>>Good morning and welcome to Global Perspectives.
I'm David Dumke.
In 1947, the British Raj ended in India, resulting in the independence of India, as well as the creation of Pakistan and East Pakistan, which has since become Bangladesh.
As part of that process, massive there were massive population transfers, significant violence, which was communal, sectoral, based on religion.
Today we are joined by someone who has been chronicling that history from firsthand witnesses.
So I'm joined today, I am honored to be joined by Guneeta Singh Bhalla.
Thank you for joining us.
It's my pleasure.
Thank you for having me.
>>So you were recently, until recently, a physicist at the Berkeley National Labs.
You're trained as a hard scientist.
How did you get into chronicling Indian history?
>>Well, you know, it's interesting.
So before I was a physicist, when I was growing up in this area in central Florida, I was an artist growing up.
So I was always sort of interested in the arts, and that stayed with me.
But, you know, at the same time, the work that we're doing, we're gathering information, gathering data.
And a lot of the techniques that I brought with me from the sciences really support that.
And really are actually very necessary.
>>The 1947 Partition project is the name of what you're doing.
You've conducted 11,000 interviews.
Tell me about how it went from this curiosity and some of the scientific aspects you just mentioned, but went into interviewing people and that many people?
So, you know, I had been thinking about it since I was in high school.
So I moved to the United States when I was ten.
>>And you, you, you grew up in India and you-- >>I grew up in India ‘till I was ten.
>>You were what we would consider in the US an Army brat.
>>I was an Army brat.
Yeah, I lived all over.
My dad was in the army in India, so transitioned here.
And here, it was in my high school I noticed that in world history, you know, for Indian independence, it basically said that the British there was a peaceful transfer of power and the British walked away.
You know, nothing really happened.
But I remember my grandmother telling me that there had been, you know, millions of people died and it was a very bloody transfer of power.
They lost their home.
They barely survived.
And there was that disconnect.
And it stayed with me for a very long time until 2008, I was in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and I visited the oral testimony archives.
And I realized that there's a disconnect because we don't have the survivors voices, because the survivors voices can really drive a lot of historical curiosity and research unlike any other source.
And so I knew we needed to do that.
I did not intend to leave my career.
But you know, the rest is history.
>>You're talking when you mentioned the partition in actual numbers, you talk you know, estimates are range from 200,000 killed, 2 million, 10 million displaced it to 20 million.
But these are statistics.
But you've gotten into something that's more personal.
So it's not just a footnote because statistics are numbers, but you get into the human aspect of the story.
So what what made you then changed from.
All right, this is chronicled in terms of a massive event with with huge impact on people.
But we need to get to the individual.
>>You know, there was there were several reasons for that.
I felt one thing is that when you have those individual stories, they can hit people at a visceral level that the numbers don't.
And so when something hits you at a visceral level, it sparks curiosity.
And you want to dig deeper and you want to learn more.
And why should the world learn about it?
>>Well, it was a massively disruptive event, and it's a part of World War Two because we know about the Holocaust.
We know about Hiroshima, Nagasaki.
But then there was this absolutely massive thing that happened in southern Asia because of World War Two.
And the world did not know about it.
And it changed the world.
You know, it changed geopolitical.
The geopolitical situation.
It changed the global South Asian diaspora.
It changed a lot of things in the world.
And there's even a nuclear conflict that's very hot now in South Asia because of this partition.
That's something the world cannot ignore.
So I think even for a global history and global geopolitics, it becomes really important for us to understand this fissure event, because if we don't, then politicians, others can make up history and fill in those blanks.
And that's what was happening.
>>You're mentioning this is still a very hot issue.
And of course, the problem hasn't been solved and you still have, you know, Pakistan and India really looking at each other and shaped by this this this event which goes against some of the sanitized versions of history.
We have Indian independence, we have Gandhi and peaceful protest.
But what happened with partition really went against what Gandhi stood for.
You know, so the history with Gandhi is really complex.
He's not necessarily as popular in South Asia.
It depends on where you go.
In some areas he is popular, in other areas he's not.
And in some areas he's seen as a politician.
So I think what we learn about Gandhi here is more of a sanitized version as you, as you said.
And it was not that way.
You had, you know, and even we learned this story that there was one India that was cut into pieces to make India and Pakistan.
That's not true either.
You had 563 kingdoms alongside British India, and many of these kingdoms were forced then to merge with India or Pakistan, these new countries.
So, yes, it's a very sort of complex picture that one needs to look at.
I mean, one kingdom, for example, that's still there is Bhutan everybody knows it, right?
It's the world's happiest place and all of that good stuff.
But you can imagine that the whole subcontinent was like that up until 47.
>>And you have the legacy, of course, Kashmir.
>>Yes >>War in Kashmir, that's still still very hot.
And that was because the leaders at the time opted to stay with India.
>>Against kind of where the balance was in terms.
And that, too, is a very tricky situation.
There was a lot of background, you know, tug of wars and politics between different groups happening that caused that to happen.
>>You've talked a lot about about starting the project.
And I've listened, for example, to your TED talk and things like that.
And you said some of the ideas for this project came from talking to your own, your grandmother and your own family members.
So tell us a little about the origins of that.
From a personal level, and then we'll get into some of the more interview interviews you did.
So, you know, when I was a teenager, my grandmother sat me down and we were living in and I was living in Florida.
My grandmother was in New Jersey with my dad.
And she sat me down to tell me that, you know, once upon a time they were a really well-to-do family.
They were you know, they had really nice properties and whatnot.
They were living in Lahore, which is now a city in Pakistan, and that this thing happened in 47 where they had to leave their ancestral homes and flee.
And they had been living there for hundreds of years.
And so in that, you know, that was our family history.
That's what turned us into sort of this generational refugees in a way.
And and that made me kind of really question what we had in our textbooks, because that was not anywhere to be found.
And that was something that impacted so many people.
So that's kind of how it started for me.
Um, but yeah, maybe.
>>Well, some of the stories were particularly horrifying.
You were talking about your grandmother, you know, fleeing.
>>And literally driving over over casual people who had been killed.
And so my grandmother fled with three little children.
My father was one years old at the time, and his brothers were three and seven.
And their storys a little bit long.
But basically, my grandfather had opted to become Pakistani.
He said, That's fine.
I don't you know, whatever country it is, it's our ancestral land.
We're going to stay here.
And that was quite normal.
That area has, you know, since starting with Alexander the Great, it had been plundered over and over for like 2,000 years.
And the local populations were okay with whoever comes by.
They'll continue to live.
So they were expecting that, okay, we're going to have a change in leadership and we'll we'll continue living under the new leadership.
However, things are becoming really violent in terms of ethnic cleansing on both sides.
You know, people who were Muslim on what was going to become India were being ethnically cleansed, driven out or murdered.
And the same was happening on what was to become Pakistan.
And just, you know, I think August 14th was going to be the Independence Day.
On August 13th, my grandparents neighbor convinced my grandmother to take the kids, even if temporarily, to the what was to become the Indian side.
And so she fled in a train.
Their train was fired upon.
It was apparently a very dangerous journey, but they were fine because a lot of trains were massacred after their train so the entire train would arrive in the other country completely massacred.
I mean, just stuff that you cannot fathom.
So they ended up at a refugee camp and could never go back.
And my grandfather was separated from them because he stayed back for about two years.
They couldn't find him.
So they went - they read a refugee camp.
My grandmother's brother heard about this and he came.
He was just driving around looking for family members.
He was in a town about 5 hours away.
He came in his jeep and luckily, you know, my dad's older brother saw him from really far away and screamed his name.
He heard him, drove, picked them up.
And that's where she describes that they had to, you know, drive over dead bodies at some point because of the mobs that were out there.
And my grandfather, on the other hand, we don't really know everything that happened, but we know that, you know, he must have been really depressed, having lost everything, all his entire ancestral properties.
I mean, you can imagine being in your late thirties and forties and you've got three kids and suddenly you've lost everything you own, you know.
So the story goes that he on August 14th, the next day, the military showed up and said, Well, this is now Pakistan and you cannot live here anymore.
So he packed up his belongings.
I think it was something like 27 trucks.
And they were told that after he packed it up, his trucks were seized saying this is now property of Pakistan.
And he was only allowed to take one handwritten like holy book, like the equivalent of a Bible.
It's called The Guru Granth Sahib Holy Book of the Sikhs, which was my grandparents religion.
And so he was able to bring that, and he drove himself in his car over to India.
But yeah, he had to leave everything, photographs, heirlooms, everything behind.
>>So when you started, first of all, you know, these are obviously painful memories for people.
You decided you wanted to start recording these memories of of individuals while they're still living, obviously, and get firsthand accounts.
Did people want to talk about this?
And that's kind of why it happened.
So the way it started was in 2008, I got the idea at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
In 2009, while I was still doing my Ph.D. in physics, I visited India and I started to tell people that I wanted to do this, and most people thought it was a ridiculous idea.
But I met this in this little town my family lives in.
It's like a it used to be a former kingdom, a city states.
It's like a little castle town.
And there I met a bookshop owner who said, Oh, it's a great idea.
I love it.
And I was like, He was the first person who agreed.
And so he's like, Why don't you interview me?
But when I was about to interview him, somebody else walked in and they're like, Yeah, I want to be interviewed.
And so it really started with the partition witnesses.
And I only had about two days left in India.
And people heard about it and started coming up to, you know, want to be interviewed.
So I realized that there was a need in the community and I came back to the US.
I wanted to interview my grandmother's brother who he I think he was in his nineties back then.
In 2010, it was just 2010 by this point.
And he he told me like, okay, why don't you come back, you know, to see me the next time you're in India.
And the next time didn't happen because he passed away.
And for me that was a wake up moment and like it was a huge wake up call that I have now lost.
>>And they're gone.
>>Yeah, they've taken a lifetime of memories with them.
They haven't been downloaded anywhere, you know, not that a short interview would, but you can capture some essence of the big things that happened.
And so in that week, I just I was like, I need to do something.
It was this unstoppable, irrational, absolute desire.
Nothing was going to stop me.
I was a pretty shy person, but even that was not going to stop me.
So I just started to show up at random mosques and temples in California.
Now, unlike, you know, I mean, the central Florida is changing now.
But when I grew up here, I think I must have been like the only person of Indian origin in my high school.
You know, there weren't many people from that region of the world here.
But in California, I was different.
You had massive communities that had been there since the 1800s.
You know, they came during the gold rush and all of that.
And so I showed up at the temples and mosques there without knowing anyone.
And I set up a table and it had a sign, you know, stories.
And this huge line formed.
And I was like, Wow, people want to talk about this.
I can't do this myself.
And so I started gathering volunteers and, you know, I was new to the area.
I didn't know anyone.
I had just moved there from Florida and so volunteers joined me.
We started doing this on the weekends.
Pretty soon I started cheating on my work and doing this like sneaking away on a Tuesday to do this or, you know, Thursday.
That's when I realized that I needed to.
I couldn't do both jobs.
I needed to do this full time.
>>India is a very diverse place geographically in terms of religious affiliations.
How do you go about this when you started I'm going to do this, I'm all in.
How did you decide?
We need we need to have different viewpoints, obviously, because what one person sees, you know, is not what another person sees.
So these are coming from different viewpoints.
How did you decide where we're going to interview, who we're going to interview and from what perspective?
So this is really important, especially in the context of India, because it's identity politics are huge there, right?
I think what really helped me was one, being an Army brat and always being different, I would you know, we would keep moving to different places.
And I was always the odd one out because I was never local, right?
And I was always from a different ethnic group and so on.
And then so moving to the US again, being a super minority and realizing that people have different points of views depending on their background.
And so to me, having lived in so many places, it was important to make sure that everyone was represented.
And I didn't have those inherent biases based on, you know, religion and identity.
I think partly also in the US, we're very good about, you know, you learn to be politically correct.
And I think there is some value and now there's some negatives, obviously, but there's some value in that because it really teaches you to be aware of biases.
And I think that training from living in this country, living here in central Florida and then my Army brat upbringing really helped for that.
>>Have you have you found people you've interviewed that have seen the exact same event and told you about it differently, both believing that their version is completely accurate?
>>You know, we haven't seen we have seen people who have seen the exact same event.
And I think with the way that we do interviews, there's not as much incentive to kind of lie because it's really about their feelings and their experience.
So we haven't seen too many like vastly different maybe like competing explanations of the same event.
But we've had a lot of people talk about some very unusual events, and we've had people on both sides like the the people who are committing the violence and the people who were violated.
Both have told us about the same thing, like, yes, I did commit the violence.
And yes, you know, we were victimized by it.
>>And this is this is obviously a half hour show.
And I'd love to talk about this for a long time, but can you give us a couple of stories that really stick out to you that would help our viewers understand this?
So I think stories of children.
So there were I think about 14 and a half million people lost their homes just between 1946 and 48.
If you go up to the 1950s, you have more than 20 million people who lost their homes.
What's lesser known is that about 100,000 women were kidnaped and forced to marry their kidnapers.
There were countless children who are orphaned and no one knows.
No one's kept statistics.
No one really knows what happened to them.
So we've interviewed a lot of these children.
We found people in their nineties who were, you know, who were orphaned and taken in as like farm laborers.
These are kids who could have had great education and totally different life had their parents still been alive, but they had sort of been co-opted onto farms as like bonded laborers.
And they were still living.
They're in their nineties.
We met children who saw their families get killed in front of them and who, you know, went through extreme lengths to overcome their trauma.
And so I think those children's stories and children who became laborers, who could have done something else, maybe with their life, but who ended up becoming laborers.
And, you know, it's really interesting to see how they survived and who even knows how many children didn't survive.
Then, of course, you have women.
There are so many different ways that women dealt with being kidnaped.
We've had women who got attached to their kidnapers and didn't want to leave because later the military's from both the new countries tried to so-called retrieve women who were kidnaped, and a lot of them didn't want to leave.
And we've interviewed some of them who didn't want to leave and were forced to then leave because they'd already started families with their kidnapers.
So then they were forced to leave.
But then they were stigmatized when they came back.
So they didn't fit in once they had already had a family on the other side.
So those kinds of stories, I think, you know, really get to us.
And I'll just give you one specific example.
There was a gentleman in California, and he was he saw his whole family get killed and he had not talked about it his entire life.
He was eight years old when he saw that happened.
And I think after he graduated high school, he hitchhiked from Pakistan.
In those days, you could in the seven days, you could literally walk to Iran, Afghanistan and Middle East and so on in Europe.
He hitchhiked to England, started a new life, eventually made it to California, is now doing great, has nine grandchildren.
But he didn't tell anyone his family story until we showed up.
So and since then, he's been talking about it a lot, going around and giving community talks.
And it's been very, very therapeutic for him.
But that's just one of the thousands of examples that we have.
>>Well, two, two perceptions, at least again, in the narrative of what happened during the partition, you know, one is that the violence was spontaneous.
And another was that violence often, you know, pitted neighbor versus neighbor.
People who knew each other then suddenly turned against each other.
What did you find on those perceptions?
>>Yeah, this is a really good question.
The second perception has been completely undone for us.
We have not seen.
I mean, there may be a case of neighbor against neighbor.
I have not seen a single one in the thousands of stories that we have.
Neighbors, in fact, helped each other, even if they were of different religions.
It was the violence was mostly committed by people who would come from a different town.
It was impersonal and it was usually driven by loot.
Though we have a few cases where we have stories of people who were like teenage boys at the time and it was trendy, they would talk about just going around stabbing people for no reason at all.
It was just like in the air.
So but those are more rare.
Most of the violence that we hear about is driven by finders keepers is by the promise of loot of these people who are now going to have to move and they can be looted.
Powerful, powerful stuff.
>>How are people willing to forgive at this point or those memories when you're talking about them?
Does the does the anger, you know, emerge again?
>>So we don't see anger in the generation that experience the violence.
That's a really interesting.
We see anger in their children and the next generations.
And that's creating a lot of polarization today.
You see a lot of forgiveness in the communities that were victimized.
And in fact, you're seeing a lot of communication in the northern state of Punjab in India and in Pakistan.
You're seeing a lot of cross-border communication through social media.
Of course, that doesn't suit the narratives of Delhi and Islamabad, the capitals.
So it's discouraged by, I think, the central government.
But it is happening.
And on a person to person level, there aren't as many issues anymore with that original generation of people.
>>Something you pointed out in a talk you gave about the implications on the economy of villages, where you had villages, where you had, you know, certain professions were all Muslim or all Hindu, and they all left.
So how did the you know, what was the economic impact?
Explain that a little.
>>Yeah, you know, this is so fascinating.
So, you know, the book, I think it's Yuval Harari.
I'm I hope I'm saying his name correctly.
He has in his book how in the old days in the Agricultural Revolution days for, you know, maybe a good 10,000 years, we had these closed village units.
And we see that in our stories that you have these these villages were closed economic units.
They did not need to purchase anything from outside.
You had people who were in generational professions.
That's how professional integrity was passed down.
Was children learned from their parents.
And what had happened was there was a caste hierarchy in India and South Asia in general, and people who were, you know, of a so-called lower caste quite often converted to other religions where they were not bound by caste, they converted to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism.
And so what happened is when partition happened, you had had entire professional groups or caste because profession was tied to caste.
So, you know, you could be a person that was a shoemaker.
So that would be an entire caste, would be shoemakers.
If they had converted to Islam, they had to move to the other side.
And if you were in the Pakistani side, if you were not, you know, if you had not converted to Islam, you had to move to the Indian side.
So as a result, you had, you know, a lot of sort of people who made handmade goods usually tended to be either Christian or Islamic.
And the Islamic people moved from the Indian side.
And whereas you had the farmers and the businessmen from the Pakistani side and they moved in mass to the Indian side.
So that's a funny economic thing that happened.
And you can still see the impacts of that because you see that in terms of handicrafts and beautiful, you know, design work and textile work.
You see that, you know, Pakistan definitely has the upper hand on that.
And you see that because those generational professions sort of thrived in Pakistan.
So you see the impacts of that and you see like a lot of the big businessmen who lived the business, families that lived in what is Pakistan now, in Sind and so on, they have come over to India and now their grandchildren are like some of the wealthiest sort of millionaires and billionaires in India and are, you know, have created their own sort of business empires.
>>Have you had some people reveal that they thought, you know, India worked better as a united entity, at least on the economic level, if not cultural?
So a lot of people who went through partition on Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi side, most of them kind of feel that it would have been more powerful had they stuck together because at this moment, India and Pakistan are very prone to, you know, other geopolitical tensions.
You know, if there's tensions going on somewhere else between two powers, they'll latch onto one or the other.
And that gets exasperated in India and Pakistan, China and the US.
>>So we just just have a minute left.
What what is the government of Pakistan, India, that any reaction to your project?
>>No, because, you know, we don't make any political statements.
We're totally nonpolitical.
We're really about people's personal experiences.
And we've interviewed to the highest level of government officials.
I mean, for example, in Pakistan, Musharraf's mother's interview, you know, General Musharraf's mother's interviews in the archive in India, there are many members of parliament whose interviews are in the archive.
And we were hoping to get to the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but we haven't yet.
So there's a lot of people who are in government whose stories are in the archives, so we don't do anything volatile or disrupt or do anything disruptive.
So I think I think nobody has raised any questions.
>>Well, sadly, our time is out, but I just want to compliment you on this very worthy project for humanity as well as Indian history, specifically the 1947 Partition project.
Where can people check it out?
>>They can go to 1947partitionarchive.org.
That's one place they can go to Facebook and search for us.
The 1947 Partition Archive.
On Twitter and Instagram.
Bhalla thank you so much for joining us today.
>>Thank you so much for having me.
>>And thank you for joining us.
We'll see you again next week on another episode of Global Perspectives.