Features & Columns

Stanford Hosts Event to Bring Exposure to Partition

In 1947, the British partitioned South Asia into the separate nation states of India and Pakistan, unleashing what was likely the biggest mass migration in human history.
STORY SAVERS: Ranjanpreet Nagra interviews a Partition witness. Photo by The 1947 Partition Archive.

In 1947, the British partitioned South Asia into the separate nation states of India and Pakistan, unleashing what was likely the biggest mass migration in human history. The results were horrific.

Approximately 10 million people were forced to leave their ancestral territories on a moment's notice. Families split up. Wealthy people lost everything. As refugees traveled back and forth between the two countries, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims committed massacres against each other. An estimated one million people lost their lives.

Aside from exacerbating religious-based distrust in that part of the world, the Partition of 1947 is often understood as having significance equal to the Holocaust or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet it remains ignored in comparison to those other tragedies, especially in the West.

Many survivors of the Partition era are still alive, but their numbers are dwindling. In response, the 1947 Partition Archive was launched in 2008 to give voice to those who witnessed the horrors by collecting and preserving their stories on digital video. Anyone still around from those days can contribute a story to the archive. On Feb. 18, a poignant event will take place at Stanford University. Co-produced by the Stanford Center for South Asia, witnesses from the events of 1947 will attend, videos will be shown and discussions will take place.

The 1947 Partition Archive began as the brainchild of Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a Ph.D. candidate in physics at UC-Berkeley. Originally from Delhi, she came to the U.S. at age 10. Partition stories were always in the back of her mind. "I had been thinking about it for a very long time," she says. "I'd grown up hearing the stories and I knew I wanted to do something, because there's a huge disconnect between what we learn in our history classes and what we learn through folk stories in our communities."

While finishing her Ph.D. research in Tokyo, Bhalla made a trip to Hiroshima, where she experienced the oral history archives. The stories left a profound effect on her.

"It was much more powerful than reading about it in books, or what we usually hear, or in movies," she says. "To hear the personal accounts and watching people tell it on video, I realized at that moment, this is what we needed to do for Partition, to make it legitimate in the public's eye."

Skip to 2016 and Silicon Valley donors are starting to jump on board. The project now has five full-time staff members, 16 part-time interns and more than 500 volunteers around the world, all of whom have helped capture 2,000 stories on digital video. So far, stories have come in from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Israel, and Europe totalling more than 12 different countries. Whoever wants to volunteer their personal account can do so.

However, there is still a long way to go. Everyone involved feels a sense of urgency to carry out the work as fast as possible, since most of those who remember Partition are now at least 80 years old. Millions of stories could still be uncovered. Since the archive essentially functions as a nonprofit startup, an NGO of sorts, fundraising is still the biggest challenge and Bhalla says she wants the project to grow at a faster pace. The goal is to archive 10,000 stories by the end of 2017, the 70th anniversary of Partition.

What's more, as the project continues to evolve, those archiving the stories, especially the younger volunteers, have all discovered deeper aspects of their own roots and histories than they ever would have learned in school. Bhalla includes herself among this group.

"I've met a lot of really educated women from that time period," she says. "You wouldn't think that there were South Asian women with advanced degrees or medical doctors back in the '40s, but there were. That was really fascinating, the depth and extent of the culture."

Voices of Partition
Feb. 18
Stanford Humanities Center, Levinthal Hall (Room 100)