By Mayank Jain:
The tectonic shift in the history of the continent happened when the freedom struggle of our country finally concluded in 1947 and gave birth to a new nation of Pakistan. The partition of 1947 historically changed the destinies of many people and families as whole communities and regions got uprooted in the delirium of the bifurcation in to two countries. The stories of struggle and survival still ring loud in the memoirs of those who experienced it and the tales pass on through generations but remain largely unknown to the people outside. People of the newer generations who are young and people across the world who are still speculating about the far reaching effects of one of the momentous events of the century, have received a boon in the form of some well chronicled archives.
We interviewed Guneeta Bhalla, who is at the core of “The 1947 Partition Archive” initiative, which was started out of University of California in Berkeley and she responded with some interesting insights and experiences of her journey.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
I was born in Delhi, India. My father was born in Lahore, Pakistan and his family was forced to flee to the newly formed India in 1947. They faced many hardships in those early days and eventually settled in Delhi. I moved to the US when I was ten.
I am a physicist by profession and was working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California at Berkeley before I joined The 1947 Partition Archive as a full time volunteer Director in January 2013. Been here and loving it since!
If we could go back to the beginning of 1947 Archives, could you tell me how it all began and developed into something so renowned now?
There has been some writing on this (about the way the project started). Basically, I grew up listening to stories about partition from both sets of my grandparents, but mainly from my paternal grandparents who actually did the migration. They never really got over having to leave their ancestral home and land behind, even 50 or 60 years later. I knew it was a really traumatic and large scale event but I never learned about it in high school here in the US. In fact, it was not even mentioned in my textbooks, while in contrast, we learned about the Holocaust in Europe and Hiroshima/Nagasaki for a whole semester in my World History class. At the time when I had tried to tell my classmates, and even years later when I tried to talk about it in college and graduate school, the reaction was always the same: it was probably not “a big deal” because it was not written about in textbooks. That bothered me because the sentiment contrasted so sharply with the stories I heard. The thought that we could let such a massive historical event slip through the cracks without documenting it at the level that it should have been, deeply troubled me. I feared we were going to live in a world where history would keep repeating itself. In the early 2000’s for example, I saw the same chaos unfold in Iraq on television, as had happened during partition, when an entire system of governance was replaced very quickly. In my mind, knowing what I had about partition, the events I was seeing on television were predictable.
I also realized that first-hand accounts validated the experience of partition. They made it human and palatable and accessible. The numbers that we find on Wikipedia and in books simply cannot convey the true meaning of partition and what it meant to live through that time and the decisions made during that time. People needed to hear about partition from my grandmother, and not me or books. Only those with lived experiences could truly attempt to convey the horrors and trauma of that time. A trauma that affected millions upon millions of people — a population larger than many Western European nations combined! Yet, no one was talking about it. And most people I had known had not even heard about it. This includes most South Asians I knew.
How it all started: I had been living with the thoughts and sentiments I mentioned above for years and years. I knew one day I wanted to change the lack of knowledge about partition. I did not know how until I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008. I was doing part of my PhD research at the University of Tokyo in Japan at the time, and happened to take a trip down to Hiroshima. My great grandfather was stationed there during World War II and was not far from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. That was my motivation to visit. However, when I came across the witness archives in Hiroshima, that’s when it clicked. It was so powerful to hear the stories of experiencing the atomic bomb from survivors. Suddenly it was all very real and human and I felt their pain much more than watching videos of the mushroom cloud or reading written accounts of those hours that followed the dropping of the bomb. It was an immediate click for me. I knew the same had to be done for partition.
I began recording witness accounts on a hobby camcorder I always carried with me, while on a trip to India in 2009 in a small ancient town (former kingdom) in the North called Faridkot. In 2010, the last member of my family who remembered partition as an adult, died before I could reach him to record his story. I was living in Berkeley by then. I was deeply troubled, not only by his passing, but by the tremendous loss of knowledge that my generation was facing. My great uncle took with him an immense amount of knowledge and wisdom, and it was now gone forever. We would have no other chance to learn from it. It was the absolute totality of that moment that made me realize that this work needed to be done on a larger scale. There needed to be many others like me out there collecting stories. We, ordinary people from all walks of life needed to come together to build a library of stories from elders who experienced those times and were now spread across the world.
I began recruiting a team in late 2010/early 2011 and we registered The 1947 Partition Archive in 2011. To collect stories from across the globe quickly and cost effectively, we decided to crowd-source the story collection. Essentially, we teach people how to record oral history interviews via free online seminars. Citizen historians record and submit stories to The Archive for posterity. In the story collection process is also very powerful and both the Citizen Historian as well as the partition witness come away changed. In our modern lives, we don’t experience this sort of inter-generational interaction as much, and it can be a very moving experience when it happens.
This is how we began. Today, our team is global and hundreds of volunteers have made this work possible. Currently, we have a total of 11 team members in South Asia, and 18 in the USA. We also have over 200 Citizen Historians (or volunteer story collectors who have trained with us) in 9 countries. Together we have archived 1100 oral histories that are 1 to 9 hours in length and on HD video.
The 1947 archives serves an important purpose of reconnecting us with the history of the partition? What else is the motivation behind your efforts to chronicle the history?
The long term vision here is to teach the world about partition from the human stories. We want to ensure that partition knowledge is an integral part of K-12 education, so that the key lessons are learned and not forgotten so that we can avoid history repeating itself. We envision doing this through the creation of centers of learning in South Asia and in partnership with museums and libraries across the world.
Since our Oral History method involves recording life stories shaped by partition, we gather a lot of information via our story collection that goes well beyond just the partition experience. We essentially record entire ethnographies of bygone cultures. We document cultural practices, everything from what people wore and how they made (or where they bought) their clothes, the fashion of those times, the foods people ate and the various cooking and agricultural practices. We document educational practices and by-gone lifestyles. In the process we also document by-gone dialects, and in essence life from a by-gone era, and the recent cultural history and cultural roots of the South Asian subcontinent. Hence this work is not only important as a history of partition, but would be important to anyone interested in learning about cultural and economic practices of the subcontinent both pre- and post-partition. No such body of work that is publicly accessible to this extent and also so comprehensive across the South Asian subcontinent, currently exists. So we are immensely excited to be providing this service.
Please tell us about your journey so far? How easy or difficult has it been to get so many stories? How have you achieved it?
I think part of this question was answered in the first one. But in general, it is of course a huge challenge to try to meet our goal of recording 10,000 stories by 2017. We work very very hard to make that happen. For many years I worked 7 days a week and sometimes through the night, to keep the engine going. I left my job as a physicist in December 2012. Since then I have been working as a volunteer and living off of my savings account. So that part is certainly challenging. But I believe there is a great urgency, and it is now or never. So I feel like it is a last chance and I could not live with myself if we let it pass. Hence, even though I am not making any money, and have to take these extra and extreme steps right now, it is completely worth it to me.
Getting the stories of course has not been difficult. There are so many partition witnesses who go to our website and sign up. The only difficulty is having the resources to record their story fast enough. People in the public can help by making a donation here. There are many times that we are unable to get to our interviewee on time, before illness or other circumstances prohibit the recording of their stories. So that, I think is the greatest challenge right now.
We have so far collected 1100 stories and have put the systems in place to increase this number to 10,000. We are quite sure that we’ll be able to collect much more than this, with our current plan and the systems we have laid the groundwork for. The key to success for us has been to be open and democratic process with which we go forward. Anyone, from anywhere can join our team. The only requirement is that they must be passionate and serious about this work, and be willing to put in the hard work. There are no other barriers to joining us. And this has led to our success and the growth of our team at a pace that is faster than we imagined.
I think that our core principle really aligns with a lot of people: Essentially we strongly believe that The 1947 Partition Archive must be created by people and for people. It is a history that belongs to all of us, and all of our grandparents and parents played a role in shaping it. We must own it collectively and help create this resource for ourselves and our future generations so that we can learn from it and help our leaders create more informed decisions in the future and of course develop a deeper identify about ourselves.
Have you felt the need to protect identities of people in cases of sensitive stories?
Yes, absolutely. We take great steps to protect the privacy and well being of our interviewees. In fact, we are currently not releasing any stories till 2017. We are putting in place an ethics panel and doing a lot of research to determine the most ethical and proper way to bring the stories to the public, without jeopardizing anyone’s privacy or identity if they wish to stay anonymous. Most individuals however, do not wish to stay anonymous, but in some cases they do. Our basic idea is to bring most of the stories to the public through online streaming video on our Story Map online. But not the complete collection, especially those where the interviewee has asked for privacy. We might make the complete collection only available at select physical locations such as libraries. We are currently working out that plan and it will take some time. We do not want to do it in a hurry and make rash decisions. We want to take our time and make the collection available in a way that is productive and educational without compromising any standards or anyone’s wishes.
What is the change do you want to bring with this project? How do you want to impact the future generations who are extremely disconnected from the partition?
We believe there is a tremendous amount to learn from our work. As mentioned earlier, the stories go well beyond partition. So there is much to learn in terms of our own identity, where we came from and help us better understand where we are going. I think this is especially important in this day and age when the world is becoming increasingly digital and globalized. Everyone is adopting the new global “westernized” lifestyles and there is a growing loss of our cultural identify and cultural knowledge. For thousands of years culture and cultural knowledge was passed down orally from one generation to the next. With our modern education system, this is perhaps the one thing we have lost, despite the immense gains we have had. The oral history method that we utilize helps fill this gap in some way. A small portion of our cultural and ground knowledge is getting preserved in a small way through the work we do. In addition, because anyone can join our team, from anywhere, there is a chance for lots of people to be involved in the recording of this inter generational knowledge. And recording stories, as I’ve mentioned previously, is an immensely rewarding and growth experience for everyone involved.
We want the future generations to be able to learn from The 1947 Partition Archive in many ways. This includes a better understanding of the inter-community living and the perceptions that were true before Partition and how that has changed since. This really brings perspective to many of the issues we have today, and there are clues in history on how some of these issues can be resolved, and in fact, on how fabricated some of these issues really are. We hope that this source of knowledge will help future leaders make better decisions and change the base-level grassroots understanding of Partition, not only in history books, but ground up. It is a grassroots human story in the end. And it must be understood from that perspective. Certainly the decisions that leaders made are important and significant in the making of this history, but the all the humans who lived it are equally a part of making this history. The story of Partition is incomplete when all the voices are not considered.
We also hope that our grassroots and democratic documentation process will help create a new standard for the way that human history is documented and taught.
What are your future plans as you go ahead with chronicling these stories?
As I’ve noted, we plan to document at least 10,000 stories and are well on the way to doing it with the current systems we have in place. We are fundraising to help enable those systems currently. In addition, we are now laying the ground work and doing the research into the best possible ways and systems for bringing the stories to the public. Again, as I have mentioned, it would not be wise to do this prematurely. We want to spend some time doing all the research into the proper methodologies for doing this.
Tell us how about the scholars program and the tasks they do during the course of their association?
The Story Scholars program is a rigorous 10 month program where scholars who are selected through a highly rigorous and competitive process, engage in story collection. To apply to the program the applicant must already be a Citizen Historian, or basically, a verified story collector with the organization who is trained and has submitted works. Note that anyone, anywhere, can learn to collect and submit stories. Hence, the Story Scholars program is open to anyone. We choose the Story Scholar based on their ability to record and submit oral history interviews according to our methods, as well as their previous experience. At times, depending on regions that are funded by our donors, we put out calls for story scholars within those regions. Our next call for Story Scholars has already begun. Applications will go live in about 24 hours. The applications are due on August 15 and the cycle will begin on October 1, 2014. Anyone who chooses can apply here.
To know more about this story and what I think, follow me on Twitter at @mayank1029