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Recently, Professor Tarun Khanna — Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at the Harvard Business School and Director of the Mittal Institute — traveled to Bengaluru to give the D.D. Kosambi Lecture, “A Paean to Learning to ‘See’” at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences. The talk was structured around the use of basic analytics to better “see” some overlooked regularities in human behavior — drawing on examples from recent Indian history, including the Partition of British India in 1947 and the annual Maha Kumbh Mela religious gathering, and from contemporary social phenomena.

The 1947 Partition of British India

A major discussion within Professor Khanna’s lecture was the Mittal Institute’s 1947 Partition of British India Project, composed of several sub-projects that collect data about the event along themes of humanitarian issues, cities and settlements, geopolitics, and oral stories. “Two years ago, it was the 70th anniversary of the Partition of British India, and there was a resurgence of interest in the phenomenon. Of course, it is something that has been studied forever by historians and political scientists. My family suffered the direct impact of Partition — both my parents migrated from what is now Pakistan. So, I have always heard stories of what it was like,” said Professor Khanna.

Scholarship on the Partition of British India is well established and researched, but Professor Khanna and his colleague, Professor Karim Lakhani (Wilson Professor of Business Administration and the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Fellow at Harvard Business School), decided to approach their segment of the Mittal Institute’s Partition Project through a different lens. “I was very sensitive to the idea that it was not clear that the written sources were unbiased accounts. Most of the written sources were produced by those connected to the British Empire. So, it’s very unlikely that they represent the views of the people who actually suffered the effects of the Partition,” he said. “We thought we would go to the survivors of the Partition and ask them what they remembered, and use that as the data source.”

Crowdsourcing Memories

Using this data, Professors Khanna and Lakhani developed a new resource that they call “crowdsourced memory,” setting out to find as many people as possible who had survived the Partition. “Remember, it’s been 70 years, and you would have needed to be at least 5 to 10 years old at the time to have any memory of it. And today, you would already be in your 80s. So, this was probably the last little window to capture the people who survived the Partition,” said Professor Khanna at the talk.

Under this research project, they have sourced memories from people in contemporary Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, as well as the diaspora in the United Kingdom, and the United States, speaking to these individuals unscripted. So far, they’ve collected more than 1,000 hours of oral memories. “For the first time, a single study brings together Pakistanis, Indians, and Bangladeshis,” said Professor Khanna, highlighting the unique nature of this emerging research. Most of the current analysis looks at each country individually, even though perspectives of the events across countries can be vastly different.

Looking to the Future

The Partition of British India is the largest involuntary migration in recorded human history. “The official British record of the death toll was a few hundred thousand people, and their estimate was that three million people crossed the borders,” said Professor Khanna. But more contemporary studies into the data surrounding the events have found the numbers to be much higher — with more than 16 million migrating, and many millions dying. “Right there, you see the limitations of the existing data sources,” he said. Now, the Partition Project team is using the oral stories to reconstruct the paths of migration during this time period.

The data being collected has the potential to be applied to crises around the world today, used by organizations like the United Nations and others that interact with refugee camps and migration regularly. “Here, they have a dataset to think about how you can house involuntary migrants, where would you construct the taxonomy of refugee camps ranging from places where somebody stays for 2–3 days, transit camps where they stay for 1–5 months, temporary settlements, and residential rehab, which is usually more than five years. Many of these residential rehabs become part of the urban economy, absorbed into cities,” Professor Khanna elaborated. With the oral stories resource, there is the potential to draw common themes and lessons from the accounts of migration, and inform the future of involuntary movement around the world.

Once the oral histories project is complete, Professors Khanna and Lakhani intend to make it an accessible resource stored at Harvard University. Wrapping up with his discussion on the Partition of British India, Professor Khanna noted, “This is an example of a historical event that is salient, whose legacy continues to haunt us and is perhaps the cause of a lot of disquiet in this part of the world. It will continue to be a shaper of political harmony.”

Professor Khanna also discussed the Contemporary Developing Countries course at Harvard University, taught by numerous professors from several schools, and the Mittal Institute’s Mapping India’s Kumbh Mela research project, both of which you can learn more about in the video of Professor Khanna’s lecture above.