Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, is convinced about the need for a united South Asian subcontinent and the urgency to build sustainable peace using lessons learnt from the past. A charitable trust in India dedicated to institutionalising the people’s history of Partition through documentation, storytelling and exhibitions, Bhalla’s platform has so far chronicled over 9,700 stories of witnesses in over 750 towns and villages, spread across 18 countries.
Last month, the organisation tied up with Tata Trusts to fund a month-long remote research fellowship in collaboration with five universities – three in India and two in Pakistan – to provide access to nearly 10,000 oral histories. The second round is now underway. Bhalla is also overseeing a talk series on Facebook – where they have over 9 lakh followers – titled Sunday Stories Live, featuring speakers such as historian Rajmohan Gandhi, publisher and author Urvashi Butalia, travel writer Salman Rashid, filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and photographer Raghu Rai, among others.
Bhalla completed her postdoc as a physicist at the University of California in Berkeley and launched 1947 Partition Archive in 2013, a decision driven by her own family history. “I was curious about Partition and South Asian history since childhood, so this project was a lifetime in the making,” says Bhalla, who was born in New Delhi into a military family that moved base across various locations including Chandigarh, Chandi Mandir, Pune, Delhi, Kashmir, Srinagar, Kargil and Leh, where her father was on the maiden test flight when the Indian military built the airport there.
There were several triggers behind her urge to compile an oral history of Partition told through its survivors. Bhalla had grown up hearing stories of Partition from her grandmother, who escaped riots in Amritsar in a jeep that practically drove over dead bodies. “I began thinking about the importance of preserving history as a teenager long before we had the Internet, after I heard about my grandmother’s ordeal,” says Bhalla, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and Delhi.
She also shares memories from her childhood in Faridkot, Punjab: “It was common in Punjab for people to dig for deeper wells in their fields and discover ancient artifacts. There was no system in India or incentive for people to turn these over to the government, so they would often melt them and make jewellery and so on.”
Saddened by the thought of these ancient treasures going unrecognised, Bhalla took some of the less precious ones with her and had them dated. Some of them turned out to be over 2,000 years old from the days of the Greek invasion of the region. “I always wanted to do something to preserve our history and our culture, and when I use ‘our’ culture to refer to the Indus Valley, I don’t mean it in the parochial sense,” she says. “Our world has always been migrating. And the people who once lived in what is India today, and what is Punjab today, could’ve been very different from who is there today. I believe it belongs to all of human history,” she adds.
Another trigger for Bhalla was the huge difference between what she learned in school – “That Gandhi led a peaceful march and the British left and we had a peaceful transfer of power” – and what she learned from her family about the violence of Partition. “The big disconnect between folk history and the official history is what I wanted to bridge,” she says.
She found a solution after visiting the archives at the Hiroshima peace memorial in 2008. “Survivor accounts cannot be denied. In these survivor recordings, their voice, their body language, their facial expressions, everything converges to tell the same story! That’s what is so important about having videos of survivors. And they have done a phenomenal job in Hiroshima,” she says.
“When I began talking about it (documenting Partition in this way), a lot of people rolled their eyes at me, especially in places like Delhi. ‘Why do you want to talk about the past, let’s move on,’ they would say. But I truly felt that we could not move on until we had come to terms with this past. I felt that our politics – war between India and Pakistan, the very setup of India as a single parliamentary democracy modelled after the UK – all of this in my opinion was rooted in British colonialism and the devastating Partition,” she says.
In 2009, Bhalla began documenting stories of people on her tape camcorder whenever she visited Faridkot. When her 95-year-old granduncle – the last survivor of Partition in the family – passed away, Bhalla had a renewed sense of urgency in this project, even though she had a position at the University of California at Berkeley by then.
“When people saw how crazy I was, and that nothing that they could say could stop me, they just joined me. That’s how it began initially,” she says, adding that there is a certain openness to ‘wild ideas’ in California that helped her cause, especially in the Silicon Valley. “It was unlike anywhere I had lived before.”
Giving up her career as a physicist, Guneeta began working full-time on the Partition archive in January 2013 using her meagre savings as a student. Along the way, numerous volunteers joined the cause. They began conducting various exhibitions and programmes at places such as India International Centre and India Habitat Centre in Delhi, the biggest one being an exhibit at Mandi House metro station for almost two years.
One of Bhalla’s favourite exhibitions was one titled ‘Women During Partition’, inspired by a scene from the 2004 film Closer starring Julia Roberts and Jude Law. “It had massive black and white photos of women that were bold and captured their beauty and were difficult to miss,” Bhalla recalls. To design the exhibition, she enlisted the help of Aanchal Malhotra, who later became an author with her own book on the oral history of Partition.
They have also done exhibitions in the United States called ‘Refugees in the British Empire’ and events titled ‘Voices of Partition’ in India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States in collaboration with a number of universities, in which witnesses of Partition from both sides of the border are invited to speak.
What continues to propel Bhalla almost a decade on is the need to ‘humanise’ history and war reporting beyond dates and numbers, so that the people can see beyond enmities and hate. “We received a lot of pushback initially but I am glad to see that it is now becoming more mainstream. Since 2017, our Facebook page has accumulated between 10 and 20 million post interactions annually. So I believe that, in this slow and unmeasurable way, we are changing the way people relate to the past and inspiring new efforts,” she says.
She’s now excited about their first permanent exhibition – which she refrains from terming a museum – coming up in California. “To me, a museum is a place where you go to observe something, to look at something. But can we really go and look at other people’s pain? Can we really honour our ancestors’ pain that way?” she asks. Instead, she believes it should be an immersive and experiential space.
“Our whole team and our giant group of volunteers and the academics that we work with mostly seem to share the sentiment, so I’m looking forward to the launch,” says Bhalla, without divulging any more details.
Bhalla’s work moves beyond the idea of nationhood towards a global citizenship that affirms our shared humanity. “The nation state as you know is a European and a colonial construct. Just 70 years ago, these borders did not exist. For example, the route through the Khyber Pass from Baghdad to Lahore was quite commonly travelled. We hear from so many shepherds about their eight-month trips to Baghdad and back with their sheep. This is also the ancient route that Guru Nanak took when he migrated, in a similar fashion to Sufi saints Sheikh Farid and Nizamuddin Auliya and so many millions whom we haven’t heard of. These are the routes that were taken by so many travellers, traders, shepherds and also invaders,” she says. “I think it’s a temporary thing that humanity is going through. Maybe we will go back to the city states of the ancient past. Nation states are so unmanageable, especially when they’re the size of India!”