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The 1947 Partition Archive Survivors and their Memories

This Collection

This collection consists of 4000 video-based oral history interviews conducted by Citizen Historians (trained volunteer oral historians) through a crowdsourced platform devised by The 1947 Partition Archive, and a scholarship program in which recipients are selected through a competitive process and offered a stipend for recording stories for a set period of time in their native language and home region in South Asia. The interviews in this collection have been recorded in over 300 cities from 12 countries and in 22 languages, and attempt to uncover a complete life story shaped by Partition, highlighting pre-Partition life and culture, the Partition experience and post-Partition transitions.

Origins

As an undergraduate at Stanford in the early 1990s, I wanted to write an honors thesis on the Partition of 1947, an event that had profoundly shaped the lives and outlook of my beloved grandparents and that also simply fascinated me—perhaps as the daughter of immigrants—for the way it attempted to change identities and places overnight.

At that time, there were few resources for studying South Asia at Stanford, but the university supported me with a research grant to consult archives in Punjab in India and Pakistan. I went. But I folded after confronting both the difficulty of traveling there as a young, twenty-one-year-old woman (whether alone or with family) and the disheartening disorder of the Punjab State Archives in Patiala.

I did not write the thesis, but I remained determined to study Partition. In 1997 I was admitted to UC Berkeley’s graduate program in history on a plan to study Partition. But in the program, I struggled with thinking and writing in academic English about an event that had been handed down to me in Multani, Punjabi, and Urdu. My linguistic and academic sensibilities cooperated more harmoniously when I studied the imperial perspective, so I switched to British history and took up other rewarding research topics. But the ghost of Partition continued to haunt my work, and I am now, finally, writing a book on Leftists and poets who lived through and shaped the meaning of Partition. Poetry gave me a way to bridge the linguistic chasm between my inherited sensibility and scholarly purpose when it came to Partition.

In short, I had been looking for a way to understand Partition in the voice and language of those who lived through it. And that is precisely what the Partition Archive has been working to make possible in recent years. The arrival of this collection at Stanford is thus deeply personally significant to me—as a daughter of Partition survivors and witnesses and as a historian whose long struggle to understand the event began at Stanford itself. Where there were no resources in the 1990s, we now have a veritable treasure trove.

This collection has been painstakingly assembled over several years by an intensely dedicated group of volunteers with astonishing sensitivity to the importance of the 1947 Partition as a world-historical event and a life-shaping experience for millions of people around the world. The Partition Archive’s work is a race against time, to capture as many oral histories as possible before the generation that lived through Partition has left us. Its techniques and aims were the brainchild of the organization’s founder, Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, who rightly perceived the urgency both of memorializing Partition and its victims and of learning from the event—as we try to learn from other catastrophic events in history. And the Archive has worked to do all this with a consistent and clear regard for the enduring political sensitivity of the subject across South Asia. Collecting these stories—finding the right funding, equitable arrangements for access, appropriate techniques of acquisition and dissemination, and so on—has been a delicate process that the Partition Archive has managed with great care, at times against great odds.

This collection has the potential to transform the study of Partition, which has typically been understood through the lens of high-political negotiations between figures like Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Lord Mountbatten. But these political elites did not foresee the shape that Partition would take—the mass migration of 15 million people and death of untold numbers; a border that started out open and passable and then hardened in the 1960s; a division into two nation-states that became three. High-political negotiations can't explain how and why Partition came to entail all this. The Partition Archive’s oral history collection provides a key to that mystery: to understand the shape that Partition took, we need the stories of the people who gave it that shape. Now, we might begin to understand at the micro-level how and why ordinary people moved or did not move, how pragmatic or principled their decisions were, what their decisions meant to them then and now, the understandings of identity and politics that informed those decisions, and how all this varied by class, city, region, gender, and so on. We can also understand better how ordinary people responded to and shaped the high-political debates about partition. We tend to speak about Partition and its legacy at the level of geopolitics—the creation of a border and a security problem. But it is also, perhaps more instructively and importantly, a story of people blundering into changing times with old baggage that found new meanings and purposes. We will now have a chance to understand the incremental way in which it actually happened—the countless individual decisions that together yielded the epochal event we call “Partition.”

That Stanford is the home for this collection speaks to the strength of the university’s commitment to the study of South Asia. The recent appointment of a South Asian librarian, the inimitable Dr. Ryan Perkins, made the partnership with the Partition Archive possible. The collection is a treasure for any scholar trying to understand the making of modern South Asia, in which Partition was such a signal event. These oral histories also enfold a vast amount of data and information about pre-Partition and post-Partition culture, politics, and identity. The collection will be useful to historians but also to economists, political scientists, anthropologists, linguists, and other humanists.

There is history, and there is the history of how we tell history. I congratulate Stanford Libraries and the Partition Archive on this new partnership, launched on the 70th anniversary of Partition. Quite apart from my own scholarly journey, it promises to change the history of South Asian studies at Stanford and beyond and the history of how we remember Partition.

Priya Satia is Professor of Modern British History at the Department of History, Stanford University.