‘India: A People Partitioned’ – using oral archives at SOAS

By Special Collections, SOAS Library|2nd March 2015|Collections & Research, Teaching & Learning|0 comments

This week’s blog looks at the ‘India: A People Partitioned’ Oral Archive (ref: OA3) held at SOAS Archives – a significant collection of oral histories relating to the Partition of India in 1947. The 205 interviews in the collection were compiled by the broadcaster and historian Andrew Whitehead for the BBC World Service radio series India: A People Partitioned (1997; 2000) and his later radio and historical work on Kashmir, 1947.

The oral archive represents an important social history of the Partition of India. Instead of accounts of the high-politics of the British Raj and the leadership of the Indian Independence Movement, the interviews focus on the lived experience of Partition among ‘ordinary’ people of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh heritage. The recordings cover many of the key events of 1946-1947, including Independence, Partition violence, population exchanges, the experiences of women, and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947. Interviewees include individuals who lived through the period as political activists (in particular those involved in the Indian Communist movement); survivors of violence; refugees; soldiers; and relief workers; as well as those who witnessed Partition and later became leading cultural or political figures across South Asia. The interviews are predominately in English, with a small number in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi (most with a running English translation).

SOAS students listening to the oral archive collections for the Histories of Partition: India and Pakistan 1947 course

Amrita Shodhan, course convenor, writes about a recent session held in SOAS Archives using the oral archives:

“The Histories of Partition: India and Pakistan 1947 course runs as a Special Subject for undergraduate history students.  One of the aims of the course is to enable students to be good interpreters and readers of history.  SOAS Archives and Special Collections is a treasure for the different kinds of material that the students can use for this course.  The largest collection is the deposit of oral interviews of those who lived through partition in 1947.  The interviews conducted by Andrew Whitehead for BBC for the radio series on India: A people partitioned, 1997.  These cover individuals in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir and India, providing a unique resource for the students of the course.

Students have used the archives in the past few years in a variety of ways for writing their B.A. dissertations. One student has used them as a source to develop an understanding of the various authors who have written about partition, accessing interviews with Kushwant Singh, Amrita Pritam and others to understand the sources of their inspiration and thus revaluing partition literature as not only symbolic, but also autobiographical.  Several students have used the interviews to access women’s experiences of partition and social work around it.  We have used the a transcript of one of the interviews in class regularly to discuss oral history and its possibilities.

This year was the first time that we went to the archive to listen to a variety of interviews together.  The archivist made it possible to access material other than the partition interviews, looking at archival records – letters and diaries from mission stations in East Bengal and the memories of the people that lived through the partition.  This was another type of material – generated at the time and a valuable experience for the students. We were able to quickly and efficiently compare and discuss how the various interviews and materials showed particular perspectives on the events and how they need to be cross-checked for validity.  These materials offer a vital corrective to the official record of the events.”

Looking at archival records relating to Partition

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About Special Collections, SOAS Library

Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: special.collections@soas.ac.uk tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4180

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