Root causes of turmoil in Punjab post-1947

by Inderjit Singh Jaijee

[This paper was read at The Oslo Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, organised from 11th to 15th August, 1998]

The USA boasts of being a melting pot of races and cultures; a more apt image for India would be a bag of marbles. Labels such as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and so on are convenient and adequate so long as one is viewing from a distance. Get closer and one begins to see the many shades and distinctions involved in each one. No religious group is static or monolithic, no religious group can insulate itself from the force of change. In recent years, the Sikhs, particularly those living in the Indian State of Punjab, have had to grapple with very powerful and threatening forces. Trying to make sense of these challenges and dealing with them has moulded Sikh consciousness and, in my opinion, advanced their cultural and political maturity. Before I get into these new perceptions, let me provide a brief background on the Sikhs in general.

We are a people who have migrated all over the world. All of you would have seen Sikhs on the streets of your cities, easily recognizable by their uncut hair and beards, but you may not know much about them, their faith, their language or their place of origin.

Sikhism is not a geographical religion, it has no Promised Land, no holy Mt Fujiyama or sacred Ganga. Guru Nanak specifically rejected this. An episode from his life recounts how, while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he answered a maulvi, who had furiously demanded that he not lie down to sleep with his feet pointing towards the shrine : “Turn my feet in the direction where God is not.” Neither has it any priestly class. The Guru insisted on one congregation — men and women, rich and poor — all sitting on the same level, taking prasad (comparable to the Christian communion bread) from the same bowl, sharing the same name, (every man is ‘Singh’ and every woman is ‘Kaur’).

Like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, Sikhism is an ideas-based faith. A religious Sikh will spend some time every day reading the teachings of his Gurus. The holy book containing their teachings occupies the centre of every Sikh gurdwara and receives the homage of the worshippers. But rather than take time introducing you to the Sikh religion, I have attached a brief outline of the faith to this paper.

The epicentre of the Sikh faith and the place where most Sikhs have their roots is the Indian state of Punjab in the northwest of the country. As a geopolitical region, the Punjab has always had great strategic significance. In the ancient past every army that advanced southward into the subcontinent had to pass through Punjab; likewise merchants and Buddhist missionaries bound for Central Asia left the subcontinent via Punjab. In the long millennia before the advent of Guru Nanak and his successors, the socio-political identity of the people of Punjab was largely defined in terms of “the other”. By this I mean that the capitals of pre-Mughal empires such as the Guptas, the Lodhis and others were far to the south and east; they were not “us”, the invading tribes of Ghur and Ghazni were certainly the other, and the Mughals were as foreign to us as the British. This “other-directed” identity changed over a 400 year period between the mid-15th century when Guru Nanak preached and the early 19th century when Sikhs ruled from Delhi to Sindh to Afghanistan and Kashmir. These four centuries in which a many sided flowering — spiritual, cultural, political — took place is inextricably linked with the emergence and development of the Sikh religion, and it is, therefore, no wonder that although other faiths are also practised in Punjab, the Sikhs regard themselves as the truest representatives of Punjabi culture. The language of the state is the language of their sacred scriptures, the script in which that language is written is known as Gurmukhi (lit. “from the mouth of the Guru”), the state’s most impressive architectural monuments were raised to the glory of God as perceived by the Gurus, the greatest military successes were achieved under the banner of Guru Gobind Singh and other Sikh rulers and generals.

In modern India, the Sikhs constitute about two percent of the total population; Sikhs are settled all over the country, but the greatest concentration of Sikhs is in the state of Punjab where they make up about sixty-five percent of the state population, and of this Sikh population, eight out of every ten live in a rural area. Within the Sikhs there are further divisions, usually based on traditional occupations (e.g. Jats – farmers; Sainis – gardeners; Ramgarhias – carpenters, blacksmiths; Khatris – traders; and so on.)

Between 1984 and 1994, violent conflict wrecked Punjab. According to the state magistracy, over two hundred thousand were killed. Conflicts do not suddenly erupt out of nowhere, each one represents a build-up of frustration and distrust. Tracing the roots of strife in Punjab is too big a job for a conference paper, it requires a book. Suffice it to say, the situation was a complicated one, and many explanations have been put forward to account for it. It is sometimes presented as a conflict between two religious groups, the Hindus and the Sikhs. Another view sees it as a conflict between the highly centralised Union of India and Punjab, a State which has a Sikh majority and has often been ruled by a political party, the Akali Dal, which strongly identifies with the Sikh religion and claims to articulate the political interests of the Sikhs. Others point to a national party’s cynical attempt to manipulate differences in order to parade before the whole country as India’s hope of unity and stability, with the consequent pay-off at the polling booth. All these views are partially true, but to a greater or lesser extent, all of them need to be qualified.

Let us start with the view that sees Punjab’s problem in terms of Hindu-Sikh conflict. It would be difficult to cite two other religious groups with as many links as Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. They belong to the same racial stock, speak the same language, occasionally inter-marry and share the same neighbourhoods. This very closeness, however, can be problematic. The fact that India’s population after the partition of India in 1947 is overwhelmingly Hindu, makes many Sikhs fear a gradual absorption and obliteration of their identity and not without reason. They do not want to become just one more sect of Hinduism. They protest against stereotypes of Sikhs presented in popular media such as films, television and newspapers. They want to be able to remain Sikhs, inwardly and outwardly, and still get their due in terms of employment and promotion (particularly in fields such as the military, the judiciary, and the civil services) as well as equality under law. Here we see a minority and majority conflict: Sikhs are a minority in terms of the total population of India, they are a majority in terms of the population of Punjab, contiguous to Pakistan.

The political views, referred to earlier, need to be explored in-depth. One of them is government, that is, it focuses on weakness in the existing pattern of governance and the distribution of powers. The other is electoral, that is, it focuses on parties and their strategies to retain power.

I shall address electoral politics first. To gain that crucial winning vote, competing parties look for the surest and most direct appeal to the voters. By and large, the Indian electorate can be described as illiterate or semi-literate, rural and not far removed from feudal socio-economic relations. As an individual, the voter is most likely to perceive his caste/religious identity as primary. In the hierarchy of voter appeals, calls to caste/religious identity still outweigh appeals based on economic or legal/administrative issues. Caste or religion-based tensions in a constituency may be dormant or weak, but knowing that this is what will rouse the voters, a party will not scruple to engineer incidents, prop up fanatics or stir up some old quarrel. Parties happily fish in troubled waters, and where necessary, they trouble the waters in order to fish in them. In the case of Punjab, this approach was followed so brazenly that after a number of years it’s effectiveness was weakened and the party ruling at the Centre had to resort to manipulating poll boycotts and rigging the polls in order to come to power. Beant Singh, the chief minister, who came to office in 1992, was elected by less than eight per cent of the Punjab electorate.

Another aspect of political discrimination against the Sikhs pertains to the extreme animosity experienced by state-level Akali Dal governments. As Sikhs account for some sixty-five percent of Punjab’s population, the Akali Dal, that is the Sikh political party, is regularly voted to power in the state. Since 1947, the Akalis have frequently been the ruling party but its government has never been allowed to complete its full term in office.

When power must be retained by any means, one cannot expect much sanctity being attached to principles, law, or procedures. The official motto of the Indian Republic is Satyameva Jayate — translated as “Truth ever triumphs”. Among ourselves we say this with half a smile and a knowing wink. The main reason why this is so is that power and profit go together. When power is concentrated in a highly centralised setup (as is the case in India), the economic stakes become very high. Casteism, violence, criminalisation of politics and corruption of administration flow directly from a pattern that places power in the hands of a few.

Another Indian motto, unofficial but highly popular, is Unity in Diversity. This brings me to the way power is distributed under the Indian Constitution and some of the problems that are a consequence of this pattern. (Incidentally, the Indian Constitution has been amended about one hundred times to give more and more powers to the central government.)

The diversity part is incontestable, no other country in the world has more diverse population than India; and our unity has endured more than fifty years despite the frequent jolts it has suffered. In the first few decades of free India’s existence, every jolt made the political and administrative leadership scurry around, plastering over cracks and doing everything they could to make the edifice stronger and “more stable”. The ideal was the “unshakable Centre”. The “strong edifice” school of thought is still fiercely defending its point of view. But over the course of years everyone living in a seismic zone realises that the flexible building that shakes and shimmies through a tremor suffers less damage than the rigid one, howsoever strong it may be. Increasingly, political thinkers and voters are coming round to the position that India’s unity and stability can be preserved only by working with (rather than against) the nation’s diversity and rebuilding to create movement and tolerance among all the elements. The idea that a more federal structure should replace the present highly centralized one is gaining ground. In Punjab, the perception that the centre stubbornly denies powers to the state, in itself becomes cause for further alienation, and rather than integrating Punjab into the Indian Union, has the effect of driving the wedge deeper, leading to a demand for a confederal model.

One particular issue thrown up by the past decade of turmoil in Punjab centres on the role of the state governor. A state governor in India is the head of the state administration and he is also an appointee and agent of the Union Government. For nearly ten years, the people of Punjab, both Hindus and Sikhs, were denied elections and representation in their state Assembly and in the national Parliament. All powers were wielded by the governor who acted under the directions of the Union Government, a situation known as “President’s Rule”. In Punjab today there is great dissatisfaction with many of the institutions of governance, but none has been brought so deeply into disrepute than the practice of President’s Rule.

Powerlessness has many faces, and the Sikhs of Punjab have become familiar with all of them over the past fifty years. The Indian states have hardly any powers and the Centre holds the whip all along.

Financial powers vest largely with the Union Government and states have little scope for raising revenue within their borders. Excise taxes, this chiefly means tax on the sale of alcohol, are the largest single source of state revenue. This means that the state acquires a strong interest in setting up the largest possible number of liquor vends, even when people living nearby are opposed to the establishment of a vend. (Sikhism traditionally discouraged consumption of alcohol, but the trend of recent years has been a steep rise in liquor consumption in the state. At one point, Sikh militants directed their ire at the liquor vends and those who drank). With regard to resources at the state’s disposal, allocations cannot be made for certain purposes without the approval of the Centre. For example, the state may establish a new university without central permission, but must have approval if it wants to open a primary school. The state can do very little to foster industrial development since no large industry can be set up in the state without central permission.

For years, the Union Government has refused industries to Punjab on the plea that they would be vulnerable to attack from Pakistan. The Centre allocates money to the states according to a complex calculation called the Gadgil Formula. One of the determinants of this formula is population. Economic and educational advancement invariably result in a decline in the birth-rate. As a state with high economic productivity, Punjab’s birth-rate has been falling, meaning that its share from the Centre has also fallen. To the people of Punjab, the consequences of doing well appear to be a punishment rather than a reward. Punjab contributes millions of tons of food grains to the central pool, but this gets Punjab no special financial consideration.

All the key subjects such as finance, planning, foreign affairs, defence, communication, education, etc., are with the Centre. Even in the case of subjects which are with the states, the Centre has never thought of restraining itself. For instance, control over river waters as per the Indian Constitution, and international riparian law, vests with the state. In the case of Punjab, the Centre has reapportioned some seventy-five percent of Punjab’s river waters to other states, and that too without making any compensation, and withdrawing even the royalty paid to Punjab up to 1956.

Another issue pertains to food grain prices. These are set by the central government to the great disadvantage of overwhelmingly agrarian Punjab. The Punjab farmer has nowhere else to sell, and is compelled to accept the unremunerative terms offered by the Central government and its trading agencies or let his wheat rot. Caught in an economic stranglehold, the Punjab farmer is sinking deeper into debt with every passing year. In recent years, an alarming number of suicides have taken place in rural Punjab, where farmers found a way out in death. Eighty percent of Punjab’s farmers are Sikhs. It is estimated that more than six thousand farmers resort to taking their own life each year.

Employment opportunities other than farming are very limited in Punjab, as little industrialization has taken place. Military service was one of the traditional occupations for Sikh men, but fourteen years ago the Army drastically curtailed recruitment from Punjab. An all-India quota system based on the state population was introduced. Paramilitary forces followed suit. These measures could only mean fewer opportunities and more frustration for Punjab’s young men. It is strange that when one considers that for entry into other types of services the criterion is merit, but in military and paramilitary services, where Punjab’s village youth can show merit surpassing all others, they are confronted with a quota system.

Education is another neglected area. Village schools in Punjab often lack the most basic facilities, rarely having even rudimentary libraries or laboratories, and are invariably understaffed. Most village youngsters drop out by fifth class and only a minority of the total young population of the village graduates from Class X. Access to vocational education is extremely limited. This means that Punjab’s youth has really nowhere to go.

Dissatisfaction with the highly centralized nature of the Indian state is not confined to Punjab and the Sikhs. The leadership of regional parties in many states is advocating a devolution of power and over the years regionalism has found more and more supporters. This is a positive development that gives expression to diversity in the country and also represents an aspect of liberalisation, which argues that resources are managed more efficiently and advantageously by democratically functioning regional states, rather than a highly centralised government model.

As a minority within India and a majority within Punjab, Sikhs are increasingly veering round to the belief that structural change in the pattern of government is the way to prevent a recurrence of another round of violence. Creating such a structure will require skill and insight that enables the Sikhs to not only press their own case, but empathise with the situation of other regions and minorities within the country.

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