Monday, May 17

How Punjab was won

Akalis leds a virulent agitation seeking a Punjabi speaking state as the boundaries of provinces were being redrawn after independence but it took a tragic course as here language was inextricably mixed with religion, writes Inder Malhotra in The Indian Express

While language as the basis for redrawing India’s political map was accepted generally — even if it was enforced belatedly in the case of Maharashtra and Gujarat (IE, May 3) — Punjab remained a conspicuous exception to the rule. Since Partition in 1947, it had been a tri-lingual state, embracing what are now Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, and so it remained in 1956, in accordance with the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission that had rejected the demand for a Punjabi Suba (Punjabi-speaking state), backed by a vigorous, often virulent, agitation by its sponsors. There was, however, a powerful reason for the SRCs, and even more Jawaharlal Nehru’s, refusal to accept it.
For, this was the only case in which language was inextricably mixed with religion. The demand was confined to the Akali Dal, a party only of the Sikhs that claimed to be the “sole spokesman” all Sikhs even though a large number of them, especially those converts from the Scheduled Castes, called Mazhabis, supported the Congress which had no difficulty in defeating the Akalis at the polls. On the other hand, the Akali party and its towering leader, Master Tara Singh, had an impressive hold on the caste of Jats, dominating the Sikh community. No less formidable was their unshakeable control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee that runs all the Sikh shrines with their vast income. Before 1947, the Akali doctrine was that the danger to the Sikh faith was from Muslims. After 1947, the Hindus became the main threat to the Sikh Panth.

As his frustration increased, Tara Singh upped the ante. His movement became more and more violent, even militant. And then he gave it unabashedly secessionist overtones, confirming the opinion of those who had always said that Punjabi Suba was but a cover for a Sikh-majority state as a prelude to an “independent Sikh state”. However, if Akali communalists were inflammatory, Hindu communalists (largely though not entirely belonging to the Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP), also acted irresponsibly and accentuated the communal divide. To undercut the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state, they persuaded the Hindu Punjabis to declare Hindi their mother tongue in the 1961 census — an issue complicated by complete disagreement between the two communities over the use of gurmukhi script.

After the bifurcation of bilingual Bombay in 1960, Akali fury escalated. Many others also felt that Punjab’s exclusion from the pattern prevalent in the rest of the country was unfair. Ajoy Ghosh, the last general secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India, went to see the prime minister and argued that the denial of a Punjabi-speaking state “smacked of discrimination”. “I envy you, Ajoy”, replied Nehru. “You don’t have to run the country and keep it in one piece. It is my responsibility to do so. Sikhs are a fine people but they are led by separatists and fanatics. I can’t hand over a state to them on Pakistan’s border. But such things are not permanent. As national integration proceeds, we will surely have a Punjabi-speaking state”. (Source: Ghosh to Nikhil Chakravartty, Nikhilda to this writer.)

It was clear that Nehru had decided to dig his heels in even while Tara Singh and other extremist Akali leaders were fuelling Sikh discontent and anger. The prime minister was happy that in Pratap Singh Kairon he had a chief minister in Punjab who was both competent and secular and thus able to contain the Akalis, if necessary by coming down heavily on them. By the start of the Sixties, however, Kairon had started losing his shine because of the greed and high-handedness of his sons (a blight that has felled many a politician in the subcontinent). Nehru earned some opprobrium for his constant defence of Kairon but eventually had to order a judicial inquiry against his favourite chief minister. Soon after Nehru’s death, Kairon had to resign because of the inquiry commission’s findings against him. The consequent political chaos in Punjab was the Akalis’ opportunity.

As it happened, another crucial change was also taking place in Punjab around the same time. From 1931 until then Master Tara Singh had been the uncontested, incontestable leader of the Akalis and, at one remove, of the Sikhs. No one could flourish in Akali politics without his patronage. Intriguingly, few of the protégés survived for long, though it usually remained debatable whether the follower had rebelled against Tara Singh or Masterji had cut him to size. In the early years of the Sixties, a new figure appeared on the Akali firmament that was different. As usual, he began as Tara Singh’s devoted disciple (the two went on alternate fasts for Punjabi Suba), later claimed near-equality with him and eventually replaced the redoubtable Master. His name was Sant Fateh Singh.

In 1965, Fateh Singh sent shock waves across the country by announcing that if Punjabi Suba were not conceded by a certain date, he would burn himself to death in the precincts of the Golden Temple. Well before the appointed date, the India-Pakistan War of that year loomed. Fateh Singh was persuaded to abandon his resolve. In return, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru’s successor, appointed a cabinet committee to re-examine the issue, with Indira Gandhi as its chairperson. There is plenty of evidence to show that her mind was already made up in favour of accepting a Punjabi-speaking state. She appointed B.S. Raghavan secretary of the cabinet committee only after, in reply to her question, he had argued that the Sikh demand be accepted. Before the committee could complete its work Shastri died at Tashkent. As prime minister, Indira lost no time in deciding to trifurcate Punjab. She was much praised for her “boldness” and “maturity”. But the problem of dream city Chandigarh’s future remained.

She ruled that it would be the joint capital of both Punjab and Haryana, and itself be a Union territory. This was also welcomed as a “shrewd move”. In fact, it was to become one of the most explosive ingredients in the tragedy that overtook Punjab in the Eighties, and eventually took her life. Twenty-five years after her death the problem of Chandigarh persists.