Interviewing Partition Survivors

Via 3QD, I came across an article in the Washington Post about a 10 year research project, based in Delhi but funded by the Ford Foundation, to interview thousands of survivors of the 1947 Partition.

The story begins with a powerful anecdote:

Every year in March, Bir Bahadur Singh goes to the local Sikh shrine and narrates the grim events of the long night six decades ago when 26 women in his family offered their necks to the sword for the sake of honor.

At the time, sectarian riots were raging over the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, and the men of Singh's family decided it was better to kill the women than have them fall into the hands of Muslim mobs.

"None of the women protested, nobody wept," Singh, 78, recalled as he stroked his long, flowing white beard, his voice slipping into a whisper. "All I could hear was the sound of prayer and the swing of the sword going down on their necks. My story can fill a book." (link)

These 'honor killings', where women were killed by male members of their families to prevent their being raped by communal mobs, were not at all unusual. I do not know if they happened in other communities, but in the Sikh community in particular it is thought that thousands of women died this way. (I do not think anybody knows exactly how many it was.)

Thus far, the project has interviewed about 1300 people, including Bir Bahadur Singh. The project ("Reconstructing Lives: Memories of Partition") does not appear to have a web presence, and I'm not sure whether there are any plans to digitize the tapes from the interviews, or publish raw transcripts. Hopefully, that will be in the cards at some point.

Unlike the Jewish Holocaust, where there have been many documentary projects, including a number of survivor interview projects, the Partition of India has only been studied in dribs and drabs. There is, as I understand it, no public memorial to the Partition in India itself (compare to the many museums and monuments devoted to memorializing the Holocaust in western countries).

But a full knowledge of the true history, including these personal testimonials, is extremely important, for a number of reasons. First, it adds to the historical record, and makes it harder for extremist (communal) groups on both sides of the border to distort the story, or to put all of the blame for today's problems on the other party. Second, a fuller knowledge from a position of historical distance might help everyone address the lingering trauma the event created (it's no accident that the person heading this operation is a psychologist), so we can start to address the root causes of this kind of violence.

Other posts on Partition to look at: here, here, and here.