In a first anywhere in the world, the City Council of Berkeley is set to proclaim June 3rd as an annual “Partition Remembrance Day,” in recognition of the world’s largest mass refugee crisis that unfolded during India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Despite its immense scale and historical significance, Partition as an event has hardly been recognized by official governing bodies globally. The 1947 Partition Archive, a documentation organization that has been recording community oral histories of Partition since its 2011 launch in Berkeley, is now working with its home city to change this.
Ten years ago, the organization, which was incubated during its early years at the University of California at Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, began using a unique crowdsourcing protocol to empower citizens anywhere to record the nearly forgotten people’s history of Partition before the generation of witnesses was gone. With nearly 10,000 oral histories documented on digital video a decade later, from 18 countries and over 700 cities and villages, The 1947 Partition Archive has given new life to the public memory of Partition. Its social media pages with nearly a million followers annually receive 10’s of millions of post interactions, creating widespread interest across the British Commonwealth countries, and also amongst South Asians in America.
“Berkeley gave us the safe space to come together and revisit our shared past in a way we cannot in South Asia today,” says Guneeta Singh Bhalla, The 1947 Partition Archive’s founder. June 3rd was chosen, she said, after consulting with a number of historians: it was the day Viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten published the ‘Mountbatten Plan’ to Partition British India into India and Pakistan. As a result, when Britain departed South Asia in 1947, an immense political reorganization took place. South Asian countries, which included British India and over 500 sovereign kingdoms, often protectorates of the British Indian government (similar to the US and Japan today), were merged to form two new countries: India and Pakistan. Chaos unfolded during the transition to power and violence erupted as extremist groups gained control. Up to 3 million died, about 15 million were uprooted in an instant from their ancestral homes and around 100,000 women were abducted. “We are giving the witnesses a cathartic outlet, while educating future generations on the dangers of extreme political polarization in society – the type we are starting to see in the United States today,” says Singh Bhalla.
Despite being exactly half a world away, the City of Berkeley has century-old ties to India and its independence movement in the early twentieth century. Students at the University of California in Berkeley were members of the Gadhar Party, formed in 1913, which conspired with the Berlin Committee in Germany to instigate a mutiny in the British Indian Army – an attempt that ultimately failed. It is a hidden chapter in Berkeley’s history that is coming full circle with The 1947 Partition Archive and is no longer in danger of fading into a bygone, forgotten past. “It’s our hope that cities across the world and especially in South Asia begin taking note of and recognizing this deeply impactful period in history,” says Singh Bhalla.
“The 1947 Partition Archive is building a powerful and resilient narrative to not only capture local perspectives rooted in global history but to also help us prepare for challenges we’re already facing today like forced displacement and migration brought on by the ongoing threats of climate change and political instability. My family’s immigration story to America began as a result of these events. As a Berkeley resident, I’m proud our City Council is recognizing this important, often-overlooked history,” notes long-time Berkeley resident and former Chief Resilience Officer, Kiran Jain.