AMIDST THE cacophony of competing claims to speak on behalf of Punjab, any sincere claim to do so is necessarily a fraught one. Leaving aside the truth of the claim, it has to contend with a land almost blinded by the instant solutions syndrome, whether in political discourse, raising agricultural productivity or addressing the educational crisis. Even in the rarefied realms of words and ideas instant solutions to complex issues are available on demand.
To imagine a collective utopia in such times has been a valuable project undertaken by societies in crisis. But the Punjab lacks any critical mass or enabling institutions to cradle utopia. It is drained, indeed, of the moral courage to even gaze at the future. Punjab today is a land of nostalgia, of opportunities squandered, of a wallowing about times. An Eliotesque wasteland has been realized here with land spewing poisonous water, failing crops and a corroding countryside. Today, Punjab is all about the past.
An off shoot of this condition is the wholesale appropriation of all visions and blueprints for the future by prospect of immigration to northern countries. The cultivation of utopia is effectively substituted by the patient execution of the procedure to fulfill terms of immigration. The painstaking attention to detail serves as an antidote to the instant syndrome blooming here. The various and assorted bands, grades or points are the new real estate trading at a premium than any assets here. Ironically these aspirational Punjabis are also the alienated ones.
Punjab today? Which one? Whose? Isn’t it a myth when all we have left to ourselves is a fractured, fragmented and fatigued society? Perhaps voting in elections is the singular activity where all Punjabis participate alongside each other, once more to start the cycle of fracture, fragmentation and fatigue!
The English writing on Punjab has constructed an urbane Punjabi universe as a carrier of its aspirations to power and cultural distinction, reducing it an island of prosperity or a source of sectarian strife. Punjab is more than a poster boy of progress or a renegade from the promise of modernity.
Dystopian as the situation is, it is addressed by assorted media where the Punjabi songs and music videos are both documenting as well as creating a dynamic scenario. The gradual ascent of Punjabi cinema has brought a scale and vividness to proceedings. Even the social media is agog with spirited exchanges, notwithstanding its capacity to spread half-truths, rumours or doctored content. Adding to cacophony surely, but determined to be heard.
Having democratised the field, the citizen journalists pose a challenge as to how loud, shrill and polarizing we could be? Parallel to the instant solution syndrome, does journalism or non-fiction carry a space for a field report of deep observation, narrative of insight and considered conclusions? Both in the structure as well as the medium of writing, the question of multiple layering comes to fore. A consideration of these elements of narration also constructs an intended audience.
For instance, the pre-1947 Punjab, ‘saanjha Punjab’ witnessed the Delhi Sultans, the Mughals, the Sikhs and finally the British as rulers with Persian, Urdu and English as languages of administration and power. The society, however, presents a formidable sense of continuity with the Sufi shrines, the Sikh centres, the jogi or vaishnava establishments providing armature for a shared Punjabi universe mediated robustly by the Punjabi language. With the Muslims being a demographic majority and Lahore as its civilizational centre, this saanjha Punjab lost to the sectarian zeal of urban middle-class Punjabis. These were more comfortable with their exclusivist identities than any common bonds. The festering wounds of partition remain an enduring legacy of bonds giving way to borders – a ‘pock-marked dawn’ – whose innate logic still reigns supreme.
Ditching the ‘saanjha Punjab’ in 1947, the new-fangled‘maha’ Punjab saw the Hindus as the new demographic majority. Partap Singh Kairon was its Nehruvian icon and leader rolled in one with the founding of Chandigarh promising a new civilisation of modern institutions, progress through technology and cosmopolitan spirit. The institutional networks of the Arya Samaj movement supplied the social glue to this haloed project based on industry, trade and urbanization. Onset of green revolution in agriculture provided a similar ‘progressive’ vision transforming the countryside. The rural mobilisation and peasant movements contributed to the political momentum for a state based on linguistic units. A perfectly constitutional demand gradually descended to sectarian rhetoric. The political culture, thus, remained impervious to modernising impulses. The ghosts of 1947 were back.
The post-1966 Punjab of ‘two-and-a-half rivers’ had the Sikhs ascending to a demographic majority for the first time in Punjabi history. The urban centres were pushed from central positions and the countryside rose to eminence. The left-wing student movement and the Punjabi poets inspired by the Naxalbari uprising lit the horizons briefly but the battle-hardened Akali agitators and DamdamiTaksal zealots eventually gained prominence. An essential component of this process was an almost complete unravelling of the Nehruvian agenda and its institutions. Replaced by polarizing rhetoric, from classrooms to legislature, the spaces for reasoned deliberation and debate were ridiculed and demeaned. The power centre rested with the Malwa countryside and Amritsar started to dictate terms to Chandigarh. Institutional collapse was accompanied by a pervasive culture of coercion in everyday life preceding the contemporary phenomenon of systematic plunder of public resources. Both the eastern and western Punjabs mirrored each other in this journey to oblivion, with the logic of partition reaching its apogee.
These multiple spaces of Punjab are sadly a conflict zone where the idea of Punjab, its institutions and territories are seemingly at loggerheads. This is the precise challenge for any writing purporting to speak about Punjab. Writing in English in such a milieu brings to table its own set of complexities as a marker of social exclusivity and status. Located mainly in Delhi and its poor imitator Chandigarh, the English writing on Punjab has constructed an urbane Punjabi universe as a carrier of its aspirations to power and cultural distinction. Seen through this prism, Punjab was narrated either as an island of prosperity or a source of sectarian strife – a poster boy of progress or a renegade from the promise of modernity. Common to both characterisations was an image of Punjab as a bashful, loud, all flesh or to sum it up – ‘all agriculture, no culture.’It seems that Punjab and its people became almost a prop for articulating an elitist understanding through English. On the other hand,the challenge is to articulate a Punjabi vision through English. A determined provincializing of a metropolitan language is an essential aspect of this project.
Negotiating these conceptual battlefields, a layered Punjab narrative has an immediate issue to ponder over. The region shows a paradox: a bewildering variety of micro-initiatives bubbling from below, but seemingly contributing to strengthening the conventional political culture represented by the two-party cyclical phenomenon. The critical gap in field initiatives of social protest and resistance and the manifestly impervious and impenetrable nature of high politics in Punjab asks for a writing of sustained focus and insight scrupulously avoiding the easy, polarizing stance. The region is crying out for a tough, critical and tempered narration, oriented to a reflective mode of understanding.
The kind of profound social commentary and fearless political criticism as practiced by Baba Farid and Guru Nanak remains an immense reservoir for a vernacular cosmopolitan Punjabi vision. Speaking truth to power, their uncompromising content continues to thrive due to its exceptional lucidity with the power to lift commoners to a utopian vision. Thus was forged the Punjabi spirit under conditions of duress and social dislocation, conditions we are familiar with. Precisely this is the legacy of Punjabi narrative that Punjab Today has to aspire to. The task is arduous, indeed.
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— Team PT