New Year 2019 Issue

Being a Punjabi

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Marked by identity politics

SOMEWHERE IN THE 1930S, A group of Punjabi writers decided to try an experiment. Perhaps for the first time in the history of Punjabi literature, they tried to create a writers’ village of sorts. Located at a point nearly equidistant to Lahore and Amritsar, the Paris and Rome of Punjab as it then existed, Preet Nagar—named after its founder, the novelist Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari—tried to create an enclave where writers would have a free run without creed, caste or community intervening in the life of letters. History dealt a cruel blow to the project: in 1947, the province was divided between two hostile neighbours. Bit by bit, Preet Nagar withered away. In recent years, a symbolic effort has been made to stage some plays at the location in a bid to recreate its halcyon days.

The story of Preet Nagar can safely be said to imitate that of modern Punjab in a microcosm, with a slight twist. Much like the old stories that speak of the rise, maturity, fall and imperfect regeneration of communities, Punjab too witnessed something similar in the second half of the 20th century. A great province ended up destroying its identity bit by bit. First due to forces out of its control, and then, tragically, by its own flawed choices.

There are, of course, many ways to tell the story of a state. In Punjab, one could, for example, talk about its great economic achievements during the time that much of India remained mired in poverty. Ultimately, it is a story of sundered identity. The story of its economic rise and fall parallels that of its violent history since the 1970s, with the two strands meeting at times.

There’s something dreary about using economic data to explain political events. Usually the domain of doctrinaire ideologues and secessionists alike, these ‘facts’ are often used to explain events and make claims about alleged ‘injustices’ meted out to a people. Punjab is not only an exception but has been a laboratory for building theories based on such data. What makes a journey through economics worthwhile is that it answers an important question about identity politics that rocked Punjab for more than a decade: to what avail?

By the early 1960s, it was clear to policymakers that the strategy for self- reliance had hit a critical bottleneck in the form of availability of food. The Nehruvian approach of community programmes coupled with land redistribution had reached an economic and political dead end. Then began a hunt for an appropriate region where a technological breakthrough in agriculture could be made. The rest is history. Punjab not only received generous help in the form of investments and know-how by the Union Government, but was also given a generous buyback guarantee for all that it produced. The expression ‘bread basket of India’ is deceptive: if Punjab gave its produce, the country was generous in buying it at attractive prices.

Anyhow, the Green Revolution brought wonders. By 1992, the year usually considered the end-point of secessionist violence in the state, Punjab was on top of the league by per capita income among major states. This leaves aside big urban clusters like Delhi that were far richer but had very different economic dynamics. That is when the slide began. Within years of the 1991 reforms, the creative energies of states with a better educated manpower and industrial assets were unleashed to their great advantage. In general, peninsular India stole a march over the North. A quarter century later, Punjab is to be found at the bottom of the heap. If one excludes ‘special category’ states and the economically and socially backward states of the Hindi heartland, Punjab is literally at the bottom. To make matters worse, during the years of terrorism, the state’s valuable entrepreneurial talent—largely Hindu— was driven away. Now dispersed in different parts of the country, this vital force of economic revival is no longer available to the state. The results are for everyone to see.

Sometime after the year 2000, Punjab came under great pressure to reform its economy. Governments could no longer afford to purchase every grain of wheat and rice produced there. The cost of these operations routinely crossed Rs 10,000 crore every year. And that is a conservative estimate. It was Central money that kept the state’s economy alive, paid for what its farmers produced and for its bloated army of government servants. But every effort to diversify went bust. No ‘industrial policy’ could bring fresh investments and the government-created industrial parks remained more or less vacant lots.

A story that spans nearly two decades— from the first shots that were fired in Amritsar in the summer of 1979 to the summer of 1992—is bound to have more elements than just a reductionist economic cause-and-effect sequence. But two things from that period are clear. One, the loss of Hindu entrepreneurs— derisively called ‘lalas’—dealt an economic blow, and two, the accumulation of wealth that took place during the Green Revolution years gave rich Sikh peasants ‘ideas’ that played a role in fuelling insurgency.

The exact year eludes me, but it was sometime in the late 1980s. It was a particularly violent year with a lot of bloodshed and mayhem. It was routine for Punjab to come to a halt at 3 pm. All transport to interior districts would stop well before sundown. By 5 pm, all police stations— creaky buildings constructed in 1950s— would be barricaded and sand-bagged by personnel from within. The ‘last buses’ would move by 4 pm, and that too with armed guards. The antiquated .303s of the state police were no match for the AK47s in the hands of terrorists, but at least there was a pretence of security.

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF that year and the school break had just begun. By the time I reached my ancestral home in my village over a weekend, the evening had set in. Unlike the bustling and noisy village of my childhood memories, silence awaited me. In the safety of my home, where the extended family had gathered, began a conversation that has stayed etched ever since. Somehow, the chat veered to political topics. Suddenly, an aunt declared there was nothing to worry and the “tide of the struggle against the Centre” was turning in “our” favour. If that were not enough, she merrily chanted a slogan that was to be heard repeatedly over the coming years: ‘dhoti, topi, jamuna paar’. For a moment I was caught unawares, but the allusion to the Hindu mode of dressing was unmistakable. So was the political import of what was said: the borders of the imagined state of Khalistan extended to the banks of the river Yamuna.

Today, the Sikhs of Punjab have what they always wanted: a separate state, albeit within the Indian Union, a second-best solution to what their leaders had secretly desired

This was, of course, plain braggadocio on part of a woman who had little idea about political reality. What was said nagged me, and just before I left back for school, I ventured to ask my uncle— who was a practical man—how the new state would organise its economy. His answer was simplicity itself: “India needs wheat and rice and we will sell it to them at competitive rates.” That was a time of innocence. One had no idea that Ricardian comparative advantage among neighbouring countries with similar agricultural output and consumption made little sense and could not be a basis for peaceful co-existence. But the thought that a people get ‘ideas’ once they acquire wealth stood out, and still does, numerous modifications notwithstanding. The claim that the Green Revolution ‘impoverished’ a class of peasants who rose up in rebellion against India is a dubious one. In the aftermath of terrorist violence, when scholars began to sift data—whatever was available—it was found that the bulk of terrorists belonged to the middle section of the Jat Sikh peasantry and very few to the economically or socially marginalised sections, precisely the demographic group capable of imagining an ‘independent future’ and working to obtain it.

Truth be told, the germ of the idea that Punjab could be a separate country pre- dated the years of prosperity during and after the Green Revolution. It was also fatal to the Punjabi identity, which can now be found only outside Punjab in other cities of India where a Punjabi-speaking ‘diaspora’ of sorts exists. In Punjab proper, it is the Sikh identity that is dominant. It is important to bear in mind the distinction between the two identities, which at one time overlapped greatly but were rent asunder during the years of terrorism. The overlap never really recovered. The analytical story is complex, but a clear outline sketch is possible.

Soon after Independence, various Indians began demanding that states be reorganised along linguistic lines. The demand was accepted by a Union Government that realised its fairness. With the flick of a pen, the First States Reorganization Commission (1955) recommended these changes, and for the most part they were fulfilled. Punjab did not fit the bill as in its case there was a double identification problem of language and religion. With memories of Partition still fresh, the Punjabi suba—or Punjabi province—remained a dream. In retrospect, the concerns of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri were not out of place. Along with other leaders, the two could probably foresee the dangers. But no sooner did Indira Gandhi assume power in 1966 than a reorganised Punjab was conceded—less than eight months after Gandhi became Prime Minister in late September, 1966. Two decades later, she perished in the flames fanned by Sikh secessionism.

After that, matters moved quickly in an adverse direction. In census after census, the Hindus of the state refused to recognise Punjabi as their mother tongue, another bitter marker in the divergence of the composite Sikh-Hindu identity. This was the beginning of the end of comity in the state. Historically, since the age of Mughal depredations, it was a tradition among Khatri and Brahmin Hindus to raise their eldest sons as Sikhs. It was an authentic Punjabi tradition in which everyone participated. That sense of belonging finally died in slow gasps during the 1980s.

Today, the Sikhs of Punjab have what they always wanted: a separate state, albeit within the Indian Union, a second- best solution to what their leaders from Master Tara Singh to Sant Fateh Singh to Sardar Kapur Singh had secretly desired. In their lives, Khalistan never came about, but they provided enough political and ideological ammunition to their followers to set them on a ruinous course. It was a terrible waste.

First arose pernicious distinctions between Sikhs and Hindus, then the championing of a Punjabi (read Sikh) only state, and after that the dominance of a party that represents Sikh interests: the Akali Dal. Even within that party, it is a single family that calls the shots. No doubt, the Congress is around in the political field, but the cost of such politics must be reckoned with.

Eclectic traditions that go back to Baba Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah no longer exist. Punjab is not only poorer culturally, but materially as well. When the southern states took off in the 1990s, Punjab simply did not have the intellectual and entrepreneurial resources to match them. The wheat fields that once made Nehru say that he “gains blood” when he “comes to Punjab” are now mute witnesses to lost chances that will never return.

NE BIG CASUALTY of the process was the deracination of Punjabi literature. The Preet Nagar generation died a long time ago, but its legatees lived in a small block of Hauz Khas in Delhi. Amrita Pritam, Bhisham Sahni, Bhapa Pritam Singh and Kartar Singh Duggal—the last generation of great Punjabi poets, writers and publishers—met their end in Delhi, far away from Punjab. No doubt, there are writers in Punjab and new and experimental forms of writing continue, but the Punjab of one’s imagination does not exist anymore. There is, of course, a Punjabi identity, but it is more or less a Hindu one, located away from Punjab in other cities. Punjab itself is Sikh dominated.

None of this would matter if peace was assured and Punjab were to rediscover its original rhythm. But such is the nature of politics in the Subcontinent that there is no end to divisiveness. One can hear a faint drumbeat for a separate Sikh nation once again. It is a small mercy that these noises come from abroad where some woolly-headed members of the Sikh diaspora seek to separate Punjab from India, again. Somehow, the quest for a heimat has more to do with their existential problems in places where they live and not with Punjab as such. In the meantime, the mixing of religion with politics has begun again in earnest after a lull of more than a quarter century. The lesson of those dreadful decades—never to mix two combustibles that even Merlin cannot control—has been lost. It is one of those moments of foreboding; hopefully, it will pass peacefully.