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‘We focus on stories, not politics’

For many, 1947 was a new beginning, too. Guneeta Singh Bhalla started The 1947 Partition Archive in 2011 to preserve stories shaped by Partition. She speaks to Kum Kum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Aug 14, 2014 22:30 IST
Kum Kum Dasgupta
Kum Kum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
The 1947 Partition Archive,Guneeta Singh Bhalla,Holocaust

For many, 1947 was a new beginning, too. Guneeta Singh Bhalla started The 1947 Partition Archive in 2011 to preserve stories shaped by Partition. She speaks to Kum Kum Dasgupta.

What pushed you to start the
I grew up listening to Partition stories from my grandparents, mainly from the paternal side who migrated from Lahore to Delhi. I knew it was a traumatic event but there was no mention of it in high school in the US though we read a lot on Holocaust and Hiroshima-Nagasaki. When I had tried to tell my classmates, their reaction was that the event was not "a big deal". That bothered me because the sentiment contrasted sharply with the stories I heard. The fact that we were letting such an historical event slip through the cracks without documenting it at the level that it should have been troubled me. I also realised that first-hand accounts made it human and accessible.

How did you start gathering the stories?
I had been living with those stories for years and did not know what to do with them until I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008. At the memorial I witnessed archives and got this idea. It was so powerful to hear the stories of the bombing from survivors. Suddenly it was all real and human and I felt their pain much more than watching videos of the mushroom cloud or reading accounts of those hours that followed the dropping of the bomb. I knew the same had to be done for Partition.

I began recording witness accounts from 2009 when I went to 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 troubled, not only by his passing, but by the tremendous loss of knowledge that my generation was facing. I thought that we would have no other chance to learn from it. It was the absolute totality of that moment that made me realise that this work needed to be done on a larger scale. I felt that we, ordinary people from all walks of life, need to come together to build a library of stories from elders who experienced those times and were now spread across the world.

In 2012, we applied to UC Berkeley’s start up incubator programme, the Berkeley Skydeck. It was a competitive process but we did eventually get selected. We got support from UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office, which is a world leader in the field of oral history recording. Historian Lisa Rubens not only helped us develop our protocols for recording stories but also taught the process to others as we do today in our free online public oral history workshops. We also referred to a number of World War II oral history projects and Holocaust oral history works to help us get started on developing our extensive protocols. We’ve received intellectual support from Priya Satia, who is a professor of History at Stanford University and also Sucheta Mahajan, a professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

What’s your team strength now?
At present, we have 11 team members in South Asia, and 18 in the US. Over 250 ‘Citizen Historians’ in nine countries have joined us. Together we have archived 1,100 oral histories that are one to nine hours in length and on HD video. Engaging the young population on social media has been natural and organic since our team is young and our message is authentic. We simply say it like it is: "We are doing this… See, its’ not hard, but it’s important. So join us! It’s our collective loss if we do nothing."

Perhaps, a Partition museum can help the victims to come to terms with it...
We refrain from talking about war or peace as these are both political concepts. We don’t speculate on how a museum could affect the politics of the three countries. Our focus will always remain on the human stories and not politics. We envision building centers of learning on the borders of India and Pakistan with a focus on the human stories of Partition, along with the history. We hope to teach and empower younger generations not only in South Asia, but all over the world about Partition so that this history doesn’t keep repeating itself (as it is happening to this day in many places in South Asia, Africa, eastern Europe and West Asia, among others). We cannot let our important cultural identify and knowledge streams disappear.

First Published: Aug 14, 2014 22:20 IST