Punjab through the prism of history – evolution of a modern Indian powerhouse

India-Books/Politics/History 

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By Madhusree Chatterjee 
|New Delhi

The northwestern frontier state of Punjab in India had been a strategic player in the political history of India — being located on the border with Pakistan and access to the rest of Asia. The location of the region — a confluence of five rivers around the primary stream of Indus — made it the historical gateway to India for nearly a century luring waves of foreign invaders to ravage the terrain and march to the mainland in their quest for the “reins” of Hindustan.

Consequently, Punjab was exposed to multiple socio-cultural and political influences that shaped the state as a resilient buffer between Asia and the Indian mainland. Punjab (which means the land of five rivers in Persian)  has always been a little dislocated from the rest of the country in its militant arrogance, indignation, economic prosperity, wild ways and industrious inhabitants.

The British Raj had been Punjab’s undoing despite the political “stability” it brought to the state after almost 200 years of fractious rule by Afghan warlords and local Muslim envoys deputed by the Islamic rulers in Delhi. The Islamic lords fought, bickered, plotted and plundered the land to the agony of the local Sikh population, who kept up the resistance against the alien rule.

What began as “petty skirmishes and internecine feuds” came to a flash point in 1947 when the British rulers divided the state during the creation of Pakistan. Punjab was bathed in blood in serial riots and arson that began with the Partition of India and continued well after.

Why did Punjab— which was touted as a stable frontier province during the British Raj — become a casualty of Indian Independence; bearing the onslaught of communal rage? “The nationalistic movement was weakest in Punjab – one of the most pro-British province. It has much to do with the geographical location of the state though the Hindu-Sikh distinction is quite recent,“ says historian and scholar Rajmohan Gandhi, the author of a new account, “Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (Aleph Book Company)”.

During the rule of Ranjit Singh, most foreign historians described Punjab as a “Hindu kingdom” because the Hindu-Sikh distinction was not emphasized. But over the years, three large communities — Hindu, Sikhs and the Muslims — dominated the demographic map of Punjab making the state more plural and secular than many other states of India. The Punjabi Muslims — a neo-tribe of Islamists consisting mostly converts from the Hindu or Buddhist faiths — was a legacy of the Sultanate of Delhi, which forced numerous conversions to retain its hold on the frontier state.

Beside the converts, the Muslim colonialists and marauders from Central Asia left behind their emissaries and army men in course of their forays into India. The central Asian Muslims and those of Persian origin mingled with the local lot to broaden the kinship clans.     

The spread of Sufism was another factor contributing to the growth of Islam in Punjab— the teachings of Sufi saints like Baba Farid and Bulleh Shah attracted the local people because of their “simplification” of the “divine” and moderate Islamic views.

The book is an investigation into the historicity of the growth of Punjab as a key state of modern India – in the context of the various influences that have influenced its socio-cultural and political canvas, coupled with the fact that Punjab has withstood the worst of the political bloodshed, along with Bengal.

The book says the fault-lines of present-day Punjab are rooted in its turbulent past — one disoriented by incessant clashes, intermittent bouts of stability and the silent struggle for self-determination by the local Sikhs, who frequently took to arms in the name of faith to keep their identity alive in the face of sustained foreign rule.

While Mughal emperor Akbar (in Punjab) and Dara Shikoh (Shah Jahan’s oldest son in Lahore) were loved for their “sympathetic outlook to Punjab and their overtures for peace”, Jahangir and Shah Jahan were tolerated. Aurangzeb was hated because he had cracked down on the indigenous religion of Sikhism and deputed his own men to rule the state.

Akbar, however, was believed to have donated land for the Golden Temple and the present-day capital of Amritsar, the book says.    

Punjab has given generously to modern India. In his book, Gandhi says “Punjab has produced two Prime Ministers (Manmohan Singh and I.K. Gujral) as well as the assassins of Indira Gandhi. It has been one of the growth engines of India — powering India’s agriculture and industry— with unusual economic prosperity. But the absence of documented history of Punjab is a hurdle in addressing several unanswered questions about the state.

For example, why has the state’s Muslim majority not been able to fill in the power vacuum post Aurangzeb, who had unleashed a reign of terror in Punjab to keep the frontier region on a leash. After the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire retreated from Punjab. Why did the Gandhian or the nationalist Congress could not make inroads in Punjab?

“The Punjab story is linked to that of Pakistan and Afghanistan – especially the latter,” says author Rajmohan Gandhi in an interview. A posse of Afghan warlords took over undivided Punjab in the 17th and 18th century. They fought among themselves for territorial control- thus weakening the united front of the local Muslim population. Over the centuries, their strength and presence declined— and after Partition, they became a minority in the Indian side of Punjab. It checked the growth of the local Muslim nationalism in Punjab.

“The Punjabi society and economy – as these evolved — from part of this inquiry. But the book is essentially a political history told chronologically and by confronting a procession of interesting characters involved with Punjab — Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, British characters, rulers, poets, gurus, Sufis, avengers, reconcilers, district officers from afar, political leaders, journalists and others,” Gandhi says. In this process, several historical questions are brought into the purview of deliberations — like the secret of Sikh success from 1760s to 1840s, Punjab’s history of revenge and counter-revenge and ironically, its history of cooperation.

Gandhi says his decision to write about Punjab was not an intention to “comment or to redeem any injustice”. “My heart and mind was drawn by the Punjab story. Partition is six-decades old – yet it is a powerful part of life in Punjab and Bengal,” Gandhi points out. The partition o Punjab and Bengal are events without understanding which “it is difficult to figure out India, Pakistan and Bangladesh- and South Asia as a whole”.

There is a personal reason as well. Gandhi was born in Delhi in 1935. “As a boy growing up in Delhi, I saw the change taking place in Delhi. It became a Punjabi city post partition. Earlier, the Jain (trading community) was in majority.  I wanted to know the reason for the prolific expansion of the Punjabi race – and understand post-Partition Punjab,” he says.

Gandhi refers to both Punjab in his book — the Pakistan side of Punjab and the Indian Punjab.

The seeds of partition were sown in Punjab during the British rule despite the fact that they set many of the modern development projects rolling in the state. “They built canals, irrigation networks, schools, hospitals and roads in an effort to transform the state. But they prevented the growth of neighbourly relations between the major communities who inhabited Punjab,” Gandhi says. They adopted a divide-and-rule policy which prevented the local Hindus, Muslims and the Sikhs from forging friendly relationship among themselves without mediation by the British rulers.  

“The British rulers said the Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus could have wonderful relationships with the British but each of them had to find their neighbours through the British,” Gandhi explained.

The inter-communal harmony in the state flourished under British protectionism so that the local communities could not close ranks against the imperial rulers. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the army in Punjab where “the different regiments were not allowed to interact with each other”. But the contribution of Punjab to India’s military strength surpasses all other states.

“Punjab supplied bulk of the soldiers during the World War 1 and II. British reports cite how the Punjabi peasants rushed to join the army during the World Wars,” Gandhi says. But in 1947, the chief “organizers of the killings in Punjab were believed to be the de-militarised former soldiers of the army. They gave their arms and expertise to the rioters along the border to sustain the violence along communal divides. The resentment in the former military ranks fueled the violence.

Gandhi says “one of the running themes of the book is the critical role played by big rulers and the local leaders before the Partition”. “If the local Punjabi leaders — Hindu, Muslim and Sikhs — forged an understanding, it would have been more effective than interventions by the last British viceroy of India (Lord Mountbatten), Mahatma Gandhi or M.A. Jinnah – or any influential leader from outside,” the historian says. There was “no common ground at the local level because of the clash between faith and belief”. “They did not find leaders, who could take a strong step,” Gandhi said, outlining the crisis of leadership in Punjab during Partition.

He cited the “acceptance of the Radcliffe Commission recommendations on the international border between India and Pakistan during the Partition” as a “failure of the local leadership”.

Gandhi traces the unhappiness in Punjab post Independence to the earlier story. “Although the Pakistan plan was accepted by all parties, it was a coerced settlement for most Punjabis,” he says.

“It may be oversimplification but the movement for a separate Khalistan state (beginning 1984) for the Sikhs ensued from his bitterness over Partition,” the author says.

The running train of argument among the Sikhs was that if the Muslims got Pakistan, the Hindus, Hindustan, what did we get,” Gandhi says. The author recommends “more exposure to Punjab in the media and in the national consciousness to integrate it to the mainstream India in spirit”.

“Partition is still integral to Punjab’s psyche and I think trade, travel, cultural exchanges, availability and access to the media in the neighbouring countries will gradually make partition an important memory – but a less agonizing one,” he said.

Gandhi, also the author of “The Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War”, Is planning to write a book on “certain aspects of Gujarat — another complex state on the map of India”. A former educator, Gandhi taught political science and history at the University of Illinois in US.  

 

“Punjab- A History of India from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten” by Rajmohan Gandhi has been published by Aleph Book Company. Priced Rs 695.      

 

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