Partition: The Lost Heer Project

Born in Delhi, India and now living in Canada, Harleen Singh is a historian and scholar working on the ‘Lost Heer Project’, a research venture uncovering hidden histories through the art of storytelling. He archives his findings on his Instagram page @thesingingsingh in an attempt to make history accessible and enlightening.

As we commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the partition of India I take a closer look at what inspires Harleen to document events from British India.

About Harleen

I’ve always loved talking to old folks as their enriching conversations have a way of  bringing something to history. It was my discussions with the eldery that inspired my three year project – The Lost Heer Project – where I went on to interview many Indian and Pakistanis as part of my research and archive memories of people who witnessed Indian Partition.

Why ‘The Lost Heer’?

Because Heer is the quintessential Punjaban and any project about Punjabi women had to contain ‘Heer’. This research is about the lost voices of women who once lived in Punjab. The conception of the project came to me while I was talking to a friend about the first female Punjabi doctor, and how we had no idea who she was!

 Every ‘Heer’ from that era has enriched Punjab with their presence, and thus, the name came to be.

The Lost Heer Project – Partition

The Lost Heer Project documents the voices of women from colonial Punjab from 1849 to 1947. Through storytelling, oral histories, family anecdotes, popular bazaar literature (a genre of literature in Panjab that was kept alive through the use of kissas), song and various other writings, the idea to work on this project came to me because I believed that there was a disproportionate lack of representation of women as seen through hundreds of years of Punjabi history.

A muslim woman reunites with a male relative after the partition of Punjab. This photograph was taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1948.

In 2014, whilst conducting interviews of partition refugees in Delhi, I came across this old frail woman who talked of her dear aunt: “During partition, my aunt was kidnapped from our home in Mandi Bahauddin. We thought she was dead and so we did her ceremonial rites when we all migrated to Delhi. When she showed up two years later at our doorstep, the poor woman was kicked out by my grandfather. She had become impure. Who knew how many men had touched her body? A rejected “maal” that was not “fit” to be around us. She was free India’s “unattached woman!”

The Lost Women of Colonial Panjab

Each historical find has been fascinating because as Punjabis, we tend to also have this nostalgic vision of a “colourful Punjab”. Through The Lost Heer Project one is brought face to face with the stark and often harsh realities of a colonial Punjab. When looking at women fighting against all of the odds, in order to find success and an independence of their own, that is quite remarkable.

Three women find their way through the debris of demolished houses in a riot ridden Lahore on the eve of ‘azaadi’ in 1947. Hundreds of their sisters have been trampled on under the debris, consumed by the fires, and then dissolved in to the bloodied waters.

My most favourite person and find has been Bibi Hardevi. Born in the 1860s in Lahore, she was widowed at a young age but never allowed for her widowhood and the oppressive customs of the time to hinder her in anyway. Bibi Hardevi went to Britain in the 1880s, where she wrote a travelogue describing Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee. Hardevi went on to remarry a man of her own choice. She did all of this in Victorian Punjab.

Misconceptions About The Partition of India

I find the study of Indian Partition under a lens of nationalism and jingoism quite problematic. I believe in what historian Ayesha Jala argues, the Partition of India and the creation of the dominions of India and Pakistan should be seen as two separate events. Mixing them, creates a lot of misconceptions and gives weight to ideologues to set their opinions upon. One misconception I love to dispel is the idea that Partition was inevitable and had to happen as Hindus and Muslims can never live together peacefully. This idea ignores the centuries of local history and elements of cultural and religious fluidity, and only focuses on the broader definition of religions as defined by the major parties or seen as the “official national version”.

The Lost Heer Project actively challenges this misconception and is evident through my historical findings that have been archived on my page.

Research Areas Overlooked In The History of Partition

For common people, Partition invokes not just pain and nostalgia, but also fantasy that has been expressed beautifully in fiction. For the so called experts, it is about League-Congress-Raj politics. In between both these worlds, Partition lacks a subtle form of scholarship: social historiography. Authors like Aanchal Malhotra have done some amazing work in trying to bridge the gap.

How Can The Diaspora Better Connect With This History?

One of the reasons why the diaspora tends to naturally forget their history is due to a phenomenon called linguistic shift. As a group settles in an area, it slowly adopts its language and culture, and language is the first thing to disappear down the line. This means that an individual would not be able to connect with centuries of indigenous knowledge and wisdom, just because he/she can’t read the language. This is where translation comes in. I’m a great proponent of the idea that supporting ‘Punjab in English’, a project that aims to translate indigenous Punjabi writings into English, thus making books and texts on Punjabi culture and Punjabi history accessible to the diaspora, will significantly help to make for a wider readership outside of the subcontinent.

This interview has been edited with permission from the author by raveetawrites.

The featured image is a photograph of three generations of Punjabi women outside of a refugee quarter in Delhi, India. It was taken in November 1947. The photograph belongs to the Photo Division of the Government of India and is used by Harleen in The Lost Heer Project.