media, information, the contemporary

Digital Histories of Partition: Memory, Archives and the Narration of a ‘South Asian’ Identity Online

In this post, Kalathmika Natarajan, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2014, introduces her proposed work.

‘My memory is again in the way of your history’

Farewell, Agha Shahid Ali [1]

My research project seeks to study the reconstruction and archiving of memories of Partition and a South Asian past in the transnational space of the internet as a discourse on the production of a ‘South Asian’ identity online. By critically analysing the growing number of South Asian digital archives (particularly the 1947 Partition ArchiveThe South Asian American Digital ArchivesIndian Memory ProjectPanjab Digital LibraryThe Indian Subcontinent Partition Documentation Project, among others) and the memorialisation and discussion of Partition on social media, my research will focus on these websites as digital spaces that reiterate multiple narratives of Partition and reify a South Asian historical and civilizational past. This project moves from the often unquestioned acceptance of the category of ‘South Asia’ to take into account the historical, cultural and diaspora narratives that underpin its usage online.

While scholars have studied Indian identity formations online, particularly in the case of technocultural Hindu nationalism [2] or South Asian diaspora identities [3], little attention has been paid to the ways in which the digital space has been imbued by narratives of Partition. From the bittersweet nostalgia of a Twitter trending topic imagining South Asia #IfThereWasNoPartition to attempted virtual memorials, oral history projects and visual archives, the Internet has served as an alternate space for citizens to document their stories and ideas of Partition, far from the indifference of official histories. Even as the digital divide looms large in South Asia, the very nature of the Internet and the possibilities of digital history lend themselves to the creation of what Guneeta Singh Bhalla [4], founder of the 1947 Partition Archive, calls ‘a democratic history of Partition’.

Digital archives reiterate a common theme that resonates from Partition to present day South Asia: the victimhood and marginalisation of the common man across borders, divided by the power struggle of elites who have scarcely acknowledged their voices. Thus, in the borderless space of the internet is archived a permanent people’s memorial for a South Asian past, even as the politics of physical borders show no signs of fading. Cyberspace thus functions as ‘a collective memorial landscape’ [5] extending ‘personal bereavement to the memorialisation of collective trauma’ [6], even as demands for a physical memorial for the victims of Partition are yet to heed results.

In digitising memories and multiple interpretations of Partition, its intertwined narratives of Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi nationality and South Asian diaspora identity are remediated and passed into the postmemories [7] of new generations of South Asians. I argue that these narratives of South Asian identity are intrinsically linked to the discourse on Partition, for the acknowledgement of a sense of belonging to a transnational South Asian identity that goes beyond the politics of nations requires making peace with and engaging with the history and legacy of Partition

The advent of new media has had a profound impact on the politics of memory, history and memorialisation. In an age where memory and media mutually shape each other as people utilise media technologies for ‘creating and recreating a sense of past, present and future’ [8], social media and digital archives becomes an integral part of this ‘mediated memory’ of Internet users. The digital archive is the repository of multidimensional alternate narratives that challenge the hegemony of official history [9] and is ‘transformed, mediatized, networked, and part of the newly accessible and highly connected new memory ecology’ [10] Moreover, digital participatory microhistory, where users generate historical material by sharing their experiences, democratise the often elitist traditional archival record that privileges the experiences and thoughts of the elite as source material [11].

By focusing on the transnational South Asian histories, national and diasporic identities negotiated online through Partition-related narratives and archives, this project will interrogate the effect of new media technologies on South Asian memory and history. Memories of Partition stand at the crossroads of the personal and the political, by being a personal tale of displacement and trauma that is also simultaneously a constitutive moment in the construction of national identity and the birth of the nation-state [12]. This dissonance is exemplified in the digital archiving of memories and histories of Partition.

Thus, memories of Partition circulate not just among those who experienced it directly, but more importantly (especially in the case of memorialising them online), as the mediated postmemories of later generations whose ‘memory’ of an event that they have not directly experienced is imaginatively constructed [13]. These postmemories are often a patchwork based on accounts of Partition recounted by ancestors, and images, stories, films and digital archives available in the public domain

My research will utilise the methodology of qualitative content and discourse analysis to study the growing number of South Asian digital archives and the mainstream and social media responses to them. I will also conduct interviews (via email, telephone or Skype) with some of the founders and contributors of these archives to understand their experiences in documenting and digitising histories of Partition. My analysis is not restricted to digital archives but also intends to explore narratives of Partition on social media sites.

I welcome comments and suggestions regarding my project and would be especially glad to hear from those who have contributed to any South Asian digital archive projects.

[1] Agha, Shahid Ali. 2013. The Country without a Post Office. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

[2] Chopra, Rohit. Technology and Nationalism in India: Cultural Negotiations from Colonialism to Cyberspace. New York: Cambria Press.

[3] Gajjala, Radhika. 2010. 3D Indian (Digital) Diasporas. In Andoni Alonso and Pedro J. Oiarzabal (eds.) Diasporas in the New Media Age: Identity, Politics and Community. Nevada: University of Nevada Press. Pp. 209-224.

[4] Bhalla, Guneeta Singh. 2012. Harnessing the Power of Stories: Uncovering the People’s History of Partition. Khabar. Pp. 14-15. Accessed on June 23, 2014 from

[5] Veale, Kylie. 2004. Online Memorialisation: The Web As a Collective Memorial Landscape For Remembering The Dead. The Fibreculture Journal. Accessed on June 23, 2014 from

[6] Parmar, Maya. 2014. Memorialising 40 Years since Idi Amin’s Expulsion: Digital ‘Memory Mania’ to the ‘Right to be Forgotten. South Asian Popular Culture. 12(1). Pp. 1-14.

[7] Hirsch, Marianne. 2008. The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today. 29(1). Pp. 103-128.

[8] Van Dijck, Jose. 2007. Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[9] Haskins, Ekaterina. 2007. Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age. Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 37(4). Pp. 401-422.

[10] Hoskins, Andrew. Media, Memory, Metaphor: Remembering and the Connective Turn. Parallax. 17(4). Pp. 19-31.

[11] Caswell, Michelle and Samip Mallick. 2014. Collecting the Easily Missed Stories: Digital Participatory Microhistory and the South Asian American Digital Archive. Archives and Manuscripts. 42(1). Pp. 1-14.

[12] Kabir, A.J. 2002. Subjectivities, Memories, Loss of Pigskin Bags, Silver Spittoons and the Partition of India. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. 4(2). Pp. 245-264.

[13] See [7].