August 11, 2017

70 years later, tales from the world’s largest refugee crisis find a home at Stanford Libraries

Refugee identification card that belonged to Rajinder Bir Singh Ahluwalia's father (back)

Oral histories from people who endured the greatest mass migration in modern human history provide rare glimpses into life before, during and after the Partition of India and Pakistan. The long-awaited release of The 1947 Partition Archive will begin in August 2017 in collaboration with a consortium of Indian, Pakistani, British and American universities.

 Stanford, CA. To mark the 70th anniversary of Partition, the creation of modern India and Pakistan, The 1947 Partition Archive in partnership with Stanford Libraries has made thousands of unheard stories from witnesses and survivors available online.  The online collection will bring over 4,300 oral histories and 30,000 digital photos and documents into the public domain. 

Gayatri Chakraborty interviewed by Citizen Historian Sarmishtha Biswas with camera person Debanjan Sengupta in Agarpara in West Bengal. 

The oral histories provide previously unknown glimpses into the vastly disruptive Partition of Punjab and Bengal in 1947.  The Partition accompanied an unprecedented exchange of populations and mass upheaval of civil society when hundreds of native kingdoms were merged with British India in the process of creating modern India and Pakistan in 1947.  As many as 15 million individuals were displaced while millions perished in a frenzy of communal violence and accompanying lawlessness. 


“This is such a unique collection that opens a window not only on Partition itself but onto historical anthropology of culture, pre-Partition culture, and about post-Partition politics, and identity,” said Priya Satia, associate professor of History at Stanford. “The research it will allow on Partition itself is momentous...we can now get a sense of what happened on the ground, how it affected people and how those effects changed over time.”

Photo of Dr. Suri Sehgal in college in 1956.Photo of Keerti Kunzru modeling traditional Kashmiri attire.

A portion of the oral histories will be streamed from Stanford Libraries’ digital repository, and made accessible to anyone with an internet collection.  The remaining collection, deemed too delicate or sensitive for open accessibility, will be available for viewing by visiting Stanford and select partner libraries, including Ashoka University, University of Delhi, and Guru Nanak Dev University in India, along with Lahore University of Management Sciences and Habib University in Pakistan. 


Stanford  Libraries’ digital repository and discovery environment includes a video preservation program that ensures enduring access to the interviews despite changes to browser or the worldwide web.  “In a dynamic Web infrastructure, it is important to ensure web resources are not lost,” said Michael Keller, the Ida M. Green University Librarian at Stanford.  “Stanford Libraries achieves this within the Stanford Digital Repository by assigning each asset a persistent URL, or PURL, which allows the underlying Web addresses of resources to change over time without negatively impacting the systems that depend on them.”


According to Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the 1947 Partition Archive that started at the University of California at Berkeley in 2010, the videos are already serving as sources of history.  “We receive requests daily from artists, researchers, media persons, students and others, wanting access to the oral history videos in The Archive,” said Bhalla.  “The stories have already informed Bollywood films, theatrical works, music, books and much more work being done on Partition; they are changing the way we see ourselves and our history, and now we can ensure they’ll remain available for future generations.”


Said to be the largest oral history archive on any topic in South Asia, The 1947 Partition Archive includes items collected from 12 countries in 22 languages.

Muhammad Yousuf was interviewed in Bahawalnagar, Punjab, Pakistan by Taha Shaheen on December 5, 2016. He and his family migrated from Kotkapura, India to Bahawalnagar, Pakistan during Partition.   Image Credit: Taha Shaheen


The narrative of the past 70 years has been told through the lens of high-political negotiations between figures like Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru, Mountbatten, noted Professor Satia. She asserts that their high-political negotiations can't actually help us understand how and why that population exchange transpired. “We will now have a chance to understand the incremental way in which history happened. We can only understand the shape that Partition actually took by looking at the stories of the people who gave it that shape.”