I first visited Punjab in the summer of 1973, to play a cricket match in Patiala. Later that same year occurred an event of some significance in the history of Punjab and India. In October 1973 the Working Committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal met at the great gurdwara in Anandpur Sahib, and asked the Government of India to hand over Chandigarh to Punjab; to also hand over other Punjabi-speaking areas presently with other states; and to increase the proportion of Sikhs in the Army. It criticized the ‘foreign policy of India framed by the Congress party’ as ‘worthless, hopeless and highly detrimental to the interests of the Country, the Nation and the Mankind at large’. Asking for a recasting of the Indian Constitution on ‘real federal principles’, it said that ‘in this new Punjab and in other States the Centre’s interference would be restricted to defence, foreign relations, currency, and general administration; all other departments would be in the jurisdiction of Punjab (and other states) which would be fully entitled to frame own laws on these subjects for administration’.
Some of these claims were new; but their substance went back several decades, to the division of India by religion in 1947. In this division the Sikhs had suffered most of all. They lost millions of lives, millions of acres of land they had made fertile in the ‘Canal Colonies’, and some very sacred shrines, left behind in what was now Pakistan. Through the 1950s, the intrepid Master Tara Singh led the Akalis in the struggle for a Punjabi Suba, a separate, Punjabi-speaking and Sikh-dominated state that could compensate for the traumas of Partition. The State was finally granted in 1966, but its extent was not what was hoped for; nor, indeed, were its powers. Thus the Anandpur Sahib resolution, which sought to make real the promise of states’ autonomy merely hinted at by the Indian Constitution.
These demands, for a deeper and more genuine federalism, were unexceptionable. But at other places the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was amenable to more radical, and perhaps more dangerous, interpretations. The preamble spoke of the Akali Dal as ‘the very embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of the Sikh Nation’. The ‘political goal of the Panth’ was defined as ‘the pre-eminence of the Khalsa’, with the ‘fundamental policy’ of the Akali Dal being the ‘realization of this birth-right of the Khalsa through creation of congenial environment and a political set-up’.
1973 was not perhaps the best time to make these demands, with Mrs Indira Gandhi riding high on the wave of a war recently won, and the Centre more powerful than ever before. Its powers were increased still further with the Emergency, when the movers of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution were put in jail. But in 1977 the Emergency was lifted, elections called, and the Congress party comprehensively trounced. In this new political environment the claims of the Akalis were renewed, and indeed intensified. An Akali conference of October 1978 compared the thirty years of Congress rule to the bad old days of Mughal imperialism. But now that the Congress out of power, said the Akalis, it was time for a ‘progressive decentralization of powers’. The demands of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution were revived, and new ones added; such as a redistribution of river waters to favour Punjab, an international airport at Amritsar, and a broadcasting station at the Golden Temple itself.
Towards the end of 1978 the Akalis launched an agitation to fulfil the demands of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. However, outside their fold there were radicals who thought that nothing less than true independence, as in a separate ‘Sikh Nation’, would satisfy the Panth. The call from Khalistan was issued from outside India by the likes of Ganga Singh Dhillon in Washington and Jagajit Singh Chauhan in London. But it also found some takers within Punjab, notably a hitherto obscure preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. With his entry into the fray commenced some very troubled times indeed.
Troubles, of course, were not new to Punjab or the Punjabis. There were the religious wars of the eighteenth century; then the Anglo-Sikh wars of the nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century the province was an epicentre of the anti-colonial struggle. Then came the 1940s, with Partition and the communal conflagration that accompanied it. Several decades of relative peace ensued, to be broken now by the decade of the 1980s, when much blood was spilt, some of it innocent, and all of it bad.
What was called the ‘Punjab crisis’ spawned much excellent reportage and several good books. Older readers will be familiar with it all, but for the benefit of those born after 1980, let me flag the most basic facts. What started as a political rivalry between the Congress and the Akalis soon degenerated into conflict between a section of the Hindus and a section of Sikhs. This led, on the one hand, to a series of communal killings; and, on the other, to a increasing alienation of Sikhs from the Government of India. Among the many low points of a dishonest decade, three in particular must be mentioned: the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army in June 1984; the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards on the last day of October 1984; and the revenge killings of innocent Sikhs which followed.
The first and last of these events recruited many fresh recruits to the separatist cause. The latter part of the eighties, therefore, saw a reign of terror in the Punjab countryside: jointly imposed by the Khalistanis, who intimidated and sometimes killed those who did not fall in line; and by the police, who in their search for the insurgents cared little for legal procedure or for the rights of ordinary citizens.
For close on fifteen years, the news from Punjab was unreedemingly grim. It seemed that the war between state and citizen would never end; or, if it would, only after the creation of a separate Sikh Nation of Khalistan. But finally the violence dimmed and, in time, stopped. The Punjabi set aside his sectarian grievances, and sought instead to better his economic lot.
In the first week of March, I revisited Punjab after a gap of thirty-two years. Travelling through the state, and talking to a wide cross-section of people, it was hard to fathom that this was the same place from which one would get news only of killings, and more killings. Khalistan was forgotten; why, even the demand for Chandigarh to be transferred to Punjab was not being made anymore. Identity was still important; but not so much a religious identity as a regional, cross-national one. In Patiala, I met an articulate Maharani who was seeking to build bridges with the Pakistani part of Punjab—by sending teams of cricket-playing children, and receiving some in return. In Amritsar, I met a radical intellectual who had helped host a series of talks by a progressive Punjabi novelist from Lahore. Meanwhile, a spate of fresh investments suggested that things were very stable indeed. There were signs everywhere of new schools, colleges, factories, even a spanking new ‘heritage village’ on the highway, that sought to recreate, in museumized form, the ‘traditional’ culture of the Punjabi.
There remains much that is wrong with the state of Punjab. The future of agriculture is threatened by a falling water-table. There is discrimination according to caste, and according to gender—female infanticide being particularly high. But these are problems that afflict the rest of the country too, to be resolved, here as well as there, by patient social reform and purposive government action. The crucial thing is that in political terms Punjab is at peace with itself and with India. That is more, much more, than one dared hope for in 1985 or 1995.
Published in The Hindu, 27/3/2005