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A group of persons standing in a gallery looking at portraits on the wall.
1947 Partition Archive hosts a Berkeley exhibit Refugees of the British Empire, an audiovisual exhibit that explores hidden truth about global migration.

The 1947 Partition & Oral Histories: An Interview with Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla

“When I told people about my grandmother’s story, they didn’t believe me! And that always bothered me. I wanted to bridge the big disconnect between folk history and official history.” – Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla

This month we caught up with Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the Founder and Executive Director of The 1947 Partition Archive, a public humanities organization, and recent Humanities for All Quick Grant recipient based in Berkeley, California. Since 2011, the Archive has been dedicated to the crucial task of collecting and preserving oral histories from survivors of the Partition of British India in 1947, the largest single mass migration in human history: 15 million were immediately displaced, another 10 million in the following decade, and between 1 and 3 million perished. The Archive provides Californian and worldwide researchers, students, and the public access to rich oral histories about 1947 that illuminate its causes, meaning, and effects from a humanistic perspective. Guneeta has interviewed over 100 Partition survivors and rallied volunteers to join in building the grassroots foundations of this people-powered organization. Guneeta shared with us her inspiration to collect and preserve the story of India’s Partition, told through the stories of the people who experienced it first-hand.

1. What was the impetus for creating the 1947 Partition Archive, and what factors have made your work of urgent importance?

Partition and South Asian history are something that I have been curious about since my childhood. The project is sort of a lifetime in the making in terms of my thought process. I began thinking about it as a teenager long before we had the Internet after I heard about my grandmother’s ordeal. There is a huge difference between what I learned in school, which was that Gandhi led a peaceful march and the British left, and we had a peaceful transfer of power. Between what I learned from my family and what my grandmother described about their escape from the violence of Partition by driving over dead bodies—it sounded so incredible to me. When I told people about my grandmother’s story, they didn’t believe me! And that always bothered me. I wanted to bridge the big disconnect between folk history and official history. I figured out how to solve this problem after I visited the archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008…we needed to revive the memory of Partition and tell it via oral history!

2. In your work, can you share what you’ve learned about the lasting impact of South Asia’s partition on your narrators?

Image: The 1947 Partition Archive Family interviewees affected by the 1947 partition of India.

Yes, definitely, it was a deeply traumatic experience for every witness on several levels. The impacts have lasted for generations, and I, like many other heirs of survivors, have inherited Partition’s impacts three generations later. Many people lost family members and carried the immediate trauma of that their whole lives. Sometimes it meant children were orphaned and thrown into poverty or bonded labor for the rest of their lives. We’ve heard from many people who have witnessed family members dying from the elevated stress levels associated with becoming refugees. They generally died from strokes and heart attacks within a year after the Partition, owing to surviving through numerous refugee camps and the otherwise adverse conditions of migration. Many women committed suicide to save themselves from being kidnapped – and many survived to tell their story after being kidnapped and having children with their kidnappers. The psychological impacts we now know get passed down the generations and can take up to nine generations to dissipate.

3. Are there any oral histories collected by the archive that you would like to share with our readers that can provide a glimpse into some of the stories collected by your organization?

I’ll give you two examples from the 110 of the 10,000 oral histories that I have recorded:

Ali Shan – He was an 8-year-old boy who was orphaned during Partition, and when we attempted to record his oral history interview, he was unable to talk. He lives in Fremont, California. He had us come back two more times and was able to tell us his story the third time. He had not spoken to anyone about his experience before this. His own family did not know. After sharing with us, he began opening up and spoke at multiple local venues in his city too. He also told his family about his story. He told me the recollection was a huge release for him.

Read Ali Shan’s story here.

Bhim Sen Sharma – He was a young adult at the time of Partition and recalled when angry mobs outside his village in the Narowal district of Punjab threatened to burn it down and attack it. He recalled three young women laden with ammunition and equipped with grenades dispersed the mob, and they were free to go. He was very emotional when I interviewed him in a little shop in Batala, in Punjab (we’ve had separate confirmation from another woman who lived in California, of a similar site of three women on horseback who saved her caravan from a mob attack, also in Narowal District). He was 93 when we spoke. At the end of his interview, he said, “Thank you for recording this. I’ve told my story. I can die now.” His words still echo in my mind. It really hit me hard when I found out he passed away a couple of months later. It only increased my resolve to try as hard as we could to get to as many people as we could before they were gone.

Read Bhim Sen Sharma’s story here.

4. How has the work of the 1947 Partition Archive brought the history of South Asia’s Partition to community members in California?

We’ve brought our work to California audiences through many means and mediums, including hosting 24 “Voices of Partition”live storytelling events held in collaboration with universities, community centers, and other venues; hosting “pop-up museum” exhibits across community venues and our office in Berkeley, California; by engaging community members in our oral history workshop, both at our Berkeley location as well as virtually online. The oral history workshop empowers community members with the skills to document oral history in their own community and family settings, spreading the art of creating a beautiful intergenerational connection.

5. How can people interested in recording their Partition stories get involved?

We are a primarily volunteer-run organization, and there are many ways that people can get involved. For one, the easiest way is to take our free oral history workshop, which has been taught at least twice a month (sometimes four times a month) for the past ten years. The 1947 Partition Archive has educated over 8,000 attendees on oral history documentation. A second popular program is our digital and in-person internships. We graduate up to 100 individuals per year. The process to join is quite competitive, however. The program will soon be branded as our “Digital Oral History Institute.” Other ways include volunteering professional skills such as website design, graphic design, mentorship, and more.

To learn more about The 1947 Partition Archive and their work, click here.

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