A spirit of protest: How Indians are uniting in Punjab

In a Punjabi town, known as an ‘oasis of tolerance’, demonstrators use history to give substance to solidarity.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
Protesters 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]

Malerkotla, 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.

A tractor 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.

Its cargo 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.

A slogan bounced around the thronged square: “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai, aapas mein hain behen bhai!” – an affirmation of fraternal feeling across communities of faith.

Similar 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.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
In the female zone of the protest ground, Sikh and Hindu women in dupattas sat among Muslim women in burqas and hijabs [Al Jazeera]

At protest sites I visited in Delhi, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, their refrains of togetherness rang defiant. This was national unity as resistance: scrappy and adamant.

But in 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.

In the 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.

This was 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.

“The 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.”

A demonstration of indivisibility

Early that 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.

They drove 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.

Kaur, a 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 Malerkotla”.

Kaur wanted 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.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
Though February is late winter in Punjab, the sun was hot by early afternoon, and protesters rested in spots of shade under trees [Al Jazeera]

In 1947, 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.

While 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.

According 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.

Singh, who 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 partition again.”

When 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.”

A blessing

I 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.

“In 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.”

But there 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.

Still, inside the boundaries of Malerkotla, the peace held.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
Once a princely state, Malerkotla, known as an “oasis of tolerance” for its history of inter-faith harmony, is Indian Punjab’s only remaining Muslim-majority town [Al Jazeera]

“Peace, 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 identity.

But locally, notes Bigelow, the single most popular explanation for the extraordinary calm at partition reaches back in time almost two and a half centuries.

In 1705, 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.

Nawab Sher Muhammad Khan of Malerkotla, an ally of the capturing force, argued against their murder.

“He 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.

Though Sher 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.

Inspired by history

In February, awareness of the city’s special history seemed to project a talismanic kind of reassurance over the protesters.

After I 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.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
A 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]

What had 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.

“All 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.

Malerkotla 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.”

Since 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.”

I had 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.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
A local youth waved a black flag and a placard with the crossed out images of three ruling-party leaders: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath. All three have been accused by protesters of stoking communal tensions [Al Jazeera]

“Actually, history plays its own role in a movement,” said Parminder Singh.

Singh had 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.

At the 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.

A revolutionary spirit

Just after 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 degrees.”

Women in 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.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
A Sikh woman in a basanti dupatta – the colour is associated with a prominent farmers’ union, but also with sacrifice and patriotic spirit [Al Jazeera]

Here and 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.

Like many 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 cause.

The spectre of societal fracture had changed that: now, Kaur said, she felt she knew “what was right”.

In January, 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”.

Above the 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 history.

FEATURE/INDIA The Spirit of Protest: How Indians are uniting in Malerkotla
From the Malerkotla dais, speakers raised slogans of unity against what many of them described as the divisive efforts of the government [Al Jazeera]

I spotted 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.

“Actually 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 famous song.

But Lal, 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 revolutionary spirit.

“In him, they find a person who actually gives them the real sense of nationhood, who made no distinction between Hindu, Muslim, 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 in process.”

To Kaur, Bhagat Singh was a source of courage. “They hanged Bhagat Singh for his resistance to the kala kanoon,” she had said, sitting cross-legged in the sun and smiling. “He was hanged for the people, and we are with him.”

Source: Al Jazeera