The partition of ‘British’ India in August 1947 not only created two new independent nations, India and Pakistan, but also resulted in one of the greatest forced migrations in human history. Millions of frightened people, displaced from their ancestral homes, fled across newly delineated (and quite artificial) borders depending upon their faiths to start new lives in a strange place often with nothing. Hindus and Sikhs exited from lands demarcated as “Muslim” Pakistan into the “new” India, while Muslims departed Hindu-dominated India into the new state called Pakistan (West and East).
During the chaos and convulsions of this sudden displacement, untold violent crimes occurred – including mass-rapes and murder – committed by all sides, resulting in trauma for untold hundreds of thousands, perhaps, millions of people. However, given that these terrible and life-changing events took place almost seven decades ago, the community of people with clear memories of this period is vanishing. The youngest of these Partition ‘survivors’ are now well into their 70s, making it urgent to gather as many eyewitness accounts while they still draw breath.
To address this immediate concern, an organization called The 1947 Partition Archive has launched a crowd-funding campaign designed to collect stories before they are lost forever.
The Archive, operated by a small group based in the University of California in Berkeley with hundreds of volunteers across the world has already assembled nearly a thousand of such tales – many heartbreaking -- for its website, but seeks many more.
“I looked up to see the same sky, the same stars, but this was India,” said J. Hemrajani, a Hindu who moved to Delhi from a small town in Sindh, Pakistan. Another eyewitness named G. S. Sekhon said: “I feel like I was forced into exile. Except I did nothing wrong to deserve that.”
According to the Archive, about 15 million people became homeless and over a million lost their lives during the mass cross-migration of peoples. “As many as 100,000 women were abducted and countless children were orphaned,” the Archive stated. “Many of the eye-witnesses, now in their 70s and 80s, still remain deeply emotionally wounded. Moreover the global legacy of Partition lives on today in the form of the disputed Line of Control between India and Pakistan, the world’s second most heavily militarized border.”
The Archive noted that it has stored almost 1000 video interviews about Partition experiences ranging in length from one to nine hours for preservation.
To help with this massive effort to collect as many testimonies as possible, the Archie has launched a campaign on IndieGoGo, the international crowd-funding site, to “expand the organization's equipment and digital systems used for story collection.” The IndieGoGo campaign will last through the end of January and has a goal to reach $35,000 in donations. Such funds will be used to train up to 1000 ‘Citizen Historians’ and preserve 3000 witness accounts from Partition survivors this year. “Because we are huge believers in grassroots and crowdsourcing, we wanted to take that route. This way, anybody from anywhere can contribute,” said the archive’s founder, Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla.
The Partition of India and Pakistan, a decision made by lawmakers far from the front-lines, unleashed an episode of brutal depravity that might be unmatched in recent history. These atrocities primarily occurred in Punjab and Bengal and involved venal criminality on the part of all parties concerned: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Women of all ages, ethnic groups and social classes were victimized, tortured and raped -- some even were stripped naked and paraded down streets to intensify their trauma and humiliation. In many even more tragic cases, fathers, fearing that their daughters would soon be raped (and converted to another faith), pressured and coerced the girls to commit suicide lest such an event “taint” their family's “honor” and standing in the community -- or they killed their own female relatives themselves.
Stories (some unconfirmed, others proven) abound of husbands, brothers, nephews and sons killing their female relatives to spare them the shame of rape and forced conversion. But some women voluntarily killed themselves (as well as their female children in some cases), often by self-immolation or by throwing themselves into wells. Even women who survived these atrocities could not live with their dark realities and committed suicide.
Aside from the sheer horror of sexual violation, some rape survivors had to literally wear physical signs of their shame -- rapists frequently mutilated and disfigured the girls' skins with markings and graffiti that reflected the violators’ political or religious affinities, including tattooed phrases like “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long Live Pakistan”) or “Jai Hind” (“Long Live India”) or symbols like the Hindu trident or Islamic crescent moon.
Many women had their breasts chopped off, others suffered the abuse and torture of their genitals -- in most cases leading to death. The Indian government now estimates that 83,000 women and girls were abducted and raped during Partition, but other believed this estimate is far too conservative. Once a girl was raped, she lost her value and place in society -- she was unwanted even by her own family. In many cases, rape victims married their rapists, converted into their religion and never saw their natal families ever again.
Urvashi Butalia, an Indian feminist and author, told the Indian Express that some of these women were sold into prostitution. “Some were sold from hand to hand,” she said. “Some were taken as wives and married by conversion. And some just disappeared.''
The trauma of this violence has impacted at least three generations since 1947, as some survivors are now elderly women and only beginning to reflect on the brutality they endured. “Much of this has involved unearthing hidden histories and bringing women’s accounts into the mainstream of understanding partition,” Pippa Virdee, a professor of South Asian studies at DeMontfort University in Britain told the Women Under Siege blog.