In our upcoming issue of OHR (49.2), Pippa Virdee discusses how shifts in how oral history has been documented and shared impact our understanding of the partition of India and Pakistan in her article “Histories and Memories in the Digital Age of Partition Studies.” Today, the 75th anniversary of Partition, is an apt time to reflect on the changing ways we document and share that history. Access Virdee’s article online in advance of the issue.
By Pippa Virdee
This year marks 75 years since the Partition/Independence of India and Pakistan. Independence from colonial rule was supposed to usher in a new dawn of freedom, but it was marred with violence that accompanied and led to the forced migration of the “other” (minority) community. The impact reverberated far and beyond the new lines of control, however, it was especially concentrated in the two provinces of Punjab and Bengal, which were divided to create the new international border. The generation that witnessed this horrific and turbulent episode has all but disappeared now; what remains are the people who have inherited the legacies of this division based on religion.
In 2000, I began my doctoral research to examine the impact of this Partition, focusing on the divided region of Punjab. I had planned to use the case studies of Ludhiana and Malerkotla in India and Lyallpur (renamed Faisalabad in 1979) in Pakistan. Through these, I planned to examine the impact of violence, or the lack of it as in the case of Malerkotla, migration (forced or voluntary), and eventually the resettlement of refugees. The research relied on first-hand testimonies in these three locations, supplemented by other documentary sources. In 2009, I followed up my research interests on Partition, this time focusing just on women’s experiences.
In undertaking my research between 2001 and 2019, I crossed the Wagah-Attari border, which is the official land crossing between India and Pakistan, numerous times, too many to recount. This is a privileged position, because the average Pakistani or Indian national is not able to cross this international border so easily, even if they manage to get a visa. The border since I first crossed it has changed from what was essentially a small crossing on the Grand Trunk Road, literally a road divided, to a highly securitized international border. The establishment of a goods depot offered signs of improved trade between the two countries, but even this is subject to cordial relations.
During these numerous crossings, I have seen the border change, physically, and politically. Whenever possible I have attempted to take some photographs to document these trips. However, when I first crossed the border, I had a small compact camera, which used film; they were not cheap and the 35mm film was expensive too, both to buy and to develop, so I took photos sparingly. I of course embraced the convenience and immediacy of digital technology and now my mobile phone takes much better photos than any of the earlier cameras I had. The swiftness of that technological change has been amazing, and it also plays out in the ways that I recorded my oral interviews with people who had migrated during the Partition in 1947. I started with cassettes; the 60-minute tape was usually enough for an interview and switching the tape over after 30 minutes offered a natural break. The break was either a natural end to the interview or it offered an opportunity to pause, think, reflect, and then continue. Mini discs and compact discs also came and went, replaced by Dictaphones/MP3 recorders, and now again the smart phone has made all those redundant.
These changes in technology and how we record and document oral histories has had a big impact on how we also study and disseminate these histories. In my case, in early 2000s, I spent four years traveling across the border, recording first-hand accounts of people who had been forced to flee their homes. The pace of the research was slower, allowing me to listen, record, transcribe and reflect between the journeys. Additionally, there were no distractions of social media and no need to instantly share my experiences for university related “impact.” The flip side of this was that the only way to share my research was via discussions with colleagues, academic conferences, or eventually through publication.
The digital turn in oral history has been a catalyst for the development of new research, and as I explore in this essay, has had a profound effect on the study of Partition in the Indian sub-continent. This has impacted the documentation of Partition, the production of its new histories, and ultimately how this history is shared and consumed. My essay in the Oral History Review asks some questions of this growing field, starting with the interrogation of its location, which is largely in the West, away from the partitioned ground in the East, with its socio-political realities. The South Asian Diaspora in the Global North has increasingly engaged with the subject of Partition, where it has come to form a part of the ‘intellectual decolonization’ agenda.
More importantly, this essay attempts to question the power dynamics around the ways digital projects can excerpt, de-contextualize, and de-politicize oral testimonies, by reducing them to sound bites for wider social and community engagement, in which audiences consume and share memory via multiple social media platforms. The essay in some ways goes against the current grain, as oral history projects on countless subjects have adopted similar uses of digital audio and video; however, it is important to reflect on the work that we do and how we conduct that research. We need self-doubt, introspection, and criticality, and moreover, without a rigorous academic discussion, the subject cannot grow. Thus, I have attempted to contextualize this discussion and situate it within the wider historiography of oral history and Partition studies.
Beyond the changes in technology in these past twenty 20 years, the relationship between India and Pakistan has only deteriorated. Between 2016 and 2019, people-to-people connections between the two countries became steadily fewer. Since 2020, Covid has only entrenched the harsh border further. So, when we share moments of joy at seeing a nonagenarian cross the border to visit their former “home,” as seen recently, this is an exception to the rule. Most people will never have that opportunity, as shared with me in numerous interviews that I conducted. While we can celebrate this exception, the reality remains that the politics of division continue to thrive and therefore influence how we read, contextualize, and teach Partition history.
Pippa Virdee is a historian of India/Pakistani history and an associate professor at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. She has established herself as a scholar of colonial history, particularly the region of the Punjab, which has been shaped by the 1947 Partition. She also has an interest in the South Asian Disapora in Britain and the transformation of cities such as Leicester and Coventry. She is currently working on a project titled ‘Knitting for the Nation: Women and Pakistan.
Our featured image, courtesy of Pippa, is the entrance of the border crossing in Attari, India and Wagah, Pakistan.