Sixty-nine years ago, at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, over 300 million people rejoiced as the era of the British Raj drew to an end, and two new nations arose from what had been British India. Little did they know that the ensuing months would lead to the greatest movement of people in human history, with over 14 million people displaced from their homes and two million dead after the violence had subsided. India and Pakistan were born in this bloodshed, and they still bear the scars of this era today.
Some of these scars were showcased at Stanford last Thursday, at an event co-hosted by the Center for South Asia and the 1947 Partition Archive, a Berkeley-based nonprofit committed to collecting and preserving oral histories of the Partition. Founded in 2013 by Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a physicist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the archive was inspired by oral histories of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, and aims to collect 10,000 stories by 2017.
“We have only now begun to look at the effects of the Partition on people,” said Jisha Menon, Associate Professor from the Center for South Asia and moderator of the event panel, as she described how projects like the archive are reshaping the state-centered narrative that surrounded discussion of the Partition till now.
“This event has still not ended … and it sparks memories with contemporary moments of religious and ethnic tension,” she added.
The event featured three survivors of the Partition, followed by one of the archive’s “citizen historians,” Arshad Mirza, who recounted how he collects stories from survivors to add to the archive. Faced with the lack of a single repository of survivors’ accounts, the archive has crowdsourced its investigations, and trains volunteers to look for and interview survivors. Most of these survivors, like those who spoke at the event, are well over the age of 70 and speak a variety of languages. Although the archive has collected over 2,000 stories in 10 languages from 157 cities, thousands of witnesses remain unreached with their stories left untold.
“I wish that Partition had not happened,” said Om Kumari Baveja, one of the survivors speaking at the event, as she recounted some of the horrors she saw. “It is a curse, and should never happen in any country. Only the people suffer.”
The violence was especially close and poignant for all of the survivors, having affected both them and their families. Baveja’s husband had migrated from Lahore in Pakistan to Amritsar in India, arriving on one of the many blood-drenched trains and leaving behind two dead uncles. For Ali Shan, one of the other featured survivors, the violence was particularly personal; he lived through a bloody massacre that killed most of his family when he was six years old.
“We were in a village called Raha, just outside of Ludhiana in India,” he began, recounting in gory detail what happened next. “I saw hundreds of men dressed in white with swords and spears … The elders went to negotiate while the women and children stayed hidden in a room … They were all killed and the village was attacked.”
The violence Shan described did not end there.
“Two men burst through the roof and told us that if we didn’t open the door they’d burn us alive,” he said. “As we walked out, a gunman was standing there letting women and girls out but killing the men and boys … My mother found a white sheet and wrapped my brother and I in it so that we looked like girls … They sat us down below a tree outside the village, took the jewelry from the women, and then started killing.”
Shan’s family was killed in the ensuing bloodbath, and he only survived because of the unexpected kindness of one of the killers. That killer led Shan through the fields to Ludhiana, where he stayed at a Sikh family’s house secretly until an uncle in the Pakistani army found him and took him to Pakistan.
“He left me at that house in the village outside Ludhiana, and I never saw him again,” Shan said.
Fortuitous kindness from strangers was a common theme in survivors’ stories. Baljit Dhillon Vikram Singh, another survivor, recounted how her family left suddenly in the middle of the night, and were very nearly killed by the Pakistani military.
“White-uniformed military men came and raised their guns, asking us to stop,” she recounted. “My mother went and fell at the feet of the captain [and] said ‘I have small children in the van. Please let us go, we have done nothing.’ I had no idea what came into his heart, but he talked to her for a little while and let us go.”
“Later, she told me what he had told her – he told her to not stay in the next village and keep going to Amritsar, because they were going to burn it down that night,” she added.
The emotion coursing through the atmosphere was palpable as the three of them reflected on what they felt now, almost seventy years after those horrifying events.
“Can you imagine now, when I look back in my 70s and say… ‘Can I take my four daughters in the middle of the night, pack their clothes and leave the house as it is and go never to return again?’ The impact even today leaves a very hard mark on my mind,” said Singh, echoing what her mother had to do on that fateful night when they left.
“I was blessed, and I am blessed now … My goal now is to do anything to help people who are refugees and in need and resettlement.”
But of all the emotions, most palpable were those of relief, gratitude and moving on.
“My life has been full of tragedy and adventure,” said Shan.“I hike, I go to the gym, I do yoga, and I have survived three more near-death experiences and cancer since … My motto now is love everyone and hate no one. I have made peace with those who killed my family and childhood – and I forgive them.”
Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm@ stanford.edu.