Wednesday, December 25

ਅਸੀਂ ਭੁੱਕੀ ਦੇ ਬਣੇ ਆਂ

Desperate drug-addicts of some villages around Lehragaga in Sangrur district came together to protest when supply of their daily dose of opium and poppy husk was curtailed.
(Punjab Panorama)

Tuesday, July 9

Sikh art gaining ground at global auctions

Artworks categorised as ‘Sikh Art’ are being featured increasingly in leading art-house auctions, writes Shona Adhikari in Financial Chronicle
Basant Panchami, Gouache heightened with gold on paper, 1850, Christie's
In one of its most recent art auctions, Christie’s had in its Asian Art section, included a large number of artworks categorised as ‘Sikh Art’. This essentially referred to art generated during colonial times and earlier. There have been a number of auctions over the past three or four years by leading international and Indian auction houses who successfully featured and sold artworks in wash, tempera, pen and ink as well as numerous valuable artefacts and daggers.
Christie’s started taking an interest in ‘Sikh Art’ from last year when it auctioned five art pieces in April and a collection of paintings in October 2012; then again in April this year some artefacts went under the hammer. Last month’s exhibition had 10 interesting artworks, including a splendid painting on ivory of the Golden Temple, enclosed in a gold frame.
Bonham’s has also shown great interest in promoting Sikh artworks. This became apparent when number of such works were included in their auction of Islamic and Indian Art, held in June last year. Earlier, at the Chester Sale in February 2011, Bonhams had sold a splendid painting dating back to the 1800s, around the time of the East India Company. Also in January 2011, another rare painting — a view of the Golden Temple at Amritsar — went on sale.
In recent times, there has also been a move to categorise contemporary artists from the Punjab belt under the Sikh Art umbrella. So it now covers Sikh pianters such as Arpita Singh, her husband Paramjeet Singh and the ever popular Manjit Bawa. Arpita’s mural titled Wish Dream, fetched Rs 9.6 crore ($2.24 million) at a Saffronart online auction, making her the world’s top-selling woman artist. When asked about the central figure of a middle-aged woman in her mural, Arpita is reported as having said, “Glamorous women with hour-glass shapes are for film and television. I paint real women.” The mural, painted in oils on canvas in 2000-2001, consisted of 16 canvases clubbed together to create a mural 287 x 159 inches in size.
In September 2008, Manjit Bawa's untitled work sold for $362,500 at a Christie's auction in New York. At the time, the artist was in coma and remained so for three months — unaware of the sale of this particular painting and the many other sales of his works. Two years later in September 2010, again at Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art auction in New York, Bawa’s beautiful painting Durga, possibly due to a drop in the general drop in art prices, achieved a slightly lower price, selling for $3,14,000.
We have all read about the royal jewels worn by the royalty of Punjab, that seem to be seen off and on under the auctioner’s hammer in the past. It is hoped that along with jewellery and the other rare artefacts that are periodically up for sale at international auctions, rare paintings of earlier times as well as the works by artists such as Manjit Bawa and Arpita Singh, will somehow find their way back to India sometime in the future.

Monday, July 8

Remembering leftists who died opposing terrorism in Punjab

Many leftist activists who died opposing religious fanaticism and terrorism in Punjab remain forgotten. Gurpreet Singh writing in Straight, remembers them as he talks to relatives of some of these who have made their homes in capitalist countries like Canada and U.S. to earn better livelihoods.
As the Sikh community across Canada and elsewhere was observed the 29th anniversary of Operation Bluestar, the name of the controversial attack by Indian troops against the Golden Temple in Amritsar, secular and leftist activists who died opposing religious fanaticism and terrorism in Punjab remain forgotten. 
The Indian army stormed the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in the first week of June 1984 to flush out militants who had brought arms into the place of worship. Operation Bluestar left many dead and parts of the temple complex destroyed, causing great resentment among even moderate Sikhs.
There were angry protests in Vancouver. And in India, this sacrilegious act culminated in the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
This, in turn, was followed by an anti-Sikh pogrom across India and later, the Air India bombings that left 331 people dead. 
Critics argue that this was all a result of the cocktail of religion and politics within both the ruling Congress party of India and the Akali Dal, a regional party of Punjab struggling to achieve benefits for the state. 
Some believe the operation was calculated to teach Sikhs a lesson and to garner votes from the Hindu majority. Others blame the Akali Dal for letting militants fortify the Golden Temple with weaponry.     
A memorial for the militants who died fighting he army during Operation Bluestar has been established inside the Golden Temple complex. Now, Hindu fanatics plan a parallel memorial for slain army soldiers. The fiery debate over these memorials overlooks the real secular heroes who've died fighting against this war on terror—back when this terminology had not even entered western consciousness. 
A decade-long armed struggle in the name of Khalistan—an imaginary Sikh homeland—left over 25,000 people dead, most before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shook the world.
Among those killed for opposing religious extremism were over 300 Communist activists, including prominent progressive poets like Paash and Jaimal Singh Padha. Their 25th anniversary of martyrdom falls this year. 
Most of them became soft targets for militants for opposing religious fundamentalism and social codes imposed by separatists on the media and civilians. Some of these secularists were at the leadership level, while others were much more vulnerable grassroot level supporters.
Whereas a few took up arms to fight militants, others died without any police protection. Ironically, relatives of some of these "Communist martyrs'' have made their homes in capitalist countries like Canada and U.S. to earn better livelihoods.
Paash's widow Rajwinder Kaur has recalled that as soon as there was news of Comrade Jaimal Singh Padha’s murder, Paash knew that he might be next to fall to the terrorists' bullets.
Twenty-five years after her husband was murdered, Kaur lives in California. She maintains that Paash anticipated his death. After all, both Paash and Padha had invited this by challenging religious fanaticism and terrorism when the movement for the theocratic country of Khalistan was at its peak.    
Padha was a leader of the Kirti Kisan Union, a Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) front. He was assassinated on March 17, 1988, by the Khalistan Commando Force.
Paash's premonition turned out to be true when he was murdered along with his friend Hans Raj by the same group almost a week later. It came on the martyrdom day of revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar, and Shivaram Hari Rajguru, who were hanged by the British Empire on March 23, 1931.
An internationally acclaimed radical poet, Paash had gained popularity as the Naxalite movement grew among India's most dispossessed rural residents. He evoked angry reaction from Sikh militants for writing a provocative essay against religious communalism.
After it was published by the California-based Anti 47 Front—a group of activists who opposed repetition of 1947-like India-Pakistan partition on religious lines—Paash was one of the most sought-after targets when pro-Khalistan militants were systematically killing Communists during the  insurgency in the border state of Punjab. It began in the early 1980s and continued until early 1990s.
Paash was murdered while visiting his native village of Talwandi Salem. By that time, he had immigrated to the U.S. due to economic hardship back home. 
Sohan Singh Sandhu
Sitting at his California home, Sohan Singh Sandhu, the ailing father of Paash, talked about the essay. He thinks it provoked the Khalistan Commando Force to assassinate his son.
A close reading of the essay suggests that Paash was not only condemning the ideology of the Sikh homeland, but also the communal politics of Congress and Hindu right-wing groups, such as the Shiv Sena. Interestingly, Paash quoted from Sikh scriptures to denounce the militants' philosophy. He understood Sikhism as a modern and liberal religion, which has no room for sectarianism.
Paash also penned a poem condemning killings of innocent Sikhs during the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Gandhi. It is pertinent to mention that back then, the Communist government in West Bengal protected Sikhs during violence engineered by Gandhi’s Congress party across India. Yet Khalistani militants accused Paash and other Communists of working against their interest.
Armed with all the old news clippings, Sandhu told the Straight that he has no doubt in his mind that it was a political murder. "My son understood Sikhism better than his killers," he said.
Meanwhile, Padha's brother-in-law, Surrey resident Sukhdev Kandola, feels the same.
"Those who killed people like Padha or Paash were the enemies of the Sikh faith," he told the Straight.
Kandola remembered Padha as a grassroots level worker who stood for the rights of the oppressed people and poor. Like Paash, Padha had also tried to challenge extremist ideology by promoting liberal brand of Sikhism through his songs. He and his comrades used the slogan: "Na Hindu Raaj, Na Khalistan, Raaj Karega Mazdoor Kissan!" ("Neither Hindu state, nor Khalistan, only the working class shall rule.") 
Whereas, Paash and Padha were ultra-leftists, even moderate Communist activists and leaders weren’t spared. Among them was Darshan Singh Canadian.
Although his real name was Darshan Singh Sangha, he came to be known as Comrade Canadian for having spent 10 years in Canada from 1937 to 1947. He was in the forefront of the labour movement within the South Asian community in Canada, and had returned to India after it gained independence.
There he joined the Communist Party of India and was first elected as CPI MLA from Garhshankar, Punjab, in 1972. In 1985, he was murdered for his opposition to Khalistan.
Much like others, he too tried to challenge the philosophy of Khalistan through his writings and by quoting from Sikh scriptures. His most provocative essay, "Are Terrorists Gursikhs?’’, attracted threats and intimidation. But he continued to attend public meetings in troubled areas.
Darshan Singh Canadian's daughter Amardeep
His daughter Amardeep, who lives in Vancouver, remembers how he remained steadfast in his fight against militancy.
"He was aware of potential threats to his life, but he did not compromise on his principles," she told the Straight. "So much so he did not take police protection. I am proud to be his daughter.’’
Canadian was visiting her when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. "He was quite concerned about developments in Punjab.," she added.
Canadian’s granddaughter, Navjot Dosanjh, who also lives near Vancouver, said that her grandfather often brought her fruits when she was a small child. "Witnesses noticed fruits scattered all over the place where he was shot to death," she stated. "Apparently, he was bringing them for me when the terrorists murdered him mercilessly."
Indo Canadian Workers’ Association (ICWA) president Surinder Sangha, whose group issued a calendar dedicated to 25th martyrdom day of Canadian, says that Communists have a moral responsibility to stand up against subversive forces bent upon dividing people on communal lines. Although Sangha’s organization is affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), it buried all political and ideological differences to recognize the sacrifice of Canadian.
"I salute all the Communist activists who died fighting for the sake of unity and integrity of India," Sangha said.
He has a CPI (M) booklet that carries small biographies of over 20 Marxists who were gunned down by Sikh extremists. It was also published in Lokta, a secular Vancouver-based news magazine, when Sikh militants were virtually controlling other Punjabi-language media in Canada.
Threats and physical violence against moderates were very common then.
"These brave comrades not only saved Hindus in Punjab, but also the Sikhs from Hindu extremists outside Punjab," Sangha declared. "Their mission needs to be continued as fundamentalism has not fully ended in Canada." 
ICWA organizer Kulwant Dhesi, who formerly worked with the CPI (M)–affiliated Student Federation of India (SFI),continues to spearhead campaigns against fundamentalists controlling local gurdwaras (Sikh temples). He remembers how militants killed a few of his comrades in the SFI.
A picture of Sarwan Cheema, a towering Marxist leader of Punjab who was assassinated, greets visitors in the living room of his house in Surrey.
“The fight has to go on as the imperial forces that supported anti-India separatists in Punjab back then are still active in Canada, and continue to help pro Khalistan groups who enjoy control over many gurdwaras," he said. 
Dhesi remembered how Khalistanis used to actively raise funds for their movement in Punjab from Canada and the U.S. 
Another former CPI MLA to be assassinated during that period was Arjan Singh Mastana. His sister, Veeran, lives near Vancouver and is struggling with Alzheimer's disease. She vaguely remembered that he was murdered in 1985 and was a better Sikh than the Khalistanis, who have misinterpreted the Sikh faith for ulterior motives.
"By doing that, they have captured local gurdwaras both in the U.S. and Canada," she said.
Veeran has fought against fundamentalists during gurdwara elections.
Jugraj Dhaliwal, a Surrey resident, mentioned that his father, Randhir Singh, was a CPI cardholder from Faridkot. He was murdered merely exercising his democratic right to protest in 1984.
"He took his supporters to a rally that was organized by the party to oppose terrorist violence and that became a cause of his death," Dhaliwal recalled. "With just one stroke they (extremists) took away the life of a man who was a tireless social-justice activist."
Dr Sadhu Singh
Dr. Sadhu Singh, a leftist Punjabi scholar with strong affiliations with the CPI, was forced to leave Punjab in 1991. A resident of Surrey, he received threatening letters for not sporting a turban and long hair and for also speaking out against Khalistan.
"Threats started coming in after I spoke at a seminar held against communalism," he said.
Singh applied for a refugee status in Canada in 1992 on account of threats to his life from the militants. He knew both Paash and Canadian personally, and also lost another leftist friend, Ravinder Ravi, to a terrorist attack.
"Ravi was an active CPI supporter. He was murdered despite being soft-spoken. Ironically he used to advise me not to speak bluntly against religious fanatics, yet it was he who got killed’’.
Toronto-based progressive Punjabi writer and former Naxalite Waryam Singh Sandhu has authored famous short stories on the situation in Punjab. He also remembered an attempt to murder him.
Sandhu understands the philosophy of Sikhism and is highly opposed to the idea of a Sikh homeland. His opponents complained to militants that he had indulged in blasphemy and, as a result, some militants tried to attack his house near Amritsar but failed in their mission. He came to know about it much later. 
Years later, some pro-Khalistan militants became introspective and regretted their strategy of targeting Communists. Although ideological conflict between the left and communal forces continues, the Khalistan Commando Force leader, Labh Singh, wrote in his diary that the policy of murdering Communists—particularly the Naxalites who were fighting against state repression—was not wise.
A portion of the diary was published by Indo Canadian Times in 1995. It stated that even though people like Paash and Padha were opposed to the separatist ideology, the Khalistan leadership should have shown some tolerance for the political criticism instead of murdering opponents. That's because this isolated the pro-Khalistan movement from the masses.
However, this regret is too late and too little for Winkle, Paash’s daughter, who was only six when her father was murdered. With a choked voice she asked: "What did they achieve by killing him? We cannot forget the struggle through which my mother and I had to pass after his murder.’’

Sunday, July 7

Punjab’s tree man leaves behind a green legacy

Gurdev Singh had earned the sobriquet “Trivenian Wala Baba” for planting Trivenis, a cluster of three trees — peepal, banyan and neem, writes Jatinder Preet in The Sunday Guardian
Gurdev Singh at his village few days before he died
Nonagenarian Gurdev Singh died this week, leaving behind a rich legacy of green cover around his village Ganduan in Punjab's Sangrur district. The old man had singlehandedly planted hundreds of trees in the village and its surroundings in one of the most backward areas of the state. He earned the sobriquet "Trivenian Wala Baba" in the area for planting a cluster of three trees — peepal, banyan and neem — that are together called Trivenis. Revered for their medicinal value and other benefits in the traditional Punjabi culture, Trivenis find mention in the Holy scriptures of Sri Guru Granth Sahib too. Once found in abundance in Punjab, not many have survived the onslaught of development mainly taken over by agricultural land. The Baba changed that singlehandedly at least around his village.
In the region which has brackish groundwater, unfertile soil and is marked by high incidence of cancer and farmer suicides, this has been a herculean feat for the frail old man who worked tirelessly for over twenty five years to turn the parched land green.
Born in a poor Dalit family, Gurdev Singh had never been to school. He did labour in his youth but as his sons grew up and he stopped working, he dedicated the rest of his life to planting Trivenis. He would go around villages on foot collecting saplings and transplanting them around the village along the school, dharamshala, bus stand and abandoned pathways.
Jagsir Singh, a school teacher and neighbour of the Baba said that some village youth gifted him a bicycle to travel around when they saw his dedication. "People called him mad in the beginning when he had started planting trees but he went on undeterred and the same people now enjoy the shade provided by those trees which have grown big and remember him," said Jagsir.
With his failing eyesight and a bent back Baba went on for years until old age finally caught up with him. He died last week in his sleep peacefully. Karamjit Anmol, a Punjabi film actor hailing from the village, has announced that he and a group of friends from the village have decided they would raise a suitable memorial for the Baba. "We want to honour the memory of the man who transformed the face of our village all by himself, besides raising a memorial that would inspire the generations to come," he said.

Saturday, July 6

Truth and Intelligence

Commenting on Ishrat Jahan’s case in his column ‘National Interest’ in The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta mentions in passing the role of intelligence agencies in containing terrorism in Punjab.

If somebody was able to pen the real story of how terrorism folded in Punjab within a few bloody months in 1993, (Ajit) Doval’s name will appear as many times as KPS Gill’s. Because they so conclusively demolished the ISI’s most ambitions operation ever outside of Kashmir, they were seen as national heroes. But nobody asked how many suspected terrorists they put through “due process”. And when questions were raised about fake encounters, or killing of innocents, the entire government system colluded in never letting the truth out, even when the Supreme Court had wanted it. I am not writing a definitive history of that phase now, but they fought fire with fire, even kidnap with kidnap. When Gurbachan Singh Manochahal, a top-ranked militant, abducted the father of a police SP, the police abducted his son and a peaceful exchange was carried out. That, then, was due process. In fact, Gill used to say that militancy will end the day its leaders were convinced that one of them had moved to the police’s “A” category, he had no more than six months to live. The state police did the firing, but identification, cornering or luring of “militants” was mostly done by the IB’s unarmed operatives riding in a Maruti van. And they were funded directly — mostly in cash by the suitcase — by Subodh Kant Sahay and Rajesh Pilot, then minister for internal security in Narasimha Rao’s cabinet.
Once you start raising these questions, you will need two full commissions of inquiry. One, a more immediate one to look into who all were in the know in New Delhi under the UPA on the Ishrat Jahan encounter and why had they accepted it so far. The second, and a more interesting one, on what our intelligence agencies have been up to in the past, and with what kind of oversight. I, for example, would also love to see answers for some mysteries that have dogged reporters of my generation: ... was there something behind a rash of attacks in the Punjab countryside in 1991 targeting the families of Punjab policemen? It is then that the state police turned against militants and the tide turned. Many of us have wondered what exactly happened and all you can say is that our intelligence past hasn’t exactly been either ineffective or incompetent, nor would it pass with flying colours if subjected to the legal/moral scrutiny of the Ishrat Jahan case.

Kashmiri Sikh, not a Punjabi

Religious identity and cultural identity are two different things and we need both to distinguish them from each other and to appreciate them, writes Komal JB Singh in the Viewpoint

Is every Sikh a Punjabi? Does every Sikh belong to Punjab? No. Every Sikh is not a Punjabi and every Punjabi is not a Sikh. These are questions I have to answer, clarify and justify every time someone new gets to know me. The dilemma is around regional identity and religion. Needless to say, most often Sikhs are considered Punjabis and vice versa. In the case of India, Punjab is a state in the North of India and people living there are called Punjabis. All of the major religious communities live in the Indian side of Punjab. During partition in 1947, most of the Punjabi speaking Muslim population migrated to the part of Punjab that is in Pakistan. Similarly Punjabi speaking Hindus migrated to the Indian side. Ideally anyone who speaks Punjabi and lives in Punjab is a Punjabi irrespective of the religious faith.
Pre-1947and post-1947 Punjab is a historically important region in Sikhism as it is its place of origin. Sikhism has flourished in this region. It is the same with all the religions in the world; they originate in one place and then get adopted by different regions and are colored by their native culture.
I am a Kashmiri Sikh woman by birth who studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. I grew up like any other Kashmiri. Whenever I tell someone I am a Sikh, it is assumed that I am a Punjabi and like anyone really touchy about my region, I explain that being a Sikh has nothing to do with me being a Kashmiri. I have to explain that I am not from Punjab, that I don’t speak Punjabi or eat typical Punjabi food. I have never seen fields of mustard and corn as this is a usual inquiry. I only know of lush orchards of apples and pears, cherries, walnuts and huge chinar trees as a Kashmiri. I have met a lot of Sikhs like me who are judged because they don’t belong to Punjab or speak Punjabi.
The dilemma does not originate solely in the relationship between being Sikh and Punjabi but in being a Kashmiri. The general assumption is that if you are a Kashmiri looking person then you must be Muslim or perhaps Hindu. When I was growing up in Kashmir and studying in St. Joseph’s Baramulla, I never felt that my identity was unknown to the world outside the valley. I was very happy having some Sikh friends and many Muslim friends. However while studying in Aligarh Muslim University two years ago I became conscious of this fact. Most people assumed I was a Muslim because I identified myself with Kashmir. Although I was accepted as a Sikh woman, because most people think that “every Sikh is Punjabi”, questions became focused on me being Punjabi. I would love to be thought of as a Punjabi if I was a Punjabi. After all, who would not love to be associated with such an amazing culture? What upset me was that I was not judged by who I am.
It is often said that we are not conscious of things until they affect us seriously. The dilemma of needing to prove my identity all the time has led me to write this. Being identified as a Muslim by appearance and Punjabi by name has made me conscious of the need to reflect on this. Bearing a Sikh name we can be part of many different cultures. I don’t know how many other people like me face similar problems. It’s really tough to have to explain who you are all the time.
What hurts is the fact that the stereotypical image showcased by the media often means people do not take us seriously. Stereotypes and segregation based on religion needs to be condemned and stopped. It further divides this already cracked society of ours. Religious identity and cultural identity are two different things and we need both to distinguish them from each other and to appreciate them.
So from now on whenever you come across a Sikh, please don’t relate him to Punjab and assume s/he is Punjabi. It is better to ask him/her about him/her native place and its culture. As G.B Shaw once said “Beware of false knowledge; its more dangerous than ignorance.”

Sunday, June 30

Sikh marriage procession

Watercolour in paper, 1860 by unknown artist in the collection of Victoria & Albert Museum, London
'Company paintings' were produced by Indian artists for Europeans living and working in the Indian subcontinent, especially British employees of the East India Company. They represent a fusion of traditional Indian artistic styles with conventions and technical features borrowed from western art. Some Company paintings were specially commissioned, while others were virtually mass-produced and could be purchased in bazaars.

This Company painting depicts a Sikh marriage procession, with the bridegroom on horseback attended by a parasol-bearer and a large throng of people. It was painted in the Panjab around 1860 and is a comparatively rare example of Company painting from this region. It was only in 1849, after the Sikh Wars, that the British took over the administration of the Panjab. Before this, European influences were few and painting was not common. It was not until a British Resident, Henry Lawrence, was posted to Lahore (now in Pakistan but then in the Panjab) that British influences began to spread and painters were encouraged to provide examples of Company painting, though it never developed on the scale seen in other regions of India.

Thursday, May 30

'Ranjha' by Sabir Nazar

Ranjha, watercolours by Sabir Nazar

Sabir Nazar is a painter and cartoonist working with The Friday Times and Pakistan Today. He says he wants to recreate indigenous art in modern context. Sabir describes Ranjha, as he has painted, in his blog thus:
Ranjha is a recurrent symbol in Punjabi poetry. It wouldn't be out of place to call it an architype. Ranjha is creative; he is a musician and committed to his cause (Heer). He crosses the river (the divide of class, ownership and traditions) to meet Heer. He crosses the river between given relationships and relationship of choice. He is a faqir who lands in a barren garden that becomes green. He is a symbol of productivity and fertility. His flute plays the sur of consciousness. Five saints (punj peer) (five senses) bless him with Heer. His breath creates magic through the flute and captures the minds and hearts of people because of the truthfulness of his art. Flute is the symbol of creation of universe. The breath blown into flute comes out in the form of different musical tones, similarly the reality is one but its outward manifestations are different.
We are as the flute, and the music in us is from thee;
we are as the mountain and the echo in us is from thee. (Rumi)

Sunday, February 17

Fear, myths and a disease

In old times, they tickled the earth with a hoe, and it laughed with a harvest. But the Punjabi farmer tickled it a bit too hard and in many desperate ways. In an ironic mirroring of meaning, cancer, the malignant growth of cells, has become an apt metaphor for what has happened to agriculture in Punjab, writes Dharminder Kumar in The Indian Express
About a dozen men, both old and young, sit by the road outside the village, gossiping in the sun. "How many cancer patients do you have in this village?" They turn their faces away. An old man breaks the silence: "There were a lot of them two-three years ago. Now there is no cancer. The last death took place two years ago." That's odd for Giana village of Talwandi Sabo block, the buckle of the bimari belt. A youth speaks up, "No, no. One or two die every month." The old man shouts at him, "Oye kanjar deya, eh khangh taap naal mare hoyan baare thoda puchhda (Rascal, he is not asking about deaths due to fever but cancer!)." The youth gets the cue and falls silent.
Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson imagined in her book Silent Spring a future ecological dystopia where no birds sang because they had died of pollution. The Malwa region of Punj-ab is nearing another ecological dystopia where cancer has become an evil which thrives in a web of silences. Here, instead of the birds, it's the people who have fallen silent. Families don't want to tell patients, patients don't want to tell families, families don't want to tell relatives or other villagers, and villagers don't want to tell the outsiders or the government. And the government wasn't too keen to tell anyone—at least till two weeks ago when the state health minister came out with the first credible government survey on cancer, which shows a big spurt in the disease in the last few years. The government decided to break its silence when it saw cancer becoming the biggest issue in the Malwa region.
When Ranjeet Kaur, the wife of Kaka carpenter of Bhangchari village in Muktsar district—the worst affected, according to the government survey—was diagnosed with cancer, the family hid it from her. "We thought telling her would put her under a lot of pressure. But she was educated. She could find out. When her hair started falling, she knew what it was," says Kaka. Mehma Singh, a fellow villager, says, "Women used to scare her, saying who would take care of her son after her. Kaake di bahu taan hauke naal hi mar gi (Kaka's wife died of grief and shock)." Mehma Singh himself has lost five of his relatives to cancer—father-in-law, mother-in-law, two brothers-in-law and a nephew.
Iqbal Singh, an ex-serviceman of nearby Tamkot village, says even when government representatives come, many people don't tell them the truth. "When the ANMs (auxiliary nurse midwives) conduct surveys, they go back with clean reports," he says. "People hide cancer from others because it stops all kinds of social and business transactions. Everyone starts waiting for you to die. But most can't hide it once the chemotherapy starts." These days, he says, more people are coming out at early stages because of the financial assistance offered by the state government.
"Len-den ruk janda (the dealing stops)," says Inderjit Singh, sarpanch of Jhabelwali village in the same district. "No one is going to lend you any money. People count you out. For the society, you are dead well before you actually die." He says a youth from a neighbouring village was diagnosed with cancer but did not tell his family about it. "He wanted to die after having a son. He told others about the disease long after the wedding and did die after producing a son," he says.
Silences are easy to maintain, Inderjit explains, because most of those who are dying are children, women and the elderly, whose loss is not too difficult to bear in material terms. "Fewer youths and family bread-winners are dying so there is no hue and cry in the villages," he says.
Beera Singh, a Dalit youth of Tamkot village, says his father died of cancer three years ago but doctors did not tell him about the cause. "We had taken him to Muktsar government hospital. We were not given any reports," he says. Beera says he admits he is illiterate and wouldn't have understood much but doctors should have at least told him about it. Bohar Singh, another Dalit villager, says his son too died of cancer 10 years ago but doctors did not tell him the cause. "Later, when I came to know from the hospital and asked the doctors why they hadn't told me, they asked me, 'What could you have done with that information?'"
While Beera is angry at one more kind of social exclusion he had to face, Bohar says if he had the hospital reports, he could have got some financial compensation.
At Bhangchari, villagers talk at length about people who died of cancer in the last three years but clam up at the mention of cancer patients. Perhaps they are afraid to locate cancer in the present, as if acknowledging it in the present will invoke it and make it more active. It is somewhat reassuring if cancer is imagined only in the past. In the present, it is addressed only in whispers or just wished away.
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As far back as in 1995, a study by the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, had found alarming amounts of uranium in water samples from Bathinda and Amritsar districts. South African toxicologist Carin Smit found unusually high uranium in hair samples of children in Faridkot district in 2009. For years, hundreds of cancer patients took a train daily to a charitable hospital in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. But the state remained in denial. Only about two years ago, it started speaking. It took the state more than a decade just to tell the people roughly how many had died and how many are suffering. Today, the Akali government is in an overdrive. Perhaps, it hopes to make a visible difference by the next Lok Sabha polls. The government has collaborated with a big private hospital at Bathinda. It is also building modern cancer treatment facilities at its own hospitals. There are RO plants in a large number of villages. People have started benefiting from the Mukh Mantri Cancer Rahat Kosh which offers Rs 1.5 lakh to a cancer patient for treatment.
But when the state and science were keeping themselves scarce, cancer grew bigger than them in the minds of the villagers. As the state refused to acknowledge the extent of the epidemic, people were left to understand the disease the way they could. Cancer was no longer a mere fatal ailment. It became a magical, malevolent evil, so unpredictably dangerous that it could not even be named. Even today, most villagers don't use the word cancer. They call it bimari or dooji bimari (the other disease), as if it were a phantom that would turn on them if they even named it.
For many, cancer is also infectious. Mehma Singh of Bhangchari village says when women visit a cancer patient, many cover their faces with dupattas. Karamjit Kaur of the same village, whose four-year-old daughter, Rajveer, died of cancer in the eye, is worried about other kids in the joint family. "Children used to wipe secretion from her eye. Now we are afraid they might also develop the disease," she says.
If cancer is understood in magical, tribal ways, sometimes it is also tackled in that manner. Fearing that the parent's disease may pass on to the child, many villagers have a special way of burning the body of a cancer patient—they also burn a peerhi with the body. Peerhi, a low, woven stool, also means a generation in Punjabi. For the villagers, the burning of the peerhi with the dead ensures that cancer does not descend to the next generation. Ex-serviceman Iqbal Singh of Tamkot village recalls he couldn't understand when they fished out a peerhi to put on the pyre of his sister's father-in-law who had died of cancer a few years ago. "I have also noticed people take great care to avoid the smoke from the pyre of a cancer victim," he says.
What made cancer an insurmountable evil for villagers were the deaths of many VIPs from cancer in the last few years. At Bhangchari, people are hopeless because the wife of the numberdar (a village official), Basant Singh, has died recently. Jaswinder Kaur, 50, had throat cancer and the numberdar spent Rs 10-12 lakh on treatment. "Where did he not take her for treatment! The numberdar spent crores on his wife but she died. How do we poor people matter?" says a Dalit labourer.
With not enough medical and environmental solutions, villagers caught at whatever came in sight. At Bhangchari, old women with aching bones make a beeline for an acupressure camp. Organiser Sukhbir Singh Tamkot, a social worker, uses on them machines that have various ways of pricking, massaging and heating the head, neck, knees and feet. Handing over a bottle of water to a woman, Sukhbir says, "This is special, magnetised water. The water treated in an RO plant loses vital minerals. That's why old women have pain in joints." The women who come to his camp say they do get relief from pain. The whirr of an electric machine working on a knee or neck is quite assuring. Perhaps the shiny, plastic gadgets inspire more confidence than ramshackle government dispensaries the villagers are accustomed to.
If ignorant villagers mythologised cancer, educated people found urban legends. Rahul Rupal is a young, progressive farmer of Ramditte Wala village in Mansa district who has diversified into growing guar (cluster beans). He had read in the papers that it had low input cost but fetched a high price because it was used in petroleum exploration. He says one reason behind the spread of cancer might be the Bathinda thermal plant using coal from Australia which has high uranium content, and then spewing out the ash. Earlier, there was the talk that uranium dust was blown into Punjab by winds from Iraq and Afghanistan where the US forces used low-grade nuclear weapons. How else would Carin Smit find uranium in the hair samples of children? You could not argue with these people. If they could not cite any study, nor could you. There is no large-scale survey that links or delinks high amounts of uranium in water with cancer.
Though the health minister said while releasing the survey report that cancer was due to excessive use of pesticides, the government has conducted no definitive study yet that links pesticides to cancer. Ask Surinder Singh, the father of four-year-old Rajveer who died of cancer in the eye, how she came to develop the disease. He thinks cancer happened after she fell down and hurt her eye. His brother says sometimes people get injured, blood clots and a tumour forms. Cancer, he says, mostly happens after an injury. Of course, he adds, the highly saline water in the village might also be causing it. Since the state was in no hurry to count the dead and the suffering, it also did little to find out the exact cause of cancer.
Surinder and his two brothers own an acre each, which makes them subsistence farmers, but it's hard to notice. A shiny tractor is parked in the courtyard and the children wear nice clothes. The cost of agriculture and lifestyle has gone up, narrowing the profits. Surinder and his brothers live from crop to crop. The yield has to be had at any cost, even if it means an overdose of pesticides, fertilisers and other inputs. In the absence of diversification, farmers have to force the maximum out of wheat, paddy and cotton. The government has realised the problem but little has been done to wean the farmer away from input-intensive wheat and paddy crops. In old times, they tickled the earth with a hoe, and it laughed with a harvest. But the Punjabi farmer tickled it a bit too hard and in many desperate ways. In an ironic mirroring of meaning, cancer, the malignant growth of cells, has become an apt metaphor for what has happened to agriculture in Punjab.