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The strange death of Punjab

The Sikhs of Punjab have had a tragic history to endure.   | Photo Credit: PTI

In the wake of Douglas Murray’s recent best seller, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam, it may be a good time to reflect on the plight of my own ancestral homeland, the Punjab, a region which too is destined, I suspect, for a similar fate — albeit for different reasons entirely. 

The northern breadbasket of India has never been much of a tourist destination for those who aren’t culturally or ethnically Punjabi like myself. It doesn’t have the beaches of Goa nor does it have the mountainous terrain of Kashmir or Himachal. Rather, it’s a flat, deforested and overpopulated patch of agricultural land. It has a remarkable history nonetheless, sadly unknown to most in the west. Along with Mesopotamia and the Yangtze River area in China, the Punjab was also a cradle of civilisation which flourished on the banks of the Indus a few millennia ago. From the Greeks of Alexander to the Mughals of Babur, this fertile land of five rivers has been a gateway for various armies invading the subcontinent. 

The Sikhs of Punjab have had a tragic history to endure. State persecution by the Mughals under Aurungzeb led to their militarisation and the formation of a martial order known as the Khalsa. The demise of the Mughals was only to be followed by the conquests of the Persian Nader Shah and later the Afghan Ahmed Shah Abdali. The Sikhs finally obtained their sovereignty under the influence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1799. After his death, the Kingdom fell into disorder and was shortly annexed by the British. Decolonisation in the aftermath of the Second World War saw the Punjab being partitioned between the newly formed nation states of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The region erupted in the summer of 1947 seeing one of the greatest migrations in human history. Lahore, once the capital of Ranjit Singh’s empire and the birth place of Guru Nanak, happened to fall on the Pakistan side of Punjab, and a once cosmopolitan city was subsequently largely ethnically cleansed of its Sikh population. Tensions on the Indian side of Punjab were reignited during the insurgency of the 1980s when Khalistani separatists fought for an independent homeland. 

The Punjabis of India were rewarded for their endurance, and for some time they enjoyed the luxuries which came with residing in the richest State in the country. Over the last decade, however, the State appears to have taken a turn for the worst. The final nail in the coffin for the Sikhs is not coming from a foreign invading force like the Mughals, the Persians or the British, nor is it coming from the Indian government. Rather, the Punjabi people are themselves to blame. This is not a genocidal tragedy inflicted by bullets, but rather an epidemic of drugs, widespread alcohol addiction, female infanticide, low birth rates, farmer suicides, caste discrimination, mass outward emigration and religious conversion. 

I have made four trips to my motherland, with my last visit being almost a decade ago. I am truly astonished as to how a prosperous and seemingly innocent society has cascaded into becoming the narcotics haven of India. To put things in context, amongst the youth of Punjab, 51.6% were found to be addicted to drugs, which is 18 times higher than the national Indian average of 2.8%. The statistics regarding alcohol consumption are just as worrying. From a young age, almost every song I have heard at a Punjabi wedding reception makes some reference to alcohol. When a child grows up on a diet of watching his relatives dance to ‘Jatt Ho Gya Sharabi’ or ‘Patiala Peg’, it doesn’t surprise me they might also become alcoholics when they are older.  

Sikhs are also known to have the most uneven sex ratio in the whole of India, with 900 females for every 1000 males. This should be our biggest disgrace and embarrassment, more so than alcohol and substance abuse. I have always had the belief that Sikhi is the most progressive faith when it comes to the emancipation of women. Our Gurus fought endlessly against ancient customs of Sati, and strongly opposed the wearing of the veil. Sikh women like Mai Bhago often led armies into the field of battle, something which was unheard of at the time and still is today. It appears that old societal norms which aren’t inherently Sikhi-related (and which often predate Sikhi), like the dowry, the celebration of Lohri and the degradation of women in the Punjabi music industry and folk songs, have all played a role in cultivating the vehemently misogynistic culture we see today. 

According to census data, the fertility rates of Punjabi-Sikhs are so low that it begs the question as to whether we would continue to even exist in India in the not-too-distant future. The Punjab of 2070 will look very different to the Punjab I remember seeing as a young boy at my uncles’ wedding. On almost all my travels abroad, be it to Hong Kong, Sydney or Barcelona, I have encountered a relatively young male-dominated community of illegal Punjabi immigrants. I find their stories very difficult to hear, as they discuss the lengths to which they went to leave the Punjab, only to experience a harsher existence a few thousand miles away. 

Outward migration and lower fertility rates are not the only factors that explain the Sikh demographic decline. A climate of religious confusion and a lack of Sikh leadership have created a vacuum for missionaries and other religious sects to exploit. I was shocked to find that the recent conviction of the controversial cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim, attracted over two hundred thousand of his supporters outside the Punjab and Haryana High Court. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but the very existence of Sikhi itself seems under threat. Punjab is in serious need of another Singh Sabha movement. 

Living in the diaspora, it is very difficult to see the land where your forefathers resided for centuries, erode within the space of a lifetime. Unfortunately, the discussion regarding Punjab amongst western Sikhs only seems to concern the events of 1984 – the invasion of the Darbar Sahib complex, the pogroms of Delhi and the military curfews which turned the district into a garrison state. The year 1984 strikes a very personal chord with me too. We have every right to stand in remembrance of this terrible episode in our history, just as the Jews remember the Holocaust or the Armenians recall the genocide of 1915. Nonetheless, the dialogue must move beyond this, and our attention should be focussed on the Punjab of 2017. The Punjab of today. 

I also believe it is important that we accept responsibilities for our own failures. Only by acknowledging and admitting to our own faults can we inspire a renaissance of reform. For too long have we pointed fingers towards the Indian government. We seem to believe that everything is a part of a grand conspiracy by the ‘Hindu elite’ to intentionally destroy and undermine Sikhi. I will concede that the federal government is not doing enough to monitor the porous borders of Punjab to prevent the flow of opium. I am fully aware that recreational drugs are more accessible in the Punjab than any other State, and I have no doubt that the Punjab police often turn a blind eye to this. But ultimately, we Punjabis bear the responsibility of consuming them; no one is enforcing it upon us at the point of a gun. Class A narcotics are readily available on most university campuses in the United Kingdom, but most students my age have not become heroin addicts overnight. Though more law and order is needed, this is a grassroots movement, which should instead be focussed on education and raising awareness. 

If we have survived the authoritarian regimes of the past, then we have every reason to make our mark and flourish in a multicultural democracy, albeit an imperfect one. 

jaspalsidhu1995@gmail.com  

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Printable version | Jan 9, 2021 2:20:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-strange-death-of-punjab/article19610795.ece

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