Amir Mateen


AMRITSAR: There is definitely deep chemistry between the people of East and West Punjabs that evokes instant, in the words of former Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, “pappian and japhian” (kisses and hugs).

Jaswant Singh was explaining to a gathering of Indo-Pak parliamentary delegates in Delhi, in a lighter vein, that Punjabi ‘love-talk’ sometimes takes over the larger context of bilateral détente between the two countries. He was not wrong. The common history, language and culture bind the two Punjabs together – though sometimes in contrasting streaks of similarities and differences, myths and realities and most importantly hopes and regrets.

The context of the two Punjabs may have changed drastically over the decades. After the separation of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, East Punjab has been reduced to what Pakistanis see as a peripheral province of India. It is just 2.5 per cent of India’s population and 1.54 per cent its size. In contrast, Pakistani Punjab is four times its size and 56 per cent of Pakistan’s population.

Of course, Punjabis have much clout in New Delhi, largely because of the migrants from across the Ravi who settled in the Capital at Partition. Punjabi Diaspora particularly from North America matters significantly. So do the relatively richer local Punjabis, not to forget the cultural influence of Punjabi bhangra beats found in every second Bollywood hit song. Most important, the Indians have a Punjabi Prime Minister. But they are no comparison to the might of their Punjabi ‘brethren’ in Pakistan.

In fact, the domination of Punjabis in Pakistani politics, the civil military bureaucracy and business happens to be its biggest scourge. Small wonder that Pakistani Parliamentarians from Sindh represented by MQM, Balochistan and Khyber Pashtunkhwa’s ANP shared Jaswant Singh’s ire for Punjabi “pappian and jhappian.”

Dare I say that the Punjabi identity is a recent phenomenon? The word Punjab was not in popular use before Ranjit Singh, which means 19th century. Multan as one of the only two oldest living cities – the other being Jericho– was always a separate entity. Lahore and Sialkot were always independent provinces as were the eight princely states of Punjab. Bahawalpur was not part of even the Ranjit Singh’s empire, which extended from Laddakh to Multan towards south and Sutlej to Khyber Pass to the west.

The empire is now long gone. If Maharaja Ranjit Singh is seen as the zenith of Punjab’s glory, in the way Akbar the great epitomised Mughal glory, then Prakash Singh Badal seems like the last Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar in terms of the size of Punjab that he rules as the Chief Minister. Come next elections, West Punjab is also likely to be cut into two if not three parts. Punjabis in central Punjab have generally no issue over the formation of a Seraiki province – except perhaps any sitting Chief Minister who may not like to part way with his powers. Earlier it was Pervaiz Elahi and now Shahbaz Sharif.

The name Punjab is already a misnomer. None of the two Punjabs is a land of five rivers. Beas, Sutlaj and Ravi are largely in east Punjab and Chenab and Jhelum in West Punjab. So much water has passed underneath the bridges of the Punjab rivers and yet the scars of mutual bloodshed have not healed.

Sikhs lament their gurus being executed by the Mughals and large-scale massacres known as vadda and chota ghalugharas are annually observed in ritual and monuments. A parallel interpretation of history also exists among the Muslims. There is no observance of any such events in central Punjab, though Saraikis retain the memories of “Sikhashahi.” Every time they refer to the Punjab government as ‘Takht Lahore,’ the reference is to Ranjeet Singh’s execution of Multan’s ruler Muzaffar Ali Khan and his sons. It was this historical vendetta, among other reasons, that largely led to the mutual massacre at Partition.

Partition was an emotional issue for Punjabi Muslims and Hindus with immense economic and political consequences. But for the Sikhs it was also a religious and spiritual tragedy. Their religion is rooted in Punjab and its language. The founder of their religion Guru Nanak was born and buried in the Pakistani part of Punjab. As Sikh activist Ganga Singh Dhillon once remarked, the predicament of Sikhs is akin to Muslims evicted from Saudi Arabia to Yemen and then not allowed to visit Makkah and Madina.

I can relate to it because I grew up with BBC reporter Rai Arif Shamim Bhatti. He is the 16th descendent of Rai Bolar, the Zamindar of Nankana Sahib who remained the chief patron of Guru Nanak in his first 15 years and is highly revered by Sikhs. My mother is from Sultanpur Lodhi where Nanak spent the next 15 years working as a clerk. My closest friend politician Chaudhary Anwer Aziz and his son Daniyal are the biggest champions of opening-up Kartarpur in their area where the Guru preached for his last 20 years. I am involved in the campaign to allow Sikhs more access to Guru’s birth place in Nankana and half-grave, half-smadhi in Kartarpur.

So I could understand the pain when Sikhs in Amritsar complain about “massive corruption” in Pakistan’s Evacuee Trust; about the lands around temples being sold in underhand deals; about problems of logistics and visas.

There is a growing concern among the older generation of Sikhs about their identity. Less people wear Sikh turbans; many speak to their children in Hindi. Pakistani Punjabis are more prone to speaking Urdu with their children but being a majority, this does not cause any concern.

But the biggest casualty remains trust. A Sikh asked me if it was safe for him to travel to Lahore and “walk there in a turban.” He did not believe me when I told him that most likely shopkeepers would either not charge him or sell him goods at a discounted price. He is sure to be greeted by ordinary people on the streets, I told him. “I don’t believe you,” he said in as much disbelief as Jaswant Singh was awed by Punjabi “pappian and jhappian.”

The News

October 3, 2012