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.

Jeffrey gives a straightforward, very well-informed account of how the present lamentable situation has come about; he writes for general readers but with a wish to ‘satisfy specialists’ as well, as his book will certainly do. He is an Australian scholar who began his acquaintance with India twenty years ago as a teacher of English at Chandigarh. He ‘relies heavily’ on Indian newspapers and periodicals, about whose proliferation in the Punjab, in the vernacular as well as in English, he has much to say; his own work might be called an essay in journalism of a high order. One of his leading themes is that modernisation does not automatically, as many have expected, wipe out old feuds and prejudices: new mass media may harden them instead. He details the growth of the road network, enabling the farmer to bring his produce to the market and to move about and meet others, and the spread of literacy and publishing: all this has been amplifying public excitements, ‘changing the rhythms of daily life and politics’ in revolutionary style.

Thanks to this, politicians can make play with memories and symbols of conflicts of the Sikh past, taking care to associate their own names with its leaders and martyrs. History is manipulated, and the Sikhs transformed, like the Indian Muslims before them, from a community into a ‘nation’. Jeffrey is illuminating on religion as a profession, a respectable livelihood particularly for younger or neglected sons, such as he shows various Sants in the recent limelight to have been – Fateh Singh, Longowal, Bhindranwale. Of this last and most colourful figure, head of the extremists who perished in the Golden Temple, he gives a convincing description. Bhindranwale, like most others of his calling, had a limited education, and little knowledge of English, but he was an orator with ‘a sense of flair and the theatrical’, and a turn for new techniques, such as the use of tape-recorders. He established himself quickly as an independent leader, and achieved a far stronger appeal than the old shop-worn politicians could have to youth, with its new-found means and leisure and craving for romantic adventure.

Politics were until recently little more than a kaleidoscope of shifting factions and combinations. He shows how the professional operators went on with their meaningless sparrings, heedless of the mass emotions that were being stirred up, until they found themselves being swept off their feet. In the early days of independence tub-thumpers like that troublesome holy man Tara Singh had been content with the Gandhian methods of protest, like fasting, consecrated by the national movement: but by the 1970s these were losing their savour for the restless social material out of which today’s ‘extremists’ have been forged. Jeffrey reports these as mostly young, not all belonging to the Jat élite of Sikhdom, some with better education than others, their common denominator ‘a vision of Sikh history that fits poorly with their own demoralised present’.

Jeffrey recognises, but might have given more space to, social inequalities quite pronounced enough to generate tensions, and make communal strife a useful safety-valve. By the 1970s nearly two-thirds of the land was held by 23 per cent of the landowners, and these were tempted to trumpet religious unity in order to ‘discourage envy of the better-off’, so effectively that ‘class is everywhere in Punjab’s politics, yet rarely in people’s minds.’ Some play has also been made with socialistic ideals allegedly to be found in Sikh teaching, and implying – like the ‘Islamic Socialism’ talked of from time to time in Pakistan – that there is no need to look to Karl Marx for guidance. It may be significant that one of the sponsors of popular publications about the glorious Sikh past is a bank chairman; one would like to know how many other representatives of property have had a finger in the pie.

More needs to be said also about the economic arguments deployed to win support for Khalistan, a mixture of real interests of the possessing classes and grievances, real or fancied, likely to convince the poorer that it is an oppressor outside, the central government, that keeps them poor. Such notions have fallen on willing ears: a visitor may hear a Sikh taxi-driver as well as some landowner complaining that the Punjab is starved of water for the benefit of other provinces, that the prices of oil, and electric current for working tube-wells, are kept unfairly high, and that industrial growth has been throttled. Similarly, in Pakistan, at the time of the attempted seizure of Kashmir from India in 1965, one was incessantly told that India was using or plotting to use its control of the river headwaters to deprive the country of water for its starving fields. Other Indian states voice such complaints from time to time. Such jealousies are no doubt inevitable: in Yugoslavia, too, the more advanced units have been impatient at being slowed down, as they see it, for the benefit of the more backward.

Diagnosing the Punjab’s malady as political rather than economic, Jeffrey admits much irresponsible demagogy in the talk of Khalistan, but lays the chief blame on Delhi, and on Mrs Gandhi above all. He is critical of over-centralising methods, ‘attempts to govern 730 million people directly from the Prime Minister’s house’. Rulers of India in bygone days nearly always had difficulties with their provincial deputies: Medieval sultans, Mughal padshahs, could seldom trust their governors, and governors could never feel safe with their suspicious masters. Jeffrey speaks of Mrs Gandhi’s reluctance to delegate authority, her inclination to ‘turn every subordinate into a message-boy’, and recalls that she imposed Presidential rule on states vastly oftener than her father did. Within her own party she was apt to play on personal rivalries in each state, so as to keep all the decisions in her own hands. Darbara Singh (usually thought of as one of the less bad Punjabi faction-bosses) was balanced in this way against Zail Singh (thought by many to be one of the worst), until she promoted the latter to be President of India.

Jeffrey ends on what will strike some readers as too hopeful a note. He believes that a cure can be found in ‘sensitive constitutional arrangements’, ‘a more genuine federalism’. If aspirations like Khalistan are given tactful rope, they can be expected to fade, like the southern secessionism which loomed so threateningly not many years ago. Meanwhile he finds a promising new development, in India at large, in a crop of philanthropic associations more disinterested than the old parties. Marxists have expressed suspicion of them, and some may indeed turn out to be facades or disguises for less admirable designs; while the failure of the ‘Bhudan’ idealists to persuade the rich to give away their land to the poor is a warning against over-optimism. Still, there may be truth in the conjecture that ‘institution-building in India in the next twenty years will take place from the bottom up.’

Professor Fox is an anthropologist, well-known in the field of northern Indian studies. His book, equally stimulating in a different way, is not directly concerned with the Punjab crisis, but provides a background that helps to explain it: the two works thus complement each other. He writes with zest about his ‘puzzle’, as he tries to fit its complicated pieces together, with the evolution of the Sikh community at the centre. His chapters alternate between factual analysis and theoretical reflections: he is taking the Punjab as a case study of the assumptions by which anthropology has been guided, and seeking alternatives.

American anthropology in particular (he belongs to Duke University) he sees as having been obsessed from the outset with the idea of ‘culture’, in the sense of patterns of social belief and behaviour within which the individual lives and moves and has his being. An outsider may conjecture that Americans have been wedded to this doctrinaire viewpoint because their country started life with social classes only imperfectly distinguishable, but with ready-made convictions, manifested by a written constitution whose truths all good citizens had to accept as self-evident. Some of them, hardening into a blind or blindfolded faith in ‘free enterprise’, or capitalism, have come to appear a good deal less so; perhaps for analogous reasons, the utility of the ‘culture’ concept has been coming under question, and anthropology as an academic subject has lost some of its confidence and its vogue.

Fox himself has developed doubts as a result of his investigation in the Punjab, coming to feel that men and women were being reduced to ‘mere carriers of the culture’, with all human initiative, ‘action, response, resistance, and struggle’, flattened out. By contrast with the Marxist scheme of ‘relations of production’ and class struggle, culture does look very abstract. Fox considers two variants of the doctrine: one, which he calls ‘culturology’, that treats culture patterns as ‘primary and constitutive’, and a second – called by him, following Marvin Harris, ‘cultural determinism’ – that regards them as derived from material conditions. The pair look very much like what a Marxist calls ‘idealism’ and ‘vulgar’ or ‘mechanical’ materialism. Fox finds both unsatisfactory, and efforts to synthesise them likewise, because they cannot explain the ‘processes of cultural and social change’. His ambition is to get beyond both, taking as his guides E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine. There is a strong dash of Marxism in his fountain of inspiration.

In his scrutiny of the Sikh community, he stresses its diversity, as between urban and rural, higher and lower social or caste strata, and, very prominently, its two main doctrinal streams. We think commonly of every Sikh man’s name containing the word ‘Singh’, or ‘lion’: a custom much older among Rajputs, from whom it must have been borrowed. Fox emphasises that it came in with the fighting leader Gobind, when he banded together the rebel peasants. Unlike them and their descendants, rather quaintly alluded to by Fox as ‘rural Lions’, many other Sikhs continued to be what their founder Nanak had taught them to be, a sect peacefully devout.

Fox may give the British too much credit as inventors of ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ races. Rajputs had always been martial, Bengalis unmartial. But he is right in his contention that the British, who had learned the soldierly qualities of the ‘Singhs’ by painful experience during the conquest of the Punjab in the 1840s, and after it were eager to enroll them in their own army, helped to bring about an identification of ‘Sikh’ with ‘Singh’ by insisting on recruits having the long hair and beard and other badges of Gobind’s followers. Assimilation was carried further by a reforming movement within the community, beginning in the late 19th century, which aimed to give it a clear-cut identity, unity of belief, and firmer ground for asserting its rights or claims. It resembled, as Fox says, the Arya Samaj organisation of Punjabi Hindus. Both took their rise among urban middle-class elements. So did a drive for renewal and renovation among Muslims. All three were progressive in rejecting incrustations of superstition, but revivalism meant a turning back to the past for ideas, only too likely to prove a substitute for rational progress, and to sharpen antagonisms between rival faiths.

Of the three reforming currents, only the Sikh spread out into the countryside, thanks to memories there of the legendary past; the image of the ‘Singh’, the warrior devotee, came to be adopted more widely than in former days by the whole community. In addition, numbers of Jats turned from Hinduism to Sikhism. A consequence, after the dislocation of the Punjab by the Great War and its sequels, was the Akali struggle. Fox’s title for this, the ‘Third Sikh War’, is somewhat over-coloured – although, while mostly non-violent on the Sikh side, in emulation of Gandhi, it was marked by sufficient brutalities on the government side to cause four hundred deaths, as well as 30,000 arrests. Victory and ejection of the old gurdwara incumbents were quickly followed by disillusion; another body of self-seekers, the Akali organisers, reaped most of the rewards.

Maps, diagrams and statistical tables are marshalled to display the economics of all this. There are many shrewd observations on Punjab agrarian life – for example, that the scantier the rainfall, the bigger the estates; the central region after the British take-over had far more small owner-cultivators and more democratic habits than the Muslim area. But their mode of living was soon being ‘penetrated and deformed’ by the ‘capitalist world system’ – market involvement that transformed them into ‘petty commodity producers’. Fox goes part of the way with the ‘under-development’ theorists, but not all the way, because he recognises that British rule moved towards promotion in some spheres of economic growth. Irrigation of the arid west brought much new land into use: but this worsened things for the small producer, who now had to face market competition from the more prosperous ‘canal colonies’.

After 1918 life was growing harsher for the central region and its Sikh cultivators. It is hard to disagree with Fox’s thesis that the Akali agitation was a case of popular discontent manoeuvred on to a fruitless path. Cultivators ‘drowning under a deluge of mortgages and land sales’ clutched at symbols taken over from the cause of religious reform. The outcome, since the Green Revolution, has been ‘a fully emergent capitalist agriculture’. Smallholders have been pushed down towards the status of labourers, competing for work with Hindu immigrants from poorer provinces. Once more communal slogans are being invoked as a means of diverting social resentments.

On the strength of this record Fox maintains that ‘class analysis’, set in proper historical context, ‘can truly incorporate’ forces both material and ideological. ‘The cultural pattern,’ he writes in conclusion, ‘is the product, not the determinant of society,’ and like society itself it is kept in continual flux by the pressures of contending social thrusts. He must be congratulated on a notable contribution both to north Indian history and to historical theory. Anthropology will do well to take note of his warning that it cannot do without ‘real history, defined by actual happenings’ and by human actors in confrontation.