chaos. My father was in the Indian Military and we lived in a lot of interesting places such as Kashmir, Ladakh, Delhi, Pune and so on. I was quite aware of the conflict between India and Pakistan. My childhood summers were all spent at my maternal grandparents village in Punjab, close to the India and Pakistan border. I had the rare experience of growing up with two, rather than one, state controlled TV channels.

We grew up hearing stories of the immense massacre that happened in 1947 and how our families had migrated, yet the stories remained a part of local lore that did not match the history taught in our textbooks. We moved to the US when I was 10 and during my early 20’s I traveled to places in Europe, Africa, North America and East Asia, yet Pakistan continued to remain mysterious and beyond reach. 

In high school in the US we had studied the Holocaust extensively. When I mentioned the Partition to my history teacher, she noted that because it was not mentioned in our textbooks, it must not have been of much importance or very significant. I realized then that Partition did not have the official recognition and legitimacy it needed. I knew I wanted to do something about it some day, but I wasn’t sure what that would be.

The world needed to hear about Partition directly from those who had witnessed it. That’s when the idea of recording witness stories was born. I began recording stories on my hobby camcorder in 2009 while visiting my relatives in India. That same year, I graduated from my PhD program and began my research position at UC Berkeley. Shortly after I moved to the Bay Area, the last and only remaining relative in my family who was an adult at the time of Partition, my grandmother’s youngest brother, died at the age of 95 without having his story recorded. Suddenly I felt compelled to ensure that survivor stories were being recorded as fast as possible by as many people as possible. I began speaking about my idea at UC Berkeley student clubs and various community events until a growing team of volunteers emerged and began recording stories together.

Your project explores the impact of the 1947 Partition on survivors

here in California. Why did you feel it was important to explore this

history and share it more widely?

Memories of the lived experience give Partition legitimacy as an event of massive global implications. The stories move us all on a visceral level and inspire the research and inquiry that is needed to understand Partition. Some may wonder why studying Partition is important. To answer this, let me first note the way in which Holocaust memories and memorials have been so effective at teaching us about the hazards of dictatorships and the intricacies of genocide so that such tragedies can be mitigated in the future.

We can educate ourselves as a global community on communal violence as a phenomenon. Furthermore, the stories create empathy across the Indian and Pakistani populations that are generally accustomed to dehumanizing each other. Communal violence is endemic and very destabilizing in many parts of our world today. In fact, such violence creates economic depression across communities and diverts resources and human capital away from solving problems such as alleviating poverty, hunger, providing basic education and preserving natural environments. Partition was an event similar in scale to the Holocaust but the lessons have largely gone unharnessed. It is not too late however as the youngest of those who witnessed Partition are still alive today.

Our collection has grown to over 3000 stories and they are already inspiring academic research on campuses across the world, including right here in the bay area at Stanford. A number of museums have created exhibits using footage from The 1947 Partition Archive. Additionally, two of India and Pakistan’s main English language newspapers have launched an online portal which will broadcast stories from both sides of the border. Stories create empathy and understanding, connecting people at the human level, across the volatile and disputed  Indo-Pakistani border.

Can you tell us a little about the process you are using to elicit and

share these stories?

We run two sub-programs within our oral history program for gathering stories. First, we have the Citizen Historian program, which essentially entails “crowdsourcing” the oral histories from anyone anywhere (any citizen historian) who is willing to learn the art of recording oral histories. Citizen historians then record stories in their community and submit them to The 1947 Partition Archive via a portal on our website. This has enabled us to record stories in a cost effective manner from over 300 cities in 12 countries across the world. 

The Citizen Historian Program however only works in western countries and larger cities where technology is accessible. In rural areas and many other communities, we administer the Story Scholars Program. Scholars with a background in the humanities apply and are selected through a competitive process and awarded a grant for a 3-10 month long sabbatical for recording Partition witness memories in their local communities. We have partnered with California Humanities on providing Story Scholar fellowships to two scholars in California for recording stories in the San Francisco Bay Area and California’s Central Valley, both home to hundreds of Partition witnesses. The stories reveal how the memories and experiences of Partition shape life in California in the subtlest of ways, and are very alive among us.

What results have you seen from your project so far?

We have seen a number of impacts both in the Bay Area community and the global community because of our work. First, our team members and Citizen Historians have consistently and gradually experienced an increased acceptance of Partition as a legitimate topic of discussion within the South Asian diaspora in California, and within the populations in big cities of India and Pakistan. When we first started our work, many of us experienced resistance from witness and survivors in speaking about it.

We have seen this sentiment gradually change as the stories of Partition witnesses spread far and wide through our Social Media pages, our mass media collaborations and our Voices of Partition events series.

As another form of impact, Story Scholars and Citizen Historians who began working with The 1947 Partition Archive have gone on to pursue advanced degrees with Partition as their key area of focus, to write books, create works of art inspired by witness accounts and have created conversations that expand our understanding of Partition in ways that we at The 1947 Partition Archive could never have fathomed or had the awareness to measure.

What are your plans for the future?

Our plan is to disseminate the stories of Partition via museum exhibits, traveling exhibits, promoting use in and inspiration of art, film and literature, use in K-12 curriculum and also, through a permanent digital exhibit that will be hosted at the Stanford University Libraries. In the longer term, plans are underway to create physical memorials and “Centers for Learning” in India and Pakistan.

Lastly, why do the humanities matter?

Science shows that the human mind is wired to learn through stories. Stories affect us on a visceral level and move even the most scientific members of our society, inspiring inquiry and deep thought. This is just one example of why humanities matter. Humanities help us formally study and evaluate the human experience which leads to greater self-awareness and a greater chance at creating balanced and vibrant communities around us.

Find out more about the project by visiting the 1947 Partition Archive site.

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