In Punjab, Punjabiyat triumphs over religion, other fault lines

A state where politics often gets entangled with religion has never seen communal riots, even during the dark decade of militancy. Sociologists attribute it to the homogeneity provided by its culture.

The last two days of churn in the Punjab Congress to find an acceptable chief ministerial face threw up the crucial question of religious identity in the state politics. Former PPCC chief Sunil Jakhar’s name came up for the post, but was shot down by veteran leaders within the party who felt it wouldn’t go down well with the Sikhs, Punjab being the only state in the country where they could hope for getting this post.

Perhaps they were unaware of the results of an opinion poll conducted ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections. Respondents were asked whether they would accept AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal as the chief minister of the state, and if not, why. Most people said no, and the reason was not because he was a Hindu, but because he was not a Punjabi.

Dr Jagroop Singh Sekhon, a political scientist at GNDU, Amritsar, dismisses the rationale trotted out by Congress leaders as “a pre-1966 jargon”. “That’s a thing of the past, all that people want now is a clean and effective chief minister. His religion is peripheral.”

Whoever said Punjab is a state of mind was perhaps onto something. A state where politics often gets entangled with religion has never seen communal riots, even during the dark decade of militancy. Sociologists attribute it to the homogeneity provided by its culture.

Reductive though it may sound, but this is also a reason why it has resisted the nationalistic Hindutva agenda, and the Bhindranwale brand of Sikhism too could not last here for very long. “Hindus in Punjab are like half Sikhs,” says Dr Pramod Kumar, a chronicler of politics and culture in the state.

For RSS, Sikhs are the sword arm of Hindus, a term that stems from the sacrifices made by Sikh gurus to protect the Hindus from the Mughals – Ninth Sikh master Guru Tegh Bahadur, who stood up for Kashmiri pandits, was beheaded for defying Mughal rulers. Guru Gobind Singh’s two younger sons were bricked alive for refusing to convert. The community has continued with its martial tradition, joining the armed forces in large numbers.

Although Sikhs and their clergy are fiercely protective of their identity as a separate religion — an Akal Takht jathedar once called for banning the RSS for trying to co-opt Sikhs into the Hindi fold — in daily life there is fluidity between the two religions, and inter-faith marriages are common.

Though Punjab was the site of sectarian violence that accompanied Partition in 1947, it did not leave any residue of hatred among Punjabis. That is evident in the warm people-to-people ties between the Indian and Pakistani Punjab that in no way blunts the patriotism of either. The tiny population of Muslims in the state, be it in the town of Malerkotla or Qadian, the headquarters of the Ahmadiyya sect, has never been the victim of any hostility.

The fault lines
Cultural homogeneity notwithstanding, Punjab has seen its share of fissures. After Partition, Akali leader Master Tara Singh, who was born into a Brahmin family, spearheaded the movement for Punjabi suba on linguistic lines. But the move was viewed with suspicion by many Hindus who thought it was an euphemism for a Sikh state, and recorded Hindi as their mother tongue in the census even though they spoke in Punjabi. Later, RSS chief M S Golwalkar, on a visit to Jalandhar in 1966, underlined that Punjabi has no religion. “Punjabi is the language of every Punjabi,” he said.

The year 1984 that saw Operation Bluestar followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and anti-Sikh riots in the country did not lead to any communal disturbances in Punjab though the distrust between the two communities was at its crescendo, and terrorists targeted Hindus several times. The militancy was finally defeated not just due to strong police action and political will but also because it lost grassroots support. The villagers ran out of sympathy for the “boys (munde)” as the militants were called.

Today, the embers of the movement continue to be stoked in lands abroad by a handful of NRIs but it has little resonance in the state. Targeted killings of right wing Hindu leaders in the state in 2017 were quickly stamped out by the then Capt Amarinder government.

The Akali-BJP alliance
Coming to religion and politics, the Akali-BJP alliance has been the longest political marriage in the state till it was undone by the three farm laws in September 2020. Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, 92, had famously called it a “nau maas da rishta (the two communities are like nail and flesh).” Although the two parties entered into a pre-poll alliance in 1996, when Akali Dal, a panthic party, adopted the Punjabiyat agenda, the Akalis had started aligning with Jan Sangh, the precursor to BJP, way back in 1967.

In 2014, late BJP stalwart Arun Jaitley couldn’t win from Amritsar as the two communities did not vote along the lines of religion. While his Congress opponent Capt Amarinder Singh garnered more votes in the Hindu majority segments, Jaitley polled more from Jat Sikh voters in the rural segments. In 2019 too, BJP union minister Hardeep Puri lost to Gurjeet Singh Aujla, a local, as he was considered an outsider.

Punjab, it’s safe to conclude, has a unique political culture. Homogeneity based on culture provides protection to people regardless of their religion. This is the reason the state has not seen the emergence of an exclusive Sikh, Hindu, or even Dalit identity. As Pramod Kumar puts it, “In Punjab, the Jat Sikh CM is decided by the Hindus and the Dalits. The moment you start mobilising Hindus as Hindus and Sikhs as Sikhs, you are bound to lose.” Food for thought for politicians.

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