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India Partition: After 75 years, tech opens a window into the past



  • Tensions between India and Pakistan hamper visits.
  • Facebook, YouTube help people connect across border.
  • Online projects share Partition stories.

Growing up, Guneeta Singh Bhalla heard her grandmother describe how she crossed into newly-independent India from Pakistan in 1947 with her young children, witnessing horrific scenes of carnage and violence that haunted her for the rest of her life.

Those stories were not in Singh Bhalla’s school text books, so she decided to create an online history – The 1947 Partition Archive, which contains about 10,500 oral histories, the biggest collection of Partition memories in South Asia.

“I didn’t want my grandmother’s story to be forgotten, nor the stories of others who experienced Partition,” said Singh Bhalla, who moved to the United States from India at age 10.

“With all its faults, Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool: the archive was built off of people finding us on Facebook and sharing our posts, which brought much more awareness,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The partition of colonial India into two states, mainly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan, at the end of British rule triggered one of the biggest mass migrations in history.

About 15 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs swapped countries in the political upheaval, marred by violence and bloodshed that cost more than a million lives.

A survivor of Indias Partition looks through a virtual reality headset at footage made by Project Dastaan, a non-profit that seeks to connect witnesses of the 1947 Partition to their ancestral homes and villages. Picture courtesy: Project Dastaan/Thomson Reuters Foundation
A survivor of India’s Partition looks through a virtual reality headset at footage made by Project Dastaan, a non-profit that seeks to connect witnesses of the 1947 Partition to their ancestral homes and villages. Picture courtesy: Project Dastaan/Thomson Reuters Foundation

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since then, and relations remain tense. They rarely grant visas to each others’ citizens, making visits nearly impossible – but social media has helped people on either side of the border connect.

There are dozens of groups on Facebook and Instagram, as well as YouTube channels that tell the stories of Partition survivors and their occasional visits to ancestral homes, that rack up millions of shares and views, and emotional comments.

“Such initiatives that help document the experiences of Partition serve as an antidote to the charged political narratives of the two states,” said Ayesha Jalal, a South Asian history professor at Tufts University in the United States.

“They help to alleviate the tensions between the two sides, and open up channels for a much needed people-to-people dialogue.”

Virtual reality takes survivors home

As the numbers of those displaced from their homes has swelled worldwide, technology helps monitor abandoned homes from afar and records human rights abuses, while digital archives preserve cultural heritage.

Project Dastaan – meaning story in Urdu – uses virtual reality (VR) to document accounts of Partition survivors and enable them to revisit their place of birth.

“VR isn’t like film – there is a level of immersion and engagement that creates empathy and has a powerful impact,” said founder Sparsh Ahuja, whose grandfather migrated to India as a seven-year-old during the Partition.

“People really feel like they are transported to the place.”

Using volunteers in India and Pakistan to locate and film places – which have often changed dramatically over the decades – Project Dastaan had aimed to connect 75 Partition survivors with their ancestral homes by the 75th anniversary this year.

But pandemic restrictions meant that they only completed 30 interviews since they began filming in 2019, said Ahuja.

“When visa policies were more friendly, people could physically go and see places and people,” he said. “Now, these connections wouldn’t happen without technology, and VR has brought a whole new audience to the Partition experience.”

Among the most popular YouTube channels on Partition is Punjabi Lehar – or Punjabi wave – with about 600,000 subscribers.

Founder Lovely Singh, 30, part of the minority Sikh community in Pakistan, estimates that the channel has helped 200 to 300 individuals reconnect with family and friends.

Earlier this year, Punjabi Lehar’s video of an emotional reunion between two elderly brothers separated during Partition quickly went viral, drawing widespread praise.

“If we can help connect more people, maybe there will be less tension between the two countries,” said Singh.

“This is how my children are learning about the Partition.”

Tension in the digital world 

India and Pakistan are among the biggest social media markets in the world, with more than 500 million YouTube and nearly 300 million Facebook users, according to research firms Global Media Insight and Statista.

History professor Jalal noted that these online spaces can also host misinformation, and added a note of caution about the limits of social media projects.

Reena Varma, 90-year-old Indian citizen born in Pakistan, stands at a neighbours house next to her ancestral home while visiting after 75 years, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan July 20, 2022. REUTERS/Waseem Khan
Reena Varma, 90-year-old Indian citizen born in Pakistan, stands at a neighbour’s house next to her ancestral home while visiting after 75 years, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan July 20, 2022. REUTERS/Waseem Khan

“While immensely useful, these initiatives surrounding the Partition should not be seen as a replacement to historical understandings of the causes of Partition,” she said.

Political tensions between India and Pakistan frequently spill over on to social media.

Last year, one Indian state said people who celebrated Pakistan’s win over India in a cricket match on social media could be charged with sedition, which carries a penalty of up to life in prison.

Indians – particularly Muslims – who criticise the government online are often told to “go to Pakistan”.

But for 90-year-old Reena Varma, social media has done more than make a virtual connection – it has enabled her to visit her old home in Rawalpindi 75 years after she left it.

When her Pakistan visa application was rejected earlier this year, the news went viral on Facebook. Pakistani authorities intervened to give a visa to Varma, who migrated to India as a teenager weeks before the Partition.

When Varma visited Pakistan last month, Imran William, founder of the Facebook group the India Pakistan Heritage, was on hand to welcome her.

Residents beat drums and showered her with flowers as she danced on the street, then looked around her old home.

“It was very emotional, but I am so happy I could fulfil my dream of visiting my home,” Varma said.

“People have very painful memories of the Partition, but thanks to Facebook and other social media, people are interacting and keen to meet each other. It brings people of both countries together.”

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American surgeons successfully perform world’s first eye transplant




New York surgeons claim to have conducted the world’s first whole-eye transplant on a man, marking a significant turning point in the history of the medical field, though it’s unclear if the patient will recover vision.

Aaron James, who survived a high-voltage electrical accident, underwent a 21-hour surgery to replace half of his face, marking a significant breakthrough, according to experts, in the quest to restore sight to millions of people.

James, a high-voltage utility line worker from Arkansas lost most of his face in 2021 after he accidentally touched a 7,200-volt live wire.

He underwent a rare partial face and eye transplant, on 27 May this year involving over 140 healthcare professionals.

The intricate procedure was carried out by surgeons at New York University (NYU) Langone Health, who said on Thursday that James, 46, was making a full recovery from the dual transplant and that the donated eye appeared exceptionally healthy. His right eye still works.

“The mere fact that we’ve accomplished the first successful whole-eye transplant with a face is a tremendous feat many have long thought was not possible,” said Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, one of the leading surgeons on the team.

“We’ve made one major step forward and have paved the way for the next chapter to restore vision.”

Doctors say James’ surgery offers scientists an unprecedented window into how the human eye tries to heal, BBC reported.

“We’re not claiming that we are going to restore sight,” Dr Rodriguez told ABC News. “But there’s no doubt in my mind we are one step closer.”

While there is no certainty James will regain vision in his new eye, doctors do not rule out the possibility either.

Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, poses with Dr. Eduardo D Rodriguez after he underwent surgery for the world’s first whole-eye transplant as part of a partial face transplant at NYU Langone in an undated photograph. — Reuters
Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, poses with Dr. Eduardo D Rodriguez after he underwent surgery for the world’s first whole-eye transplant as part of a partial face transplant at NYU Langone in an undated photograph. — Reuters

“If I can see out of it, that’s great,” James said in an interview. “But if it’ll kick-start the next path in the medical field, then I’m all for it.”

James, a military veteran, will continue to be monitored by doctors but has seen “exceptional” progress with his eye transplant, according to Bruce E Gelb, MD, a transplant surgeon at NYU.

The donated face and eye came from a male donor in his 30s, and stem cells were injected into the optic nerve for repair.

James is only the 19th person in the US to undergo a face transplant.

He has called the eye transplant “life-changing” and says he is “grateful beyond words” to the donor and their family for making the surgery possible.

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Gaza, the Middle East, and the Munich Calculus




History will likely record that Hamas provoked the Gaza war with one eye on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one on Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS).

This is not a war that Hamas could ever win on the battlefield. The horrifying daily death toll is witness to that. No, this is a war that has in its crosshairs the nascent agreement between Israel and the Gulf states – the so-called Abraham Accords.

Many years ago, I spoke with a Palestinian who helped plan the “Black September” kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. “Before Munich, we were a forgotten people; afterwards, everyone knew our plight,” he told me with a mixture of sadness and pride. Two years after Munich, PLO leader Yasser Arafat was invited to address the UN general assembly.

Munich was the template for what experts came to call “terrorism theater.” Violence for the TV cameras. And it worked; the Palestinians finally had a seat at the table.

But in the half century since, between 10,000 and 20,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israel. The independent Palestinian state promised in the 1993 Oslo Accords never materialised. And most recently, MBS and his allies were making peace with Israel and sidelining the Palestinians.

From the perspective of Hamas, it was time to force the Palestinian cause back to center stage. Call it the Munich Calculus: Violence gets the world’s attention. The slaughter of 1,400 Israelis and inevitable massive military response by Israel – which has now claimed more Palestinian lives than decades of conflict combined – is “terrorism theater” on an unprecedented global stage.

“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” President Biden’s national security adviser said one week before the current crisis broke out. US battlegroups are now steaming to the region, American jets have struck Iranian proxies in Syria, and thousands of anti-American protestors have taken to the streets around the world.

People walk past in a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Aarhus, Denmark, on October 31, 2023. — AFP
People walk past in a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Aarhus, Denmark, on October 31, 2023. — AFP

The White House plan to “pivot” to Asia and away from the Middle East is in shambles, a slow-moving American rapprochement with Iran is effectively dead, and there is a very real prospect of a new era of anti-American terrorism. The normalisation of relations between Iran and the Saudi bloc of Gulf states after years of proxy war in Yemen and elsewhere is also under threat.

Meanwhile, Arab leaders are walking a fine line; condemning Israel’s assault on Gaza while issuing what historically have proven to be empty expressions of support for the Palestinians.

However, a cynical read of the situation — and after four decades of reporting on the Middle East, I bring a large measure of cynicism to the table — is that MBS and his allies may actually be satisfied to quietly sit back and watch as Hamas is erased from the landscape of the Middle East.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2021. — Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2021. — Reuters

That would open the way for the Saudi crown prince to step forward as the savior of the Palestinians, offering to supplant the Abraham Accords with something like a return to the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed in 2002 by the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, which included the creation of a Palestinian state.

Look at the language used last week by the finance minister of Bahrain, a country rarely out of step with Saudi policy: “It’s extremely important for the future of this region that we continue to build bridges,” he told an investment summit in Riyadh as Gaza was being pummeled by Israeli bombs. Though the Bahraini minister never specifically mentioned Hamas, it is noteworthy that he said those in the Middle East who are “looking to destroy” are “not part of the writing of that future.”

The challenge for Arab leaders is to maintain the balance between placating angry publics and playing the long game of regional “normalisation.” Polls earlier this year found a significant decline in support for Hamas across the Arab world. Arab governments are likely to try to leverage that through media and other proxies, such as the comments by Saudi elder statesman Prince Turki al-Faisal, who recently told an American audience that Hamas’s slaughter of Israeli civilians violated Islamic law. In the Gaza conflict, he said, there are no heroes, only victims.

Still, public opinion has never been the prime driver of the policy decisions of Arab governments. Limited protests and online comment are tolerated as safety valves, but dissent will continue to be carefully managed, as demonstrated by Egypt’s decision this week to shutter Mada Masr, the last major independent media outlet in that country.

Make no mistake, Arab and Muslim anger at perceived American complicity in the slaughter in Gaza has the potential to inspire a new generation of jihadis, sending the world back down a broader spiral of violence. However, protests outside US embassies in places like Islamabad and Jakarta have no impact on the Middle East policy equation.

The real factors that could enhance or upset the Gulf balancing act:

  • Israeli public opinion. Prior to the conflict, Israelis were split on the creation of a Palestinian state. Will the Gaza war create greater recognition among Israelis of a need to resolve the Palestinian question or will it harden opposition?
  • US public opinion. US support for Israel is the greatest factor in the Middle East equation. In recent years, Americans have become more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Polls carried out in the first days after the Hamas slaughter of Israelis showed strong support for Israel. But there have also been widespread demonstrations, including by thousands of American Jews, demanding a ceasefire. The longer the bombing continues, the higher the Palestinian death toll, the greater the likelihood the Palestinians will gain in the battle for hearts and minds. The war is already emerging as an issue in the 2024 US presidential election.

And then there is Iran. Tehran will be instrumental in avoiding a larger regional conflict, if it deems that in its best interests. Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies wouldn’t dare act without Tehran’s blessing. MBS was on the phone with Iran’s president within days of crisis erupting, and backchannel communications between Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran are underway via Riyadh, Doha, and other Arab capitals as officials work to avoid an expansion of the war.

But even if cooler heads in the corridors of power prevail, that doesn’t rule out the danger that isolated extremists of one type or another might act without state sanction and set off a cascade of violence that no one can control.

Lawrence Pintak is the author of America & Islam and five other books at the intersection of Islam, media, and US policy. He was the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. He posts @Lpintak on Instagram and X.

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The implications of depopulating Gaza




Leaderships of countries across the Muslim world are now left with an impossible set of concurrent circumstances.

In December 1987 after two decades of humiliation, oppression, and continued life under occupation, Palestinians began a series of protests that ended up becoming what is today referred to as the first Intifada.

Within a month of the start of the protests, the Israeli government at the time sought to deal with the protests through firing live ammunition on protestors – but this caused a major backlash in the United States and at the UN, and so a new method was devised: breaking the hands of Palestinians. Why? The New York Times explains, in a story by David Shipler, published on January 26, 1988. “In response to complaints from the Reagan Administration and the United Nations Security Council about use of lethal force, Israel’s Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, announced a policy last week of ‘might, power and beatings’ to cow the Arabs. Troops were reportedly sent into homes to break the hands of Arab youths so they could not throw stones.”

If that defence minister’s name, ‘Yitzhak Rabin’, seems familiar, it is because it should. Rabin was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the historic Oslo Peace Accords that were signed in September 1993 between himself, as the prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, as the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Rabin was assassinated in November 1995 by a right wing, Islamophobic, pro-illegal settlements Israeli terrorist named Yigal Amir.

The people that run Israel today are of the same ideological fraternity as Yigal Amir. Here is a description of Israel’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, by Ruth Margalit from the February 20, 2023 edition of the New Yorker magazine:

“Ben-Gvir, who entered parliament in 2021, leads a far-right party called Jewish Power. His role model and ideological wellspring has long been Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn rabbi who moved to Israel in 1971 and, during a single term in the Knesset, tested the moral limits of the country…To Kahane, Arabs were ‘dogs’ who ‘must sit quietly or get the hell out’. His party, Kach (Thus), was finally barred from parliament in 1988. Jewish Power is an ideological offshoot of Kach; Ben-Gvir served as a Kach youth leader and has called Kahane a ‘saint’. Ben-Gvir, who is forty-six, has been convicted on at least eight charges, including supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism.”

In exactly three decades, the Palestinian-Israeli peace journey, for which the Oslo Accord seemed like such a major moment has turned into an unmitigated and unrelenting nightmare. Israelis live in constant fear of Hezbollah rocket attack, all kinds of terrorist threats, and now the bloody reality of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The people of Gaza (and the West Bank) live through an unrelenting and ceaseless expansion of occupation that has literally continued non-stop from 1993 to today. But the nightmare unleashed upon the Palestinians since October 8 has no parallel in recent memory, anywhere. Israel is solely responsible for the carnage of innocent Palestinian carcasses and placenta, strewn across the debris of flattened apartment buildings and homes and restaurants and schools and hospitals in Gaza. But without the October 7 attacks by Hamas, the current genocide or ethnic cleansing or pogrom or whatever you want to call what is happening in Gaza, may not have happened– – ot now, not like this.

Since the discourse on Hamas is so emphatic among Western audiences – whatever its motivation, it is a designated terrorist group – we are compelled to ignore or neglect the roots of its behaviours and actions. This then leaves us with a more pressing question. Where did Hamas – a terrorist group – come from?

To answer this, we have to return to the beginning of the 1987 Palestinian protests that were dealt with by Yitzhak Rabin and the Israeli government through “might, power and beatings”. In December 1987, there was no Hamas. There was the PLO, which was then known to Israeli and Western audiences as, you guessed it, a ‘terrorist’ organisation. Rabin and the Israelis beat the PLO into submission after the first Intifada. One of the conditions for the Oslo Accords of 1993 was for the PLO to renounce ‘terrorism’ which it did. Hamas is the fatherless child of the decapitation of the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance. Indeed, the first time the acronym Hamas (Harkat al Muqawwama al Islamiyyah) appeared was in January 1988, the exact same time as the New York Times report on Rabin’s ‘might, power and beatings’ approach to dealing with the first Intifada.

Soon (and much sooner than many had imagined) a long-held dream of Israeli right wingers, and their supporters throughout the capitals of Western nations, is going to be realised: Gaza will be depopulated. That is the opportunity that Hamas’s October 7 attack has helped create for the irreconcilable right-wing zealots that shape policy in Tel Aviv and around the world. The ostensible objective of these military attacks is to eliminate Hamas as an entity. But everyone – including the Israeli right wing and its many supporters in Washington DC, London, Brussels and around the world – knows eliminating Hamas will not eliminate the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians, but it might make them more extreme. Not unlike how Hamas itself essentially replaced the once-terrorist-and-now-teddy-bear PLO.

In the age of social media, Palestinian ‘resistance’ will become louder and more visible – where and when it can. But occasional protests in London, annual speeches by the heads of state or foreign ministers of OIC countries (and outliers like Columbia and Venezuela) at the UN General Assembly and the occasional viral video or image are clearly being seen by Israel and its supporters as manageable noise.

What seems to be unmanageable for Israel and its supporters is the politics of continued expansion of illegal settlements throughout Palestinian lands. Throughout the last three weeks, illegal Israeli settlers have been depopulating Palestinian villages under the canopy of terror being unleashed by the Israeli weapons being rained down upon Gaza.

It is not a coincidence that senior members of the Israeli coalition government are themselves illegal settlers. The term ‘illegal settler’ has come to have no standing in either Israeli or international law. In stark contrast, the term terrorist has valid standing everywhere. This disparity or dichotomy is not brand new, but its salience is renewed every time a place is carpet bombed or threatened to be bombed back to the stone age, or has the rage of empire unleashed upon it.

Iran, Russia and many anti-West extremists see this disparity and revel in it. They can expand their information operations about the wider inequities and injustices that the still-US-led world order or ‘rules-based order’ openly endorses and sustains. The game, for Russia in particular, is to expand and deepen distrust and disgust with the West. The ceaseless reminders of American and Western duality in how those countries are framing the Russian invasion of Ukraine versus the Israeli invasion of Gaza are manna from heaven for the global Russian disinformation machine.

Leaderships of countries across the Muslim world are now left with an impossible set of concurrent circumstances. They must appease the raging angst and frustration of their populations with respect to Gaza; they must somehow continue to engage in wider policies of de-risking and normalization within their regions; and they must try to govern mostly young and desperately underserved populations without a dismantling of whatever semblance of order exists in their respective countries. From Morocco to Indonesia and from Kazakhstan to the Maldives – the ripples and ramifications of the depopulation of Gaza will be generational, even if a wider military conflagration or escalation in the Middle East is somehow avoided.

Elites in Muslim societies know this all too well – and their instinct, quite rightly, is to want to maintain order close to home, rather than become entangled with a losing proposition in Gaza, so far away. This will create societal and political pressures so profound that many orders will be tested severely. The only orders that will survive are those that are able to enact the kind of reforms and transformations they need at home – that materially improve the lives of their people.

Pakistani military and civilian leaders need to ask themselves if they realistically see themselves as being able to enact such changes or reforms. The rage of the people is real – and though Gaza is and will remain the ignition point, the fuel is much closer to home.

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