“At the stroke of the midnight hour, as the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” Perhaps the most overwhelming line from Independent India’s first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru’s speech ‘Tryst with Destiny’ was overly optimistic. The end of the 200-year-old British colonisation, the long struggle independence waged by freedom fighters surely needed to be acknowledged and celebrated. But did the Indian subcontinent really awake to ‘life’ and ‘freedom’?
The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding ‘no’. A bloody partition was perhaps the last product of colonisation. British India was divided into two independent dominion states—India and Pakistan based on the ‘Mountbatten Plan’. The Radcliffe line that carved East and West Punjab based on the religious majority was made by Sir Cyril Radcliffe who had then not even been east of Paris. What followed was the biggest mass migration in human history. UNHCR estimates that around 20 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during this partition. Incidents of communal violence, human rights violations and an overwhelming refugee crisis caused nearly two million deaths and the abduction of almost 50,000 women.
Behind the statistics of this grave event which was a result of hurried and inconsiderate political decisions lie intimate stories of the partition’s victims and survivors. The human stories of the millions, who lost their homes and homelands; whose families were broken and sense of identity displaced, overnight. From materialistic memories to narratives of grit, compassion and brotherhood, from long journeys taken on foot and train to tragic incidents of violence and massacre, from political ramblings to discussions on ideology, from making dwellings in refugee camps to yearning for a home left in a country, no longer theirs—several archives and ethnographies have attempted to document the personal stories of those that witnessed the tragedy of partition. One of these archives is now available at SOAS as a special digital collection.
Partition Voices is a collection of audio-tapes that contain interviews of partition survivors conducted by Andrew Whitehead, a former BBC Correspondent in India, a historian and author and a visiting professor at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. From interviews of poignant authors like Khushwant Singh who wrote the famed, ‘Train To Pakistan’ to narratives of poet and essayist Amrita Pritam to the story of the notorious thug of Calcutta’s underworld, Gopal Mukherjee and many more—each dialogue brings forth new stories and perspectives.
In this ‘moving account’ of Khorshed Italia, who was Whitehead’s friend’s mother, she talks about the violence inflicted on the region’s women. In this raw and gritty interview, Shingara Singh, who Whitehead describes as ‘old style patriarch’ shows no remorse for the violence and talks of ‘the crows’, an anti-Muslim gang he was involved in at Partition. There’s also a rather insightful interview with Abdul Ghani Lone, a leader of the People’s Conference from Kupwara, Kashmir who talks about the politics and bloodshed that his homeland has been caught in ever since partition.
Each of these interviews, like the hundreds of others in the archive, is meticulous, detailed and penetrating. Most of them have been conducted in Hindi and English in the 1990s in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with cultural/political figures and ordinary people. The interviews are semi-structured and allow for several follow-up questions and anecdotes, that Whitehead gets most his interviewees to narrate in an almost disarming candour.
Some of these interviews have been a part of the 1997 BBC Show that Whitehead made called, India: A People Partitioned. He has since made three deposits to SOAS, comprising of 89 cassette tapes with several interviews, 3 cassette tapes of the five broadcast programmes, detailed here as, “The Gathering of the Storm‘, on the context of partition, disturbances in 1946, ‘The Killing Fields of Punjab‘, examining partition violence; ‘Tearing the Veil’, on women’s experiences, ‘Comers and Goers’, concerning the dilemmas of Muslims in India; ‘Unfinished Business‘, on the continuing legacy of partition in regional politics and diplomacy in Kashmir” and further 47 CDs consisting of interviews to events in Kashmir in 1947, respectively. The archive also contains transcripts, a few photographs, news reports and notes.
The details of the interviewees and themes in each of these tapes are painstakingly outlined in Whitehead’s blog where he also contextualises his experiences of the Partition project that he worked on for over 20 years and describes his connect with the interviewees. Whitehead, now based out of the UK has also done seminal work on Kashmir and continues writing about for leading publications. His book, ‘A Mission In Kashmir’ published by Penguin in 2007 is an account of oral histories to understand its humanitarian crisis as a disputed territory. His broad and extensive body of work is outlined and available to access on his website.
For a sub-continent that continues raging with communal violence as India-Pakistan relationships continue to soar, Partition Voices is a significant archive to understand the beginnings of this conflict that is rooted in colonialism and motivated by religious politics and is impacting the marginalised the most. In these unprecedented times when inequalities have never been so exposed, the collection provides necessary insight into thinking about conflicts and borders.
To access the SOAS Digital Collection of ‘Partition Voices’, click here.
Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo