World renowned Indian hockey player, Balbir Singh Senior (Sr.), was 23 years old in 1947 when India gained Independence. Having witnessed the violence from close quarters that took place during the partition of India, the 92-year-old Singh Sr, speaking to The Sunday Guardian, explained the nature of suspicion that had taken over the common people during the time of partition. Underlining the change that had seeped into the lives of the common people, Singh Sr. said: “It was the first week of April 1947 when we returned to Lahore to receive the ovation of home supporters at the railway station. My Lahore friends had told me that the pace of killings had increased at an alarming rate. Dara (Ali Dara) offered to escort me more than halfway to Model Town. We engaged a taxi. On the way, Dara stopped at various localities to call on his relatives and friends and receive their congratulations. He was the captain of the national team at that time and was a popular fellow. At no place on the way did Dara introduce me to his people. I got suspicious when I saw Dara speaking to his friends in whispers. The tension of riots was so heavy that I had baseless fears of people conspiring against me. Nevertheless, I dismissed these dark thoughts.” The centre-forward player of the Indian hockey team, who is known for holding a 65-year long unbroken Olympic record for scoring five of the six goals against Holland in the finals of the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, was also the member and captain of the Punjab Police team between 1941-61 and hence was a close witness to the violence that took place. Asked about what kind of future he envisions for India and Pakistan, Singh Sr. said, “In 2005, a home and away India-Pakistan hockey test series was organised here where some players from Pakistan had come. Among them was my best friend Shahrukh. When I met him in 2005 after all these years of partition, I was still able to speak with him the same way we did back then, the same language, same person. We are the same people after all. This much violence never made sense.” For Singh Sr., however, the moment of Independence arrived a year late. ”On 12 August 1948, Independent India’s hockey team defeated Britain on their home turf. It was our first Olympic after our Independence. The colonial masters were defeated again in 1948. At that moment, the feeling of being a citizen of an independent country really hit home.” Singh Sr. was a triple Olympic gold medallist and India won the 1956 hockey Olympics gold medal under his captaincy.
Many similar stories of survivors who witnessed the partition exist on both sides of the border. Singh Sr.’s story is among thousands of oral histories archived by the “1947 Partition Archives”, an NGO based in the United States that has recorded over 4,000 stories of existing witnesses from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, chief executive of the archive, who started the initiative in 2010, said, “Among these stories, there are some striking similarities. A vast majority of the witnesses agree that partition was a poorly-executed exercise. But there exists a minority of people who feel otherwise. In India, partition is generally seen as a tragedy because a piece of India had been taken away. However, this is false. Historically, India was not a one big nation before Independence. There were only provinces. In modern day India, there are fewer boundaries than there were at the time of Independence. So, the predominant narrative that India was broken away is misplaced.A small minority of witnesses in Pakistan do feel that they were able to create more opportunities for them because they got a new country for themselves. Nonetheless, there is a majority of those people in both countries who did not want to leave home.”
Singh Bhalla, who started the archive single-handedly, did so after she felt the lack of perspective in the narration of 1947 partition. “During my PhD, I visited the museum in Japan that commemorated the lives of people who died in the nuclear attack. There, I realised that we had nothing similar for our people who had witnessed partition. The stories that we have gathered today are a resource of a number of tales that would have gone unheard. They help you understand history from a common man’s perspective.” Singh Bhalla, a physicist by profession, had always liked to read history and heard numerous anecdotes of partition from her grandmother that fuelled her interest in the subject further. Now, she devotes all her time to the archive. Singh Bhalla said, “The witnesses alive today are probably the last of their generation who saw the partition. There must have been so many stories that we will never get to hear, but the ones we can preserve, we will.”