The nearly forgotten stories from the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan form an integral part of our social fabric but have hardly received the attention they deserve. The stories can be heard in every part of the world today. They can be heard in New York taxi cabs, in elevators in San Francisco, in Japanese bullet trains, in Africa and places you would not imagine. The stories reveal how unrest at that time reached every part of South Asia, from Kashmir in the North to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and from Peshawar in the West to Nagaland. Memories of Partition shape the cultures they touch, affecting decisions, temperaments, expression in the arts, economies, and so many aspects of our communities. They span geographies, political affiliation, ethnicities and caste lines. They speak to the universal human experience that binds us. I would venture to say we are barely aware of Partition’s hold on our lives today, largely because the more subtle consequences have not been researched.
I first learned about Partition two decades ago from my grandmother. What stood out the most to me was her recalling a moment in Amritsar when she was escaping riots in a jeep. They literally drove over the dead in order to stay alive. I had a hard time imagining such a surreal scene. My mind was boggled by the idea of being forced to leave one’s belongings, home, associations and life at a moment’s notice. All of this happened because somebody, somewhere, made this decision. How could the whims of a few have so much power over so many?
Yet, this great ‘wund’ (as it’s often called in rural Punjab) has mostly been a topic of quiet recollections and household conversation. As Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis we don’t often think of ourselves as being heirs to the largest mass refugee crisis in recorded history. The fact is that we have not learned to identify with one of the most defining events of the 20th century. As a result, we have failed to harness important lessons from it. While there are nearly 1000 books today that touch upon Partition, there are still millions of pieces of undiscovered knowledge spread amongst the memories of witnesses.
After a decade of pondering, it was an inspiring visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008 that led me to begin recording life stories of Partition witnesses in 2009. Soon, a small team of volunteers formed, and in 2011 we formalized as The 1947 Partition Archive. In 2013, I completed my postdoctoral position as a physicist at the University of California in Berkeley and began to devote myself completely to this cause. Driven by the same curiosity, I was joined by several other incredible individuals who also chose this alternative path. Thanks to an estimated 30,000 hours of service by volunteers and scholars, we are proud to say that our generation and those after ours can now have access to stories of Partition. With 500,000 daily followers on Social Media, we’re noticing the way stories are creating a public shift towards greater appreciation of Partition. Here are just a few reasons why it’s so important.
Firstly, Partition was immense in scale, with nearly 1% of the world’s population becoming refugees while 14% of the world’s population was affected. Millions of individuals were traumatized, their cultures, economies and livelihoods morphed overnight. Much remains to be explored and much has already been lost and may never be known. Since Partition happened 69 years ago, those who were young adults during Partition are in their 90s and beyond. Hence there is a great urgency to capture their voices.
What we discover about local histories from the stories often cannot be found in any book. At least, not yet. For instance, stories help illuminate the transformation of Lucknow from a center for classical Urdu poetry and literature, to the Lucknow of today, infused with nearly 100,000 Punjabi refugees who introduced new vocabulary, cultural practices and cuisine, forever changing the city. Or there’s the near overnight explosion of the sleepy port city of Karachi with a population less than half a million before Partition, to over 24 million today.
Almost every corner of South Asia saw the movement of people to and from distant lands. Villages, which were once closed economic units producing everything locally, were suddenly thrust into the national economy since profession was tied to caste and religion. They migrated en masse, leaving no one behind to fill their shoes. Some villages became completely devoid of their merchants and farmers, while others lost all artistic talent. They migrated en masse, leaving no one behind to fill their shoes. How has this impacted modern economics in South Asia?
Stories also give us a more authentic understanding of our modern identities. Consider this: “India,” the very name, bears the subcontinent’s colonial legacy: it is an English word which derives from the name of the Sandhu (Indus) river which today runs through Pakistan. The name “Pakistan” was born in England as well, in 1933. Hundreds of ancient kingdoms and states were merged together to form India and Pakistan: identities in South Asia shifted from regional to “Indian”, “Pakistani” and “Bangladeshi” in just two generations.
Science says our brains are wired for learning through stories. There is certainly an inherent beauty in passing knowledge through storytelling. For thousands of years, generations of families passed down knowledge just this way. Many Partition witnesses belong to one of the last generations that maintained such ancient oral traditions. I interviewed a gentleman who had memorized his last 45 ancestors by name, profession and other historical information. Through the Archive’s community-based approach, Partition stories connect generations, just as they used to, creating a bond between the wise storyteller and the young “Citizen Historian.”
Stories also help us better understand the causes of violence that accompanied the Partition. They provide new information needed to perform a deeper analysis of the hasty transfer of power from a colonial government to indigenous parties.
Through stories we learn about the subtle, but incredibly powerful effects on the psyche that last for generations, informing politics, economics and the very fabric of society. Then there is epigenetics. Research shows that large scale human traumas such as the World Wars influence our DNA in the form of gene selection. During famines, for instance, genes promoting obesity are likelier to propagate; during wars, genes that give rise to higher anxiety are favored more. This is nature’s way of ensuring survival in traumatic situations, but it doesn’t necessarily produce harmony during times of peace.
Join us now as we walk with Partition witnesses into the depths of their memories. Let them carry your intrigue to a time long before the birth of India and Pakistan. You’ll get a glimpse into a different way of life, to cities more cosmopolitan than they are today, and of wholesome cultural traditions. Oral histories of Partition show us how every human played a role in the big picture. You will recognize some of storytellers as your neighbors, or as members of your larger community, or perhaps from within your own family. Your understanding of the incredibly rich culture of the South Asian subcontinent may be stretched beyond what you imagined.
Guneeta Singh Bhalla is the founder of The 1947 Partition Archive.