The Old & The New: Oral History Of A Divided Subcontinent And Its Digitalization
Do you recall reading about the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947? Do you realize how the focus was hardly ever on ‘Partition’ and more on ‘Independence’? This however does not negate the impact that Partition had on people who were directly or indirectly affected by it, and how it continues to shape relations between the two big powers of South Asia — India and Pakistan.
I am working on India’s partition and probing into the human components of the same with the help of oral narratives of migrants as well as eyewitnesses. Oral history constitutes recording the oral word of mouth of people who were eyewitnesses to a particular event, followed by preserving, archiving and eventually analysing that material as a historical source. As a discipline, Oral history is striving hard to make its mark in the traditional discipline of History where even now, the emphasis is almost entirely on archival sources, which itself comes with its own limitations. We cannot afford to miss out on the experiences of people who have lived through this catastrophic event of India’s Partition in 1947, which is the greatest migration that ever took place in history! I have interviewed people belonging to different religions, regions, linguistic background, class, caste across different cities of India both in the Northern as well as in the Southern region. Hence, I have no qualms in stating that this rare experience (Public History) surpasses the archive-bound traditional approach to history. As a young researcher, I am working towards safeguarding and probing into these micro-histories that are not available in books, in a country where the Partition actually took place. The study of Partition is limited to the political developments that took place right before 1947, and what truly happened to people who were affected by it is hardly spoken about. By looking at the oral narratives that I have collected, I will be ascertaining as to how they’re different from our traditional understanding of Partition. It is critical in today’s day and age to present a nuanced understanding of the personal histories of Partition as it will expedite the bridging of hatred that is quite rampant in the subcontinent. These direct accounts of what people went through bring to the reader, an ‘alternative’ understanding of the partition, something that we do not find in official versions of the same as well as in most history textbooks.
Digital technologies have become extremely important in the collection of history as well as in the art of preservation and archiving of those interviews. Oral history is in a way completely dependent on technology and digital media. With the influx of affordable smartphones and cameras, the art of recording oral history, which was once considered to be within the realm of the elite and the haves, has now penetrated the masses. This access has made safeguarding history much more easier and the process is now happening at a large scale which is in turn saving more and more personal histories. However, this does not mean that the process of collection of oral histories has become quite inexpensive because one still needs to have means to preserve those files with the help of hard disks, laptops, cloud storage etc. Digital media has made it easier for people to listen to/ view oral narratives via internet which is vital in today’s age of immediate access. Since, we can now view a lot of these oral history interviews via various online initiatives, the focus has shifted from the transcription of the video to the recording itself, which again is of great help in the field of research because of the limitations of transcribing interviews. These interviews are now usually stored on Cloud storage/ digital repositories unlike the old times when these recordings were stacked into boxes and stored on shelves in Archives, hence making the access hassle- free.
The Berkeley-based 1947 Partition Archive founded by Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is doing pathbreaking work when it comes to recording the oral accounts of the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 via crowdsourcing. They invite applications from researchers and students for their Oral History Apprentice Program and Story Scholar Program from all over the world. Having got the Story Scholar Fellowship from the Archive in collaboration with Stanford University Libraries, I was able to interview and record oral histories of 61 Partition migrants and eyewitnesses. What is, however, required in the Indian context is to concentrate on the oral history of events in the recent past so as to bring forth the other side as well, which is raw and straight from the horse’s mouth. What’s noteworthy about this Archive is its digital nature. A certain number of stories can be accessed digitally, the Archive is working towards making its collection become accessible to students, researchers from certain select universities in India and Pakistan. This is a welcome step towards safeguarding history in a manner in which it may be useful to the future generations as well. With the world battling the COVID- 19 virus and everyone facing a lockdown, the Archive has gone totally digital which means that it has organized workshops via webinars and has trained Citizen Historians to record these oral histories via remote means. This has opened up tremendous possibilities for interviewing people who cannot be reached in person by the volunteers working for the Archive. This way the ever precious memories and experiences of more and more people can be recorded and preserved by the Archive.
When delving into the field of oral histories, one need to ascertain a few things; for instance how accustomed one is with technology and technological equipments, what equipments will you be using, how many copies of the file will you be keeping (considering how heavy these files are), how invaluable these accounts are and most importantly, how you plan on archiving them. Are you associated with an Archive that would be preserving and archiving this material or are you a part of some collective that is working towards archiving these oral narratives? Another key issue that oral historians have to deal with is the legal and ethical aspect of recording this kind of life histories. One has to be extra careful when it comes to who will get access to this material that could be very personal and sensitive at times and hence, the chances of it getting misused by miscreants on the internet increase greatly. The 1947 Partition Archive proved to be tremendously helpful for me in these aspects as they constantly organized Oral History workshops, orientation events as well as guided us through the procedure of obtaining the release/ consent form our interviewees.
Similarly, the world’s first Partition Museum opened in Town Hall, Amritsar, in 2017. Other than material culture, they also have a small collection of oral histories of people who experienced the event of Partition in 1947. Some of these stories are available via their website and the rest can be accessed at the Museum itself.
The Citizen’s Archive of India also has The Generation 1947 Project which is also trying to record oral narratives of people to get to know about life in pre-independent India and the eventual nation-building years and how their lives have changed in the background of everything that was happening in the subcontinent.
With the coming up of such projects, the use of technology and the process of digitalization has increased manifolds as the internet comes out as an important outlet for oral histories, thus making them accessible by a common person. The dissemination of oral histories has become much quicker and smoother with the help of digital media and is leading to easy access (on demand), thus opening wider avenues for research based on oral history. Other than this, there are many people’s archives and museums which are essentially digital in nature and are thereby preserving material culture as well as photographs. The process of digitalization is eternalizing objects and pictures which are otherwise prone to getting ruined and are unable to stand the test of time. The National Archives of India has also digitalized a major chunk of its records which has in turn allowed easier access for scholars and researchers. We can thereby conclude that the older methods of archiving and preserving material of historical importance are taking help of digital media and the process of digitalization to immortalize this material so that it survives the ravages of time and can be accessed by researchers in a different century. Digital Media through the powerful medium that it is, is making History reach the masses which is quite contrary to how knowledge produced within the realm of this discipline was in a way only catering to the minds of intellectuals and scholars of History/ Social Sciences so far and adding to their existing knowledge. Public is being restored to public history and vice versa with the development of the field of Oral History and the increasing stakes of Digital Media in it.
This article is an excerpt from Parul’s forthcoming paper.
Parul Srivastava is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of History, University of Hyderabad in India. She is a Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Fellowship finalist for 2020- 2021 to pursue a part of her research in the United States. For her PhD, she is working on the oral histories of India’s Partition.