Partitions and Oral History: A Conversation with Professor Radhika Mohanram

Partitions and Oral History: A Conversation with Professor Radhika Mohanram

In early June, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Cardiff University Professor Radhika Mohanram to discuss her work on ‘Partitions: What Are They Good For?’. This project was funded by the AHRC.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about your research background and how you came to work on this project?

Professor Radhika Mohanram: My background is in English literature, and I teach postcolonial studies in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. I became interested in researching the 1947 Indian partition, not only because I am from India, but because there are many families in Cardiff whose families came to Wales from India and Pakistan during or shortly after   the partition. This catastrophic event is often discussed in South Asia within the remit of politics, but I felt that insufficient scholarly importance had been given to the social and cultural impact of the partition. This event was the largest transaction of refugees in history, 12-15 million people migrated from India to Pakistan or vice-versa based on what religion they followed.  Roughly 2 million people died in the process with hundreds of thousands of women who were abducted on both sides of the border, and approximately 50 000 children who were lost or orphaned. However, this event is not given enough importance because the moment of partition was also the moment of independence for India and state formation for Pakistan. The social and cultural losses have always taken a back seat in discussions about this period as the focus has been on the political and economic aspects of it.  Though this event occurred over 70 years ago, its catastrophic nature is kept alive in the handling of Kashmir.  All Indians and Pakistanis have strong opinions about Kashmir and its memory of the partition is kept alive through it.

What did this project entail?

I received funding from the AHRC which allowed me to set up a partition network. We conducted three sets of symposia on different topics which brought together people from different parts of the world to discuss and exchange ideas about the study of partitions in places including , Cyprus,  Korea, Ireland, Palestine, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Balkans, Germany, the Scottish independence referendum, and including the civil war in Rwanda Our thinking was that an exchange of ideas relevant to one partition might open up new ways of thinking about  other partitions, including new methodologies, and that together we could begin to look at different partitions in a fuller way than we had before.

What emerged from this project?

From the symposia emerged several publications, and an edited collection of essays. For me, it also developed my interests in trauma and memory and led to another project – an AHRC-funded research project called “Refugee Wales: The Aftermath of Violence” of which I am the principal investigator.  This project will end in 2023.

Can you tell me more about this follow-up project?

This follow-up project has focused on collecting oral history narratives of Sri Lankan Tamil and Syrian refugees in South Wales.  Cardiff is a City of Sanctuary. As we have collected these stories, I was surprised by the fact that, even though the Sri Lankan refugee community has been here much longer than the Syrian refugee community, the experience of trauma for Sri Lankan Tamils has not ended and their stories are not that different from what we collected from Syrian refugees.

How have you sought to generate impact from this work?

Generating impact with Humanities projects often take longer than projects, say, in STEM subjects as our impact consists of influencing people in the long-term.  My interest in collecting stories began when I did the oral history project on the Indian partition between 2011-2013 which was internally funded by Cardiff University.  We shared the findings from our  interviews with a few schools.  We had made a 20-minute video from the interviews we had collected and showed them to the school students, as well as setting up discussion groups and producing workbooks for the students to discover more about this topic. There were a lot of young South Asians in the South Wales area for whom this was of interest, and many had grandparents who had gone through this, and this was the first time they were learning about their family history and how political events in the past had helped shape everyday lives of their families.

In the current project on collecting refugee stories from Sri Lankan Tamils and Syrians, the oral history collection will be archived in Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum of Wales, as part of their sound archive called ‘the Story of Wales’. This came about because the National Museum of Wales has expanded its remit to include the stories of all of the people who live in Wales. Those stories, now that they have been collected and archived, will be preserved in perpetuity, which means these stories will not be forgotten and can not only be used for other academic study but to give these refugees a sense of their importance in Wales. These collections are also relevant to those conducting research on non-Western understandings of trauma and resilience as some of our questions deal with these aspects. 

While Covid-19 has made the process of oral history collection more difficult, we are now moving to the second phase of the project which consists of public engagement and dissemination to the public and academic circles. In mid-June, for example, we will be participating in an event along with Oasis Cardiff, a refugee charity and hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum Wales. We will be collaborating with Oasis and Amgueddfa Cymru on all of our public engagement events, and we have also been sharing our findings through blog posts and briefs written with the Welsh Government in mind.

What key lesson would you want policymakers to know, based on your work?

One key lesson we have learnt from this work is the vital need to input more resources into making sure newcomers are supported in learning English and become able to communicate in it. There are not enough resources going into this area, and as a result many of them   lead very isolated lives, unable to become a part of everyday life here in Wales. A little investment could really go a long way in supporting these populations, transforming their lives, and making them happy and contributing citizens of Wales.