Untold Stories From India’s Birth
August 5, 2016 | Author: Guneeta Singh Bhalla, PhD | Executive Director at The 1947 Partition Archive

Untold Stories From India’s Birth

Having spent all my childhood summers in the Punjabi countryside, I grew up hearing stories of the great “kalukara,” or simply, the “wund” (the distribution).  My grandmother recalled a moment in Amritsar when she was escaping riots in a jeep and they literally drove over the dead, in order to stay alive. It sounded so unreal that I had a hard time imagining it. It was a dark and chaotic time and millions lost their lives.  The great wund was mostly a topic of quiet recollections and household conversation. We never brushed upon it in school.

As Indian Americans we don’t often think of ourselves as being heirs to the largest mass refugee crisis in recorded history. Not only have we not learned to identify with one of the most defining events of the 20th century, we have not harnessed important lessons from it. The event I am talking about is the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. As the British departed, a frenzy of communal violence and a sudden breakdown in civil society accompanied the rushed transfer of power.  The violence and upheaval were unlike anything the subcontinent had seen and it’s reverberations continue to this day.

The Partition was, by any human measure, immense in scale. Nearly 15 million individuals were uprooted between 1946-1948, often running for their lives at only a moment’s notice.  Over the next decade, the number soared to over 20 million, or nearly 1% of the world’s population at that time.  Essentially, 1 in 100 people on our planet became refugees due to Partition. Up to 2 million lost their lives.  Nearly 100,000 women were abducted and countless children were orphaned. Furthermore, their neighbors who did not experience the displacement found their social fabric disrupted. Their local economies, cultures and livelihoods morphed overnight.  Almost every corner of South Asia saw an influx of refugees from distant and unknown lands.  Consider for instance the post-Partition Bengali settlements in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, or the West Punjabi Sikh settlements in Nagaland.  In effect, 14%, or 1 in 8, of the world’s people at that time saw their lives changed due to Partition.  These are very large numbers, and while striking, perhaps don’t pull the heartstrings and stir the imagination like the individual stories that make up those numbers.

Consider for instance that every culture in the world today knows about the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. Credit goes to the large body of work inspired by the human stories of survival that were recorded.  Partition deserves the same. This is the very thought that inspired us to launch The 1947 Partition Archive (  I was conducting research towards my PhD at the University of Tokyo in the summer of 2008 when I took a field trip to visit Hiroshima.  There I visited the peace memorial and was deeply moved by the oral testimony archives at the memorial. I could not get the stories out of my mind.  That was the “aha moment’ for me. I knew in that moment that the world at large needed to know about Partition. I began recording stories on my hobby camcorder in Punjabi villages in 2009.

After earning my PhD in Physics in 2009, I started research at the University of California in Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In 2010, the death of the last of my grandmother’s siblings at the age of 95 prompted me to ignite the effort in a bigger way. In my time off from the lab, I gathered support from student clubs on campus until a solid core group of volunteers emerged.  We learned how to formally record oral histories with advice from faculty mentors at UC Berkeley and Stanford. To record as many Partition witnesses as quickly as possible from across the globe, we decided to crowdsource the story collection by teaching live classes online on the art of recording oral histories.  Today, over 500 volunteers from around the world have helped record nearly 3000 life stories of Partition witnesses. You too can join us at anytime by signing up for a free course on our website. In regions where crowdsourcing is not possible because of technical challenges, we offers story collection scholarships through our Story Scholars program.  Nearly 30 Story Scholars are currently recording stories across South Asia and North America.


What we have discovered from the stories cannot be found in any book and is often mind bending.  For instance, stories help illuminate the transformation of Lucknow from a center for classical Urdu poetry and literature, to the Lucknow of today, infused with nearly 100,000 Punjabi refugees who introduced new vocabulary, cultural practices and cuisine, forever changing the city.  Or there’s the near overnight explosion of the sleepy port city of Karachi with population less than 500,000 before Partition, to over 24 million today.

I recall one of the early interviews I did. I was completely immersed in the hypnotic memory of pre-Partition Lahore as my interviewee Ajit Caur, recalled, at daughter Arpana Caur’s art gallery in Delhi. As I listened, it felt as though I was there on that warm summer night of 1947. A soft patter of hooves was streaming by.  A long caravan of ox-carts was hauling mounds of produce to the market, each with its own cart of vegetables and a sleeping sabzi-walla (vegetable-seller) sprawled on top of the pile.  Oil lanterns under each carriage sent patterns of lively yellow shapes darting across the narrow brick road and climbing up the walls of homes.  It was dazzling.  Cour was only 12 in 1947, when the Partition of Punjab forced her family to relocate to Delhi.  They left behind their material goods, their heritage, their associations and every aspect of life that they knew.  Cour shared memories of the convent she studied in and of chanting slogans in favor of an independent India. They lived on a lane that was exclusive to doctors as her father was a doctor, just as my grandfather was. He too, like Cour’s family, fled Lahore in 1947.  Perhaps our families knew each other.  But it is too late to find out.  He passed on before his story was recorded and Cour was too young then.”

“I looked left and right, East, West and North.  Everything was on fire.” recalls Razia Sultana.  She was studying to be a doctor in Delhi on a full scholarship from the Nizam of Hyderabad, a strong believer in women’s education, she notes.   When news of the riots reached the Nizam, he sent armed escorts to rescue Hyderabadi students studying in Delhi.  They were flown back to Hyderabad in a private jet.  She pauses for a deep breath.  “Delhi was burning on all sides.  I saw libraries go up in flames.  Some had one-of-a-kind books.  So much life was lost.  So much culture and knowledge as well.”

The effects of Partition go beyond the cultural cross linking and infusion however.  There are the more subtle but incredibly powerful effects on the psyche that last for generations, informing politics, economics and the very fabric of society.  These are the psychological effects, which range from learned survival techniques to full blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which are passed down in families from one generation to the next.  On a more fundamental level, there is epigenetics, where the effects of large scale human traumas such as the World Wars and the Holocaust actually influence our DNA, in the form of gene selection.  Studies reveal how three generations after events such as the Holocaust, babies are born with a higher probability for acquiring genes that give rise to high blood pressure and higher anxiety levels… This is nature’s way of ensuring survival in traumatic situations, but a state of being that does not necessarily produce a harmonious existence during times of peace.


Today, The 1947 Partition Archive, born in Berkeley, CA, has offices in Delhi and Berkeley.  We now have one last opportunity to preserve the memory, and learn from it, because, history otherwise continues to repeat itself.  Partition also forms an integral part of our cultural and political identity. To ignore it is to ignore a bit of ourselves.  I feel it is critical for the next generation to come to terms with all aspects of Partition, especially if we are to tackle some of the great political and social challenges South Asia is faced with today.

It’s often said that things happen when there is a need.  Since we began this work, the sheer number of individuals who have come forward to volunteer their skills or to share their stories demonstrate a clear need to connect with and understand Partition on a human level.

You too can join is before time runs out.  Share your own story, nominate someone to share a story, or make a token donation to help us ensure this work continues.


Author Bio:

Guneeta is founder and executive director at The 1947 Partition Archive. Previously, she was an experimental condensed matter physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley. She studied quantum confinement at interfaces that include oxide heterostructures and domain walls in multiferroics. After a 2008 visit to the oral testimony archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial she was inspired and began interviewing Partition witnesses in 2009. It was a deeply enriching experience and she wanted to share it with everyone. She was also troubled with the realization that the generation of eye witnesses was nearly gone and taking their stories with them. This led to the concept of crowdsourcing oral histories of Partition, there by engaging the public in recording the people’s history of the world’s largest mass human displacement. In 2011 The 1947 Partition Archive was born. She gave up her career in 2013 to devote all her time to the cause. She has personally interviewed over 100 Partition survivors, rallied volunteers from all walks of life and built the grassroots foundations of this people-powered organization.

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