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A visitor looks at a picture displayed at the Partition Museum in Amritsar on Aug. 2. This year, India marks 75 years of independence from the British empire. But the legacy of Partition, long reduced to a minor event in history textbooks, has only just begun to be seriously examined.NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

In the summer of 1947, seven-year-old Vijay Kumar Kakkar from Lahore was visiting his maternal grandparents’ home in Srinagar when the last viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, announced the end of British rule and that the country would be split in two: a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The new line drawn on the map situated Lahore in the newly formed Pakistan; Srinagar was in India. Mr. Kakkar and his family – practising Hindus – never returned home, fearing for their safety in the chaos that ensued.

Implemented on Aug. 14-15, 1947, the hastily planned Partition resulted in one of the largest and most rapid migrations in history, leaving more than 15 million people displaced and more than one million people dead in violence on both sides of the border.

This year, India marks 75 years of independence from the British Empire. But the legacy of Partition, long reduced to a minor event in history textbooks, has only just begun to be seriously examined. A growing movement of community-led organizations here has brought to the fore forgotten stories through the lived histories of those who witnessed it. Their aim is to document survivors’ stories and understand the impact it has had on generations of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and their diaspora.

“We lost everything due to Partition,” said Mr. Kakkar, who is now 82 and lives in New Delhi. “But we had to survive, so we set up our base in Delhi and started life afresh.”

He recalled mob violence spreading across states as simmering hostility between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims boiled over into full-blown violence. Radicalized groups drove families from the minority religion out of their homes on both sides of the border. Millions of businesses and homes were looted, families were massacred, and thousands of women were kidnapped and raped.

Mr. Kakkar’s family would be a minority in Lahore, so they could never return to their home. With violence also breaking out in Srinagar, they soon had to escape to a refugee camp in Delhi.

Struggling to re-establish themselves, his parents did not have the time to dwell on their misfortune; when they looked around them in the camp, everyone was going through a similar loss.

Mr. Kakkar’s story, like millions of other partition witnesses, remained virtually buried for decades.

Is reconciliation still possible for India and Pakistan, 75 years after Partition?

“The legacy of Partition was kept very private,” said Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, a crowdsourced project to preserve the oral histories of survivors. “There was silence around what the generation that lived through it had experienced as the refugees were largely stigmatized, made to feel like they had done something wrong. In reality, it had happened to them for no fault of their own. It is only now that we have begun to give them the respect they deserve.”

So far the archive has documented 10,500 stories from 14 countries, including Mr. Kakkar’s.

“Through the 1947 Partition Archive, I could share my story with the world, especially for the younger generation to learn from it. When I look back, I think that all the hardship we went through became a driving force to push ourselves towards success,” he said.

For Dr. Bhalla, who divides her time between Delhi and Berkeley, Calif., setting up the archive was an effort to bridge what she believes is a glaring gap between folk history and the official record. Her Punjabi family, too, was uprooted in 1947.

But Partition isn’t an event that happened to one specific community or was limited to South Asia, she says.

“It is a global story. It is a World War II story that led to Partition violence. What happened in Pearl Harbour impacted how the Americans pushed the British into giving independence to India for global strategic reasons. We need mass public education and a rewriting of history books across the world to connect global history and colonization. It’s going to come from people’s individual stories,” said Dr. Bhalla, who was inspired by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the powerful oral history of survivors that have been documented there.

“What Partition can teach the world is what can happen when citizens get hyperpolarized and there is communal violence.”

It is becoming clear that Partition was not a static event of the past, but one whose lasting impact is manifesting across generations, researchers and historians say.

“It has become a new topic of research and events that is connecting the older generation, the witnesses, to the newer generation, the inheritors, who are documenting their stories. … Some of them had not even shared their stories with their grandchildren,” said Anachal Singh, project manager with the 1947 Archive.

When she started documenting narratives from across India in 2018, people were hesitant to talk. “But then things began to change. What helped make it popular are new channels of dissemination opening up via social media.”

Beyond preserving stories of the surviving witnesses, the new Partition projects serve a larger, more universal purpose in a time when globally, issues of decolonization, forced migrations and refugee crises are being critically examined. “We don’t appear to have learned lessons from the past though, with similar crises happening in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria. Is that because we are not teaching proper history to our children? Partition wasn’t taught to me when I moved to the U.K. as a seven-year-old from India and it was not part of my children’s schooling either,” said Raj Unsworth of Partition Education Group, an organization working to introduce the study of Partition, South-Asian and British colonial history into the U.K. curriculum, as it is what they call a “shared history.”

“A lot of us felt very ashamed that we knew nothing about it, even as South Asians having grown up here. Many of us rejected our own culture as children as a way to fit in, but as you grow older you realize your sense of identity and belonging are very important, which is what led me into this work,” she said.

Facilitating that connection is at the heart of Project Dastaan, an initiative that reconnects Partition refugees with their childhood homes across the border through virtual reality technology. It began as a student project at the University of Oxford three years ago, and has since transported 30 survivors back to the spaces they grew up in before 1947. “We would track down their homes, mosques, schools, childhood friends – whatever they wanted to revisit – that they hadn’t seen in 75 years,” said Sam Dalrymple, Project Dastaan’s co-founder and operations lead, who runs it with founder Sparsh Ahuja and co-founder and Pakistan lead Saadia Gardezi.

To reach a wider audience, the project has created a series of films and educational tools for worldwide use, including an interactive map that takes the user to every part of the subcontinent that was affected by Partition. The idea is to rekindle forgotten history and inspire more people to interview the generation that witnessed Partition before their stories are lost.

“The more I research, I find the event affects every aspect of everything that exists in the subcontinent, from the Kashmir crisis, to the rise of the anti-Muslim rhetoric in India, the rise of the anti-Hindu and anti-Sikh rhetoric in Pakistan. So much of modern politics is rooted in what happened 75 years ago and the unresolved trauma from that time,” Mr. Dalrymple said.

With a rush of Partition stories pouring out now, including more books and global research projects, Dr. Bhalla believes we are at a turning point: “A lot of healing will happen in the next decade or two.”

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