There are few unbiased, non-tampered records of archival data (photos, oral accounts, correspondence etc.) of the Pakistan’s partition from India in 1947. Most state narratives come with an anti-Indian nationalist rhetoric that erases the stories of many including religious and ethnic minorities from the nation-building moment. Such state-centric, and often propaganda-like accounts are relied on heavily by the public and private school systems for the history curriculums. The Oral History Project, founded by The Citizens’ Archive of Pakistan (CAP) aims to collect stories from the generation of elders who lived through the partition, the largest mass migration in history. The next 5 years are crucial for this project, as its target participant demographic is disappearing (old age).
In the bloody, unsettling and chaotic moments of the 1947 partition of East and West Pakistan from India upon the fall of the British Raj, many Muslims abandoned their homes to make the dangerous trek northwards to cross the newly formed border to Pakistan. The migration, made by foot, by train, by cart, and by horse, remains one the most traumatic events in both nations’ histories. The end of the British Raj left behind lines of strife across religions within the subcontinent including mass killings, rape and displacement of Muslims bound for Pakistan. Estimates of people killed and displaced range from one million people killed and 15 million displaced. There are gruesome pictures and stories capturing crowds of Sikhs and Hindu nationalists sitting and waiting at train stops to murder anyone heading to Pakistan. The mutual genocide also included many accounts of individuals forcefully displaced from their land/properties, forced religious conversions, arson, mass abductions and brutal torture and sexual violence of 75,000 women.
Pakistani history books attribute the founding of Pakistan to the fundamental divide and tension between Hindus and Muslims. Many find this controversial because such a tension and self-articulation of group identity did not exist prior to British occupation or even during the British Raj. Such an all-encompassing focus on religion as the primary reason for division also ignores other critical reasons such as differences in culture, language, and demographics. The division between populations also discredits the history of conflict between Islamic empires, respect for religious pluralism under Mughal rule and other histories of tolerance and co-habitation. The state narrative of the founding of Pakistan is one-sided because it seeks to glorify national leaders, ignore and demonize the Indian "Other" and push the province of Punjab’s experiences of partition to the forefront of its nation-building agenda. The less bloody stories and varied partition narratives of the other provinces are rarely taken into account. Though Pakistan’s first Education Minister, Fazalur Rehman, instituted the Historical Society of Pakistan in 1948 in the hopes of rewriting Pakistani history in a fair and unbiased voice, successive governments abandoned his efforts.
Over 60 years later, the Citizens’ Archives of Pakistan is looking to finish what Minister Rehman started by (re)building the story of Pakistan through oral histories, old photographs, correspondence, newspapers etc. collected from citizens and their families. What makes the project unique is not only its citizens’ perspective to writing history and understanding national identity, but also, its focus on including the partition stories from marginalized communities and producing history curriculums for teachers with their archival data. The Oral History Project also seeks to digitize newspapers, letters, official correspondences, refugee cards and passports to create an online and accessible database for everyone, as well as organize interactive exhibitions and curate for museums. The ultimate aim of the project is to work towards building a multi-media, interactive Living History Museum of Pakistan that allows visitors to explore their histories through the play, imagination and the five senses.
Originating Entities and Funding
The project was founded in September 2010 by the Citizens’ Archive Project, a non-profit organization committed to cultural and historic preservation of Pakistani culture, languages and history based in Karachi and Lahore. The primary goals of the organization are to preserve culture and cultivate awareness and education of the nation’s history and heritage through reform of the public/private school history curriculums, digitization of archives and interactive exhibits. Its main focus is working with the strong tradition of oral storytelling in Pakistan. The organization has many educational outreach programs. It is a member of the Society of American Archivists, International Council on Archives and the International Oral History Association. It is funded primarily through donors, sponsors, a list of whom is available here: http://www.citizensarchive.org/friends-of-cap/
Those who participate in the Oral History Project as donors or archives are families and elders from the general public who either lived through the partition or have stories to share from their grandparents’ experience. The participants volunteer their information, stories and archives because they want to have their experiences be a part of the nation’s history and play a role in the preservation of their cultures. Most participants are elders who directly migrated from India to Pakistan in the partition.
The primary method is oral storytelling and the digitization of archives.
Deliberations and Decision Making
The notable sponsors of the project send out public calls for submissions of archives (old pictures, correspondence, newspapers, oral histories etc.) through their personal and professional social media and traditional news outlets. CAP’s team of researchers and photographers digitizes the archives donated. Individuals who choose to donate oral histories are filmed in a short 1 to 2 minute video, or audio recording/sound byte for sound cloud retelling their story of not only the partition and the migration but also, the culture before the partition. The videos, audio recordings and digitized archives are uploaded onto their website, online database, social media channels and sound cloud and then circulated through the famous personalities that support their work such as Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
The digitized archives and oral histories are also used as content for the many festivals, exhibits, galleries and community outreach programs conducted by CAP. The Shanaakht (identity) festival is one event organized to make accessible the archives collected by CAP. The event is a free to all festival of art, photography, story telling and music/theatre based on cultivating critical reflection on the country’s journey since partition. Two Shanaakht festivals have so far taken place in Karachi, the first in August 2007, and the second in November 2009. The oral histories are made accessible through an interactive display called “Mere Kahani, Meri Zabani” (Here is my story) featuring ordinary Pakistanis who live through the partition.
Another vital dimension of the initiative is the Minority Project which aims to capture the lives and lifestyles of religious minorities in Pakistan such as the Hindu, Sikh, Baha’i and Zoroastrian communities. One way it documents archives from these communities is by collecting photographs, films and audios of many festivals from the Hindu festivals of Holi, Diwali, Shivratri, Vaisakhi, Sri Krishna Janamasthami, Durga Pooja, Dashera and Sri Valmiki’s birthday and the Sikh religious occasions of Guru Gobind’s birthday, Lohri, Sikh New Year, Vaisakhi, Guru Nanak Jayanti, Ranjit Singh’s death anniversary and the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev. For the Christian community, the team was involved in Christmas, Maryam Yatra, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday celebrations while the Zoroastrian festival of Navroz and the Baha’i celebrations of Hazrat Bab’s birthday.
An exhibition organized by CAP based on the content collected through the Oral History Project, called the “Birth of Pakistan,” engaged children and interactively took them through the many stages of Pakistani sovereignty. The exhibition took place at Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi in March 2010 and “presented an exclusive ‘train journey’ from India to Pakistan, reconstructing replicas of government offices and refugee camps. Children had a chance to explore the contents of a ‘sundook‘ or trunk brought to Pakistan by a migrant, photographs and film clips of significant events of Pakistan’s early history.” Visitors received copies of the first Pakistani passport, and witnessed the original independence announcement and celebrated the stories and efforts of the political leaders behind the nation’s founding. More than 10,000 students and 4000 members of the public attended the exhibit. Such exhibits forward the ultimate goal of the project: to open a National Interactive Museum and accessible database of archives. The digitized archives and stories are also used to create syllabi for history curriculums for private and public schools.
The project has currently collected 1800 stories in the form of archives, videos and audio recordings of interviews with those who lived through the partition, garnered incredible support from prominent industry leaders in art/cultural (re)production and corporate sponsorship and produced an impressive array of education tools and programs.
Analysis and Criticism
Though the project is still in its beginning stages, the stories collected seem to be from an upper middle class set of individuals such as those with connections to politics, civil service, film and the military. Though the project has a strong commitment to engage low-income families and children in its educational outreach programs, the project seems to have little evidence of stories of partition from low-income families, farmers etc.