Remembering Partition, One Story at a Time

Guest blogged byRanjanpreet Nagra andJaskiran K. Mann

Outreach__Yuba_City_Nagar_Kirtan__Nov_2011.JPGIn February 2011, six months after finishing my Masters in South Asian Studies from University of Michigan, I moved to Berkeley and was still looking for a job and a place to live when I met the founding members of The 1947 Partition Archive, an entirely volunteer-based effort aimed at collecting and preserving the stories of the 1947 Partition of British India. I expressed my interest in conducting interviews as well as helping out however I could, since I was fluent in both Punjabi and Urdu. I also had experience conducting interviews in college and for my Masters thesis. Since that first meeting, I have loved every aspect of my volunteer work with the Archive.

Ive had the good fortune to interview people in English, Urdu and Punjabi, and to travel to places throughout California, as well as Toronto, Canada. Presently, I am traveling through East Punjab, conducting interviews. Ive heard some amazing stories of adversity, fear, violence, and strength.

My first outreach work was that following March, tabling at Hayward Gurdwara on a cold and cloudy day. I enjoyed talking to people and telling them about the project. That was the first time I had to explain – in Punjabi – what we do and its purpose. I had some difficulty translating at first, but since then I have had many opportunities to explain, and become more comfortable doing so as a result.

This past June, I drove to Fresno and Selma with my co-volunteer, Guneeta Singh Bhalla, to conduct interviews, one of which was with Mr. Kang. I remembered signing him up for an interview at Selma Gurdwara in April. His genuineness and delight came across in his interview, which was almost two hours long – he talked at length about his childhood in different villages in Lyallpur. He was born in 1936 and was a young boy of only 11 years during Partition. He had spent his childhood in Chaks 15, 21, and 23 in Jarhanvali Tehsil in Lyallpur District. He described the prosperity of his childhood: their fertile land and ample crop yield. After Partition, he felt that his family faced adversity and indifference from the natives in East Punjab; no one offered a helping hand. They did labor work for more than two years until they were allotted their land.

He became nostalgic when I asked him about his childhood in the village where he was born. He made me feel as though I was doing the right thing by asking him about his life. Yet, I noticed a sadness in his eyes from not being able to take me to the place where he had grown up. No matter how hard he tried, I would never be able to imagine his life as a child. That was something else altogether… that life, that childhood, that prosperity, he reminisced.

I especially remember him because he made me feel positive, hopeful and optimistic about interviewing Partition survivors. I felt as though I had established a personal connection, and was touched that he was appreciative of me interviewing him.

Ranjan_in_Toronoto.JPG

Volunteer Ranjanpreet Nagra sits with two interviewees from her trip to Toronto, Canada in October 2011.

In October 2011, I was able to conduct several more interviews for the Archive while visiting Toronto for a few days. In Brampton, I interviewed N. Kaur who was 15 years old at the time of Partition and lived in Jalandhar district. She was traumatized by her father and uncles, who spoke of killing all their daughters if their village was ever attacked. She said the girls became thin with the stress and fear of one day being killed, and therefore lost interest in life and material possessions; when their mother would bring them milk, they were afraid that the milk was poisoned. Her story made me reassess my assumptions about non-immigrants experiences: they were just as traumatized and scared as the immigrants themselves.

Every time I interview someone, I learn something new: I get to know a new person and a different life and lifestyle. I also cant help but consider what that person experienced in Partition and how Partition has shaped their personality as a result; I couldnt help wonder if N. Kaurs loss of trust in human beings during Partition made her the tough skinned woman that she is today. I also wonder if going through tough times made her stronger and tougher in facing the hardships of life.

With each interview, Ive grown to admire the survivors. I admire their strength and their optimism. They left behind their lives and their possessions and are still alive. Theyve survived years and decades, and multiple displacements. They lived through the time when people lost their faith and trust in human beings and humanity, and managed to remain relatively optimistic. During these few months of collecting interviews Ive trained myself to listen, to forget about my own relatively trivial problems, and to just lose myself in their stories.

During this time, I have also mentored UC Berkeley students, including Jaskiran Mann who has accompanied me on several interviews and outreach events. Here she talks of her experiences thus far:

I first heard about the 1947 Partition Archive when one of the founding members gave a short presentation on it during a Friday morning Punjabi class at UC Berkeley. It was the 2010 fall semester, only months after I had taken a Modern South Asian History class that covered everything from the fall of the Mughal Empire to the rise of British colonialism to the 1947 Partition. Although we learned about Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, and other key players in modern South Asian history, the spring semester ended before we had a chance to understand what had transpired in the subcontinent in and around 1947. Partition happened to be a period of history that I was particularly interested in, considering my maternal grandfather had migrated from Lahore to Jalandhar in 1947. My interest was definitely piqued.

Before I began volunteering to interview, though, I was part of a small team of undergraduates who acted as co-facilitators for a three unit student-run course on Partition at UC Berkeley. Students from diverse academic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds had a chance to interview survivors throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the students shared his interview experience, which was particularly memorable for me since it shed some light on the legendary Princely States of India and their culture. A young man born and raised in Hyderabad described the Nizam of Hyderabad as a fair and progressive leader who instituted educational reforms, leading to the Osmania University of Hyderabad, for example. For me it illuminated the fact that despite negative characterizations of the Nizam by outsiders, the Nizams own subjects seemed to think quite highly of him.

Mr._Mirchandani__Sindhi_map.JPG

Mr. Mirchandani migrated from the Sindh in 1947. Here he recollects fond memories of places from his youth. He uses this map for educating Sindhi youth in the US about their ancestral homeland.

Shortly after that semester, I began shadowing mentors conducting interviews, the first of which was Guneeta interviewing Mr. Mirchandani in California. He is originally from the Sindh, currently a part of modern-day Pakistan. Although he disagreed with Partition as a solution to the rapidly rising communal violence of the time, what seemed most frustrating for him was that he had to leave behind the Sindh he had known growing up. The language and holidays once central to the Sindhi Hindu identity slowly eroded as Sindhis migrating to India adopted English and other Indian languages, such as Hindi, to adapt to their new country. The loss of culture and a way of life, unfortunately, seems to be a common thread in many survivors tales. However, survival and overcoming these losses are just as much a part of the story. Mr. Mirchandani is interested in a Sindhi Renaissance in that he wants to revive Sindhi literature and pass on various aspects of Sindhi identity to future generations, including the Sindhi language.

Since then, I have tabled at the San Jose Gurdwara and done mostly Punjabi interviews with Ranjanpreet, who has acted as my mentor throughout this process. Some of the most memorable tales forced survivors to leave behind homes, friends, livelihoods, and entire futures. Mr. Malhotra for example comes from a well-educated family for whom academics were of the utmost importance, and yet, when Partition forced them to flee to India, he had to quit school to focus on helping the family by selling vegetables and pakoras at train stations. Just minutes into his interview, this seemingly tough character broke down in tears, remembering with pain the dreams he had to leave behind during that fateful August of 1947. Even though he is now a proud father to three married children and owner of his own business in Delhi, a careful look into his eyes reveals just the surface of suffering and devastation he has had to endure.

All of these stories, unique and yet similar in so many ways, point to the fact that these individuals are survivors in every sense of the word, having survived Partition as well as the loss of life and culture that accompanied it. These faces also remind me why I fell in love with history and everything that comes with it – languages, cultures and traditions, but most importantly, the people on the ground, who have experienced and lived it, not just the big names that have made their way into our textbooks. These are the stories and faces that have made 1947 more tangible for me.

About our work

We both plan to continue working for the 1947 Partition Archive. To date over thirty of us have collected more than 230 stories from the survivors in the US, India, Pakistan and Canada. This grassroots effort grows every day with each new volunteer and Partition story. A total of 78 volunteers and numerous community members have come forward to help make this story collection, archival and presentation possible. Our future plans include collecting stories from across the global South Asian diaspora so that we can increase global awareness of Partition through human stories. We are recording voices from all economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The full collection will be archived in prominent libraries with short clips available on an interactive map of South Asia on our website. These resources will serve both future generations in connecting with their own ancestral history and scholars interested in understanding the ramifications of Partition.

How you can join us

This winter, six of us are going to South Asia to collect more stories in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. There are many ways in which you can join the effort: (1) Help us identify Partition survivors, (2) Volunteer your time, or (3) Contribute financially since this community based project is made possible entirely by your support. Visit our website to learn more.


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25 Responses to “Remembering Partition, One Story at a Time”

  1. is there kantay says:

    On the initiative and your post, very fine work, thanks.

    On the picture of the gentleman with the map of Sindh, I can't help but wonder if he is creating an imagined homeland, and he looks suspiciously hypermasculine to boot.

  2. is there kantay says:

    +4 points, good job but some points off because its kind of an aggressive and hypermasculine engagement style for a progressive activist.

  3. sikh says:

    excellent work, may it create some kind of understanding for all of us and generations to come.

  4. Blighty Singh says:

    If I were to do some research on Italian sports cars but not actually visit Italy you get some idea of the flaws in Rajanpreet and Jaskiran's research model. There are 3 million Punjabis in England. And, unlike the Punjabis in other countries, the vast majority of the Sikhs are from the worst affected area of partition violence : rural Jalandhar district. Rural Jalandhar saw the worst violence because that area of doaba had a distinct muslim majority but was located in a Sikh dominated larger area. I've been listening to stories from the bajurgs all my life. 80% of the stories were about how they used to 'cut up' muslims. The other 20% were from the people that were settled by the government in rural doaba after fleeing Lyallpur and Montgomery. It was a straight swap……the Jalandhar jilla musoims were housed in Lyalpur (Faisalabad) and the rural Lyalpur Sikhs were housed in rural doaba. Which brings me to the 75% majority of Punjabis in England ; the muslims. We have alot of them from Faisalabad and Saniwal districts. These are refugees from the Jalandhar area of doaba. Trust me….these people have the most harrowing of all tales to tell. Especially true when you consider the bloodbath we Sikhs inflicted on them in rural Jalandhar and how, overall during partition, more muslims were killed than the sikhs and hindus added together.

  5. bik says:

    Blighty for someone who comes from England your post contains so many errors I don't know where to start. 75% of Punjabi aren't Muslims in England. Majority of the Pakistani Muslims are from Azad Kashmir, a small minority are from Punjab. I don't know how you came up with the 75% figure, maybe you walked down a road and saw 3 Punjabi Muslims and one Sikh and so this provided the basis for the statistic you provided! As for the killings in 1947 most scholars agree with probably equal numbers of all three communities were killed. The Sikhs were particularly targeted in West Punjab as they were seen as the ones that stood up against Pakistan and as the majority landholders in Central Punjab the Muslim league had promised the Muslim tenants the Sikh lands and property after the creation of Pakistan.

    You might have only heard stories of Muslims being 'cut up' by Sikhs from where you come from but if you bother to listen to the stories of Sikh refugees who fled from the first pogrom in March 1947 around Rawalpindi you will see how the Muslims started the whole cycle of violence and the atrocities they committed against innocent Sikhs and Hindus.

    Your statement about the resettlement of refugees in also incorrect. As Lyallpur was a canal colony the Sikhs there were migrants from East Punjab who had been allotted land four decades prior to 1947. They weren't all settled in Doaba, they were resettled in their home districts who included most of the East Punjab.

    The violence which the Sikhs inflicted on the Muslims was terrible but lets also understand that it had a definite purpose, the emptying of the area of Muslims so that the millions of Sikh refugees from West Punjab could be accommodated in this area.

  6. bik says:

    Blighty, it is academic whether they are Punjabis or not. Most would class themselves Kashmiri and even the few who would not, would class themselves as Pahari and their language is akin to Gujjari and Dogri as much as it is akin to Pothowari. None of the Gujjari or Dogri speakers in J & K or Himachal would class themselves as Punjabi.

    Even if we take them to be Punjabi, even then they do not constitute 75% of the Punjabis in the UK as you claimed. Even if we consider every Pakistani in the UK (747K) as a Punjabi and add that to 336K Sikhs who are Punjabis and add 1/5th of all HIndus in the UK as Punjabis then the Pakistani Punjabi constitute approx 62% of all Punjabis. Your 75% figure is ridiculous. Maybe I should act as your father and give you an education!

    There was no need to write such a large paragraph on the Doaba Muslims in Lyallpur. I did not dispute this, what I disputed was your assertion that Sikhs from Lyallpur were resettled in Doaba. The ones who might have migrated in early 1900s to Lyallpur from Doaba would have been resettled in Doaba and as such they would have had the same culture as the area they went back to in 1947. Your post implied that all the Lyallpur Sikhs were resettled in Doaba and the Muslim refugees from Doaba were resettled in Lyallpur. In fact according to the book 'Out of the ashes' more Lyallpur refugees were resettled in Amritsar than in Jullundur or Hoshiarpur.

    You state that I should read a book or something. Unlike you, I have actually read books and papers on this issue and that is why I give facts and figures whereas you just make dubious statements. Case in point, you state that Amritsar was an overwhelming Muslim city.. not so according to the 1941 census the Muslims were 47.8%, Sikhs 15% and others mostly Hindus were 37.1%. Hardly an overwhelmingly Muslim city!

    You other ridiculous statements such as Malwa and Majha had very few Muslims! There were about 55,000 more Muslims in Ferozpur and Ludhiana districts (Malwa) than there were in Jullundur and Hoshiarpur (Doaba) There were one and half times more Muslims in Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts (Majha) than in Jullundur and Hoshiarpur. For Malwa if you include the Muslims in the Sikh states such as Patiala, Nabha and Faridkot then Malwa had more Muslims than Doaba and Majha combined!

  7. bik says:

    Around the world there are a number of language controversies. For various reasons such as political, religious and national reason speakers of a language class themselves as speaking an independent language whereas others may class it as a dialect of another language. Technically Urdu is the same language as Hindi bit with a preponderance of Persian and Arabic words. Macedonian is classed as a language but Bulgarians would class it as a dialect of Bulgarian. The point I was making was that the Pakistanis from Mirpur consider themselves to be Kashmiris and not Punjabis.

    The Pakistani Punjabis become 62% IF we consider every Pakistani in the UK to be a Punjabi which is undoubtedly not correct. There are Sindhi, Mohajir, Pathan, Baluch and Kashmiri Pakistanis in the UK. Your claim that Pakistanis make up 75% of all Punjabis in the UK is plainly absurd.

    It was not obvious that you meant you meant Jullundur Tehsil and not Jullundur District or the Doaba as a whole. In your blinkered view, you seem to think that only Jullundur tehsil and Lyallpur district were the only places where people migrated to and migrated from.

    Let's recap. You made a number ridiculous statements-;

    1. % of Pakistani Punjabis in the UK
    2. Amritsar was an overwhelming Muslim city in 1947
    3. There were very few Muslims in Majha and Malwa.

    All the above were shown to be false.

    There was nothing particularly unique about the position that the Jullundur Tehsil Muslims found themselves in. There were Muslim settlements all along the Satluj river. In Ludhiana district the Muslim majority villages were in the Bet areas just south of the river.

  8. Meena says:

    @ Blighty Singh: sometimes you talk such [email protected]#p! Any honesty you really need to learn to write with some element of respect. Stop talking and acting like a 'chav'…..

  9. I am writing as the editor of http://www.indiaofthepast.org, which aims to capture memories of Indians and India that are eat least 50 years old. The website has several stories written by people affected by the Partition of Punjab. I am always looking for more stories, and would greatly appreciate any stories that I could add on my website.

  10. Merhdad says:

    Hello, my Muslim grandfather left Jalandahar prior to the partition, and after the partition he never heard from his family. Is there somewhere I can do to find out more what might have happened to our family either in India or Pakistan after the partition? My biggest fear is that they were wiped out, however I am holding on to any slither of hope out there, and praying that I will someday be reunited with my family.

  11. Abdul Majid Shaheen says:

    i was born in Garah a small village very close to Jullundur cantonement.My mother and my brothers alonwith other relatives migrated to Lahore with the help of my uncle who was an army officer in the indian army.But my father who was a reired police officer was very sceptical of a new country called Pakistan.He thought of staying put in jullundur until people reliase that partition cannot be a reality.He soon was proved wrong when Hinus and Sikhs were entering his village replacing Muslims.He had to run for his life,leaving the village with a heavy heart.It took him some weeks to reach safety.Eventually we settled in Daska in Sialkot district..My dad lost all his savings in India.He had to start all over again from scratch and in the end it paid off.My 2 elder brothers studied Medicine.Everyone in our street did well in a new country.There were nomore communal riots.On the whole we are very satisfied the Allah has given us a country of our own.My parents used to mention their homeland with sadness,i think they missed Jullundur.I think i would like to visit place of my birth,but chances are slim as i am nearly 68 years young.I like Jullunduri punjabi which differs with the Sialkot punjabi.
    India was partioned because Muslims and Hindus did not get on well,but we are still fighting with each other,all muslims.When i went to work in Malaysia i used to go to Sikh Gurdwara to buy chapati flour and speak to Giani ji who was imported FROM Jullundur to teach Gurbani to Sikh children.
    I have nothing but warm and friendly feelings towards to people who now live in our house in Garah as we were brought up in a house in Daska which once belonged to a Sikh family.

  12. tariq says:

    Montgomry was 75% owned by Shikhs me lived there can any one who was seen this city Dist 1947 can contact me
    it will my pleasure to serve him

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