Dr Guneeta Singh Bhalla joins The Sunday Guardian for a chat about her work and the future of the ‘1947 Partition Archive’.

As we prepare to celebrate India’s most momentous celebration yet – 75 years of its birth as an independent nation – we must not lose sight of an equally important event that occurred simultaneously, the partition of India. Three-quarters of a century on, most survivors of that traumatic period are no longer with us, yet their stories, narrated in their own words, live on through the work of The 1947 Partition Archive, a Delhi-based trust with offices in the USA and other parts of the world. Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, its founder, embarked on her mission to document and preserve the oral history of partition survivors in the year 2008. It was a time when the partition of India was a largely ignored subject, yet inspired by the memorial to Hiroshima in Japan, she felt compelled to preserve her own heritage as best she could. To this effect, set up The 1947 Partition Archive, determined to reach her goal of documenting at least 10,000 survivor stories.

Interview of Abdul Jalil Khan

In 2010, with a dedicated team of volunteer Citizen Historians in place, The 1947 Partition Archive began the documentation in earnest. Now that nearly 10,500 oral histories in video format have been recorded and made available for the public at large through their tie-ups with national and international universities, she feels a burden lifted from her shoulders. However, her commitment to the cause hasn’t wavered. On the occasion, Dr. Singh Bhalla joins the Sunday Guardian for a chat about her work and the future of The 1947 Partition Archive. Excerpts from an edited interview:
Q. How does it feel to have completed your goal of documenting 10,000 stories?
A. I sang my music! Period. It’s amazing that we are now the largest oral history collection from the South Asian subcontinent and have set a trend of digital archiving and documenting across the subcontinent. The flood gates of crowdsourced knowledge are now open, which is wonderful. Having achieved our primary goal, we are now working to release our first book based on oral histories later this year.
Last year, we also launched a Facebook group called “Reconnect” to formalize a service we were already providing: helping lost friends and family find each other. So far, there have been hundreds of successful connections made!
Our Citizen Historians have endured epic struggles in documenting the stories, and it feels great to achieve the goal together as a team. Some have gone on rugged bus rides through the Hindu Kush mountains to reach remote villages enduring harsh environmental conditions. Others have rushed to hospital bedsides to ensure a witness can have the opportunity to add their voice and share their unique memories with future generations. Their memories would otherwise have been forgotten, and lost to world history.

Interview of Ved Prakash Chugh.

It was important for us to provide access to the stories too. Anyone who wants to listen to them can do so at a number of university libraries in India, including Ashoka University, Guru Nanak Dev University and Delhi University, thanks to a project grant from the Tata Trusts. The organization plans to expand to other university libraries across India.
A portion of the stories are also shared online through The 1947 Partition Archive’s social media pages, including Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. On Facebook, where the organization began posting stories in 2010, as one of the first South Asian public history projects, over nine lakh followers see the stories. Annually people like, comment on and share the stories at rates as high as 10 million per year.
I’m also happy to share that the oral histories from The 1947 Partition Archive have been referenced by makers of Bollywood films such as Bharat, and BBC documentaries such as ‘Partition, My Family and I’ and are featured in a number of museums, including the Virasat-E-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Ottawa.

Dr Guneeta Singh Bhalla.

Q. What was the 10,000th story? Have your efforts helped in raising awareness of this cause?
A. The 10,000th story was recorded by a citizen historian named Meenakshi Yadav. She interviewed Krishnachanda Pandey in Bouli in UP. He was born in 1938 and was nine years old in 1947. He was a schoolteacher and had some amazing stories to share with us.
The increase in awareness from the time we started our work as the only organisation doing it, to the present day, is like night and day. In 2008-09 when I first had the inspiration from Hiroshima, I used to go all over India and speak to professors, scholars, and ordinary people but no one cared about the partition except the people who had experienced it themselves. We saw a tremendous response when we started posting snippets of the stories of these people on Facebook. By using a medium where people only shared glamourised images of their lives, we caught the attention of many by sharing something so raw and poignant. Now the preservation of this period of history has become important all over the world – and I’m so glad our work inspired other organisations and individuals to follow suit.
Q. How can you continue with your practice so that it stays relevant in the future?
A. I think we can do that by changing our focus from documentation to public education. It is important to stay relevant with the use of the latest technologies, and to learn to disseminate the knowledge and awareness in accordance with ever-changing platforms.
Our next couple of projects are important in this regard. We are very excited about the release of our book. It is a large collaborative effort with 30 contributors and six co-editors. The book reveal will take place later this year, but pre-sales begin in two months.
I’m also amazed by the response to our Reconnect page on Facebook. Hundreds of connections have been made, people have cried, found pictures of their old homes. Some partition witnesses in their late 90s have been helped by young people in finding their old homes, and those connections are so precious. Plus, this initiative has inspired other organisations to provide similar services, which is great keeping the larger perspective in mind.
Q. What’s next on the cards for The 1947 Partition Archive?
A. We are working on opening a physical centre in addition to the oral histories of survivors being available in the digital space through university libraries and other digital repositories. There are plenty of other plans in the works too.
The main reason for us choosing the medium of oral histories to preserve the legacy of the partition was because I instinctively knew that an interest in the partition would be ignited best through stories and not simple facts. Everyone is inspired by the human angle of the stories. We have faced tremendous challenges along our journey. We never had money and I would often sacrifice my personal effects to work on this project because I am so passionate about it. I’m glad that The 1947 Partition Archive’s work has raised awareness of the fact that the partition was not only limited to Punjab and Bengal, but was a much more widespread event. We first brought this out through the map on our website back in 2010. Further, I’m happy to share that we have been able to administer funding to 30 scholars through the Tata Trust – Partition Archive Research Residency Grants to research the subject. It has been an amazing journey so far and there is much to be excited about in the future as well.
Noor Anand Chawla pens lifestyle articles for various publications and her blog www.nooranandchawla.com.