Pakistan Studies -- The Oral History Project of Pakistan

The creation of Pakistan is considered to be an awe-inspiring yet shocking moment in time, kick-starting the somewhat tumultuous history of this nation. The generation that succeeded Partition cherished this land, born out of the sacrifice and struggle of countless lives. And although it has been like this for many generations, never has an attempt been made to archive this event...until now.

The Oral History Project (OHP) aims to archive the events leading up to, during and after Partition — and the resulting birth of Pakistan. By conducting interviews and collecting old photographs, the OHP will eventually be a kaleidoscope of information. It will be the proverbial beacon for those who wish to know more about Pakistan, its creation, the people behind it and the immense sacrifices made.

Award-winning documentary film-maker and journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is known for her documentaries and her writing. Based in Karachi as well as many cities across the globe, she has won accolades from all over the world — the most notable being the Livingston Award for journalism and being the only non-American so far to have received it.

We sit in the office of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), the umbrella to the OHP and other projects, such as last year’s Shanaakht festival. Instead of some quiet neighbourhood, the office is in the heart of Karachis suburbs. Around us, a score of volunteers go about their work, tabulating and archiving eyewitness accounts, arranging interviews and gathering data. Telephones are ringing and phone calls are being made. The walls are plastered with either charts, maps or black and white photographs. On closer inspection they seem familiar

— names of places, familiar buildings and pictures of people from all walks of life at a crucial moment in our history.

It is clear that Sharmeen is perfectly at ease here and I ask her how the OHP began. “It began last year when I got a group of friends together and we realised that we have no identity as Pakistanis, and the only way we can get it is by exploring our history.” And so the nonprofit CAP was formed. “Our main objective is to preserve and archive our country’s history, and to make sure people from all walks of life have access to it.”

What was the inspiration behind this auspicious, elaborate and tedious project? Sharmeen adds, “The generation responsible for creating our country is either very old or about to pass on. If we do not start preserving their stories — the events they actually saw unfolding before their very eyes in 1947 and the ideology behind the creation of Pakistan — we’ll never be able to progress. Otherwise there will always be this question of our identity: Who we are and why was this country formed? We’re aiming to create a history database, primarily interactive, but one that will also give the seeker an academic overlook into the events.”

So far the project has had its fair share of troubles and Sharmeen is quite forthright about them, “Major funding issues…. When you think of nonprofit in Pakistan, how do you manage to come up with the money if you’re not running a hospital or a school? Most of our work is based on digital equipment. We train people to go out and conduct interview, take pictures and collect data. It is quite difficult to arrange funding.”

Funding, of course, is an important aspect of the OHP, and even though it aims to do something of national interest, there has been little to no interest from the government in CAP and its projects. “There hasn’t been a single cent that has come in from the Government of Pakistan, which is why we’re seeking out corporations, MNCs, wealthy families and asking them to donate to us because we want to be independent from the government in all aspects, including the views on Partition.” But shouldn’t the government be worried about that? “The government should be thankful to us; we’re doing something that has never been done before, not even by it,” Sharmeen says.

Even though this is probably like archaeology — carefully brushing the dust away from a prized find — Sharmeen and her team has uncovered a plethora of unheard stories. “The response we’ve been getting is fantastic. Some of the stories that have emerged have been absolutely amazing. For example, we interviewed someone who was working at a refugee camp on the border when cholera broke out and many people who had made it through the transit died in that camp, at the doorstep of freedom. We’ve also heard from people involved in mob violence, people who’ve admitted to taking part in the killings.” She goes on to tell about how this project isn’t just about politics, but also about the way of life, the physical struggles and quite literally the catharsis of Pakistan’s creation and afterwards.

“Our line of questioning right now is targeted towards the 80 something year olds, people who have been through Partition. But we’re moving beyond that,” she says. One of the things they’re trying to find out is what everyday life was like after Partition, how was life like in Karachi, Lahore? What changed? When they came over what happened? And for this they’re talking to indigenous people in their language, for example to Sindhis in Sindhi and so on and so forth. “We’re aiming for diversity, in terms of language and in terms of people.”

Is the OHP a one-sided story or are there people contacted from the other side of the border who would want to share their points of view? “We’ve been working closely with someone based in Delhi at the moment conducting interviews from the Indian side, but this is going to be a lifelong project which will continue to grow.” Although they do have connections, it is clear that Sharmeen wants CAP’s very own people to be involved no matter where the stories come from. “Once we have enough funding, we aim to send more and more volunteers across cities and villages to collect stories. We’ve just sent two people to Lahore to conduct interviews there and the idea is to send people across Pakistan eventually.”

What about the volunteers. Who are they? “Most of them are students who either have just finished their secondary education or are awaiting their results, or those who have done their Bachelors and have some time on their hands.”

Plans are already underway to build a museum that would hold all of the OHP’s collection along with storage of all the information in multimedia formats for people from all walks of life. All of this will be carried out under the watchful eye of CAP that has carefully planned out its growth; so far as to even select the location for the museum somewhere in the heart of Saddar primarily because they want everyone to have easy access to it.

After having undergone Hollywood’s spin saga treatment, tragedies involving a very large ship striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic or perhaps what happened in some concentration camp in Poland is what comes immediately to the minds of the present generation of Pakistanis when one talks of the horrors of the past. While the loss of human life in such events is immeasurable, the sacrifices of humanity’s determination should also not be forgotten. Right now, people are either saying that these are the darkest times in Pakistan’s history or the beginning of a new age.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, only the past can act like a beacon and guide us towards the future. And with people like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and projects such as the Oral History of Pakistan, the beacon will continue to burn bright.

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