Oppressors

V.G. Kiernan

  • What’s happening to India: Punjab, Ethnic Conflict, Mrs Gandhi’s Death and the Test for Federalism by Robin Jeffrey
    Macmillan, 249 pp, £25.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 333 40440 8
  • Lions of the Punjab: Culture in the Making by Richard Fox
    California, 259 pp, £25.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 520 05491 1

In the early days of June two years ago the Indian Army was storming the Golden Temple at Amritsar, chief shrine of the Sikhs, and hundreds of lives were lost. To imagine such a thing happening anywhere else in India is nearly as hard as to suppose a band of armed Methodists holding out in a Cornish chapel, or Druids in Stonehenge. The Punjab, Land of Five Rivers, was always an exceptional province, forged on the anvil of India by the hammer of Muslim invasion. In British times its peasantry were the backbone of the sepoy army, and it came to have the biggest irrigation system in the world. More remarkably, in this century it came to be the cradle of some of India’s or Asia’s greatest poetry. Strife and massacre disrupted it in 1947, but since partition its western half has been the driving-belt of Pakistan, its eastern the principal military base and richest agricultural district of India.

More exactly, the old undivided Punjab, shading off westward into Sind, eastward into ‘Hindostan’ or the Gangetic valley, included three geographical areas: the Muslim west and south-west, a central region largely Sikh, and a south-east chiefly Hindu. Sikhism arose from interaction between Islam and Hinduism, when Brahminism and its rituals and caste spirit were weakened by Muslim power. It began at the end of the 15th century as a creed mainly urban, ethical and quietist; it took on a far more militant character two centuries later when Mughal oppression goaded sections of the peasantry, the burly Jats taking the lead, into revolt and into adoption of Sikhism as a fighting faith. Because of this, in spite of its monotheism, the religion remained until lately much closer to Hinduism, with intermarriage frequent, than to Islam. Separation from the Muslim west brought a drifting apart of Sikhs and Hindus, and a further division, the mainly Hindu south becoming the new province of Haryana. This still left a large minority of Hindus in the remaining Punjab.

Dr Jeffrey dwells on the Punjabi cult of machismo and taste for violence, and of widespread possession of home-made and other firearms. History’s legacy of a warlike spirit has been at times heroic, often a nuisance. The shock of the 1947 bloodshed and forced shift of populations did nothing to cure it. Sikhs have been a practical people, quicker with their hands than with their heads; they have thrown up few philosophers or artists, and little of a professional intelligentsia. Their better-off strata have fared remarkably well since 1947 economically, chiefly in agriculture, but the level of political life has been poor. Like Pakistan, the Punjab has been slower than some parts of India to rise above the sort of caciquismo, or rule of local bosses, not long ago prevalent over the entire subcontinent.

In the absence of a rational public life, popular energies have been too largely channelled into religious activities. For this the way was prepared by the Akali movement launched in 1920 with the object of wresting control of the gurdwaras or temples from guardians who were often British stooges more than Sikhs. Success was achieved in 1925 with the transfer of management to an elected body; ever since, as Jeffrey says, the large and mounting revenues of the gurdwaras have been a tempting magnet for politicians in want of funds. An Akali party has posed as the true representative of Sikh interests. Religious fever has never been allowed to subside for long. There has been a growth of intolerance within the community; Jeffrey describes a murderous attack in 1978 on the unorthodox Nirankari sect, whose head has since been murdered. There has been a novel intrusion into politics by some of the ‘Sants’, temple officiants rather than priests. In 1978 talk was heard for the first time of ‘Khalistan’, a free land of ‘pure faith’; it was to swell with astonishing rapidity. From late in 1983 a terrorist movement has been under way, often better armed and equipped than the police, and oblivious of the fact that the fifth of the total number of Sikhs who live and prosper elsewhere in India will stand to suffer if the Punjab breaks away. So will the Indian Army, whose Sikh soldiers Jeffrey reckons as at least 100,000, and probably nearer 150,000. It has been an army unique in the Third World, a unifying as well as protective force, and one which never interferes in politics.

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