Punjab holds the key to peace

Punjab holds the key to peace

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Saturday, February 10, 2007,


The year 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of the bloody partition of the two key provinces of Bengal and Punjab as well as of India. In a series of forthcoming articles I shall from time to time review different aspects of that cataclysmal event. My special focus will be on the Punjab.

Some people suggest that the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 16, 1946, was the best solution to the communal tangle of the subcontinent. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah accepted it but it was rejected by the Congress. Therefore the Congress Party bears the main responsibility for the division of India.

From the Indian side, one hears that the Cabinet Mission Plan would have resulted in the balkanisation of India, and probably brought the India-Pakistan border nearer Ambala or Delhi than where it is now. By entering into treaties with princes and other supporters of the Raj the British would never have left. Therefore a partitioned India was better than a balkanised India.

It is my firm belief that even if India was to be partitioned, had it happened in an orderly manner the politics of this region would not have so easily become hostage to chauvinism and jingoism externally, and religious and sectarian terrorism internally. What happened subsequently in the two Punjabs is particularly instructive.

In the Pakistani Punjab, Muslim religious identity proved brittle. The idea of a Muslim, rather than a Pakistani nation, began to dominate the debate on national identity soon after Jinnah died. It inevitably resulted in the rather intractable controversy over who is a proper Muslim. The year 1953 brought the first manifestation of the sectarianisation of Muslim identity as riots were directed by the religious parties and sections of the Muslim League against the heterodox Ahmadiyya community. Later, during the 1980s, Sunni and Shia militias began to fight each other. Recently Sunni sub-sects have been involved in vicious attacks upon each other.

In the Indian Punjab Sikh and Hindu leaders, who had closed ranks against the Muslims in 1947 now clashed over domination in the province. Although in 1956 the former princely states of Patiala, Faridkot, Kapurthala, Nabha, Jind and other minor ones were amalgamated into East Punjab, it did not satisfy the Sikh leaders of the Akali Dal who began to campaign for a compact Punjabi-speaking province in which Punjabi written in the Gurmukhi script would be the official language and the medium of instruction in schools and higher seats of learning.

In reaction, Punjabi Hindus, under the influence of various communal parties as well as the Congress Party, declared Hindi and not Punjabi as their mother tongue. This resulted in the Punjabi Suba agitation launched by Master Tara Singh and later Sardar Fateh Singh. In 1966 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conceded the demand of the Sikhs. Accordingly only Punjabi-speaking areas remained in East Punjab while those areas in which Hindi was the main language were awarded to Haryana or to Himachal Pradesh.

Such redrawing of borders did not, however, satisfy some Sikh nationalists who launched the Khalistan movement in the hope of establishing an independent Sikh state. The Indian state reacted with all the might at its disposal and between June 1984 and the early 1990s the Khalistanis and the Indian police and security forces were embroiled in terrorism against each other which resulted in the deaths of more than 60,000 people and led directly to Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Notwithstanding all this the ordinary people in both Punjabs have all along managed to live peacefully with one another. In fact things have improved very much in East Punjab and in Pakistan’s Punjab too sectarian terrorism seems to have lessened; the recent peaceful passing off of the Muharram Ashura event is a good sign.

It is my firm belief that extremists and terrorists cannot survive for long if the government is determined to eliminate them. Therefore, without the connivance and protection of state functionaries extremism and terrorism have no future. This is an iron law of large-scale ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts and we should always bare that in mind.

Each time the Punjabis have had an opportunity to meet they have shown keen interest in the fellows from the other side. Already in 1948 the citizens of Lahore and Amritsar sent peace delegations to each other and the reception was warm and friendly despite the very recent bloodshed that took place in those two cities.

In 1955 the Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, allowed East Punjabis to visit West Punjab during an India-Pakistan cricket match at Lahore. On that occasion West Punjabis e showed the visitors such warm hospitality that the bloody riots of only a few years earlier seemed a nightmare. From my various interviews with refugees who have visited the other side of the border, it comes out very clearly that they have been received with great warmth and affection.

The moral which I draw from these varied behaviour patterns is the following: there is no fixed or permanent identity nor love or hatred among human beings: it all depends on the circumstances and the role of politicians.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a young Sikh academic who lives in Delhi. I know his parents and even grandparents. His maternal grandfather, Brigadier Chaudhry, was a member of the Punjab Boundary Force. He saw to it that the Muslim Meo population of 11 villages from East Punjab safely reached Pakistan. I will soon have evidence from a Pakistani Lt-General who also served on the Punjab Boundary Force. He too did his duty with honour when he helped Hindus and Sikhs cross the border safely into India.

Tridivesh wants us to look forward. He has produced a most timely book, South Asian Cooperation and the Role of the Two Punjabs (New Delhi: Siddharth Publications, 2007) in which he develops a very persuasive argument, backed by solid economic and social data and cultural arguments, to show that peace and prosperity in the South Asian subcontinent is an imperative that we cannot anymore ignore with impunity.

He asserts correctly that reconciliation between Indian and Pakistani Punjab is the key to enduring peace in South Asia. He has spoken to leading scholars of India-Pakistan relations, politicians, journalists, writers, poets and the result is a very representative presentation of well-informed expert and public opinion. More such books are needed.

The writer is an associate professor at the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Originally published in The News International on February 10, 2007