Feature story

Voices from the cold

The 1947 Partition Archive chronicles the oral narratives of those torn apart by the largest and bloodiest forced migration in recorded history

No cartographic incision in the history of the South Asian subcontinent has been more painful and agonising than the Radcliffe Line. Named after British lawyer and parliamentarian Cyril Radcliffe, this is the infamous divide that led to the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947. It was a partition birthed in chaos, bloodshed and misery, separating 90 million people and 175,000 square miles of territory.

The cost in human suffering was colossal — between 10 and 20 million people were displaced, anywhere from several hundred thousand to around 2 million men, women and children lost their lives in the violence that followed, and this cleaving of land left a legacy of mistrust and enmity.

The Partition of India and Pakistan spawned countless stories of tragedy and of hope, told and untold. It is the telling of these stories that validates the 1947 Partition Archive, an initiative that records the history of the division through the oral narratives of those scarred or touched by it. This is an effort to collect and preserve remembrances of a period that remains relatively under-documented, a gathering together of plaintive voices and melancholic memories.

Most Partition stories that have passed down through the generations tend to elicit horror and tears. But there are also heart-warming tales of courage, kindness and generosity. The importance of capturing these first-person narratives before they were lost forever was what spurred Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the granddaughter of a Sikh refugee, to start a project that has grown into the 1947 Partition Archive.

Volunteers at the vanguard

The collection of narratives kicked off in 2010 as a homegrown volunteer project, steered from a tiny office on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, where Ms Bhalla was then based. With the help of donor funding and volunteer story gatherers, the Archive has grown into a one-of-a-kind, crowd-sourced digital record of personal narratives that shed much-needed light on pre-Partition life, the Partition experience, the post-Partition landscape and much more.

“The Archive helps us learn of a time when the subcontinent was more diverse in its makeup and our cities were more cosmopolitan,” says Ms Bhalla. “It helps us understand how we got to where we are in terms of polarisation, and it helps us come to terms with the ‘origin wound’ of our current divisions so that we may learn to heal and move on into a more accepting future.”

The Tata Trusts began supporting the Archive in December 2018 with the aim of bringing this rich resource to three Indian universities. “The 1947 Partition Archive, which has more than 9,800 first-person accounts in 36 languages, interested us for many reasons,” explains Deepika Sorabjee, who heads arts and culture at the Trusts. “It is a unique archive of a unique event that hasn't received the attention and research it deserves."

“These histories will help us understand many issues that have remained unexplored so far: the impact on the mental health of those who lived through that traumatic time, cultural commonalities and the post-Independence effect on their practice in now-separate regions, and the connection with archives of similar national upheavals around the world. Giving access of these sensitive narratives to students and faculty needed a programme that respected the people who told their ‘stories’ and functioned in a well-supervised format.”

Promoting exploration, introspection and a deeper understanding of Partition is the objective of this project, which followed a three-step agenda:

  • Setting up physical access points for students and scholars at three Indian universities
  • Training librarians in best practices and protocols to handle partition narratives with sensitive content
  • Offering 26 fellowships to encourage student and faculty researchers to engage with the history of Partition.
Iqra Raza, one of the librarians trained under the project, at the Archive access point at Delhi University

Executed as a pilot project that concluded in November 2021, the initiative has enabled 16 student scholars and 10 faculty researchers to access the Archive through Delhi University, Ashoka University (Sonepat), and Guru Nanak Dev University (Amritsar). The archive’s long-term goals include adding ‘Partition studies’ to the curriculum of Indian universities.

“The access project facilitates researchers and helps prevent the erasure of identities and histories. It highlights heroism and helps in healing wounds,” says research grantee Snober Sataravala, whose paper is an example of the quality and depth of the studies that have been generated by the project.

Ms Sataravala's research study, titled ‘Safe passage and shelter during the Partition of India: Exploring oral histories to understand the minorities connect’, examines how Partition witnesses remember and articulate their experiences, and how they adapt socially, culturally and economically.

That the Archive is not all about mayhem and misery comes across clearly in the work of Ms Sataravala, who looks at the role of Parsees in assisting people, as well as the contributions of neutral Indian minorities such as Jews and Anglo-Indians in providing safe passage to Hindus and Muslims caught on either side of the Radcliffe Line. ‘Mapping the language of victimhood: Violence and suffering in the 1947 Partition’, a study by research grantee Ankur Datta from South Asian University, explores phrases and ideas that come up in witness testimonies and how they travel down in time to affect the future.

‘Memory, identity and resilience in oral narratives of East Pakistani refugees in West Bengal’, by Sumallya Mukhopadhyay, studies the stories of displaced people in West Bengal and the hybridisation of their culture. Mr Mukhopadhyay discovered that the word ‘refugee’ was not considered derogatory by the refugees themselves; rather, it was worn as a badge of pride for mobilisation in their newly-adopted homelands.

A sensitive question

Ms Bhalla and her team faced unexpected roadblocks while executing the project, not least with the pandemic, which affected the original idea of having researchers and grantees physically access the archives at the three universities. There were technology and logistics issues, too. But the trickiest of all, given the sensitive nature of the data, was ensuring safe access of the Archive material to the grantees and researchers.

The project required the framing of protocols for screening the researchers and handling the recordings. This was uncharted territory. The Archive set up an advisory committee of 15 experts from around the world to guide the endeavour, and the project team pushed hard to make it work optimally. Work is currently underway on adapting the model to take it to other universities in the subcontinent.

The abiding insight offered by the Archive is that there are no winners or losers in war and political conflict, just victims and perpetrators — on both sides. “We wanted to move away from the oversimplified ‘us vs them’ narrative and create an opportunity to understand the inner mechanics of mass communal violence,” says Ms Bhalla.

Snober Sataravala records the account of a partition witness
A citizen historian interviewing partition witness Saporan Singh

Personal and unique

Snober Sataravala, one of 26 research scholars to receive the Tata Trusts-1947 Partition Archive research grant, writes about her experience of hearing the voices of witnesses.

Whilst teaching Cracking India, written by Karachi-born Bapsi Sidhwa, I was fascinated by a mention of the protagonist’s mother hoarding cans of gasoline to help people escape. Due to the autobiographical elements in the novel, I wondered if the account was true. Turns out it was.

The oral histories that I accessed through the 1947 Partition Archive reveal that women galvanised into action to help refugees, even setting up safe homes for abandoned women. These homes trained the abandoned women to be self-reliant, to stitch clothes and make handicrafts which they could then sell. Among the stories I came across was that of a commanding officer who rescued women who were raped and then abandoned by their families — and he requested his officers to marry them.

Central to my research study was preserving the dignity and privacy of the survivors who shared their personal narratives. Each and every one of their stories is unique in its contribution. What is important, as a researcher, is that I realised there were other kinds of minorities who also needed to be acknowledged, be it the physically challenged, those in institutions due to mental health issues, orphaned children or abandoned women.

So many of the narratives are sensitive, like army officers after Partition still reaching out across borders to help one another. The political and geographical division did not impinge on the personal, and that is something I would like people to take away.