Sitting in her Karachi home, Jamshed Jahan Ara looks straight into the camera as she explains in a trembling voice how her family fled India during Partition in 1947. Just six years old when she boarded an overcrowded train bound for the newly created Muslim state of Pakistan, Ara recalls watching armed Sikhs approach—then hearing her father tell her brother to kill the women of the family if the convoy was attacked.
“One is my wife, another is my sister and one is my daughter,” she recalls him saying. “So, dear, be a man. I can’t shoot them. You must kill all three and we will fight [the Sikhs] till the last before we surrender. I asked, ‘Why would Neeam kill me. I have done nothing wrong,’” the 76-year-old tells the camera, emotion flooding her face as she remembered her father’s reply: “A bullet is better [than being captured].”
On both sides of the border that divided the subcontinent 70 years ago, historians are racing to record the accounts of the last living witnesses to one of the largest, deadliest human migrations of all time.
In August 1947 the British Raj was dismantled, creating a newly independent India—though with chunks of its western and eastern regions hurriedly amputated to create Pakistan. Partition etched a deep fissure in the region and threw millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs on the road to their new homeland.
Six thousand kilometers of new borders were drawn in just five weeks. Fifteen million people uprooted. Entire villages massacred. Tens of thousands of women kidnapped and raped. Possibly as many as two million lives lost. But behind those statistics are the stories of the men and women who lived through that historic moment, the legacy of which still defines relations in South Asia.
In Pakistan’s Karachi, students and volunteers are transcribing fragments of oral history collected across the country by the Citizen Archives of Pakistan. “History for the longest amount of time has been limited to the people who were the rulers or the winners but history has a larger scope. It has individuals who get affected. It has cultures that get affected,” said Aliya Tayyabi, director of the archives.
Sukhwant Kaur, 78, had always struggled to find the words to explain her family’s terrifying escape to the Indian side of the border. Sitting in her home in Amritsar in north India, the grandmother can still recall with startling clarity the horrors she witnessed as a child of eight.
A mother asking her son to drown her in a river. A small pond with corpses floating in it that was the only place to find water. A woman cutting the umbilical cord of her newborn child with the only thing she could find—a stick of sugar cane. “I feel much lighter inside having dared to explain all this,” said Kaur.
It is stories like Kaur’s that, for several years now, organizations on both sides of the border including the Citizen Archives of Pakistan, the Amritsar Partition Museum and the 1947 Partition Archive have been hurrying to record and digitize. “That generation is leaving us,” said Mallika Ahluwalia, director of the newly created Partition Museum. “There’s this real sense of urgency.”
The projects are also seeking to transform that volatile period into more than just a chapter in a school textbook.
In Punjab, which saw some of the worst violence of 1947, the Partition Museum enlisted the help of a dozen high school students from Amritsar. Few families living around Amritsar, just 30 kilometers from Pakistan, escaped Partition untouched. The teenagers were told to find three stories from the period from amongst their relatives.
“While interviewing them, images were forming in front of my eyes. It was a painful experience, I almost felt the pain that they were going through at that time,” said 16-year-old student Aniket Bhatia. Fellow student Rahat Sandhu burst into tears as she heard the story of a survivor whose baby sister was abandoned on the side of the road because no one could carry her. “He cried, and I cried too,” said Sandhu. “The kind of energy they put into their words, the kind of bond we shared for that time, for 15 minutes, is inexplicable.”
But within the tales of desperate decisions and senseless brutality emerge stories of love and hope. “So many people who made it across, made it across because of the kindness of a friend, of a neighbor, of somebody who worked with them and in many cases even a stranger,” said Ahluwalia of the Partition Museum.
Survivors’ accounts also offer objectivity from those who suffered most, says Aleena Mashhood of the Oral History Project—an increasingly valuable perspective as time goes on. “They say something like, that wasn’t us Muslims who suffered, it was also the Hindus who suffered,” she said. “Your bias breaks.”
In Amritsar’s Partition Museum, where the wounds that still define the region are preserved, the last room is perhaps aptly named “The gallery of Hope.”