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Ethical and Privacy Issues in Collecting Oral Histories by Shailja Sharma, DePaul University, USA

Ethical and Privacy Issues in Collecting Oral Histories
by Shailja Sharma, DePaul University, USA

1947-image-ss-paper-14-july-2016Though oral histories and their archives are an accepted mode of historical inquiry in academic and non-academic settings, this practice raises questions around survivor’s trauma, confidentiality vs. public memory, and a researcher’s ethical imperative to “do no harm”. Unlike material archives, where artifacts and documents are historical legacies, oral histories often implicate living people. More importantly, in the context of Partition history, events and memories involve a degree of violence and uprooting. While working to collect oral histories for 1947 Archive, an organization based in Berkeley, California, the process of asking subjects to revisit old and private memories is a fraught one. They often get upset, emotional, cry or need to take a break from the recording. Sometimes, they can’t go on. In addition to traumatic memory, there is often a generation or a gender gap between the recorder and the interview subject.

Keeping in mind that the need for oral testimonies is so crucial, particularly as this generation from 1947 is dying out so rapidly, what are the best practices around collecting oral history? My paper will address the pros and cons of this exercise.

The paper is based on my work for the 1947 Partition archives, based out of Berkeley, CA, which holds 1740 stories on Partition. The idea behind the public archive is to collect the oral testimonies and document the histories of people who survived the partition of British India. The virtual archive which we have established will serve as a resource for scholars, historians and people at large.

In 1947, India became independent but was simultaneously divided into East and West Pakistan, leading to a massive population transfer across the eastern and western borders of these new countries. The numbers, approximately, were ten million displaced, over a million killed and many more unaccounted for. The population transfers were not centrally managed; they were oftentimes spontaneous. The resettlement was also chaotic, extending from 1947 to the mid 1950s. This displacement and resettlement was aided by the army and paramilitaries, along with religious NGOs and spontaneous collective groups. Once refugees ended up in camps, mostly near major and mid-size cities, resettlement began.

Housing was a major issue. In Delhi and Karachi, many refugees were “allotted” “abandoned” houses. Other times, they broke into locked homes and took them over without any paperwork. Houses that were temporarily abandoned or permanently abandoned, nobody knew if the border would be crossable, whether their departure was permanent or temporary, would they be able to return.

The demographic displacement, haphazard and disorganized as it was, was also accompanied by mob violence which had been building between June and August 1947. Semi-organized political and religiously inspired groups of males preyed upon families, especially women, justifying their physical and sexual violence as a tit for tat cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. This in turn forced families to flee established neighborhoods, homes and businesses. Displaced migrants were called “Mohajir” in Pakistan and “sharanarthi” in India. Most people were not sure whether they were leaving for good, or temporarily. There was a lack of clarity about what a “partition” meant. They were unclear of whether borders would be open or closed, whether they would have the freedom freedom to travel, to visit relatives across borders, marry or not.

The history of this resettlement and forced migration has to be preserved and documented. The Partition Archive has collected 1740 narratives of the survivors of 1947.  The interviews were carried out by trained volunteers, of whom I am one. Interviews have taken place in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom and USA. The process is centrally administered by the archive. First, interviewees/narrators/survivors contact the archive, which then puts them in touch with interviewers in their area. The audio/video/still photographs are then uploaded to the site of the Archive, where they are technically edited and made available to the public.

I have recorded five subjects talking about their experiences of displacement and resettlement in the last two years for the 1947 archive. The last two interviews were conducted in summer 2016. My subjects were a 98-year-old government servant of Pakistan’s Commerce department and his 91-year-old wife.

In this paper, I will be using some examples from these interviews as I explore how, even after so many years, the many sensitivities and silences around the experiences of displacement color their narratives.

As an interviewer, one has to tread a fine line between asking for details of survivor experiences, finding out as much as you can so that their stories serve as rich source material, and realizing that these experiences are not in the past. For the narrators, they are part of their present and of their living family histories. Especially with experiences that were oftentimes violent, resulting in trauma and loss, or in reinvention of identities, how much honesty is required or desirable for the narrative to be authentic? Is the narrative a Barthesian style narrative, signifying an experience or is it the experience itself? Is it history or a historical story?

And in cases where the loss is accompanied by physical violence, can one really press for details?

Before you become a “Story Scholar” for the 1947 archive, you go through a two-three-hour training, which covers some technical details but also advice on what can and cannot be asked. The archive also provides you with an exhaustive list of questions which covers different types of migrants: farmers, musicians, academics, businessmen, women etc. There are twenty pages of questions in all. What I have found however, is once we start the interviews with a name, age, and general question about origins, the interviewer doesn’t need to prompt the storyteller with too many questions.

The specificities, of town and village life, the school days, mostly form and idyllic pre-lapsarian community where generations lived in recurrent cycles of rooted continuity. Partition is seen as an unexpected storm that swept away known ways of living and ended in a pale copy. Within that your-narrative, many details differ. Sometimes post-Partition is also seen as a getting rid of an imperial power, a moment of nationalist inspiration, a chance to build a new nation, a fulfillment of a political dream. It is described as a chance at a modern education, a dismantling of oppressive caste or village systems. But the overwhelming theme is one of loss.

This can appear in many ways: sometimes a subject may start crying as he or she recounts the details of their journey. As an interviewer what do you do: Do you pretend this is part of the story? Do you ask if they want to take a break, even if it interrupts the flow of the narrative? Do you let it become a chance to ask even more detailed questions? Is your responsibility to the “story” or to the person telling their story? This is especially hard as most of the narrators are well into their seventies.

At other times, their spouses who are sitting and listening to the story may get emotionally disturbed as much of the experience being described is new to them as well. What is my responsibility as a stranger, as an interviewer?

A third moment of ethical ambiguity arises when parts of the narrative touch on taboos: for example, the rape or abduction of a female family member. The interview protocol suggests that we ask for details but when the subject is clearly reluctant to either identify the relative or provide details of the incident, or if he or she says something deliberately vague like, “yes, my sister died for our family at that time”, can I press for what that means?

In one interview, the family of the subject broke into a Muslim family’s house upon arriving in independent India. I was told “Hamne tala tor ke kabza kar liya” [we broke the lock and captured it]. Later on in the story, his family claimed compensation from the state for agricultural and residential property they had left behind. Can I show any judgment about this? Can I ask a leading question like “Did you pay for it later?”

Lastly, I argue that there are many grey areas around violence: did they themselves perpetrate violent acts? Abduction? Looting?  Nearly all narratives frame their stories as ones of victimhood, or courage, or some combination of the two. The perpetrators are sometimes anonymous, at other times, members of another religious group. This makes a kind of sense as most of the narrators were children or teenagers at the time of the partition. In many cases they have heard about who was responsible for looting, arson and murder. In a few cases, they have direct knowledge or eyewitness accounts of actual incidents. Can one ask for these details when the truth would implicate them or worse still, give the lie to the story that they were telling?

So to conclude, while the idea of first person narratives and autobiographical accounts of the Partition is an important and powerful one, in practice, as I do more interviews, I find the silences and grey areas in the narratives much more compelling. I also find that the format creates some ethical quandaries about where to push, and what kinds of stories are being elicited by this format.

While the idea of having a detailed list of questions is a good one from a historical perspective, perhaps having a more open ended approach would be a better one so that interviews could move away from a detailed recounting to a more reflective type of narrative. In addition, a better training for the interviewers in dealing with some of these ethical and emotional areas would help in understanding the nuances of the stories we are listening to.

Finally, while the archive has almost 1740 stories on its website, what is needed is a better analysis of the patterns in these stories and a critical questioning of some of the assumptions in them. I realize that this might go against the grain of the reason this archive was created, but not questioning or analyzing is to do the wealth of material here a real disservice.

A note about the directions that this paper can go: The politics of the archive:

In his book Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida presents the figure of the archon, guardian of the documents, the “sentry”, as one of the three pylons supporting the archive. The other two are the “place” and the “law”. The discussion of sentries enables Derrida to slightly reduce the abstractness of the archive, and to speak of figures of power that legislate, repeat their law, and enforce it. However, the way he looks at the sentries from the outside, as those who set archival borders, allows them to fool him at times: to force him to look at the threshold from their point of view, namely inward, at the way in which they uphold the law of the archive, leaving Citizen Derrida and his fellows outside, beyond the conceptualization of the archive. Yet Derrida, in his turn, fools them, writing that: “It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.”[i]


[i] Another way to theorize the archive is through the theoretical lens of the Hegelian concept of Aughebung or“Sublation” whereby the archive both protects/freezes memory and cancels it as a political act. See Thomson, Alistair (2010), “ Memory and Remembering in Oral History” in Donald A. Ritchie (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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