Archive seeks to document stories of tragedy from 1947 partition

Dennis Vidal/Courtesy

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On the eve of the 1947 partition of India, Guneeta Singh Bhalla’s grandmother found herself crammed into a train with thousands of terrified refugees from Lahore, located in what is now Pakistan. Gunshots from outside the train echoed through the cart as Bhalla’s grandmother crossed the border into India to reunite with her husband.

Before Bhalla, a former UC Berkeley postdoctoral student in physics, could record this harrowing tale, her grandmother died.

Heartbroken over not having recorded her grandmother’s story, she established the 1947 Partition Archive, which aims to document stories from the India-Pakistan partition. The partition divided India along political and religious lines at the fall of the British Raj, displacing an estimated 10 million people from their homelands and ultimately becoming one of the largest forced migrations of the 20th century.

“As family members were passing, I knew (the archive) had to be done,” Bhalla said. She traveled to India in 2009 to record the first oral interviews for her project.

The partition had sweeping cultural effects. Countless individuals were uprooted from their homeland and forced to escape on foot, carts or trains. Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India, Muslims fled to Pakistan and minority religious groups were forced to choose a side in a region plagued with violent nationalism and ethnic cleansing.

The 1947 Partition Archive, housed in the UC Berkeley Skydeck, has grown substantially since it began in August 2010. Dozens of volunteers have recorded more than 650 oral histories in more than eight countries and archived them digitally.

The organization relies on crowdsourcing to collect oral interviews and aims to record and publish raw, unedited footage of individuals that have memories of the partition.

“The story of partition has always been told in the context of the politics that led to the drawing of the border,” Bhalla said. “Our archive focuses on collecting narratives that demonstrate the social and cultural consequences of that decision and what people had to endure.” She left her postdoctoral fellowship this year to devote herself to the archive full time.

While many of these stories were initially recorded in the Bay Area, the global scale of this project has spurred donors from all over the world to submit testimonies. The project operates with an obvious sense of urgency, because many of the partition’s survivors are elderly or have already died.

During the project’s early days, Bhalla and other volunteers traveled to South Asian temples, mosques and retirement homes in search of stories that could be recorded with portable cameras and smartphones. Now, she says people actively seek out her organization with a story to tell.

To them, Bhalla says, sharing their story is a form of healing.

“From their perspective, some of them have said the process is very cathartic,” she said.

“These are stories that some haven’t even told their children because they’ve never had an outlet to reflect on their experiences emotionally.”

The interviews are potent and painful; many are tales of despair and tragedy contrasted with hope and resolution. One man, Shane Ali, whose story is featured in the archive, recalled the day thousands of rioters invaded his village and murdered his entire family.

“My cousin got shot, and when my brother saw what was going on he ran, and they hit him with a spear,” Ali said in the recording. After being taken to a refugee camp in Pakistan by one of the rioters, he describes living with a surrogate family for many years.

Despite his hardships, he says he learned to forgive the men that killed his family.

“My own way of thinking is just love everyone and hate no one,” he says. “That’s just the way I see it.”

Contact Dennis Vidal at [email protected].