19 Mar 2020
from surrounding districts arrived at Malerkotla in buses, waving the banners
of the Bharti Kisan Union Ekta Ugraha, a farmer's union that was among the
protest's organisers [Al Jazeera]
Punjab - By lunchtime on a bright Sunday in mid-February, the small roads that
led towards the grain market of Malerkotla, the only Muslim-majority town in
the Indian state of Punjab, were choked with parked-up charter buses.
towing a trailer full of grey-bearded Sikh farmers inched forward between the
vehicles and gaggles of banner-toting protesters, past a few long-limbed,
khaki-turbanned, traffic-directing police, and then came to a thwarted halt.
disembarked - a posse of spare-framed men with the look of years spent at work
in the sun. They shuffled past a row of shuttered shop-fronts, and then turned
a street corner. Soon, they had merged into the crowd: a placid phalanx of
bobbing heads, some in turbans and many in skullcaps, moving imperturbably
towards the boom of the loudspeakers.
bounced around the thronged square: "Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai, Aapas
Mein Hain Behen Bhai!" - an affirmation of fraternal feeling across
communities of faith.
pledges of solidarity have been shouted at marches and sit-ins all over the
country in the turbulent few months since India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya
Janata Party-led government enacted a new citizenship law in December. The law,
called the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA, offers fast-tracked naturalisation
to Afghan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants belonging to any of the major
faiths of the region, except Islam. For the first time in India's
constitutionally secular history, Indianness has been made explicitly and
legally conditional on religion. Across India, millions have taken to the
streets in a show of resistance.
sites I visited in Delhi, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, their refrains of
togetherness rang defiant. This was national unity as resistance: scrappy and
Malerkotla, there was a note of matter-of-fact assurance in the rehearsals of
communal amity. The mood was festive. Children wore their best clothes. Small
clusters of police officers strolled through the crowd chatting and sipping
from tiny cardboard cups of tea.
spirit of the Sikh tradition of the Langar - the food served to all regardless
of caste or religion - free food was distributed everywhere: rotis and chickpea
curry, bread Pakoras.
A pair of
young men stood on the bed of a parked truck tossing oranges, which grow well
in Punjab, to passers-by. Orange peels studded the tarmac, and their aroma
spiced the air.
Punjab's largest anti-CAA demonstration to date, and in crowds numbering
somewhere between 50,000 and 140,000, a sizeable majority of the protesters
appeared to be Sikh and Hindu.
The lead speaker
that day, civil and human rights activist Harsh Mander, who has addressed
dozens of anti-CAA protests around the country, told me it was easily the
largest gathering of non-Muslim protesters he had yet seen.
BJP [the governing party] had thought only the Muslims would come out on the
street," one protester remarked, "but the situation is very
different: the whole of India is out."
Demonstration of Indivisibility
morning, while mist still muffled the long views across Punjab's green wintertime
wheat fields, Navdeep Kaur boarded a hired bus with 50 other Sikh women.
100km (62 miles) from their village in Mansa district, and arrived in time for
Kaur and seven of her friends to nab space on the floral-patterned matting that
surrounded the speakers' dais.
40-year-old farmer and mother with a luminous sun-browned complexion and a
generous smile, was here, she said, because "we know the Muslims are in
to play her part in what she considered a mass demonstration of indivisibility.
"This kala kanoon," she explained, using a Hindi phrase that
translates to black law, "is like the partition of 1947, a second time. I
am against further division."
It was a
comparison that would be expressed many more times that day: the memory of
India's natal violence felt urgent, and close at hand.
Punjab was at the epicentre of the sectarian massacres that attended the
subcontinent's separation into India and Pakistan; the new border sliced West
Punjab from East.
As up to
two million people were killed in neighbour-on-neighbour atrocities, with
Muslims on one side, and Hindus and Sikhs on the other, combined Punjab lost an
estimated 2.3 to 3.2 million people to death and unrecorded migration.
one-third of East Punjab's residents had once been Muslim - in the Indian state
it became, Muslims made up just 2 percent of the population.
to Parminder Singh, a retired professor of English from Amritsar and a speaker
at the Malerkotla rally, stories of partition are always reactivated in moments
of sectarian strife.
was born in 1951, did not witness the partition himself, but like many other
Punjabis, he inherited the memories of his parents and grandparents -
friendships his father had shared with Muslim boys before they left or died;
the efforts of his grandfather to help Muslim neighbours achieve safe passage
to the border.
Even so, he
said, "When I was growing up, partition was not actively part of my
conscious being. But when communal terrorism came to Punjab in the 1980s, when
we started facing communalism in our own lives, then you started thinking about
protesters at Malerkotla chant "San Santalis Banne Nahi Denge", a
pledge not to allow a repetition of 1947, he explained, "It means the
trauma is coming alive again in the present situation - a situation once again
dominated by communal ideas and politics."
encountered Baldev Singh in the raw heat of the mid-afternoon, near a
volunteer-manned water station. A 79-year-old Sikh wheat farmer from a place
called Bhucho Kalan, Baldev Singh has a child's memories of partition: a
patch-work of remembered stories and his own faded impressions.
1947, people said that Sikh people from other villages came and attacked
Muslims in our village. Some Muslims left, others were hidden in homes,"
he told me. A younger man had drawn near to listen. He cut in: "That's the
story of every village."
is an exception: in Malerkotla, nobody died, and very few Muslims fled. All
around the then-princely state, Punjab was on fire. A soldier in the Malerkotla
army would later describe seeing bloated bodies, casualties of violence
upstream, drift past on the current of an irrigation canal.
inside the boundaries of Malerkotla, the peace held.
as it turns out, is as multicausal as conflict," writes Anna Bigelow, a
Stanford professor of religious studies, who spent a year and a half living in
Malerkotla during the early 2000s, studying its enduringly tranquil civic
locally, notes Bigelow, the single most popular explanation for the
extraordinary calm at partition reaches back in time almost two and a half
the region was at war, and the two youngest sons of the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind
Singh, had been seized by Mughal forces at Sirhind. The captors planned to
execute the boys by bricking them up alive inside an airless chamber.
Muhammad Khan of Malerkotla, an ally of the capturing force, argued against
raised his voice. It was a very human act, and it has been appreciated in Sikh
history," explained Nadeem Anwar Khan, a Congress party politician and an
eighth-generation descendent of Nawab Sher Muhammad Khan, who watched the
protest speeches from a plastic chair in a VIP zone to one side of the dais.
Muhammad's efforts to rescue the boys ultimately failed, Guru Gobind Singh
heard of his intercession, and in gratitude, blessed his kingdom. It was this
blessing, locals say that saved Malerkotla from attacks in 1947.
February, awareness of the city's special history seemed to project a
talismanic kind of reassurance over the protesters.
said goodbye to Baldev Singh and his friends, I was approached by a
black-bearded man wearing wayfarer sunglasses and a plastic trilby in the
colours of the Indian flag, from which sprouted a second tricolour on a
straw-like flagpole. He introduced himself as Abdul Rashid, an employee of the
Malerkotla municipal council, and told me that, even though he feared the kala
kanoon that was dividing India, Malerkotla remained a place of safety.
column of protesters carrying the Indian flag above their heads marched the
perimeter of the Malerkotla protest site. "We want to show our freedom by
wearing the tricolour," said one protester in a tricolour hat [Al Jazeera]
happened in Uttar Pradesh, he said, referring to a deadly police crackdown on
Muslim communities in that state following protests, could not happen here.
"Here, all are our brothers," he said, with the sort of confidence
that made his statement sound nearly literal.
countries pick and choose from their pasts to authenticate their present, but
it's something that is extremely proactively taken up by this community,"
Anna Bigelow, the Stanford academic, told me one morning over the phone, a few
days after the protest.
was not "an idealised world", she said; its tranquillity had not been
arrived at by accident. "Partition was then - and still is - a reminder of
the fragility of any polity. The people of Malerkotla know how easy it is for
that not to have happened; they know their neighbours suffered."
independence, too, Malerkotla's secularism has needed to be actively stewarded,
she explained; communal harmony has been a shared and conscious project.
Summoning those historical moments in which "people all felt they
belonged", and making those seem relevant, "requires effort",
said Bigelow. "It's something at which Malerkotla is very practised."
noticed something similar - the rare aliveness of history - at other anti-CAA
protests, elsewhere in India. Lately, it seemed, conversations had developed a
habit of wormholing reflexively into the past - to 2002, and the massacres of
Muslims in Gujarat, for instance, or back further to the days of the
independence struggle. Images of Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar, the
principal architect of India's constitution, have been ubiquitous at
demonstrations all over the country.
history plays its own role in a movement," said Parminder Singh.
been invited to Malerkotla as the representative of a group called the Desh
Bhagat Yadgar Committee, formed in memory of a band of early 20th century
diasporic freedom fighters called the Ghadar Party.
microphone, he had recounted the histories of "seldom talked about"
Muslim leaders in India's early struggle for independence. "Historical
events and figures give us sustenance - and they can inspire us," he said.
four o'clock, the grain market began to empty. Streams of people ambled towards
the outer roads, past the police, who reclined in plastic chairs under
sun-shades, and a herd of cows.
At the edge
of the square, volunteers dismantled a covered booth strung with a banner that
read, next to an anti-CAA hashtag, "Modi is jealous because we have real
burqas carried tired, sun-lulled kids. Small flocks of women draped in bright
yellow dupattas stood out between their more soberly attired fellow protesters.
Among them were Navdeep Kaur and her friends, finding their way back to their
bus. The colour they wore - citric, like canary but more acid - is called
basanti, the colour of spring.
there on the road out of Malerkotla, I would spot flashes of it in the fields,
where a mustard crop had come into blossom. The colour signals celebration,
recalling a springtime kite-flying festival in Punjab. Perhaps Kaur and her
friends wore it because it was associated with the agricultural union to which
they belonged. But, in the right context, basanti also summons the memory of a
long-dead freedom fighter called Bhagat Singh. "I'm with Bhagat Singh's
ideology," Kaur told me.
others among the millions who have taken to the streets since December, Kaur
was new to this kind of activism. She had always been "with the
people", she said, participating in the kind of localised,
bread-and-butter rallies organised by her farmers' union, but not in this
"political way" - not, at least, on the national scale, for a national
of societal fracture had changed that: now, Kaur said, she felt she knew
"what was right".
she had volunteered to travel to the capital as part of a convoy of Sikh
farmers offering langar at Shaheen Bagh, the marathon sit-in led by Muslim
women on a chunk of South Delhi highway that has become the iconic site of
anti-CAA resistance. "They were good people," she recalled, "and
they were together".
stage at Shaheen Bagh, Kaur would have seen Bhagat Singh's picture strung up in
a makeshift gallery of patriotic rebels and trailblazers, the guiding ghosts of
his face swaying on placards in Malerkotla, too. In portraits, Bhagat Singh is
always moustached and dashing, and he is always very young - he was 23 when he
was executed by the British, in 1931. In some images, he wears a beige hat,
rakishly angled; quite often he has on a basanti turban.
he never wore that colour turban," Chaman Lal, a Bhagat Singh scholar,
told me over the phone, later. "The idea has been ingrained into people's
minds because of the popular media" - he blames a famous movie and a
who had also been at Malerkotla that Sunday, conceded that even an ahistoric
Basanti tribute at a protest still amounted to a celebration of Bhagat Singh's
him, they find a person who actually gives them the real sense of nationhood,
who made no distinction between Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. He stood for all
oppressed people," Lal explained.
To Lal, it
seemed like the reanimation of the heroes of the independence movement was a
tacit acknowledgement of unfinished business. "What I feel is that this is
an eruption of all those issues which were part of the freedom struggle, and
which were never resolved," he reflected. "Nation-building is still
Bhagat Singh was a source of courage. "They hanged Bhagat Singh for his
resistance to the Kala Qanoon," she had said, sitting cross-legged in the
sun and smiling. "He was hanged for the people, and we are with him."
Headline: A spirit of protest: How Indians are uniting in Punjab