Nationalist politics and official patronage to a selective narrative of Partition have not succeeded in wiping out the memory of a composite pluralistic culture
The partition of Punjab in 1947 created a paradoxical situation that Punjabis had never experienced before: they were one people, but with two mainlands now — India and Pakistan. In that sense, Punjab ceased to exist; by and large, Punjabis took to perceiving their world through the prism of nation states and national boundaries, shaped by whichever side of the divide they found themselves in.
In the process, the self became the other. The universe of Punjabiyat — a shared way of life — was marginalised. It was replaced by perceptions of contending identities, which have found an echo in the dominant power politics of east Punjab these past 65 years. However, the idea of Punjabiyat has not been totally erased. In ways seen and unseen, it continues to inhabit the universe of the average Punjabi’s everyday life, language, culture, memories and consciousness.
Born almost two decades after Partition, my first realisation of a composite Punjab, ironically, was through the presence of absences. Behind my grandparents’ house in our village Akalgarh, in district Ludhiana, is a narrow street. To this day it is called Rajputan de Gali (the street of the Rajputs). This is where the influential community of ‘Rajput Muslims,’ as they were addressed, lived before Partition. The villagers’ reference to the Maseet Wala Gurdwara (literally the mosque turned gurdwara) is yet another symbol of the once powerful presence of Muslims in Akalgarh.
Similarly, there is a pond called Taru Shah da Toba, named after a wandering fakir Taru Shah, who preferred to stay on in our village. Over the years his shrine in the old graveyard has grown in size and stature. Yet there are no Muslims in the village.
To me, these living paradoxes spoke unequivocally of the presence of an absence of Punjabi Muslims from east Punjab. It was a reminder that any imagination of Punjab which excluded Punjabi Muslims would only end up ghettoising east Punjabi society.
The last six decades have witnessed two parallel trajectories in east Punjab as a response to Partition. One trajectory is defined by a dominant mode of politics in the domain of national contestations; the other, reflecting an organic response of people in their everyday lives, emphasises local continuities.
Contestations & continuities
In spite of occasional expressions of bonhomie during a cross-border cricket match, offerings of prayers at each other’s holy shrines for the benefit of competing media cameras, or photo-ops centred on prisoners granted amnesty across the border, it is a fact that politics in east Punjab has always engaged with west Punjab strictly within a nationalist framework — just like India would deal with Pakistan.
Strangely, the State’s Akali leadership, which is never shy of confronting the Centre on any issue, big or small, imagines Punjab no differently. Such is the influence of national boundaries in imposing constricting visions that Punjabi Muslims and west Punjab have been rendered completely invisible in the conceptualisation of the Punjabi self by this brand of politics in east Punjab.
For instance, the complete silence over the killings of Punjabi Muslims in east Punjab during Partition could be explained away by the nation state as a “side effect” of the birth of a nation. But, equally, east Punjab’s political class has chosen to be silent on this issue of Partition, which had a totally different meaning for Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs who shared so much in common with Punjabi Muslims in terms of culture, language, traditions and spirituality.
In all these years, the same east Punjabi political class has shown little interest in articulating any expression of regret for the killings of Muslims during Partition. As for the idea of a reconciliation which would help recover the self banished as the other in 1947, that has never been part of any political agenda.
This gives rise to a significant question. If this is how the State’s political leadership has envisioned Punjab, how is it any different from the Hindutva politics of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan? Often, the justification of this silence stems from a positioning based on playing the blame game. It is a political stance that has been used by the likes of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to invoke Newton’s third law of motion during the killings of Muslim minorities in his State in 2002.
In the year of the Gujarat killings, the Rashtriya Sawayamsevek Sangh (RSS) held a massive function in the heart of Amritsar to honour its cadres who had actively participated in the genocide of Muslims in 1947, ostensibly to protect the Hindus and Sikhs in east Punjab. At this Shaurya Smriti Samman function, (honouring the memory of valour), the RSS made an audacious attempt to appropriate iconic Punjabi revolutionaries of the anti-imperialist movement like Shaheed Udham Singh and Kartar Singh Sarabha.
The counterpoint to this trajectory is to be found at levels closer to the ground, in the responses of the Partition generation that witnessed the genocidal violence of 1947 in east Punjab. In the villages straddling the Malwa region of Punjab, people of this generation can often be heard talking about the fate of the perpetrators of the killings, the accounts disturbing in their sharp details. They never fail to describe how the perpetrators, who were from their own community, met with miserable ends. The widely shared faith of this generation in a morality based on the belief that those who commit inhuman acts, suffer in their own lifetime, that there is always a payback, carries within it a great humanist and universal message.
While shooting my documentaries in this region over a decade, rarely did I come across anyone valorising the killers of Muslims. This fast fading generation’s expressions of guilt and remorse seem to be a way of cleansing the soul, with the potential to heal the scars of a traumatic past and show the path to reconciliation.
Memorialising — what and what not
Yet there has been no acknowledgement of this articulation anywhere on a formal level in east Punjab. No memorials have been erected for the one million people who perished in 1947. At the same time, building memorials has been an unceasing political activity in the State. The pertinent ones in this context are the memorials of Wada Ghalughara, Chhota Ghalughara and the Banda Bahadur War Memorial. They are largely meant to invoke the heroic battles of the Sikhs against the Mughal state’s oppression. The point worth pondering is that these acts privilege a memory that is exclusivist, selective and sectarian, over the historical pluralist ethos of Punjab. This act of institutionalisation of memory is not very different from the manner in which Hindu nationalist forces and the RSS invoke the memory of Maharana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji as saviours of Hindus from Muslim oppression.
Away from the glare of such grandstanding lies the universe of the common Punjabi. In so many villages across east Punjab, people throng the shrines of Sakhi Sarvar — Lakh Data Pir or Nigaha Pir as he is called, whose main shrine is located near Dera Ghazi Khan in Pakistan. This is a vibrant living tradition outside the domain of the dominant faiths of east Punjab that has survived Partition — and is evident in multiple spaces of shared spirituality, especially Sufi shrines.
The political class has never bothered to argue on behalf of such cross-border traditions which speak of multiple expressions of identity. It is more interested in picking and choosing elements which have the potential to harden the identity politics of Us against the Other.
The silencing of language
There is one more interesting dimension to this rubric and it has to do with language. Post-Partition, in west Punjab, the imposition of Urdu virtually decimated the Punjabi language; in east Punjab, Urdu became a casualty of Punjabi. I remember having an animated conversation about Urdu with four elderly men under a pilkhan tree in a village in Ludhiana some years ago. “A beautiful language, with nuances neither Hindi nor Punjabi can equal,” said one. “It’s our language, forged from Arabic and Punjabi,” said another. The third one remembered how, when Partition was announced, “all of us in Class III, studying lesson number 14 in Urdu, threw our Qua’ida in the air and said, ‘Urdu ud gaya, Urdu ud gaya’ [Urdu has flown away].” The fourth friend ruminated: “We used to think Urdu belonged to Muslims; nobody knew it was a language.”
Here, too, the dominant trajectory of politics, with a skewed sense of Punjab’s history, continues to deny the organic links between Persia and Punjab — cultural, spiritual and linguistic. It has ghettoised the Punjabi language by keeping Urdu and Persian at bay. Ironically, while people in villages celebrate Gaus Pak Pir from Baghdad, students in Punjab are denied the option of studying Persian or Urdu as a second language.
This underlines the nationalist perspective echoed by east Punjab politics; it is certainly not a Punjab perspective.
(Ajay Bhardwaj is a Delhi-based documentary filmmaker. firstname.lastname@example.org)