The Land of Rivers and Lions: Understanding the History of Self-Determination in Panjab and its Place in India
It is springtime. The flowers bloom, the days are getting long as are the crops that stretch across the horizon of the flatlands in Panjab (or Punjab).
April has historically been a pivotal period for rural communities of the Subcontinent, the time of rabi harvest. It holds great importance for the livelihoods of the Indian population, the majority of which remain agrarian. This means it is Vaisakhi Festival time. Farmers emerge as dawn breaks; some surveying their land mounted upon their tractors; some reaching for their sickles ready to collect what their modest land is able to give back. It has been a day of communal celebration and a day of spiritual galvanisation. It has also been a day that has seen bloodshed and it remains a day that symbolises how much, or how little, has changed for the people of the region.
Panjab was once the most prosperous state in the subcontinent. Now it is one drained and crippled by corruption, exploitation and wider neglect. It was once the flagship of agrarian modernisation and the land of abundance, now it is where India’s agrarian crisis is most acute; manifest in the continuation of civil unrest and farmer suicides amidst spiralling debt and a falling water table.
‘Panjab’ literally translates as the ‘land of five rivers’. Tributaries of the Indus River and its fertile soil have ensured that it has been one of the most naturally productive lands settled in the subcontinent. Simultaneously, its location has also put it on the front line of invading forces for centuries. Whilst being skilled with the sickle many have had to be proficient with the sword to defend their homes when called upon.
Events unfolded leaving the modern state of Panjab at a fraction of its earlier size, nestled at the northern border with Pakistan. It now only has 2 rivers running directly through it, with its rightful share of water contested to this day. Its future has been taken out of its hands with an erosion of its powers as a state as its soil becomes more eroded from excessive use of chemicals. But can it still draw inspiration from its legacy of both defiance and leadership to break the status quo?
Looking over the history of the region tells its own story of a strong identity built on community-based resilience and political agitation against an overreaching central power. Whilst India remains a secular state and the challenges faced by Panjab not exclusive to ethnicity or religion, the concurrent narrative can be thread alongside the history of Sikh religious identity.
1699 - Birth of the Sikh Religion
The Vaisakhi festival of this year marked the birth of the Sikh order. Stretching back to the 15th century and the teachings of Guru Nanak, Sikhism was a Panentheistic spiritual and religious philosophy expanding on a range of teachings from across the Subcontinent and Asia; embraced by those of many different faiths. Its tenants oriented around individual spiritual ascension and collective equality in all facets of society, especially poignant due to the exploitative hierarchies that identified the era.
Unfortunately, this meant that Sikhs were seen as a political threat for many years, culminating in increasing persecution and bloodshed, including the execution of their prophetic teachers (Gurus) and being removed from their land, under the Mughal Empire. Things came to a head under Emperor Aurangzeb with the eventual execution of the Ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur Ji, for challenging the on-going hegemonic conversion process. The Empire manipulated religion as an oppressive tool of control, murdering those who would not fall in line and convert, and so, the people of the region were encouraged to take extra measures in resistance.
The tenth and final living Guru Gobind Singh Ji asked his followers to gather at Anandpur Sahib on the day of Vaisakhi 1699 and called for the first five volunteers to join the ‘Khalsa’ (meaning the pure), which would redefine Sikh tradition to this day. Whilst still embracing pluralism in society, those who took the initiation vowed to take one step further in their faith to abstain from meat, alcohol and other potentially toxic substances. Men were given the title Singh (meaning Lion) and women the title Kaur (meaning Princess) to abandon the systemic inequality of the caste system tied to surnames, and to show the equal value of men and women. Furthermore, the Guru instilled the importance of Degh Tegh Fateh (victory of sword and cauldron); to formalise the virtue placed upon defending those who are not able to defend themselves against oppression and to ensure all in the community are valued and fed, thus leading to societal harmony and spiritual freedom.
1708-1716 – Banda Singh Bahadur and the Agrarian Uprising
Shortly before his death, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, ordered Banda Singh Bahadur, who had joined the Khalsa after encountering the Guru in 1708, to bring the Sikhs out of relative exile and reclaim the Panjab Region; giving him a letter commanding all Sikhs to join him.
After two years of gaining support, he initiated an agrarian uprising; breaking up large estates of landlord families and re-distributing the land to the peasants who actually worked it. He struck coinage in the name of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh; formalising leadership in the region in line with Sikh principles.
He ruled over a territory stretching south to the Yamuna River in Delhi; however, he was eventually defeated defending his fort from the Mughals and executed with his men after refusing to convert.*
1716-1799 – Sikh Misl
- A confederacy of autonomous states (Misls) rose up during the 18th century in the Panjab region, acting in unison and relation to one another; establishing military forces for the Mughal-Sikh Wars; at one point occupying Delhi’s famous Red Fort.
1799-1849 – Sikh Khalsa Raj
- 1799 saw Ranjit Singh, a misl leader, vitally reclaim the Mughal Capital of Lahore. By Vaisakhi 1801 his on-going attempt to unify the misls was successful when he was proclaimed as Maharaja; creating a single secular political state that eventually stretched from the Khyber Pass, in the west, to Tibet, in the east. The process of modernisation in his time contributed to the fall of the Mughal Empire and being the last region to fall under the forces of Imperial Britain.
1846-1849 – Anglo-Sikh Wars
- The death of Ranjit Singh in 1839 triggered a time of disorder, which was taken advantage of by the East India Company who also saw Panjab as a threat to their influence. Building up its forces at the borders of Panjab, tensions broke out into several battles and the ceding of land to the British. Long sieges left the Sikh armies without enough food and defeat at the Battle of Gujarat signalled the annexation of the kingdom by 1849.
1849-1947 – British Raj
Panjab and India were brought under a technocratic rule. Infrastructure and irrigation brought 10 million acres of land under cultivation. However, colonial rule was inherently based on the exploitation of resources with crops grown for export and assets controlled by British banks that kept the majority of income.
Nevertheless, acknowledging their bravery on the battlefield, Sikh regiments were heavily utilised in the World Wars as part of the British Army. Refusing surrender and showing great strength above their numbers they were referred to as the ‘Lions’ in the aftermath of WW1.
1919 – Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
Vaisakhi 1919 saw the gunning down of over 1,000 Panjabis in a garden near to the most revered Sikh site of the Golden Temple in what is also known as the Amritsar Massacre.
Despite the vital commitment of Indian forces and resources during the Great War that only exacerbated human suffering domestically, unfettered powers of detention were expanded via the Rowlatt Act of 1919, leading to banning public assembly due to fears of growing anti-colonial revolutionary movements; especially in the states of Panjab and Bengal.
After days of tensions, the peaceful gathering was part of protests against the Act and demanding the release of popular leaders of the Independence movement, with many people simply wandering into the popular area during festival time.
Without warning the exits to the garden were blocked and regiments of riflemen opened fire into the unarmed crowd, “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience” according to General Dyer.
Back in Britain Churchill described the attack as “monstrous” and Asquith as “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”. This was pivotal in forcing many Indian moderates towards the push for Independence
1928-1932 – Bhagat Singh and the Indian Independence Movement
In juxtaposition with Mahatma Gandhi’s strict stance of non-violence for the civil rights movement, revolutionary networks from Panjab and Bengal saw the continued violence from the British as a sign that aggressive strategies were required to gain independence in the face of continued British violence; particularly for the colonial powers to understand how serious the movement was and to demonstrate to the wider population that the Imperialists were not completely beyond the reach of justice.
The symbol of freedom fighters from all over the subcontinent to this day remains the iconic face of Bhagat Singh who along with his brothers in arms, Sukhdev and Rajguru, were executed for attacks on non-civilian targets and their politicisation of the civil rights movement during their trial. Many scholars regard this as a trigger for the ultimate success of independence.
1940 – Udham Singh and Unified Panjab Mindset
Uddam Singh had been at the Jallianwala Bagh that day and escaped with his life. On 13th March 1940, he found his way to Caxton Hall, London, where Michael O’Dwyer was speaking at a meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society. As the proceedings were coming to an end, Singh rose from his seat and shot O’Dwyer twice, killing him almost immediately.
In custody, he referred to himself as “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad”, the first three words reflecting the major religious communities of Panjab (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh respectively), with ‘azad’ meaning freedom; reflecting his anti-colonialist stance. Before being put to death Singh spoke of his mindset that drove him to sacrifice himself: ”He wanted to crush the spirit of my people… I have seen my people starving in India under British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty.”
1947 – Panjab through Independence and Partition
However, Independence was hurriedly carried out through the legacy of British tactics of divide and rule, along religious lines. Leaders held the intention of adequate representation for their communities, resulting in Panjab being divided into East and West, which formed part of the new India and Pakistan respectively, upon partition.
Whilst this era was heralded as one of self-determination it was rushed into chaos, beginning with communal riots and massacres after communities were forced off their homelands and positioned as rivals. One struggle for autonomy and identity was replaced with another in the newly formed nation.
The majority of Indian Panjab, which included what is now Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, were now Hindus and Sikhs; with Panjabi and Hindi both official languages.
1955-1960 – Indus River Treaty and Central Government Water Allocation
- Unable to negotiate an international platform for water management 80% of river water was allocated to Pakistan in the form of the Indus River Treaty; with the central Indian government overcompensating claims to receive 20% on behalf of the northern states, surprisingly including Rajasthan. Despite the distorted allocations, there was an understanding that the surplus will actually go to Panjab’s agricultural needs. Nonetheless, what is later called the Indira Gandhi Canal is built from Panjab to Rajasthan.
The 1960s – Green Revolution in India
- In the main to combat food insecurity, foreign models of rapid agricultural industrialisation and chemical use were adopted with Panjab utilised as one of the flagship states. High input costs were absorbed as high yields and food prices remained relatively stable for two decades. Panjab goes onto produce 60% of the entire nation’s staple foods. However, social and environmental scientists, such as M.S. Swaminathan and Vandana Shiva, still put forward evidence that this caused much greater long-term environmental and socio-economic problems than its short-term benefits.
1966 – Panjabi Suba and push for recognition
- Even with the inclusion of the former princely states into Panjab, there were still movements struggling for the preservation of their respective languages and rights of religion (Sikhism was not differentiated from Hinduism). Despite a lack of consensus, the Panjab Reorganisation Act of 1966 was rushed through, which saw the central government split up Panjab into its modern form constituting a Sikh majority; with Haryana and Himachal Pradesh separated along linguistic lines. However, it’s capital Chandigarh is still in centrally administered union territory and shared with neighbouring Haryana; again providing barriers to the self-determination of the people of Panjab.
1973 – Anandpur Sahib Resolution
The Akali Dal party emerged as a localised opposition to the domination of the political parties of the centre, with the Congress Party dominating the state election. In 1973 they put forward an official set of demands, building a political movement for the rights of Panjabi people in line with Sikh principles of promoting equality and eradicating poverty. They also outlined the need for the development of the rural sector.
Its overall message critically propagated that certain key powers be dissolved from the centre back to the state governments of India, in line with the constitution. It was officially stated that its intention was not a separatist movement.
1976 – 1984 – Multiple crises within the Tight Grip of the Centre
With global food prices declining and the centre prioritising the water needs of Haryana and Rajasthan, despite challenges within the High court utilising international water laws, a downward spiral of poverty and debt became commonplace within the once prosperous farming community. The fertile land and water resources became more exhausted due to inappropriate farming techniques as the Panjabi people are left with little alternative options and no further investment in sight whilst still exporting their crops below value.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi adopted rhetoric from the ethno-nationalist Hindutva Movement of an India (Hindustan) for Hindus whilst radical leftist movements were being violently put down by the army across many states during this time. Civil disobedience occurs en masse across Panjab resulting in thousands being detained along with extra-judicial killings being carried out by the Panjab Police. Fearing complete exclusion and suppression, Panjab’s growing civil rights movements adopted varying degrees of the Anandpur Sahib resolution in view of confronting the centre politically; comparing it to the Mughal Rule.
1984 – Operation Blue Star and the Sikh Genocide
Vaisakhi 1984 saw the leader of the Akali Dal party, Harchand Singh Longowal, and leader of the militant Damdami Taksal organisation, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, publish pamphlets accusing the other of betraying the Sikh Community.
This came about as Bhindrawale had given up on failing political avenues for the Anandpur Resolution and organised an active militant faction demanding a separate nation of Khalistan; as well as controversially having links to Congress backing in the past. Evading arrest he had occupied part of the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, eventually utilising it as a fortified headquarters.
Operation Blue Star was the name given to the military action, the first phase of which took place between the 1st and 8th of June 1984, which saw Indira Gandhi give the decision to launch an all-out militarised attack, complete with tank charges and artillery shelling of the most sacred of Sikh sites, to remove Bhindranwale. It later emerges that British elements were consulted as part of the operation.
With the complex left in rubble, Sikhs worldwide saw the action as a direct assault on the Religion and also blamed the Central Government for their part in fueling the conflict over many years. On the 31st October, Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards.
This was immediately met with a series of organised pogroms in multiple cities, including Delhi, with high-ranking officials of the Congress Party down to local police complicit in inciting the violence. It has since been referred to as Genocide with reports estimating 17,000 Sikhs killed and burned alive with even higher numbers displaced from their homes.
The legacy of this militant period and the Hindutva movement is still as relevant today as it ever was. Panjab has never recovered. The state saw a stampede of emigration as its youth continued to see countless cases of disappearance and custodial deaths. A stagnating economy with a lack of investment, an exhausted soil and a depleted water table has left no opportunity for growth in any form.
Principles of unity in diversity and resilience despite great odds have been buried and even forgotten from those within the faith. Panjab is now mostly discussed due to an opioid crisis. In a Hindustan for Hindus, there has been no place for the Sikhs, and a weak Panjab has historically meant a victory for the controlling Empire of the Subcontinent; no matter who has been at the helm and what form it has taken.
Ignorance is not passive when its consequences are debilitating. Whilst farmers continue to end their lives all over India, the state of Panjab has still not been officially recognised as suicide effected. It has taken 25 years to bring a conviction for one high-ranking official complicit in 1984. Britain to this day has not given a formal apology for any of the bloodshed in Amritsar.
Whilst corruption strangles India, with the elites of Panjab often complicit, the central government only increases its power rather than putting fate back into the hands of those who work the land, who understand what is actually needed to sustain a livelihood and maintain the functioning of their diverse community. Much valid political agitation is still met with accusations of militancy, separatism and collusion with Pakistan; with the inherently aggressive force that it elicits. The Central industrial steamroller would prefer they not exist at all.
This Vaisakhi provides another point of reflection. Many have given up hope. “Our future is no longer in Panjab” I am told by my peers in the diaspora, and, “We tell our children not to return to India when they leave” I am told by teary-eyed mothers living alone on what is left of their plots in the villages along Panjab’s ‘suicide belt’.
Another breaking point within history is inevitable, however, as we have seen several times over. The spirit remains alive under the surface. Most in Panjab still do not want a separate state; they maintain the sentiment of the Anandpur Resolution. However, what is a leader perhaps has to be viewed in a different light today. They are many and can be found working tirelessly in courtrooms and universities, as well as on campaign trails. They can be found within communities as a whole.
Farmers unions are bringing a halt to society and bringing warnings of disaster to the land and through the exploitation of its people, if you care to listen to their protests, they are intellectuals too. Panjab’s agrarian and community identity once again needs to be celebrated and nurtured alongside its urban development, not seen as primitive. There are alternative paths for Panjab to grow again if it’s given the capacity and freedom to organise, invest and decide for itself. This inevitably has to happen alongside educating the new generation and nurturing new leaders not pinning hopes on the promises of politicians.
This echoes around the diverse federation of states within India. Communities and peripheral states are crying out for recognition of their constitutional rights to self-determination, to bring symmetry to how they may co-exist in modern India. Perhaps this time solidarity will also come from those making similar claims from across the globalised world. A diverse collective is greater than the sum of its parts.