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Survivors of British India Partition Record Traumatic Oral Histories

A Palo Alto resident shares his story of survival as he migrated during the 1947 Partition of British India. He was recently interviewed by the 1947 Partition Archive, a new Berkeley non-profit that is collecting these stories.

Nearly 64 years ago, Palo Altan Vishin Jotwani lost his home, his relatives, his culture and his language in the largest forced migration in human history.          

Jotwani, 89, was one of 14.5 million people who were displaced in the violent partition of British India that split the country into Pakistan and India on August 15, 1947. What should have been a cause for celebration – independence from nearly a century of British rule – quickly turned into a nightmare for millions who were forced to migrate across the new border.

Between 500,000 and 2 million people died in the process due to mob violence and extremists on both sides, although exact numbers are not known.                    

While working in a refugee camp after a turbulent migration, Jotwani said he felt his spirit break. Before the Partition, the 25-year-old doctor had planned on going to Johns Hopkins for further studies, but decided instead to stay in India and provide medical assistance in refugee camps.

Some atrocities hit closer to home—one of his cousin’s sons was the lone survivor in his family of what Jotwani described as a “butchering” at a train station. He only survived because he fell off the platform out of sight—only to watch his mother and three siblings brutally murdered in front of him.

“I was very close to him, and… we helped him to rehabilitate,” Jotwani said. “It was the greatest traumatic experience for him.”

Moving from his ancestral town in Sindh to India was far from easy, and at one point he and his family spent 24 hours on a cargo ship that left from Karachi to the nearest Indian port.

“We all were herded like sheep,” he said. “Being a cargo ship, there was no bathroom—it was the most difficult and most torturous night for me and my family.”

On the other side of the border, Muzaffer Haider, 72, who was only 8 years old at the time, traveled in a similar cargo ship for four days—the only difference is that it was going in the opposite direction. To read the Saratoga resident’s story, click here.

Jotwani and Haider consider themselves lucky – unlike others they knew, all of their immediate family members survived. “We human beings are so resilient in spite of suffering and losing dear ones, loss of all lands and property,” Jotwani said. “We learned to forget the past and think of today and tomorrow.”   

But one Bay Area organization is hoping their stories will never be forgotten. Jotwani was among 175 people who have been interviewed by the 1947 Partition Archive, a new non-profit based in Berkeley which aims to collect oral histories in video and audio format from those who were affected by the Partition.

Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a postdoctoral physics researcher at UC Berkeley, founded the organization after an inspiring visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial oral history archives in Japan.

The project transcends religion or nationality and is not political, said Bhalla, and the organization takes care to gather stories from all individuals affected by Partition, regardless of their religious or ethnic background. So far, they have collected stories from Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Hyderabadi, Bihari, Pathan, Rajasthani, Gujrati and British populations. The Archive suspects there are hundreds of Partition survivors in the Bay Area alone.

Diverse communities used to live in harmony before the Partition. As Haider said, “There was no such thing as Hindu and Muslim. Everyday we lived together. People from Hindu communities used to celebrate Eid and we used to celebrate Holi and Diwali.” He said that their Hindu family friends even helped them escape and stopped an attack on his family. 

There is an urgency with which the Archive operates—many of the survivors are now in their late 80s, and their numbers are quickly dwindling.         

Although there have been some efforts made to document survivor stories in print form, no one has yet made a digital and diverse oral history archive like the one Bhalla and her team are working on. Armed with some basic video equipment and a desire to learn, volunteers often make long journeys of their own to visit survivors in their homes. 

“It is very sad and painful for me to revive the old memories,” Jotwani said, “but it is so important for the preservation of the facts—the real facts instead of leaving it to the imagination of the editorials.”

Bhalla hopes that the Archive will help clarify misconceptions about the history of the subcontinent. “In the U.S., they think India and Pakistan have been around forever—two countries at war for centuries—which is obviously wrong.”

The Archive currently has no paid employees, running on 60 volunteers all over the world and a few donations. But the interview sessions are as eye-opening for the volunteers, they say, as they are therapeutic for the survivors, who sometimes weep after giving their accounts.  

“I’ve come across stories of a lot of regret,” said Cupertino volunteer Iram Nawaz. “That we were the same people, that we were a loving brotherhood—a whole community—just a few months before 1947.”

Read more about Nawaz’s and Los Altos resident Reena Kapoor’s interviewing experiences at Cupertino Patch.

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