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The Punjab puzzle

By Nonica Datta

The rural-urban distinction, rooted in the Unionist tradition, still defines and limits the parameters of Punjab politics.

PUNJAB'S IS a politics of endurance. Many of the principles originate from its historical past. Its political culture and landscape set it off from other States. Keeping the upcoming Assembly elections in mind, a historical perspective may perhaps be useful for teasing out certain enduring principles of the Punjab puzzle. Contemporary Punjab politics is influenced by the distinctive "Punjabi tradition" created by the British in the late 19th century. The Land Alienation Act of 1900 structured the British imperial authority by demarcating rural `agriculturists' from the `non-agriculturists'. In effect, the Act restricted the transfers of land from peasants to moneylenders. Central to the Act lay a defence of rural power and land ownership by the `agricultural tribes'.

The Land Alienation Act shaped Punjab's provincial politics. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of the `agricultural tribes' in the council formed an alliance based on common issues and concerns. The result was the formation of the Unionist Party in 1923, a class-community coalition, with Fazli Husain as the spokesman for Muslim agriculturists and Chhotu Ram as the leader of Hindu Jat agriculturists. The Act assumed a central place in the ideology of the rural Punjabi leadership.

The separation of rural from urban interests became the cornerstone of Punjabi politics after the formation of the Unionist Party. Caste and religious identities were incorporated into the larger rural-urban categories. As a result, Hindu interests were largely subsumed within urban interests, while Muslim interests were predominantly identified as rural. Many urban Hindus therefore saw the Act as a "communal measure".

The Unionist party, having ruled Punjab for nearly three decades, marched towards regionalism. Representing the interests of landlords and peasant proprietors, it symbolised the importance of a cross-communal alliance of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim agriculturalists, in times when communal forces had plagued the rest of the country. It endured the national, communal pressures, circumventing intrusions of national parties and bodies. Hence, the Congress remained ineffective. So did the Muslim League. In effect, Punjab remained isolated from mainstream political pressures and ideological manipulations. The Unionists, in turn, continued with strengthening the forces of Punjabiyat. Hence, a Punjabi identity flourished politically and culturally.

In the 1940s, this identity was put to test by two factors. One, the rise of local caste and communitarian identities challenged the cross-communal foundations of the Unionist Party. The Hindu Jats, mainstay of the Unionist coalition, drifted away to protect their own communitarian concerns, which could no longer be accommodated within the secular Unionist coalition. The Akalis, emerging as the chief spokespersons of the Sikhs, posed a threat to the Unionist Party. Religio-communitarian concerns, having played a secondary role in provincial politics, came to the fore. More importantly, Punjab was besieged by national political forces. The Muslim League, the Congress and the Hindu communal forces performed a new political drama, posing a threat to the Unionist tradition.

With the Muslim League campaign in rural areas, the State's regional identity came under threat. As a calculated move of political expediency, the Unionist Party forged an alliance with the Akalis and the Congress in 1946 to combat the Muslim League's move towards Partition, which they perceived to be an ultimate assault on Punjabiyat. Yet, in 1947, Punjab became a victim of centralist forces. The defeat of regionalism and the triumph of centralism strengthened the tendencies towards Partition.

Post-Independence Punjabi politics inherited the political framework provided by the colonial system. And the forces of regionalism and centralism continued to exert a powerful impact. Indeed, the Assembly elections due on February 13 bear testimony to this enduring imperial legacy. The principal actors are the Congress, a national party representing the centralist tone, and the Shiromani Akali Dal, embodying regionalism and religio-communitarianism. Though both have tried to adapt to the changing post-Independence scenario, the fight between them essentially mirrors a conflict between centralist and regional aspirations. With their stronghold in the rural Malwa belt, the Akalis represent the dominant Jat Sikh interests, while the Congress vote bank is chiefly among urban Hindus. Even today, their political idiom is rooted in the political vocabulary of British Punjab. Borrowing heavily from the Unionist rhetoric, the Akali Dal, in sum, stands for "Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiyat". It is for the preservation of regional interests that the Akali Dal has entered into alliances with centralist parties trying to restructure the Centre-State relationship. .

In times when Centre-State relations in Punjab were disturbed, it was not surprising that the Sikh identity assumed a new urgency. It is in this context that terrorism gained root in Punjab in the 1980s. Ultimately, however, the dialectic of regionalism and centralism contained the trend towards Sikh autonomy and secession.

The interplay between regional and centralist forces explains the contours of the current SAD-BJP alliance. The tactical alliance is designed to combat the Congress, perceived as being anathema to regional and communitarian aspirations. The alliance seeks to alienate both Hindu and Sikh votes from the Congress. Based on the ideology of political consensus, the alliance tries to reconcile religio-communitarian concerns with regionalism. This offsets the internal factions within the Akalis, while safeguarding their own political and cultural concerns. Though the Sikh and Hindu identities, protected by the Akalis and the BJP, are irreconcilable, both the parties try to strike a balance between rural and urban sectors, and emphasise communal harmony or Hindu-Sikh unity. This dilutes the communal sting.

However, the SAD-BJP alliance does not repudiate the ideological foundations of Punjab politics. It draws upon the legacy of colonial rule. The Akalis cement the class and community interests of the rich Jat Sikh peasantry within the framework of the rural-urban divide. The central feature of Akali politics is its identification with rural interests and power structures. Such a modality subdues the BJP's Hindutva project and compromises the SAD-BJP alliance. The rural-urban distinction, rooted in the Unionist tradition, still defines and limits the parameters of Punjab politics. The dialectic of regionalism and centralism contains communal tension and thwarts the polarisation of society along communal lines.

Patterns of resilience, mediated by regional aspirations, also obstruct the dominance of caste solidarities in Punjab. The BSP, which emerged as a formidable Dalit force in the State about two decades ago, has declined considerably. Today, it is riddled with factions. Though commanding the loyalty of a large chunk of Dalit votes in a number of constituencies, it continues to be seduced by the SAD-BJP, Congress and now by the Panthic Morcha. In tune with the Punjabi tradition of accommodation and alliances, Dalit interest can only be safeguarded via the BSP's alliance with other political parties.

The enduring nature of Punjab politics will stay. Its endurance lies in the alliances as well as confrontations between regional and centralist forces. This process blunts a trend towards centralisation of power in the hands of a single party. It is this endurance that acts as a deterrent to terrorism. It is this endurance that prevents casteist and communal forces from holding sway in Punjab politics and society. It is this endurance that keeps the separatist forces at bay.

The coming elections may well see the return of the Congress. Can this be perceived as a triumph of centralism over regionalism? Or is the vote for the Congress a verdict on the Akalis' failure to fulfil as and reconcile regional, communitarian and class aspirations. It might be time for political parties to learn from the enduring principles and legacies of Punjab politics.

(The writer teaches history at Miranda House, University of Delhi.)

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