The Mittal Institute’s 1947 Partition of British India project seeks to unravel the history behind one of the world’s largest forced migration events, allowing us to understand the implications of mass dislocations across geographies. Despite the amount of established historical and political scholarship on the Partition, there is still much to uncover through oral accounts from minority groups within the region — specifically, from Muslim families in India who did not migrate to Pakistan.
Filling in the Gaps
The initiative to collect oral histories of the Partition is being undertaken as part of the larger Partition research project, which will culminate in a collection of essays that seek to fill in the gaps that currently exist in our knowledge of the event. Similarly, efforts are also being taken across Pakistan and Bangladesh to collect personal accounts of the event from different nations and viewpoints.
The oral histories will be collected by student ambassadors who will conduct interviews with individuals who have lived through the Partition, with the goal to preserve and enrich the historical knowledge of the Partition from the first-person perspective. Between June and July of 2019, 36 student ambassadors selected from leading colleges in Delhi, including Lady Shri Ram and Delhi University, were trained by the Mittal Institute to conduct, collect, and transcribe interviews about Partition experiences. These training courses teach the ambassadors how to handle the sensitivity of the subject matter with their interviewees. They are given interview guidelines and receive instructions to upload the data they collect.
The ambassadors are also taught the importance of getting to know the interviewee and establishing a level of comfort before diving into more personal questions. Sharing these experiences can cause the interviewee to revisit past trauma, so the ambassadors are advised that it may be necessary to halt or end the interview if the interviewee is in distress. Provided with a questionnaire to aid in their discussion, the students use the questions as a guide, and the interviewee can choose whether or not they would like to answer a question.
Following the training, it’s the ambassador’s responsibility to find interviewees, whether it’s through their social network, family, or friends, or they may decide to visit areas where Partition refugees have historically settled within Delhi. The interview is conducted either in person or electronically, though the former is more frequent and preferred. Members of the Mittal Institute team frequently reach out to the ambassadors and respond to feedback and queries along the way to ensure that data collection is on track and proper protocol is met. Several ambassadors have noted that listening to their interviewees’ stories of resilience and hope has been an enriching experience.