Archive documents oral stories from survivors of India's partition

Photo: UC Berkeley freshman Kanwalroop Singh collected oral histories from survivors for the 1947 Partition Archive.
Summer Dunsmore/Staff
UC Berkeley freshman Kanwalroop Singh collected oral histories from survivors for the 1947 Partition Archive.

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A 90-year-old man in India told the unbelievable story of three women on horseback, their heads covered in turbans, saving his village in Punjab from a mob during the tumultuous violence of the 1947 partition that divided British India into an independent India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The woman listening to the story, Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Berkeley physics department, had been in India visiting family last fall when she began collecting stories from people who lived through the partition, which displaced between 10 million and 15 million people and led to the death of at least one million.

She could hardly believe the story of the three women on horseback who threw grenades at the mob, instantly killing the leader and saving countless civilian lives.

Unsure if the story was true or not, Singh Bhalla returned to California, where she continued to collect oral histories of people affected by the partition. Recently, however, Singh Bhalla interviewed a woman in her 90s who also remembers the three turbaned women on horseback.

"The story seemed fantastical. We weren't sure how much of it was really true," Singh Bhalla said. "But in California just a few weeks ago, I interviewed a woman who recalls ... when (her caravan) was being attacked by mobs that suddenly these three women on horseback showed up. (The civilians) didn't have a modern education so they interpreted it as the prophet incarnate showing up in the form of these three women."

The 1947 Partition Archive was formed last August, and Singh Bhalla and interested students, like UC Berkeley freshman Kanwalroop Singh, began interviewing Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in the largest oral history project on the partition. The group soon grew to about 45 volunteers, who have gathered almost 115 interviews, both in California and internationally.

"I liked the idea of recording history that has never really been recorded before," Singh said. "Nobody has ever bothered to interview the survivors of the partition on such a massive scale, and their stories are untold."

Inspired in part by a visit Singh Bhalla made to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, which has an archive of stories told by the survivors of the atomic bomb, the project started as a way to fill a gap in history that Singh said has remained largely unstudied.

"There was no memorial for the partition," Singh said. "There wasn't the same kind of knowledge about it."

Singh Bhalla and Singh - both Sikh - grew up hearing stories from their grandparents about life before and after the partition, as well as the turbulent, violent period in between.

"The first half of my childhood was spent in India, where I grew up listening to these stories from my grandparents, who talked about this amazing land they left behind in Pakistan," Singh Bhalla said. "They had to move to India under very violent conditions. Their life over there was very vibrant, very full. There wasn't much poverty there at the time, and when they moved to India, they had to leave everything behind."

As the generation that remembered the partition aged, Singh said she realized the urgency of documenting people's stories. For UC Berkeley senior Faryal Wadood, who is originally from Pakistan, the interviews she has conducted have revealed the perspective of the Sikhs and Hindus - a side she had not heard before.

"I heard a lot of stories, but I only knew the perspective from Pakistan," she said. "I thought it would be a good idea to exactly know what had happened on the other side."

For Singh, the project has carried out a similar function because of its comprehensiveness in interviewing all the groups of people affected by the partition.

"As I did more interviews, I realized that you can't really pinpoint blame on anybody, and you can't really victimize people," Singh said. "It's so complex and complicated that I think, as with any historical event, the more you delve into it, you realize that there are so many different perspectives, and it's not black and white. You can't assume it's black and white."


Claire Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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