As the system of governance in British India ground to a halt, a temporary lull in police and military services ensued. Law and order broke down during this transfer of power. Mass violence broke out as an immense population exchange took place and all of northern India went up in arms. It is estimated that within a span of two months, between 10 and 15 million people were forced to leave behind their ancestral homes, while 1 to 2 million people lost their lives. Families with recorded histories and lineages that can go back sometimes over a thousand years were suddenly uprooted and scattered the world over — their ancient histories and connections abruptly severed.
Furthermore, perhaps as many as , women were abducted. Their fate is not known. Countless children were either orphaned or abandoned by their families. Their fate is also not known. A detailed understanding of this time continues to elude us. We cannot truly move on and heal an old wound by letting it remain untended.
‘Maa Tujhe Salam’ a multimedia performance in Sydney
Despite our lack of awareness and cognizance, it can easily be argued that the consequences of Partition are felt today on the global level, both culturally and politically. The popular debate surrounding Partition however often focuses only on political leaders and nation states.
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We feel that focus on these limited experiences has obscured the larger narrative, especially because every human is involved in making our story — our history — what it is today. Yet, there is no central source of witness voices for us to directly learn from. On the other hand such works have been carried out for events affecting a similar sized population in Europe e.
Partition type violence, genocides and divisions are happening at this very moment, in places such as Central and Western Africa, and will continue to happen unless they are fully understood. Education is the key to possible future prevention. Education will lead to more informed decision-making among future leaders and those who have the power to impose such boundaries among peoples. By using a crowd-sourced oral history approach to documenting Partition, The Archive aims to give voice to witnesses via digital video, a powerful and easily accessible medium.
Those who experienced the events surrounding Partition control a majority of the storytelling. The interviews are immensely revealing and help us obtain a better understanding of the migration paths, the psychological effects, the extent of casualties, the abrupt disruption and decline of an ancient culture and the lost acquaintances and family members.
The oral histories also allow historians to check historical facts. Our model is one that empowers all citizens, ordinary and extraordinary, to record stories from survivors on video and submit them to The Archive for preservation and dissemination.
The Blood & Tears of 1947
The Archive is set up to provide the training, tools and mentorship. It is also our core belief that citizens from all ethnic, religious, economic and gender backgrounds must come together to build The Partition Archive from the ground up. I first learned about Partition from my paternal grandmother. She spoke of those times rarely, but each time, it was clear that the memory was still fresh and painful. There had been no healing.
Lahore was still the home she yearned for. We moved to the United States when I was in middle school and in high school I spent nearly a semester learning about the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. When I brought up the topic of Partition, I was often met with the same sentiment: surely it was not a significant event if there was no mention of it in our textbooks. I knew then that the world needed to hear about Partition not from myself, but directly from my grandmother and all the others like her that had lived through it.
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The thought nagged in the back of my mind until a visit to the oral testimony archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. It was very powerful to watch survivors recall their ordeal, more so than reading a book or watching a movie. That is when it clicked. The same needed to be done for Partition; and I began interviewing witnesses in and recruiting a team in The story collection effort took me on my first solo-trip through the countryside in East Punjab.
Away from the safe bubble my family had constructed, Punjab was suddenly a whole different country. Caste disparities were openly on display, and solo travelling women were most certainly an oddity. From city to city I was joined by distant cousins, friends or new hosts I was meeting for the first time. We travelled along the border regions, stopping at villages and driving past the last untouched ancient burial mounds, inadvertently protected thanks to a heavily-militarized zone. On one such afternoon, I interviewed year-old Bhim Sharma in a dusty machine parts shop in Batala, Punjab.
He recalled the day his village in District Narowal West Punjab was surrounded by mobs. The entire village was holed up in one house. When hope was nearly lost, three women rode in from behind a hill on horseback. Masked as men with turbans on their heads and straps of ammunition wrapped around their bodies, they caught the mob unexpected and lobbed grenades at the leader. He was killed instantly and the mob dispersed. The women then escorted the villagers to safety.
Since those early days, over individuals from 20 countries have trained to become Citizen Historians via our free online Oral History Webinars and nearly confirmed Citizen Historians from eight countries have submitted nearly 1, witness interviews. Especially difficult to fathom are the tales of double and triple displacements.
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