Punjabi identity is still multi-layered

February 16, 2020

If the current impetus for decolonising identities is to have any real force, exploring and re-casting Punjabi identity is essential

The discussion that ensued among the young thinking minds in my class after they watched the film, Train to Pakistan based on Khushwant Singh’s novel of the same title, was very lively and perceptive. The novel was written in the backdrop of the partition in 1947.

The significant question that we took up was about the Punjabi identity, more specifically the cultural dimension of it. It is pertinent to mention that Train to Pakistan (published in 1956) was one of the first book-length literary expositions of the tragic events of partition which had traumatic ramifications for people across the religious spectrum.

The story is about a village close to where the Pak-India border was drawn in August 1947. Sikhs and Muslims inhabiting that village (Manu Majra, situated on the bank of the river Sutlej) for several generations with no trace of communal antagonism, fall prey to mutual animosity. The sub-continent is divided along religious lines and relations between the two communities are strained.

Soon Sikh and Hindu refugees from Pakistan arrive in the village. They recount tales of their woes which work as a catalyst to conflagrate communal sentiments. Government functionaries also play their part in vitiating the situation. In such circumstances, Muslims are left with no other option but to leave.

The day to evacuate the Muslims from the village draws near. They are taken to the refugee camp in a nearby village from where they are to be transferred to Pakistan by train. The situation becomes so charged that the Sikhs of the area decide to ambush the train at night and kill as many Muslims as possible.

The site for launching the deadly attack is the bridge over the river Sutlej. But a Sikh young man gives his life to abort the machination of the attackers and saves the lives of Muslim refugees, possibly because one of these passengers on the train proceeding to Pakistan is his beloved (a Muslim girl, Nooro).

The train, while crossing the bridge runs over him without any harm to anyone in the train. Thus, the story concludes and leaves behind the question as to why Punjabis killed Punjabis. Was the identity of the Punjabis one-dimensional, religion being the only identity marker? This was the question that my students posed to me.

The first thing that I tried to argue was that identity is a social construct. With time, it undergoes a change and does not remain constant. But a more nuanced aspect of identity is its multi-layered constitution. A person may concurrently have several layers of identity, religious, social, class, caste, cultural, ethnic, sectarian, etc.

Several layers in all likelihood tend to overlap, like in the Sikh community cultural and religious identities blend into each other. Similarly, one dimension of identity, in peculiar circumstances can cross out the others. For example, in the event of partition, religious identity became prominent and its socio-cultural aspects, which could have brought into prominence the commonality between the two religiously differentiated communities, were completely rescinded.

Importantly, the ethnic and religious layers of identity are exclusionary whereas the cultural layer mitigates other differences and brings out unanimity among divergent groups. Having said this, one must admit that only on rare occasions has the cultural side of identity of the Punjabi people been foregrounded.

One of these rare examples was on display when Udham Singh asked for the text of Heer Waris Shah to take a pledge in a court in London. He was accused of assassinating Sir Michael Francis O’Dwyer (the lieutenant governor of the Punjab when Jallianwalla Bagh incident took place in 1919) at Caxton Hall, in London. Amrita Pritam’s poem AjAkhan Warris Shah Noo, is yet another such elucidation of a Punjabi identity being asserted.

The movements like Pagri Sambhal O Jatta or Ghadar Tehreek, were essentially Sikh movements with very little role of Hindus and Muslims. Why was this so? That is a subsidiary question but obviously a very significant one.

The British annexed the Punjab in 1849 and went on to re-organise its populace initially by emphasising caste and kinship as the fundamental social units because these identities prioritised customary practices over anything else.

Denzel Ibbetson and Griffin and Massey’s reports, which were subsequently published as books, attest to this fact. District Gazetteers were also written, following the same pattern. Culturally they re-invented Punjabi people by promulgating Urdu as vernacular and it was instituted as the court language.

By empowering Urdu, Punjabi was consigned to the position of the religious language of the Sikh community as evidenced in the Hunter Commission report of 1881. By doing so, a cultural wedge was driven among the religiously different but culturally divergent communities.

Farina Mir contends that Punjabi nevertheless sustained itself in a somewhat pristine position because colonial meddling could not mutilate its essential character. However, I believe that after Khwaja Ghulam Farid Mithankoti, Punjabi poetry was on the wane. There was a big temporal gap between Farid and Shiv Kumar Batalvi and Ahmad Rahi followed by Najam Hosain Syed. No language could grow without the all-encompassing phenomenon of colonialism having made some contribution towards it.

The Punjabi Muslim bourgeoise turned to Urdu. Most of the Punjabi Hindus also embraced Urdu as their vehicle of expression. But the point worth pondering here is that the cultural identity of the Punjabi folks was lacerated by the British, which resulted in religion filling that vacuum and its interface with modernity made religion a divisive wedge.

After having dispensed with the cultural layer of identity, the decimation of each other by the Punjabis that was witnessed during partition was only natural.

Interrogating ethnic identity in a nation-state is a problematic enterprise. Punjabi identity is especially complicated by its participation in what all other ethnicities perceive as Punjab’s complete control and exploitation of resources. Punjab’s complicity with state formation is a direct result of colonial intervention as argued above, and Punjabi identity has been irreversibly altered and influenced by the colonial process.

If the current impetus for decolonising identities is to have any real force in the Punjab in particular and Pakistan in general, exploring and re-casting the Punjabi identity is an essential step.

Train to Pakistan; a novel written in backdrop of 1947 partition