Episode 18: Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla
"I needed to do this work. Partition is an event the world needs to know."
Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla, Physicist and Founder, The 1947 Partition Project, on finding The 1947 Partition Archive
As a little girl, Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla used to visit the Wagah border, the Berlin wall of South Asia separating the countries of India and Pakistan, and used to watch the guards on the Pakistan side drink bottles of 7-Up from her Indian side. Guneeta didn’t know at that time that sharing the stories of the people tied to the history of this border would one day become her life’s purpose.
The Partition of 1947 is a tumultuous event in history when the subcontinent of India was divided into two independent nations, Hindu-majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. The event led to the greatest migration in history, when millions trekked on opposite sides, Hindus and Sikhs walked to India while Muslims headed to West Pakistan and East Pakistan (later becoming Bangladesh). As a result of the partition, fifteen million people were displaced and two million people were killed in genocide.
The Partition of 1947 is approaching its 70th anniversary and many of the survivors are in a race against time to share their personal accounts of the historical event. Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is helping these survivors preserve history by recording their oral histories through her non-profit, the 1947 Partition Archive .
Guneeta started her career in physics. A trip to Hiroshima changed her life’s path.
Find out from the podcast how Guneeta:
- Realized the importance of preserving and legitimizing history from when she was a little girl in a village in Punjab to being a high school student in the US.
- Took a trip to the Hiroshima War Memorial and how that moment planted the seed for a career pivot.
- Made the decision to start The 1947 Partition Archive nonprofit, the help she got from resources and the advice she would offer anyone looking to start something on their own.
- Got exposed to storytelling from her grandparents and how she developed an appreciation for it.
- Describes what really happened during Partition and the lessons she learned from the oral histories.
- Explains the South Asian identity and how it was redefined as a result of colonialism.
- Defines success and her vision for the 1947 Partition Archive.
"As a Punjabi, the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan affected the culture significantly because our folk songs contain names of villages, towns and dialects on either side of the border and it’s incomplete when half of what you are singing seems like a fantasy. When I visited Okara, Pakistan, I saw these things that I knew as fantasies to be real and I was blown away. I heard about these places in folk stories. I thought it was sad that most people in Punjab think of these places as folklore, it’s a big loss for the people.” - Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla
Guneeta and I both have a connection. Both of our fathers shared the same birthday, born in 1946, one year before the 1947 Partition on opposite sides of the border and both grew up in one of the most tumultuous times in the subcontinent. And we are both on a mission to share oral histories.
Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is founder of The 1947 Partition Archive (www.1947PartitionArchive.org). Previously, she was an experimental condensed matter physicist who recently completed her tenure as a post-doctoral researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley. She studied quantum confinement at interfaces that include oxide heterostructures and domain walls in multiferroics. After a 2008 visit to the oral testimony archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial she was inspired and began interviewing Partition witnesses in 2009. It was a deeply enriching experience and she wanted to share it with everyone. She was also troubled with the realization that the generation of eye witnesses was nearly gone and taking their stories with them. This led to the concept of crowd sourcing oral histories of Partition, there by engaging the public in recording the people's history of the world's largest mass human displacement. In 2011 The 1947 Partition Archive was born. She has personally interviewed hundreds of Partition survivors, rallied volunteers from all walks of life and built the grassroots foundations of this people-powered organization. In 1947 her father's family migrated from Lahore to Amritsar on August 14.