There has been a strange reticence about remembering the cataclysmic events of Partition. Now, "citizen historians" are determined to change thatby Samira Shackle / August 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Across Pakistan and India, the legacy of Britain’s 300 years as a colonial power is all around—physically evident in the architecture. It’s there in the distinctive buildings of Lutyens’ Delhi; the clock tower at Karachi’s Empress Market’ the wide streets originally built for British officers in Lahore.
But the most profound legacy was created by how the British left—hurriedly, in August 1947, carving the country in two: India for the Hindus, and Pakistan for the Muslims. This set in motion one of the largest migrations of people the world has ever seen. This blood-soaked history is also, more subtly, built into the physical environment. In Muslim-majority Pakistan, it survives in the Sikh temples glimpsed amid Lahore’s tourist district, or the Hindu symbols carved into lattices in Karachi’s old town. Even today, 70 years later, property disputes are pursued over houses left behind by Hindus fleeing Karachi, or Muslims fleeing Delhi. Many thought they would be back to sort out their affairs within a few months or years; for most, this did not come to pass.
After thousands of years co-existing peacefully, at Partition communities turned on each other with shocking aggression and brutality. The numbers speak for themselves: at least 12 million people were displaced, and between one and two million lost their lives.
The Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has described Partition as “a defining moment that is neither beginning nor end,” something that “continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
Yet there has been a strange reticence about remembering this cataclysmic event. On the 70th anniversary of Partition, the last generation who have vivid memories of 1947 are dying out, lending a particular urgency to the project of collating a record. The Guardian, BBC and New York Times are just some of the media outlets appealing for readers to share their stories. Various historians have recorded oral testimonies of Partition over the years, and now several grassroots organisations are also working to do this on a major scale.
The largest is the 1947 Partition Archive, a US-based project established in 2010 that has so far collected 4,500 testimonies from across South Asia. Founder Dr Guneeta Singh Bhalla, who started off recording on her own at weekends and in…