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The transformation of Punjabi identity over the centuries


by Haroon Khalid

Facing murder charges, Udham Singh was presented in a court in London in 1940. On March 13 that year, he had shot dead Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab on whose watch the Jallianwala massacre had taken place.

Twenty-one years ago on April 13, 1919 soldiers of the British Army in India had opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters in a walled public garden in Amritsar and killed over 1,000 of them. The lieutenant governor had called it “correct action”.

Udham Singh, a revolutionary inspired by the Marxist Ghadar movement of Punjabi Sikhs against British rule and by Bhagat Singh, sought to avenge the massacre.

After killing O’Dwyer, he courted arrest. At the court, a copy of the Granth Sahib was presented to him so he could take oath before the trial.

Turning it down, he offered to instead take oath on Waris Shah’s Heer-Ranjha, the fabled love story of Punjab, a copy of which he had already procured from a gurdwara.

Much like Bhagat Singh before him, Udham Singh became a symbol of the Indian nationalist struggle. During the trial, he noted his name to be Ram Mohammad Singh Azad to emphasise how all the major religious communities of India were fighting for the country’s independence.

On one hand, Udham Singh through his Marxist political leanings had an international revolutionary outlook that he wanted to channel into the Independence struggle, which he refused to view through narrow communal or ethnic lens, as had started happening in the late 1930s and early 1940s. On the other hand, he was still rooted in Punjabi cultural ethos.

Shah’s Heer-Ranjha, now widely known because of its frequent references in the Indian film industry, is a Punjabi folk story, deeply ingrained in its culture and also one of the most important symbols of Punjabi identity.

While Udham Singh wore his Indian identity beyond the confines of any ethnic or religious group, by choosing to take his oath on the Heer-Ranjha, he also depicted his proud Punjabi identity. For him there was no conflict between these two identities.

Revolutionary Punjabi identity

All symbols of Punjabi identity are revolutionary in essence: Heer, who revolted against the institution of marriage and chose her true love; Ranjha, who rebelled against the institution of religion when it tried to take him away from his true love.

The Punjabi Sufi poet Shah Hussain blurred the distinction between the devotee and the divine, challenged conventional religion in favour of unrestrained religiosity, expressed through dance and music, an individualistic act of rebellion.

Similarly, the Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah spoke vehemently against religious clergy, Hindu and Muslim alike. The truth lies within you, he insisted.

Every January during the festival of Lohri, Punjabis celebrate Punjabi folk hero Dullah Bhatti, a landlord from Pindi Bhattian who took up arms against the mighty Mughal emperor Akbar to protect the revenue from his land.

Any discussion on Punjabi identity is incomplete without Guru Nanak, who sought to dissolve fixed religious identities. I am neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, he reiterated.

And there is, of course, Guru Gobind Singh who sought to fight for the honour of his people against the Mughal emperor Aurganzeb – the Guru Gobind Singh who could inspire a sparrow to defeat a hawk (as a famous pre-Partition Punjabi verse goes).

This Punjabi identity was deeply rooted in Bhagat Singh. He makes references to this Punjabi culture, to the revolutionary politics of the Sikh gurus in his collection of essays. Udham Singh, also a proud Punjabi, was following in his mentor’s footsteps.

The fragmentation

However, in the colonial era, soon after the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-1849), a new Punjabi identity was forged – the loyalist, pro-empire Punjabi. This image was reinforced during the 1857 war when a Punjab-dominated British Army helped defeat rebels in Delhi and other parts of North India.

Many Punjabi ethnicities and communities were honoured as “martial races”, a title that bestowed upon them a higher position in the race hierarchy and implied that they were loyal to the British.

The colonial era, therefore, saw a conflict between these two Punjabs:

One was revolutionary in its essence, the Punjab of Dullah Bhatti and Ahmad Khan Kharral, another landlord who fought against the British during the 1857 war, leading one of the only major rebellions from the province.

The other was the Punjab of chiefs and aristocrats who had been given the titles of Rai Bahadur, Khan Bahadur and Sardar for their loyalty to the crown.

The former Punjab was further fragmented in the early 20th century as education and urbanisation spread throughout the province. Punjabis were no longer Punjabis but Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fighting for recognition from the British state.

Urdu became the symbol of the Muslims while Hindus fought for the right to use Hindi. Punjabi remained confined to the Sikhs, who eventually emerged as the sole inheritor of this Punjabi heritage.

This conflict between Muslim Urdu and Hindi for Hindus aggravated after the creation of India and Pakistan, as Pakistani Punjab emerged as the symbol of Pakistani nationalism.

Urdu became the language of the Punjabis, keeping up with colonial tradition, while Punjabi symbols such as Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Guru Nanak and Heer-Ranjha slowly started receding to the periphery.

On the other side of the border, as Punjab was further carved up making it a Sikh-dominated province, a new Punjabi identity emerged that was synonymous with the religious identity.

While symbols of Punjabi identity were appropriated, they became relics of the past, out of sync with the contemporary Punjabi identity. It is this latter Punjab that both India and Pakistan would rather deal with.













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