The Dawn: Oct 30, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: East and west Punjab: nature of politics

Mushtaq Soofi 

East and west Punjab while sharing the same history and culture appear somewhat different in their political outlook. It may look strange to assert, at least at a surface level, that the politics of professedly secular east Punjab is religiously driven and that of professedly religious west Punjab is underpinned by non-religious pragmatism.

The assertion rings true if the post-Partition history on both sides of the Punjab is anything to go by. In the decades preceding the Partition, Indian society, subtly prodded by British colonialists, was defaced beyond recognition by Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communalism. All sorts of hues of fervid communal identities, real and imagined, painted a bloody mosaic of conflicting and contradictory images. The main battle for future destiny of India was being fought between Hindus and Muslims represented by the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League, respectively. The irony of historical situation expressed itself in the persons of Mahatma Gandhi and Qauid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The former in his private and public life was a religious man inspired by India’s ancient past. Mahatma wittingly or unwittingly mixed his drinks; religion and politics. The latter, non-religious in private and public life, inspired by the ideal of constitutional democracy, upheld the banner of Muslim separatism based obviously on religion. So he too mixed his drinks; secularism and faith. It’s baffling to notice that at the end of the day religious Gandhi stood for a secular state which contradicted his personal world view and secular Jinnah espoused the cause of a faith-inspired state that was antithesis of personal outlook.

Interestingly, it was not Quaid but Savarkar, the great proponent of Hindutva, who first floated the idea of a separate Muslim state when in a session of the Hindu Mahasabha at Ahmedabad in 1937, he declared: ‘India cannot be assumed today to be unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main, the Hindus and the Muslims’. Another important point to note is that both Mahatma and Quaid hailed from Gujrat and were of the same ethnic stock notwithstanding the differences in their faith. And Gujrat is the region where Hindu-Muslim conflict refuses to recede. One cannot forget the ugly communal mayhem in which more than two thousand hapless Muslim men and women were brutally killed and burnt in 2002 in Narendra Modi‘s watch.

The phenomenon is unusual but not extraordinary. History offers us many such examples. The reason is that at times characters catapulted at the stage of history are compelled to represent socio-political and economic forces of their times more than their personal ideals. They become channels through which historical conditions are reflected and conflicts expressed. So was the case with Mahatma and Quaid in the 20th century. In the 19th century Maharaja Ranjit Singh who was hardly religious personally, life came to symbolise the pinnacle of Sikh glory.

In decades preceding the Partition Hindu and Muslim politics was dominated by politicians drawn from middle and upper classes who true to their class character waged the struggle for independence generally within the parameters defined by the colonial Raj which perceived the leftist politics as the greatest threat in view of uptick in the ideological influence of Soviet communism that allegedly threatened the capitalist world especially the South Asia. Enterprising and aspiring Hindu and Muslim leaders despite their severe differences and clash of interests were united in their hatred of revolutionary politics aimed at emancipating the subjugated people not merely from the colonial yoke but also dismantling the age old caste and class hierarchies that stunted the human growth and encouraged unequal socio-economic development in the subcontinent. They wanted India, partioned or not, as it had been, with all the curses it inherited albeit with its top replaced; indigenous patricians in place of white colonial masters. A different process was unfolding in the Sikh community. The finest part of it fired by the historical memory of resistance against the Mughal oppression and inspired by its egalitarian religious traditions turned to armed struggle against the British occupation with all the means at their disposal which were quite meagre, to say the least. The colonial response was swift and brutal because apart from other factors the Raj rightly perceived this move as a dreaded visage of advancing communism that believed at least theoretically neither in class structure nor in divine right to rule. Sikh revolutionaries were either forced to go into exile (late 19th century Sikh radical political activists had to migrate to far-off lands like Canada) or executed on the charges of treason (people like Bhagat Singh and his comrades). Vacuum thus created in the historical situation had to be filled and was filled by shortsighted communalists and mediocre like Master Tara Singh and Co who miserably failed to protect the political and socio-economic interests of Sikh community which was scattered all across Punjab. It is to be noted that while Hindus and Muslims were led by politicians who though not totally free of communal biases had a broader vision of history and better understanding of politico-economic forces that enabled them to envisage a safer future for their communities. Tara Singh and his ilk had nothing to offer to their fellow Sikhs except whipping up communal frenzy devoid of any future vision.

A historical perspective may help us understand the differences in the nature of post-partition politics in the East and West Punjab. The former has been and still is dominated by religious and quasi-religious political parties while the latter whenever given the choice has voted non-religious political leaders into power despite being faced with the lurking shadows of socio-ideological forces of sponsored extremism. —

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