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Oral Testimonies Help Partition Survivors Break Taboos and Heal Old Wounds

After decades of silence, an archive of witness testimonies from the 1947 Partition of India is helping survivors and their families across both sides of the border confront a legacy of violence.

Written by India Stoughton Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Survivor Muhammad Ashraf recounts his life before the Partition of India, when he was a student, during his interview with oral history scholar Namra Naseem for the 1947 Partition Archive.1947 Partition Archive

Jasbir Bhatia was 6 when historic India was divided into two countries in August 1947, marking the birth of Pakistan. Overnight, a line drawn by the British to divide Muslims from Hindus and Sikhs turned his family into outcasts.

The British Raj announced the Partition just as Britain was preparing to withdraw from India, after years of unrest and calls for an independent Muslim state. The creation of a new border triggered the largest mass migration in history. An estimated 15 million people were displaced. More than 1 million were killed.

Bhatia, now 77 years old and living in Florida, recalls the horror. After the announcement, his family sought shelter with his grandparents, who owned land in a village near Sialkot, a city in Pakistan. Two weeks later, they heard a rumor that a Muslim mob was about to attack the village. They fled on foot, in the middle of the night, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“Almost empty-pocketed, our people left. They thought that they’d come back soon, once it was over,” Bhatia recalled. “We spent the night outside and then we found out that the mob did attack our village and they robbed our house and burnt it down. There was nothing to come back to.”

Bhatia’s family joined a procession of an estimated 400,000 people marching for days with almost no food toward India. Thousands starved or died of exposure along the way. Others were attacked by mobs and killed. Bhatia’s family survived and managed to cross into India. After finding shelter in an abandoned mosque in the city of Amritsar in Punjab for a few days, they continued south to Ludhiana, where an uncle helped them rebuild their lives.

Bhatia’s story echoes that of millions of survivors from both sides whose lives were upended by Partition. More than 70 years later, he is helping others to document their experiences. Bhatia moved to the United States in 1977, where he is now the oldest volunteer working with the 1947 Partition Archive, a nonprofit organization that is filming oral testimonies from Partition witnesses all over the world, and opening up discussion after decades of silence.

Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the archive’s founder, was a teenager the first time she ever heard her own grandmother’s story of witnessing the Partition. Having been raised in the U.S., Bhalla was shocked that, despite its impact on millions of people, the Partition wasn’t taught in U.S. schools, unlike the Holocaust or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While studying for a PhD in physics in 2008, Bhalla began visiting mosques and temples and asking people to share their Partition stories. In 2013, the project had grown so much that she gave up her career as a physicist and moved to New Delhi to work on the archive full time.

The 1947 Partition Archive now consists of a network of hundreds of volunteers, ranging in age from 13 to 77, who have recorded more than 5,500 testimonies in 12 languages from 22 different countries. Volunteers visit the homes of survivors and film testimonies on their mobile phones. Each recording must meet a 24-point checklist of criteria the archive uses to maintain consistent and professional quality.

As the taboos around Partition begin to break down and the archive’s reputation for being “apolitical” becomes widely known, the number of requests is increasing, according to Bhalla. Initially, witnesses were wary of sharing their stories and feared being “targeted by political parties.”

An estimated 700–800 people are on the waiting list to share their stories, many of whom heard about the archive through social media or word-of-mouth, Bhalla said. They invite anyone who was at least 5 years old in 1947 to reach out.

Recording testimonies from witnesses on both sides of the border helps to emphasize that many experienced the same horrors and to “create tolerance,” Bhalla says.

“I feel like my parents’ generation is more biased than my grandparents’ generation, who actually experienced living together with the so-called other,” she says.

The project has also encouraged dialogue within families and across generations.

“At least half of the people we’ve interviewed, their family did not know their story because it was so harrowing,” Bhalla says. “Then there’s a cathartic element so they start talking about it more. I’ve seen some of them come out and write memoirs … I think people felt that nobody cared, especially in the villages. It’s very empowering to have somebody listen to their story.”

Many of the testimonies are difficult to watch. One Muslim lady describes her family’s 36-hour train journey from Delhi to Lahore. “My baby cousin’s mouth was stuffed with a cloth so that he may not make a sound,” she recalled. “Our uncle told us insurgents are sharpening swords on the platform. If we make a sound, they would massacre the entire train.”

In another testimony, a Sikh man wails, incoherent with horror and pain, as he describes witnessing his father cut off his sister’s head with a sword to prevent her from being raped.

Bhalla says her team has worked with psychologists trained in post-traumatic stress disorder to help interviewees cope. “We record their whole life story. The interview always ends with where they are today, so they’re brought … back to how they had [the] strength to carry on,” she says.

In recent years, several other projects exploring Partition history have integrated testimonies from the archive, from plays and music performances promoting peace between India and Pakistan, to a BBC documentary. The first museum dedicated to Partition opened last year in Amritsar, as a result of increased public interest in the experiences of survivors.

“Before we did this work there were no other projects like this,” says Bhalla, adding that social media has both helped create an increased interest, and helped to empower survivors to share.

Collaborations with institutions like the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and Stanford University, whose digital library includes a small collection of testimonies, ensure that the stories are accessible to a global audience. The archive recently won a grant from Tata Trusts, to upload 2,000 more testimonies online and also finance a pilot project to include hard copies of the video testimonies in the libraries of three Indian universities, before expanding to other institutions across India and Pakistan.

For his part, Bhatia believes that his work recording oral testimonies at the archive helps provide crucial insights into human nature and communal violence that are missing from history books.

“This is the story of Partition in the words of the people who have suffered through it,” he says. “Some of the stories I have witnessed, the behaviors I’ve seen, are not written anywhere in the histories of Partition.”

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