LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This week, India and Pakistan celebrate 70 years of independence. Both these countries have largely ignored the painful and bloody Partition of British-ruled India that led to their birth. That history is not taught in schools or commemorated in monuments. But as NPR's Hannah Bloch reports, a project in California has been racing to collect the stories of those who lived through Partition.
HANNAH BLOCH, BYLINE: On the eve of Independence in 1947, the man who would become India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, addressed his nation.
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JAWAHARLAL NEHRU: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But even as Nehru spoke, mayhem was erupting. Religious violence exploded as millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled toward India and Muslims toward Pakistan, the newly created homeland for South Asia's Muslims. Some 15 million people crossed the new borders. By the time it was all over, a million people, maybe more, had died.
GUNEETA SINGH BHALLA: My grandmother's experience was very harrowing.
BLOCH: That's Guneeta Singh Bhalla.
SINGH BHALLA: She was in a refugee camp for a while until her brother found her by chance and they drove away in a Jeep.
BLOCH: Bhalla's originally from Punjab, a region that saw some of the bloodiest violence.
SINGH BHALLA: All the stories of the dead bodies that they saw and had to even run over at times just kind of blew me away as a kid. It seemed really unreal.
BLOCH: At home, Bhalla heard her family's Partition stories. But at school in India, there was silence.
SINGH BHALLA: You know, with Partition, we've been hearing these stories from our grandparents. And it's not even covered in history books. There was, like, disconnect between what we learned in school and what we learned growing up in our families.
BLOCH: In 2009, Bhalla, a physicist, visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, where she was stunned to hear recordings from those who survived the atomic bomb.
SINGH BHALLA: It was just a very huge aha moment - like, whoa, this needs to be done for Partition.
BLOCH: She got to work recording the memories of a few Partition survivors.
SINGH BHALLA: Everyone thought it was kind of a really nuts idea. People had learned to subdue this history and to take it as not serious. You know, it was like, oh, yeah, that thing that happened. But, like, we don't really talk about it. I thought that was a problem in itself.
BLOCH: Bhalla quickly realized the enormity of her task - and that she'd tapped into a great need.
SINGH BHALLA: I think the first place I went to was the Fremont Sikh temple. And I put a table and a sign there that said 1947 stories, I think. And a huge line of people formed. And I realized at that moment that this was not going to be me. Like, other people had to join in. The stories poured in.
BLOCH: Bhalla, by then living in California, started recruiting help and created a nonprofit, the 1947 Partition Archive, an oral history project based in Berkeley, Calif. In the past six years, more than 500 volunteers have recorded over 4,000 oral histories in 22 different languages from 12 countries. Bhalla's goal is to document 10,000 stories. But time is running out.
SINGH BHALLA: The generation that remembers isn't going to be with us for very long.
BLOCH: The stories come from people in their 70s and older sharing sometimes horrific memories from their childhoods. Here are just a few.
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MOHAMMAD RAFIQUE CHAUDHRY: There was a train on the end of the platform, which was full of Hindu and Sikh refugees coming from Pakistan towards India. Whole night, I heard cries. And in the daytime, I saw about 20 or 30 Sikhs on trolleys, dead.
SHANE ALI: All I was watching - fire, blood and screams.
BALJIT DHILLON VIKRAM SINGH: And then if you looked into the canal, there were heads and bloated bodies floating. So my mother would say, don't look, don't look. And she would put her scarf over her eyes.
BLOCH: Rena Kapoor, an engineer in Silicon Valley, is one of the archive's volunteers. The lessons from 70 years ago resonate today, she says.
REENA KAPOOR: It's very easy to dehumanize the other side. The dehumanization is what allows us to do horrific things.
BLOCH: Similar projects have also launched in India and Pakistan. But being based outside the region means the Partition archive can gather memories from all sides.
SINGH BHALLA: The narratives are different across the borders, the official narratives. And I think what the stories do is they bridge that gap.
BLOCH: Those personal stories, she says, allow people to understand that everyone went through similar struggles 70 years ago, no matter what side of the border they were on.
Hannah Bloch, NPR News.
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