Beyond Punjabi Romanticism

     Gurharpal Singh



IN April this year I visited Lahore in connection with a project on comparative development in India and Pakistan. On a Sunday afternoon, having finished with the usual visit to historic places, I eagerly looked forward to our tour climaxing at the changing of guards ceremony at the Wagah border. I had visited the border region from the Indian side some twenty-five years earlier, as a research student working on the history of the communist movement in Punjab. But the opportunity to be among the crowd on the ‘Pakistani side’ was too tempting, especially as relations between the two countries were said to be improving. I was not disappointed. The visit was a memorable occasion, and left with me some unsettling thoughts about the project of Punjab Studies with which I have been intimately involved since the early 1980s.

The Wagah ceremony has all the hallmarks of the Balinese cockfight made famous by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz:1 the symbolism, the aggression, and the choreographed Punjabi machismo. These features are certainly a delight to the occasional tourist, but underlying the daily ritual are more subtle and basic differences in a sense of community and nationhood. Even allowing for the highly charged sense of nationhood displayed by both sides on the occasion, it is difficult to escape the feeling that however much West Punjab resembles the East, it is also now part of a distinct cultural and religious tradition with a strong sense of difference. It seems that if Pakistan had not existed it would have had to be invented. After all, numbers and communities make nations and states; and as Punjab has always been a divided society, the exit option for the majority Punjabi Muslim population in united India would have exercised a powerful fascination. That Punjab is the core of Pakistan reflects this reality; at the same time, it also provides a sharp counterpoint to any conception of Punjabi identity founded on regionalism.

It was largely our fascination with regionalism, a common territorial bond, which in 1984, against the backdrop of Operation Blue Star, led a few of us engaged in research on Punjab in British universities to form the Punjab Research Group (PRG) as an academic forum to encourage the study of Punjab. Our conception of Punjab was to be all embracing: historical (pre-1947), East and West Punjab, and the Punjabi diaspora. At the time it seemed commonsensical that any serious understanding of events in Amritsar required more than the contemporary focus on political mismanagement, one that had deeper roots anchored in Partition. One way of coming to terms with the events of June 1984, we believed, was to encourage historical and comparative research into a region that, though it had been politically divided along religious lines, seemed to share commonalities of culture, history and geography. This project gradually crystallised into an academic journal, the International Journal of Punjab Studies,2 and resulted in close to a hundred discussion papers being produced by the PRG. It also led to some memorable conferences under the auspices of the European Association of Modern Asian Studies resulting in two volumes: Punjabi Identity: Continuity and Change and Region and Partition: Bengal, Punjab and the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent.3


In retrospect our mission was remarkably farsighted in anticipating the growth interest in regional research as well as highlighting the importance of integrating the role of the Punjabi diaspora. However, the engagement of scholars from West Punjab remained relatively limited, while those from the East treated our project with suspicion, naturally so in light of the fact that the initiative had arisen in the diaspora where sections of the Sikh community were actively engaged in the separatist Khalistan movement. Given the turn of events in East Punjab, the scope for comparative research became an uphill task and in fact became limited to a number of western scholars who had the freedom of movement and were unencumbered by the formalities of the tight visa regimes.4

The site where such engagement was most fruitful was, of course, the diaspora where Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Punjabis often encountered similar problems of racial discrimination and identity politics. In Britain’s inner cities, overwhelmingly populated by Punjabis, the melding of Punjabi identities with each other and broader British and global identities provided the foundations for much theorisation about difference and identity mobilisation by scholars operating within the post-modern frame of reference. The Punjabi diaspora became the subject for critical studies, leading to new academic initiatives which included, among other things, the founding of the journal, Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture and Theory.5


Yet these achievements could not disguise the fact that nationalist and communal warriors in both India and Pakistan remained utterly unconvinced, if not overtly hostile. A reviewer of Punjabi Identity wondered why contributors to the volume had to meet in Toulouse, overlooking the obvious fact that such a gathering was impossible in India or Pakistan.6 The sharp polarisation between the two countries over Kashmir and Khalistani militancy in East Punjab, moreover, gave further ammunition to those who saw no fruitful outcomes from encouraging such research. Today while the general outlook appears to have changed for the better, strong reservations still lurk behind the formal encouragement of Punjabi bonhomie, whether in South Asia or overseas. Opportunities for rethinking the project of Punjab Studies are more favourable than ever before, but in order to bear fruit it is necessary to learn from the mistakes of the past.

First, our idea of Punjabi identity was undoubtedly – unconsciously or consciously – influenced by the debates within the Indian left in the 1960s and 1970s about nationality. Although by these decades the communist ideology had largely been discredited, it had nonetheless left a heavy imprint in both tying identity to territory and mechanistically reducing culture and identity to economic conditions. Marxist readings of colonial Punjab were also reinforced by the neo-imperialism of the Cold War in which difficult questions about religion and how it shaped identities were largely elided.

Some members of the PRG, particularly those who had a background in radical politics in India, were only too keen to promote crude economic determinism as the only framework for understanding the Punjabi nationality question, and remained essentially unreflective of the insidious modularity between their approach and the majoritarian discourses of nationalism in India, secular or otherwise.7 While this outlook could easily dismiss the articulation of religious identities as surrogate for ‘real interests’, it hardly provided a meaningful framework for their endurance and persistence.


By the early 1990s, younger scholars trained in critical theory had begun to question the value of addressing the issue of Punjabi identity through such analysis. For them, understanding Punjabi identity required a far broader canvass than that defined by Marxist or Marxiant approaches and conventional areas studies which was seen as little more than neo-Orientialism.8 Categories defined by the colonial encounter, it was suggested, had become the new totem poles of the post-colonial elites and had been accepted as self-evident. In fact, in order to make sense of the new hybrid identities among Punjabis in the metropolitan areas of the West, it was also necessary to deconstruct the colonial encounter in which religious identities were forged and defined. Identities in the colonial and the post-colonial world had always been fragmented, contingent and hybrid: what was important to understand was how some had become hegemonic.


The challenge of critical theory, led primarily by students located within the study of religion, created a basic schism within the Punjab Studies project between those who remained wedded to the traditional approaches and the younger scholars who sought to use critical theory to mainstream teaching on Punjab in western universities. This division eventually culminated in the gradual demise of the International Journal of Punjab Studies into the Journal of Punjab Studies (as an in-house publication of the Centre of Punjab Sikh Studies at Santa Barbara) and the launch of a new journal, Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture and Theory (2005).

Second, while theoretical innovations were no doubt to be expected and indeed welcomed, the political construction of a Punjabi identity around regionalism, culture and language by the left – and to some extent ideological secularists – has served to foreclose a serious appreciation of Punjab’s colonial history. In pre-colonial times Punjab was regularly divided. During colonialism the semblance of administrative unity appears to have given rise to general narratives of linguistic and cultural homogeneity that were clearly at variance with the province’s great diversity as well as sub-regional traditions. This ‘imagined Punjab’ was certainly a modern phenomena that exercised a powerful hold on the intelligentsia, a fixation that was perhaps further strengthened by the sense of loss because of Partition. Yet this romantic construction was essentially at odds with a segmented society and polity characterised by ‘parallel lives’ that were readily accepted and acknowledged.

Khushwant Singh in his autobiography,9 for instance, has provided candid insights into the limits of social intercourse among Punjab’s elites where a sense of religious difference pervaded all aspects of public and private life. It was a difference that arose not simply because of colonial engineering but was rooted in historical practices that had changed little since time immemorial. Interestingly, the recognition of this reality by Khushwant Singh led him to support the case for Pakistan onpolitical rather than religious grounds.


It was primarily because Punjab was a religiously plural and socially segmented society that the pre-1947 political system resembled consociationalism (inter-communal power-sharing) rather than Indian National Congress-led majoritarian rule as in the other provinces. Recent research, most notably by Ian Talbot,10 has drawn attention to the intricate mechanisms by which this was established, its general support among the rural populace, and closeness with which Partition of the province was eventually conceded. That this system eventually collapsed was due as much to extraneous factors as its innate weaknesses. What the consociational arrangements revealed was that any sense of practical Punjabi unity required – and requires – a great deal of pluralist engineering and could not be derived directly from cultural givens or abstract truths embedded in principles such as secularism and socialism. This remains the necessary condition for fostering unity and the major challenge ofPunjabiat.


Third, any new approach to Punjabi identity needs to locate within it a central place for religious identities. These identities can no longer be rejected as surrogates for real or imagined interests, or as ‘constructed’ at will. Although Marxism and critical theory have, in their own ways, drawn attention to the diversity, pluralism and contestations within religious identities, we also need to be cautious of readily dismissing the appeal of the three main provincial traditions (Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism) and their capacity of revivalism. In a world where the secular state is under siege – whether in India, France or USA – and where religion is making a return to public life, it is necessary to think through the implications for future public spaces because religious visions remain the main idioms of mobilisation among Punjabis. From Dalits to institutionalised religious systems (e.g., SGPC), religious visions are the main idioms of mobilisation among large sections of Punjabis.

The nature of religious identities has also changed remarkably since Partition. In West Punjab the gradual Islamicisation of the state has been accompanied by a more conservative turn in which, among other things, globalised Islam and the influence of Middle Eastern seminaries have begun to uproot the local traditions that have been so central to the Punjabi way of life. These developments have been further compounded by the growth of urbanisation that is introducing new forms of sectarian conflicts.11 Nonetheless, it is probably an exaggeration to say that these developments are the harbinger of a new Islamic revolution. What they have achieved, in the absence of democratic governance in Pakistan, is to give religious identities a salience that had normally been undercut by wily machine politicians.12


In East Punjab, on the other hand, religious revivalism has been most apparent among Sikhs. The Khalistan movement shared many of the features of globalised Islam and the modernisation currently underway in the West, but it also differed in that its protagonists saw it as a mode of resistance against assimilation and integration implicit in Indian nation-building. Despite the demise of the movement, however, it has been accompanied by the rise of new forms of religious revivalism across all faiths that, though they are less overtly political, nonetheless share radically new social visions. The apparent ‘calm’ which prevails in contemporary Punjab appears to betray more subtle changes that are taking place in religious identities: it certainly seems like an uneasy prelude to a gathering storm that will surely be articulated in religious terms.

If in the past we have been guilty of overlooking the role of religion in public life, in reframing the construction(s) of Punjabi identity today we must also be aware of the dangers of over-determining it. Clearly there is need to a develop a more nuanced understanding of how religious identities have braided with other identities such as language, caste and community as well as the more general projects of nation- and state-building in both India and Pakistan. Such a suggestion might be construed as a manifesto for promoting religion in public life; if taken seriously, it also has the potential to achieve quite the opposite.


Current relations between India and Pakistan, particularly if they develop a further peaceful momentum, offer new opportunities for rethinking and re-imagining Punjabi identity in South Asia and the diaspora. However, there is a real danger that such a process will become the victim of fashionable rhetoric encoded in globalisation, difference, the region, a border-less world, or, alternatively, more utilitarian concerns such as the potential for economic and agricultural development. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke recently of the need to make ‘borders irrelevant’, and while such sentiments are to be welcomed, they need to be tempered with harsh realities as well as a more critical appraisal of past experience.

Above all, we must go beyond Punjabi romanticism that seems rooted in colonial modernity so that we can adequately reflect on the persistence of multiple and plural Punjabs in ways which far better reflect social reality and past histories. Coming to terms with the different, and parallel, Punjabs will be the first step to a serious understanding why cultural and regional identities among Punjabis have failed to generate a meaningful sense of political unity.



1. See Clifford Geertz, ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’, available on

2. International Journal of Punjab Studies. Sage, New Delhi, 1994-2000.

3. Gurharpal Singh and Ian Talbot (eds.), Punjabi Identity: Continuity and Change. Manohar, New Delhi, 1996; and Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh (eds.), Region and Partition: Bengal, Punjab and Partition of the Subcontinent. Oxford University Press,Karachi, 1999.

4. Two of the more notable ones were Holly Sims and Roger Ballard. See in particular Sims’, Political Regimes, Public Policy and Development. Agricultural Performance and Rural Change in Two Punjabs. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1988; and Roger Ballard, ‘The South Asian Presence in Britain and its Transnational Connections’, in Bhikhu Parekh, Gurharpal Singh and Steve Vertovec (eds.), Culture and Economy in the Indian Diaspora. Routledge, London, 2003, pp.197-222.

5. Sikh Formations was launched in 2005 and is published by Routledge, Oxford.

6. N.K. Joshi, ‘Identity Search Leaves Editors Nowhere’, The Sunday Tribune, 5 May 1996.

7. See in particular, Pritam Singh and Shinder S.Thandi (eds.), Globalisation and the Region: Explorations in Punjabi Identity. Association for Punjab Studies, Coventry, 1996.

8. See Arvind-Pal Singh, ‘Interrogating Identity: Cultural Translation, Writing, and Subaltern Politics’, in Singh and Talbot, op.cit., pp.187-229.

9. Khushwant Singh, Truth, Love and a Little Malice: An Autobiography. Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2002.

10. Ian Talbot, Khizr Tiwana: The Punjab Unionist Party and the Partition of India. Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2002.

11. See S.V.R. Nasr, ‘The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulama in Society and Politics’, Modern Asian Studies 34(1):139-80.

12. For the role of the military in this process, see Husain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, 2005.