New media technology and digital spaces are altering our ways of engagement with history and memories

Credit: Facebook/1984 Living History Project

Credit: Facebook/1984 Living History Project

New Delhi: Fourteen-year-old Manpreet Kaur, now aged 45, was returning home after a medical check-up when she saw her neighbourhood Gurudwara go up in flames in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri area. Armed with knives and kerosene cans, angry mobs thronged the streets and attacked houses. Kaur took refuge in a nondescript alley to save her life, crouching behind a crumbling wall. Her story is just one among the several thousands that emerged during the massacred which followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984.

Three decades later, a digital initiative is mapping the stories of a community still plagued by a deep sense of denial of justice. The project was conceived in 2010, with a young man sharing his experience of the 1984 killings. A friend recorded his story to spread it among those Sikhs who hadn’t heard a first-hand account of the events. Since there were hundreds of stories to be told and thousands who wanted to know what transpired during November 1984, the conversation grew.

Digital oral history projects

A group of young Sikh professionals discussed how such stories were narrated behind closed doors but rarely accessible to the public. With the aim of preserving these memories and developing a deep understanding of the events of 1984, the group began recording testimonies. The ‘1984 Living History’ project was born.

In 2014, the thirtieth anniversary of the pogrom, the energy around the project grew. Hundreds of videos were collected which illustrated the killings as a unifying experience for the community.

“I won’t pretend to ever truly understand what people went through. But this project is helping me catch a glimpse of what happened then. It also bridges the generation gap between the technology-savvy youth who created the project and the survivors,” says Keerit Kaur, a college student and one of the project’s volunteers.

The project is dependent on a grassroot network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. Each testimony follows a similar format and a consensus is sought before the testimonies make their way to the website.

The ‘1947 Partition Archive’ makes a similar effort, using web-based crowdsourcing to record and preserve oral testimonies of those who witnessed India’s partition. The archive was the brainchild of Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a US resident and a physicist by training, who initiated the project in 2010.

“Partition has been one of the most traumatic memories in South Asian history in the last century. Globally, it is still acknowledged as the biggest forced migration recorded in history, but has largely gone undocumented. We are not just focusing on 1947 but on memories from a time that existed before it, when people from different communities co-existed together,” says Prakhar Joshi, who is the project’s coordinator in India. A computer engineer by qualification, Joshi started collecting stories for the archive in 2013. “The first story that I recorded was in Jammu and Kashmir and it completely altered my understanding of the partition. I realised that there is more to history than what we read in our textbooks,” he said.

Preserving stories that come from multiple vantage points is another challenge and requires treading carefully so as to give representation to diverse narratives. ‘Kashmir Oral History’, an ongoing oral history project aims at archiving the ‘living memories’ of any individual who has witnessed and experienced events related to the Kashmir conflict during any period of time.

“The dominant narratives from both sides have suppressed the voices and experiences of the common people in Kashmir. The feeling of fear of speaking out persists. I think it comes with the conflict situation that everyone of us in Kashmir is willingly or unwillingly a part of,’’ says Ajay Raina, an award winning filmmaker and co-founder of the project. He thinks that people or the younger generation should not live solely by stories that they hear from their immediate surroundings. “There is a need to go beyond familial memories of Kashmir and see our experiences in the larger context. We need to know what happened in its entirety and complexity. After that, people are free to exercise their judgements and form new understandings. The last thing we wish to do is impose one truth over the other,” he adds.

Marcella Adamski, a clinical psychologist, in 2003 initiated the ‘Tibet Oral History Project’ on the advice the Dalai Lama, who laid emphasis on the urgent need to interview the oldest Tibetans before they were gone and their memories lost to future generations. “As the Chinese government continues to pursue policies which destroy Tibet’s national and cultural identity, it becomes increasingly critical to preserve the essence of the Tibetan people. The urgency of our work is dictated by the age of the refugees—many are 80 to 90 years old so little time remains to record their memories of life in a free Tibet and their eyewitness accounts of the devastation from the occupation,” says Adamski.

Aided by consumer cameras and smart phones, digital memorials are able to transcend the politics of physical borders. Panjab Digital Library, an NGO, is involved in digitising and preserving Punjabi literature and cultural heritage of the land of five rivers since 2003. Daljit Ami, a documentary filmmaker and journalist who works with the library, said the digital space has created a shared culture beyond geographical boundaries.

Challenges of oral history

However, archiving oral history comes with its own set of challenges. Oral history is dependent on stories and sometimes opinions of individuals which may be filtered through various biases, says Mohammad Owais Rana, director of the Oral History Project run by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan.

His views are echoed by Raina, who believes that presenting diverse views in itself is a great challenge, especially while doing one’s best to remain neutral, unbiased and not get provoked by what people may say.

“We have witnessed an upsurge of new writings and expressions of people’s experiences in the recent past. We will continue to hear more stories. Ultimately, it is the people who will determine how these changes will be received and used to construct new understandings. Will these stories be made fodder to fuel conflicts or for conflict resolution? This is crucial,” adds Raina.