Originally Published 2011-09-01 00:00:00 Published on Sep 01, 2011
Despite its utility in comprehending tragic events such as the Partition, oral history keeps getting rebuffed for its 'soft' and 'subjective' approach.
Importance of oral history
For decades, oral history has provided an alternative to conventional history, filling gaps the latter leaves in the wake of its demand on being 'written'. Often those who write this written history herald from the 'elite' classes and therefore, fail to sufficiently represent the views and sentiments of the masses. The absence of texts, such as diaries and journals, especially by commoners, only exacerbates this gap, giving rise to what Eric Wolf, an anthropologist, called 'people without a history'. Oral history tries to remedy this. In particular, it has proved instrumental in an in-depth comprehension of historical events such as the Partition of India.

The wounds of Partition were such that very few were willing to share their experiences, and those who were did so in the form of novels, focusing chiefly on the inhumane aspect of the division. While scholar Yasmin Khan believed that this focus on inhumanity was part of the 'national history project', aimed at instilling a false sense of nationalism, others simply could not see past the trauma. Novelists such as Khushwant Singh and Saadat Hasan Manto did try to depict acts of humanity during the great Partition, but those acts inevitably got overshadowed because the horror rendered ineffectual any effort in rationalising and accurately analysing the Partition. As a result, realities that illustrated the positive side of human nature - for example, instances of one community rescuing another - were largely left out of the Partition 'history'. So far, only a handful of scholars such as Pritish Nandy, Rajmohan Gandhi and Mushirul Hasan have dealt with this omission.

In the book, Humanity Amidst Insanity: Hope During and After the Indo-Pak Partition, of which one of the writers here is a co-editor, of the 22 cases documented, five tell the story - brought to the fore through oral history - of compassion even during those atrocious days. These stories showed that while faith is conveniently projected as the key catalyst of Partition and the ensuing conflict between India and Pakistan, places of faith, such as religious shrines, were also used to hide individuals, of any faith, from attacking mobs. These stories also demonstrated that there were religious preachers at the time who rescued individuals, specifically women and children, from other communities. And a lot of these rescuers often saved others by putting their own lives at risk. In one case for example, a Muslim family fled Amritsar in India to Lahore in Pakistan along with two Sikh girls, whose father was not in India at the time. The girls were brought back to Amritsar only after the violence ebbed months after the Partition.

Numerous writers have alluded to the uncertainty that many non-Muslims in soon-to-be Pakistan displayed about living in a Muslim nation up until 14 August 1947. In his book, Punjabi Saga, Prakash Tandon sums this feeling, verging on nonchalance, by writing, 'We Hindus and Sikhs have lived under the Muslims before, then under the Sikhs and the British, and if we are now back under the Muslim rule, so what? We shall manage somehow, as we have managed before.'

What oral history brought to light in Humanity Amidst Insanity was evidence of this calm acceptance right until the Partition. Two non-Muslims, Bhag Singh Waraich of Gujranwala district and Partap Singh Bajaj of Sargodha district, had on 14 August willingly unfurled the flag of the newly created Muslim homeland of Pakistan, before fleeing the country. Interestingly, the latter even returned to Pakistan a few months after Partition to recover some of his belongings which he had hidden in his erstwhile house.

Subjective history

Apart from illuminating the untold humane stories from during Partition, oral history also helps excavate that which the respective national politics does not allow at the moment. As retired Indian Lt General Satish Nambiar pointed out in an article for the magazine, The Diplomat, despite approval from the civilian and military authorities, the most accurate versions of the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971, as prepared by the Historical Division of the Ministry of Defence have not been published yet. While the civilian leadership does not to want to expose the mistakes of the political leadership, Nambiar says, the generally lethargic and laid-back bureaucracy does not even consider publishing military histories of the three wars a priority.

In such a situation, where publication of accurate first-hand accounts of military operations are obstructed, oral history, in the form of interviews with the retired army officers from both sides, plays a vital role in getting a true picture out. This was precisely what was done in a recently published book Warriors after War by Richard Bonney, Tahir Malik and one of the writers here. When interviewed, not only were both Pakistani and Indian officers frank in conceding the strengths of the other side, and the weaknesses in their own army operations, but they also admitted how, for the sake of posterity, the two opposing forces even collaborated at different points during the wars. 

And yet, scepticism on the merits of oral history abound, with advocates of the conventional form often looking down upon it as a 'soft' approach. One of the chief complaints levelled at oral history is that the statements obtained through interviews are highly subjective, and hence have the potential to create a history far less accurate. They argue that during the recollection of personal or collective memories, certain memories that create ambiguities, and do not suit the broader narrative goals, are often conveniently purged or reshaped, consciously or subconsciously, through a kind of 'selective amnesia'.

However, even if one accepts the charge that the oral history tends to be subjective, it should not be forgotten that any measurement of accuracy, when it comes to history, is going to be so. In order to measure the inaccuracy of any personal/communal memories, the 'conventional' historians will need to first define what accuracy really means. Besides, even conventional historians often operate under constraints which might influence their ability to retell an 'accurate' version of historical events. For instance, historians are often obliged to adopt a balanced, and not necessarily accurate, stance due to societal pressures.

Moreover, even if oral history studies do tend to produce subjective materials, subjectivity per se should not be dismissed right away. In fact, subjectivity warrants more in-depth analysis on itself. Faith in itself is subjective, and hence any study on inter-faith compassion, like in the book, Humanity Amidst Insanity, is likely to deliver subjective findings. Trying to steer clear of faith in order to avoid such findings would only be equivalent to refusing to accept that faith had a role to play in the Partition. Embracing subjectivity, in fact, brings a lot of interesting points to the forefront, such as the irony of divisive religious symbols saving lives during the Partition. It might sound secondary now, but certain Hindu and Sikh individuals were offered burqas to cover themselves so that they could escape recognition, and death. 

Of course, all methods have their own pros and cons. Therefore, rather than discarding a methodology, a wise approach would be to iron out some of its creases. Undoubtedly one of the biggest problems with some of the oral history studies has been the lack of transparency in the process of data collection. It would silence most of the critics if oral historians are more honest in documenting their procedures. For example, how do they select their interviewees? How can the reader be sure that an interviewee's statements have not been taken out of context if a full transcript is not provided? How can a reader be sure that the interviewer was not asking leading questions and manipulating the responses?

A substantial number of interviewees for the case studies in Humanity Amidst Insanity were selected more through word of mouth than through academic sources, media or records. This, we admit, was a major drawback as potential interviewees might have been left out, but the only solution, which was not available, would have been a database of Partition survivors. There is, however, no guarantee that interviews will not be tweaked to appeal to a particular audience. One just has to rely on the interviewer's intellectual honesty, and on whether the approval for the final interviews to be published was sought or not. A genuine scholar, however, will always try to bring out all differing opinions and publish materials which might even be unpalatable to some.

(Tridivesh S Maini is Associate Fellow at  Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Shyamal Kataria is a doctoral candidate in the department of politics and international relations, Royal Holloway, University of London)

Courtesy: Himalmag.com

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