Dr Guneeta Bhalla’s The Partition Archive is an unique online forum that collects, preserves and shares accounts of this historically significant period in our lives.
Dr Guneeta Bhalla, grew up listening to stories about Partition from her paternal grandparents who undertook the emotionally painful journey of migrating to India in 1947. “They never really got over having to leave their ancestral home behind, even 50 or 60 years later. I knew it was a really traumatic experience but I never learned about it in high school. The thought that we could let such a massive historical event slip through the cracks without documenting it at the level that it should have been deeply troubled me. I feared we were going to live in a world where history would keep repeating itself. In my mind, knowing what I had about Partition, the events I was seeing on television were predictable,” recollects the lady. Excerpts from an interview with her.
What finally prompted you to start work on The Partition Archive?
I realised that first-hand accounts validated the experience of Partition. They made it human and palatable and accessible. Only those with lived experiences could truly attempt to convey the horrors and trauma of that time. Yet, no one was talking about it. And most people I had known had not even heard about it. This includes most South Asians I knew.
I had been living with the thoughts and sentiments I mentioned above for years and years. I knew one day I wanted to change the lack of knowledge about Partition. I did not know how until I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008. I was doing part of my PhD research at the University of Tokyo in Japan at the time, and happened to take a trip down to Hiroshima. My great grandfather was stationed there during World War II and was not far from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. That was my motivation to visit. However, when I came across the witness archives in Hiroshima, that’s when it clicked. It was so powerful to hear the stories of experiencing the atomic bomb from survivors. It was an immediate click for me. I knew the same had to be done for Partition.
I began recording witness accounts on a hobby camcorder I always carried with me, while on a trip to India in 2009 in a small ancient town (former kingdom) in the North called Faridkot. In 2010, the last member of my family who remembered Partition as an adult died before I could reach him to record his story. I was living in Berkeley by then. I was deeply troubled, not only by his passing, but by the tremendous loss of knowledge that my generation was facing. It was the absolute totality of that moment that made me realise that this work needed to be done on a larger scale. There needed to be many others like me out there collecting stories.
What were the initial reactions that you got when you discussed this idea with your well-wishers?
Initially, back in 2008 when I began discussing this idea with family and friends, it was often met with casual disregard. It was a freedom fighter who owned a bookshop in Faridkot, Punjab, whom I happened to mention this to, who took it seriously and agreed to be my first interviewee. He died before I could get to him however. But one of his customers that day overheard us talking and had me interview his parents later that evening. His parents, both of whom are no more, were the official first two interviews of The 1947 Partition Archive.
You have managed to preserve 7000 oral histories by meeting people in 400 cities spread across 12 countries. This is indeed phenomenal. I am really curious to know how you went about mapping this process.
It’s actually 7500 oral histories now by meeting people in over 400 cities spread across 12 countries. Well, I have personally only recorded 100 oral histories. But we have achieved this number through a heavy emphasis on volunteer service. Most of us come from humble backgrounds and that has led us to innovate and harness modern communications technology to fill in the gaps of our reach. So, instead of doing this the old fashioned way by raising lots of money and hiring lots of traditional oral historians to do this work, we crowdsourced! We inspired and then taught our fellow volunteers around the world to learn how to record stories and then record and submit stories from their communities — Volunteers receive a certificate and become Citizen Historians once their oral histories are received by our team of archivists (who are also volunteers) and reviewed thoroughly to see if they match our quality criteria. These days Stanford University Libraries, a future host of the stories, also signs off on the certificates the Citizen Historians receive.
One has read books on Partition but to actually watch these people speak about their experiences gives you goosebumps. How comfortable were they talking about what is perhaps the most traumatic phase in their lives?
I went into interviews with a mindset of curiosity and compassion. This led to forming a deep connection with my interviewees, which creates the right atmosphere for oral histories and documenting history through storytelling. Unlike other forms of documentation, the human element — the emotional connect between interviewer and interviewee, is a key ingredient for oral history documentation.
I let the interviewee guide me on what they think is important to tell me, and I make a focused effort on keeping the atmosphere calm and compassionate during the interview. I believe this is key.
Do you feel that this could have been a cathartic experience for these people?
It absolutely has been. I’ll give you two examples from the 100 oral histories that I have recorded: Ali Shan — He was an eight-year-old boy who was orphaned during Partition and when we attempted to record his oral history interview, he was unable to talk. 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 he shared with us, he began opening up, and spoke at multiple venues locally in his city about it too. He also told his family about his story. He told me the recollection was a huge release for him.
Bhim Sen Sharma — He was a young adult at the time of Partition and recalled when angry mobs outside his village in Narowal district of Punjab were threatening to burn it down and attack it. He recalled three young women amazons 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. 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.
Do you think that millennials in India and Pakistan would be interested in reading/watching about this era that is so removed from their lives?
It is after all millennials who are recording the stories… and following and sharing them on social media! I believe it’s a matter of understanding how millennials interact with content. If this history is presented to them in the language they speak, they will surely pay heed. For instance, there was a lot of excitement recently within our constituents when an article was circulated about Marvel releasing issues based on the Indo-Pak Partition. Comics are one way!
The archive is planning exhibitions in India and Pakistan. When will it happen in India?
Our exhibits have been traveling all over Delhi (12 locations so far) since August 2017. Right now our exhibit entitled ‘My Heart Belongs in Delhi’ is are going to colleges and universities across Delhi as a pilot. This particular exhibit is based on research that combines oral history and archeology in Delhi, and is yet to be published! However, the findings have already been enshrined in our exhibit. We hope to take our exhibits to universities across India. It’s a hands and engaging on learning experience for students.