Land’s End

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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Of a post-Partition village

I was sweating. A white-bearded Sikh, infuriated and inebriated, was waving a loaded pistol in my face. He was telling the person who had accompanied me to his house, “Sukhbir [Singh Badal] vi edar zameen baare puchhan di himmat kare, te ude sir te pistol rakh ke odi thondh wadd danga (Even if Sukhbir Singh Badal dares come here to ask about this land, I will put a pistol to his head and chop his neck off).” Only when the realisation sunk in that we were fellow litigants in a court case challenging the acquisition of our land by the state, did he calm down.

Satinder Bir’s anger was understandable. For more than a decade, our land in Khankot and his in Sultanwind, both villages close to the Grand Trunk Road on the outskirts of Amritsar, has been subject to the Punjab government’s whim. It was an Akali Dal government that first issued a notification for acquiring 275 acres of land in the two villages. Soon after, the state exempted 87 acres from the scheme, a windfall for builders who had managed to buy much of it from farmers faced with the acquisition. The Congress government that succeeded the Akali one in Chandigarh exempted a further 32 acres.

In each case, the exemption had little to do with what Amritsar needed, it had everything to do with what politicians needed. While farmers whose land was being acquired were being offered Rs 25 lakh per acre by the government, builders were selling plots and earning well over fifty times that amount on each acre. Even on the far outskirts of Amritsar, a 500 sq yard plot now costs close to Rs 1 crore.

Somewhere near the town of Renala Khurd in Pakistan lies a patch of land that once belonged to my family. In lieu of this land, through a series of land transfers, complicated but no more so than the history of the division of the Subcontinent, my family came to own land in Khankot. More or less 67 years ago to the day, a series of such transactions and the forced movement of millions of people created the two countries of India and Pakistan.

It was only in the mid-1950s that we finally obtained the rights to the land. By then, my father and his brothers had left our ancestral village for study or work. Land left unattended in Punjab is liable to be land lost, so the family arranged for the transfer of our ancestral land to Khankot as well, where an uncle managed our landholdings for us. Each summer my sisters and I would travel to Khankot for our school holidays. For children, it was idyllic—the cold subterranean water from gushing tubewells, ample servings of freshly made butter and lassi, pears from the village orchards and the unfettered run of the fields lying fallow as they awaited the sowing of paddy. But we gave very little thought to the events that made this idyll possible.

Last year, I found myself travelling through Punjab with a friend from London whose parents had first moved to Pakistan after Partition. She was the first of her family to make the trip back. Both her maternal and paternal villages lay along the Sutlej, not far from Jalandhar, and in each, Arain Muslim landowners had given way to Jatt Sikhs after Partition, much as my family had taken over land in Khankot. Unsurprisingly, the Jatts knew very little about this village; their relationship with the land was functional and they cared little about its past. The people who knew of her parents, for whom the village was a native place, like it was to her, were a handful.

It occurred to me that my relationship with Khankot was representative of the amnesia that continues to afflict Punjab. While I knew a great deal about my native village of Sathiala, which I had visited but once, the past of the village we had made home had never drawn my attention. This year, hoping it was not too late, I went looking for what little I could now find.

It was easy to locate the sole Jatt family that had resided in Khankot before Partition. The family elder, Ajit Singh, was eleven years old at the time. Khankot, he told me, was a village inhabited by Muslim Dogars, another landowning caste. All of them had moved to Pakistan.

“They left safely,” he said, “There was very little trouble here.” He could even recall the name of a prominent inhabitant, Shamsuddin Dogar: “Everyone called him Shama or Shamu. I think he went and established a well-known hotel in Lahore. For a brief while after Partition we heard from some of them. They had mostly settled near Jandiala Sher Khan.”

This was the home of Waris Shah, the patron poet of Punjab and author of Heer. When Amrita Pritam raged against our failure to give voice to the crimes of Partition, she invoked Waris Shah. Perhaps, the echoes of this reference made me doubt the completeness of Ajit Singh’s anodyne version.

The need to verify what I had heard took me to the neighbouring village of Sultanwind, to the house where Satinder Bir had accosted me with a pistol. His father Jagir Singh, old enough to have been a young man at the time of Partition, told me that the villages around Sultanwind had been a battlefield: “The violence started months before Partition. Men from our village used to go out on raids. Daily, they killed men. After one such incident, Baloch troops came to the village. They picked up some of our men.”

When we asked him about the Dogars, he said, “No one would attack them in their village; there they were in strength and there were Muslim armymen on horses guarding the village. But the day they were to leave for Pakistan in a train from one of the camps adjacent to the railway station, we reached there, armed and ready to kill. The Baloch troops guarding the train opened fire and let no harm come to the Dogars. We had to flee, some of us jumped into ditches to survive the bullets.” There was no sense of regret for the violence in his voice.

Emptied of its inhabitants, the land in Khankot became available for the resettlement of refugees. The extent of this effort has never been fully documented, but one of its architects, MS Randhawa, has written about the ‘rehabilitation of refugees from West Pakistan in rural areas of East Punjab’ in his book Out Of The Ashes. In a chapter titled ‘Garden Colonies’ he notes:

‘A bright feature of land resettlement operation, is the scheme of Garden Colonies. Twenty-seven large blocks of evacuee land, which had been excluded from general allotment, have been allotted to persons interested in horticulture for growing gardens…It was also decided to harness the enthusiasm and talent for gardening in the non-displaced people of East Punjab by allotting them similar areas in the garden colonies. The condition for their admission into these colonies was that an allottee had to surrender an equivalent area from his holding which was added to the general evacuee pool...The garden colony of Khankot is close to the city of Amritsar on the Grand Trunk Road, and apart from the facility of canal irrigation, it can also be electrified and can have tube-well irrigation. This colony is suitable for the growth of pears and banana.’

The idyll I remember from my childhood was born of this decision. It was only much later in life that I realised that the village I grew up in was hardly typical of Punjab. The groves of pears that we took for granted were green and lush year round. The fruit ripened mid-July, and loaded trucks would make their way from the village to Calcutta along the Grand Trunk Road. Basketsful of fruit would arrive at my uncle’s place. He was an MSc in Agriculture, and he had helped plant many of the groves that once dotted the village.

Eventually, it was the very closeness to Amritsar that Randhawa mentions which was to become Khankot’s undoing. The orchards have given way to garish mansions. Only the parts of Khankot closest to Amritsar, caught in the legal dispute over land acquisition, are still dotted with fields and the odd orchard, standing next to a residential colony that has come up on the 32 acres exempted by the Congress government in Chandigarh.

In reality, the 32 acres would have extended to the entire scheme. The builders had attempted to buy the remaining land under acquisition. Only the obduracy of Satinder Bir and Jagir Singh, whose land stood between the 32 acres already exempted and the rest of the acquired land, stopped them. The builders had links with powerful men in Punjab. Ordinarily, they would have just moved people out of the way. But the father and son came from a clan notorious for their ability to stick together and fight. They were known as the Kanwas, the crows—attack one of them and they would all fight back.

Back in Delhi, as I searched through books and the internet for accounts of violence in Sultanwind, I came upon the testimony of Shingara Singh, patriarch of the Kanwas, on journalist Andrew Whitehead’s website with its remarkable collection of Partition testimonies. Whitehead had interviewed Shingara Singh in 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of Partition. He was 97 at the time and lived on for another decade. In Shingara Singh’s words:

‘When the Jallianwala Bagh incident took place I was 19 years and nine months old. It was Baisakhi day when the firing took place. I heard the crack of bullets. I saw people falling from the walls, running helter-skelter, falling by the side. I ran through a narrow door to the Sarai at the Golden Temple.

I was jailed in 1947. We had gathered rifles, pistols and kirpans. We would go out on horses. Wherever we could find Muslims we would kill them. We would shoot them down with rifles, we would butcher them with kirpans. I had one kirpan for a long time, when I lost it, I replaced it with a new one. It had a very sharp edge, one blow and a head would go flying. I killed them because they killed so many of ours on the other side. Ask anyone, Shingara Singh killed a lot of Muslims. The Muslim police came to the village and killed two persons from my clan. They call us the Kanwas, we are a big clan. If one fights, we all pounce along with him.

The Muslims of Rasoolpura had gained a reputation for killing Sikhs. Eighteen of us attacked them with bombs while they were offering namaz and then we opened fire. We killed an uncountable number. Then we chased them through the alleys. We butchered six more.

The Muslim police came looking for us with guard dogs. One of the dogs pounced on me. They jailed two of us in Lahore fort. When Independence came we were in jail. When they used to take us to court we would tell then we should be rewarded, instead you have arrested us. Finally we were let off on August 15.

I am proud of what we did. Even today there I feel rage because they killed our people. If I find those Muslims again I will kill them. There is no question of my rage cooling in these fifty years. Even if I am sentenced to hang, I will kill them. Yes, we also suffered during the years of terrorism. It was a wave. We suffered a great loss, but it was the doing of the government. Five of ours were killed, were martyred. The government did it. They killed people in each house.’

The Kanwas lived instinctively, through their tribal code of retribution. For all those who seek larger ideological explanations for the violence in Punjab, whether during Partition or the relatively recent years of terrorism, such testimonies are an antidote. The cult of violence and the feud lay at the heart of the slaughter.

Done with a century of violence, the Kanwas have now run into an enemy they can’t combat. I realised when I was leaving Jagir Singh’s house that even if they win the court case being fought, the victory may amount to nothing. At the gate, he held my hand, and pleaded, “Forget the fight over the land, forget what the government is doing. Just write about the intoxicants that have spread through our land. We have seen the worst of Partition, we have seen the worst of the years of terrorism, but they don’t compare with what is happening now. Alcohol was bad enough, now our children have been given over to drugs, and we can’t stop them.”

The next morning, well before seven, with the flight back to Delhi scheduled later in the day, I headed along the bypass that turns off the GT road at Khankot towards the Indo-Pak Wagah border. It skirts Amritsar before the exit to the airport. All along the way, the same transformation that I had seen in Khankot was visible. Fields and villages had given way to unplanned and exoteric housing colonies. Past several marriage palaces, lavish in their excess, I turned into a building just as large. The signboard announced the Hermitage de-addiction centre.

I was just in time for a ‘sharing’ session. Large-framed men thinned out by their addictions spoke softly and hesitantly of coping with life after they had booked themselves into the de-addiction centre. Much of the conversation revolved around the difficulties they had in setting up interpersonal boundaries, in resolving simple things such as sharing food stocked in the refrigerator in their rooms.

Vishal, the counsellor, himself in recovery, told me after the session that much of the discussion was actually about restraint and temptation: “They are learning to say ‘no’.” And then he told me that over the past few years there had been a surge in addicts enrolling themselves at the centre, “Heroin, opium, alcohol, gambling—you see it all. Many of them are from families that have recently come into wealth. The price of land has soared. They suddenly come into money and they no longer have any reason to work or for that matter do anything. The windfall of selling land at exorbitant rates is like winning a lottery. It is a high of its own, a one-time high, and then how do you sustain it?”

Brief portions of this piece have previously appeared in Himal and 3quarksdaily blog