How political parties have failed Punjab

The wounds of Punjab

by Fountain Ink

Jan 08, 2024

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So hi, Aman. Welcome to Fountain Ink. Thank you so much for being here with us.

It's always been a pleasure. Even the last time, the interview you did came out so well. Thank you.

So it's been actually more than a decade since we did that interview and you were writing an entirely different genre of book back then, I think.

So apparently yes… at my level, I do not really write very different books. But at the publishing and marketing level, they are projected as different books. There's a game going on there.

In a way, Punjab has been with you for a long time, right from Sepia Leaves through Roll of Honour.


But then I was thinking about how your childhood was largely outside Punjab. Much of your adulthood has been outside Punjab. But then still there's so much of Punjab in you.  And can you talk a little bit about that, like right from the fact that you learned to read the Gurmukhi script…

Yeah, but just a moment more on that writing itself. I mean, like, see, the first two novels were largely autobiographical fiction. And the third book is a travelogue and memoir and contextual history. So autobiographical fiction and you see the naughtiness I'm doing here? I'm not shifting too much from whatever ways I know how to write. But then, of course, the first two are fiction. And the third book, Panjab: Journey Through Fault Lines, is nonfiction.

Now, there is Punjab in me, yes, because however dysfunctional my home might be, which is in Sepia Leaves, you do imbibe Punjab when you are far away from Punjab. You know, I say I don't have an Aadhaar card, a bank account, a land record in my name in Punjab. But a sensibility is shaped by the stories you are hearing about that land far away. And also, I think, something to do with religion here, because at least the Sikh religion is...was... founded on the principles of justice and equality.

And I learned Gurmukhi when I was as an adolescent in a boarding school in Punjab, in the dark decade and  a half, you know. So Punjab's militancy and separatism, you know. And I'm very glad that my school almost forced me to learn Gurmukhi, because it comes in handy now. So I can't write very well in it, but at least I can read quite fluently and I can understand everything almost that I hear, barring a few dialectical differences, which are true for any language. That helped me do the Punjab book. I mean, when I was travelling, the whole book was actually slowly getting written in my head in Punjabi. So I say it also in the book, that it is actually a translation of what I received in Punjabi and I'm giving it out in English. And when the book came out in Punjabi, I said this is now a second level translation. Original level is Punjabi, then the translation is English and then it has gone back to the original. So it's a second translation. It's an interesting process, I think. 

Recently we translated, after 15 years, we translated Sepia Leaves and brought it in Punjabi. And the language just feels so real. You know, first the schizophrenic, I mean diagnosed schizophrenic mother, when she curses, English just doesn't carry it like that, you know, that cursing, you know. That anger, that the way her mind is bursting, you know, her Punjabi could capture that because she was originally bursting in Punjabi.

Though both Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour are autobiographical fiction, I think somewhere you had a bit of a buffer in that you had characters, they might have been based on real people and real experiences, but somewhere, I think there's at least a layer of protection. I think that way Panjab was the rawest book I've read from you because there's no buffer. Everything is real in a different way. Like you are there as a sort of translucent filter, but there's no filter for you. You're seeing everything. Was it the hardest book to write in that sense?

…about a buffer and rawness, I mean, you hit the right point. It did affect me deeply. I went into depression, you know, and as I crawled out of depression, the book also happened. So it is almost that the book was the ladder in the well, which I was using to come out of my own depression as well. But that said, personally, having done two fiction books and now on my second nonfiction book, I think that fiction is a better way to tell the truth than nonfiction.

I felt both your fiction books were very political and they were so only because they were subtle.

Yeah, that's the point. I'm saying I do not benefit from getting banned. I do not benefit from a group rising up and saying down with this book.

Yeah. You know, like you as a writer, you don't want all the....

Yeah, of course not.

You are not a journalist. I mean, I'm a journalist in another role. Yeah. But I'm not an activist per se.  Activists could do things to generate opposition. A writer seeds things into their text to which flower in time. Yeah. You know, isn't that a nice way of dealing with the harshness of life that is around us?

You know, this is something, maybe it's a personal question, but, you know, in Roll of Honour for me, one of the most striking moments was when as a teenager, the narrator, you know, starts wearing his identifiers again, starts growing his hair out long. And this I know is something, and you spoke about it in the interview, that it is something you yourself did as a teenager or a little older. And when we started speaking about the Punjab book, like very early on, you were speaking about how you were going to tell their stories, the stories of the people. And then somewhere, maybe it was during the farmers' protest a little earlier, you started using the pronoun "Our Stories", "We", "We Sikhs". And somewhere, I guess, you've become more Punjabi and more Sikh in the process of all your writing on it.

Panjab, I say it in the blurb of the book as well, the quest started as a whole in my heart, because I had been living outside Punjab since 1998 and 25 years since militancy came down in '95. And the narrative of Punjab was so bizarre… and so I had a hole in my heart, as I say now. I didn't think of it at that time. Now I can say it. And I went to understand Punjab for myself. And I returned with empathy for Punjab. So if in that process I have become more Punjabi or more Sikh, I'm happy to be one. Because it's not about connecting back with your land alone. It's about understanding that the very quest I had in Sepia Leaves, that my mother's story is not told, I have a similar quest now, that the story of the Sikhs is not told. And as a writer, I just want to tell the stories. That's all I want to tell.

So the farmer's protest is important because if you look at stories and discourses and narratives, I personally feel that in the early '80s, the Punjab lost its narrative.

The Delhi media… it really trampled over the narrative of Punjab. Because of course there was Partition, there was displacement, there was all the mayhem of that. But then there was the Green Revolution, which started feeding the rest of the country. And then you realise that it was the DMK government in Tamil Nadu, in 1969 they constitute the Raja Mannar panel report, which basically asked for greater powers for states over the Centre. And the Anantpur Sahib resolution came out in 1972, which also asked for greater power to states over the Centre. But Delhi's Centre became very insecure about it. So the Delhi media went behind Punjab and it went behind Tamil Nadu. So I mean this is very interesting that two ends of India almost, their journey vis-a-vis Delhi has been very similar.

So I found that in 1984 especially, Punjab lost its narrative with Operation Blue Star, with the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, with the anti-Sikh pogrom, genocide.

And it is only in the farmers' protest that the Punjab would stitch its own narrative back together.

It took Punjab 30 years to be able to do it.

Because what is it that prevailed in the farmers' protest?

There was Delhi media, the godi media, on one side trying to completely slander the protest as Khalistani, separatists, anti-nationals.

And here was Punjab's local media, Punjab, Haryana, rest of the states, Rajasthan, all the farmers.

It was their local media which was countering the "godi" media's propaganda. And finally it is this media that pervades the local media protest.

My engagement with the protest came from that reason.I wanted to help or be part of Punjab bringing up its narrative again.

I was following your Facebook posts at that time and through every single day and you would write these, it was almost a chapter a day. Because obviously I didn't have access to the local media. And so you were my local media posting from there every day. And you had family members also there who were actually serving food at the protests and things. And to be part of that, I mean you were watching, you were observing, but at some point all the borders, the boundaries are broken and you are part of this whole movement which somehow galvanized farmers to the extent that it forced a rollback from a government which otherwise is so unbending on everything. I mean, it actually brought the centre down to its knees. And how did it do that?

You know, let's keep the militaristic metaphors away because we live in a regime like that.

But it is true that the right wing BJP government, especially under Mr. Modi, has never taken back anything.

And they had to take back the farmers. It might be political compulsion because they didn't care about the 730 people who died in the protests.

They didn't care about that. But it was of course, the UP elections coming up and they were realizing that they might be losing ground somehow.

And it was the resilience and the persistence of the farmers of north India which basically forced the rollback.

There's no doubt about it. My role here was that I had... in 2019, my book Panjab came out and then the anti-CAA protest started, then Covid happened.

So when the farmers' protest happened in the middle of Covid, end of 2020, a lot of media started reading my book to understand Punjab. And a lot of foreign universities started contacting me to speak about the farmers protest. And I realized that the history of this, the background of this protest is lying in the book.

And the protest has been conducted in Hindi and Punjabi mostly. So how do you speak to a larger India and audience abroad?

You need the English language. And then now this is where narration comes in.

Now how authentically can you enforce the protest without adding masala to it, without prejudice, but politically tilted towards the farmers. Because this was now a battle of narratives and you had to take a stance.

So I played that role. In fact after the protest I calculated, just for myself, I saved all those posts and it came to 125,000 words.

It was a whole book in itself. Even during the protest I had said that all these posts of mine, which would get huge viral response, I had said don't attribute my name to it, don't tag me on it because it was just too much pain to be tagged on every Facebook and every friend is tagging you.

I'm like don't tag me, don't name me, just use it. It's information, daily information. We had coded it as day number so-and-so, so it was known which day was being spoken about.

I would get back my own posts as WhatsApp forwards. I'm like okay good people are reading. Because what is your role as a writer?

I mean of course you write your books. But here is a political situation in a region that you have worked on.

And now there is a crisis here, there is a protest going on here. I think as a writer you should also then be a journalist.

I got calls from Delhi, I went down to report on the protest. The majority of big features that happened on the protest were mine. Because we all know what happened in Punjab. We all know how harsh can be the arm of the government. We all know what is police action.

I went to Manipur recently. What is going on there is catastrophic for India's democracy. It's not being reported. But I was asking both sides, the Meiteis and the Kukis, I said how do you organize yourself? They said it is community support.

And it was community support for the farmers for the first time.

It was coming from every village, Punjab and Haryana and parts of Rajasthan. So when history of these times is written for the next 20 years, there will be only one instance where the government took back laws and that will be this protest.

We have spoken a lot about what Punjab is to Sikhs living outside. But what are Sikhs living outside to Punjab? We are talking about both the international diaspora and the Sikhs living in other parts of India. What is their relevance to the people of Punjab?

The relevance of the external diaspora is huge in Punjab. Because most of Punjab wants to run away and become external diaspora.

Because post militancy also, it's been over 25 years now, Punjab has not healed from its wounds. All the three parties who have formed governments there have all betrayed Punjab. There is a complete erosion of systems in the state. There is a complete erosion of political outlook that a political party needs to provide. They all are like what I call rainy season frogs. They all come up and during election times they say all the right things…

All the parties. In fact on the day the Punjab result came I was talking to another newspaper and I said this time Punjab has voted at the brink of its political possibilities. Beyond this there is nothing. So Punjab is staring at that vacuum and there I think it is the state government, the central government, India's democracy. All of them have not been able to address Punjab's deep fault lines. 

But it's very interesting that they only want to come to Delhi and take a flight abroad. They don't want to come beyond Delhi into the rest of India. There is a caste reason as well. Because Punjab, of course, we know it has the highest population of Dalits.

But the narrative of Punjab is mostly a land owning community narrative. The Jat narrative. And most of those who are outside are the trader class. And mutually the Jats and the trader class look down on each other. So because the trader class believes that the Jats are not very educated and not very smart. And the Jats believe that anybody who doesn't work on land is not a Sikh. But largely speaking when you talk about what discourses are going out into the world, and these days it is of course the diaspora discourse which is more highlighted. But there is of course a Punjab discourse which I have attempted to create through the book. But the discourse of these people who live outside Punjab, one fifth of the community has been largely unheard till now.

Where does 1984 happen? It happens in the cow belt. We all look at 1984 as this ghastly time for the Sikhs. But look at Tamil Nadu. The local government saved the Sikhs. Look at Karnataka. Local government in... [Tamil Nadu], Karunanidhi was there. Hegde was here [in Karnataka]. N T Rama Rao was in Hyderabad. Biju Patnaik was in Orissa... So they all saved the Sikhs. This is also a narrative that should come out.

My whole idea about writing is that why should there be only one story? Why shouldn't we have diversity?


You know you were speaking about, like... Khalistan was so much in the news recently because of all these killings of the people whom we refer to in the media, and within the Indian government, as militants or terrorists who are referred to as Sikh leaders in their communities, in the countries where they have been killed. And I think it's also the referendum which was held in Canada where people who have never seen probably this land from which their ancestors came outside of holidays to grandparents homes, perhaps not even that, voting for the creation of a separate country to which they might never move. And this whole thing obviously has symbolic significance. What relevance does it have in reality?

There are around five different referendums done until now, even in Australia, even in Italy I think. See nation making is a very very different process from only wanting to make a nation, from only aspiring for a nation.

I mean of course nations are imagined communities. That is established, that we know. A set of people decide that okay this is our country. India itself came into existence in 1947.

It was all over. There were rulers here, there were regents here, there were all sorts of things. So I think we should look at ...say the Tamil wish to create an Eelam state in Jaffna. Both the Khalistan movement and the Jaffna, the Eelam, they were on at the same time.

But that was localised, I guess. I mean that's the difference.

Even Punjab was localised, I mean like...

When it happened here, ah, yes, back then.But look at what the Eelam did. They created a structure for themselves, of administration, of education, of justice. But the Khalistan movement could not create any such structure for itself. And still the Eelam, finally a genocide happens. And the Khalistan movement also disintegrates at some point.

But many who left Punjab in that period, in the Eighties and early Nineties, many took political asylum and went. Indian politicians helped many escape. And they were escaping from both the system, the police, as well as from the militants. They all take memories of that India with them there.

Today you know how caste has become an issue in the United States. So when South Indians go, they carry caste with them there. When Sikhs go, they carry the idea of a brutal Indian state with them there. That knowledge of how the Indian state is, they give to their next generations. And given the whole recent, like the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement that happens, or all these other sub-nationalities rising in the West, the Sikh next generation also identifies with those sub-nationalities. So it thinks, okay, it's a valid fight to fight.We should have our own land. So they are growing with that idea.

And it is not that India is assuaging Punjab's problems here, solving Punjab's problems.

You know, if during Anantpur Sahib resolution there were three or four main problems, post-militancy there were five or seven problems, today there are ten or eleven core problems of Punjab. For example, agriculture no longer being profitable. Education system failing. Health services compromised. Lack of job opportunities. Drug trafficking. Influx of people from other states. And ownership of land, demography changing. There are issues in Punjab.

The whole extrajudicial killings during the militancy movement was never really addressed. Now every three or four months there's a new case that comes up, oh so and so, you know, IG was involved, otherwise there was an inspector involved, you know.

Just recently there is a report which was suppressed in 1999 of perhaps the most visible Sikh, you know, visible in the sense of like the head of the Akal Takht, the Sikh throne of justice, being extrajudicially killed in 1992 and the report suppressed, and now it is revealed.

So unless India is seen as giving justice to Punjab and to the Sikhs, and I'm talking about Hindu killings as well, I mean it's not like... you know, both sides died.

The image outside Punjab will remain of India being a brutal state.

And all these guys who are escaping from here are going there, why? Why do they want to live in sub-zero temperatures, work three jobs a day, not being able to meet their rents, you know, going back to community kitchens to eat food, basically because they can't live in Punjab where the poverty is even greater. So why would these people, when they get a fig leaf of a referendum, why would they not say, yeah, yeah, yeah, we should have another country? They're just saying that, they're not making a nation there.

 It's not sedition per se because I mean, various countries go through referendum, some referendum win, some won't win. Scotland, they didn't win. You know, so it's okay. They were not like called anti-national or terrorist and all that. 

I think the powers-that-be in India need to be more assured about India as a nation. Then they won't feel so insecure about things happening there.

But, and I must add this, in my understanding, since 1995, when militancy ended in Punjab, in spite of the Supreme Court ruling that Khalistan is not a negative word, it can be invoked, provided it is not, you know, it's not used to organise people and actually kill people or for violence, peacefully it can be used.

The Indian government has kept the spectre of Khalistan alive all over, so that it can mould emotions within India for their own electoral gain.  That is what they're trying to do now.

You know, we've spoken, we've mentioned the Green Revolution and I've heard you speak about it multiple times over the years. And that's a very, very different thing that is actually on ground, that is relevant to people's everyday lives so many decades later. Khalistan has moved into the spectre of dream-slash-nightmare. But for both of these, you used the term "misrevolution", for both of these movements. Could you talk a little bit about how?

Because, I mean, the Green Revolution has created a green genocide now in Punjab, right?

So it has sucked up the water from the ground, it has turned the land barren, you know, a huge amount of fertiliser, much above, you know, stated ratios, has to be put into the soil to be able to get these bumper crops out. You don't get prices for it. There are diseases galore in Punjab. With land dividing now in families over generations, you know, the holdings have become even smaller. And today, agriculture in Punjab is not profiting. So it might have fed the country for 50 years, but Punjab is devastated.

So I call it a mis-revolution because the revolution should succeed...or not succeed. It can fail as well. But if it creates all these other issues, then it's a mis-revolution.

And similar for Khalistan, I mean, the demand was valid, you know, the call was valid, I'll say. The demand was for reorganising centre-state relationships. The demand was against Mrs Gandhi's emergency. I mean, the greatest number of people who got imprisoned at that time were the Sikhs. The Akali party was the only party who stood against them. However much these other parties might try to take, you know, credit for it today, 50 years later, you know, but it was only the Akalis.

And then the government engineered this whole water issue about rivers there. And then it escalated into other things. And who suffered the most? It is the Punjabi who suffered the most. So it's not about that revolution succeeding or losing. It's about it creating so much havoc there.

That's why I call it a mis-revolution.

You know, you also mentioned the Dalits briefly during this interview. And it's something that, you know, you say that that's the largest population of Dalits anywhere in Punjab where it's more than 50 percent of them, right?

No, no, it's 31 per cent, the largest percentage of them.

It's not the population. Because there are states like UP, which would probably have 10 times more the number of Dalits, but their population might be 20 per cent.

The share, their, yeah, share of population. So, what is happening with the Dalit politics? Because we don't hear much about it outside.

It's very hard to answer it briefly because it's a whole field in itself. But the very interesting glimmer was just before this election in Punjab when Congress nominated a Dalit Chief Minister of India, like Charanjit Singh Channi. And I think it was a masterstroke. It is just that the ground reality had changed.

The farmers were out to punish both traditional parties in Punjab. And of course, AAP came up with its lovely slogans and all that. That the vote went so much to AAP, because it was punishment. All traditional leaders, all stalwarts lost, right? From the Badals, to the Majithias, to the Sidhus, everybody lost. So Congress and Akali Dal were decimated.

And of course there was that Enforcement Directorate case against Channi's nephew and all that. So that was a very interesting shift in Punjab politics, because I thought that either make Sunil Jakhar the Chief Minister, because he's a Hindu face... I mean, why should Punjab have only Jat Chief Ministers? Bring new other people, they are all Punjabis.

Or, I mean, interestingly Ambika Soni shot down Sunil Jakhar,  who now he has gone off to BJP. But the Dalit face was very interesting because here is, they have a say in politics, in policy formation, in giving grants to people. But that also was unfortunately short.

So the Dalit situation is very large to contain in this interview. We will have to do another interview on that or talk to a Dalit scholar about it. But largely they remain underrepresented. They remain exploited. And then there is the Dera politics because these Dalits are also discriminated against by the mainstream Sikhs, so they flock to Deras

And recently there has been this whole news about Christianity spreading in Punjab, though it is not borne out by numbers. Because even the Bishop of Punjab is unhappy with these evangelical speakers, who are holding big ceremonies. Their conversions are not too many, but it's actually even robbing the church of its faith. And spreading all these lies about Sikhism and Hinduism and all the traditional religions.  But the Dalits get attracted to it because at the end of the day, every human being seeks dignity, seeks equality, seeks justice. And if they don't get it in one system, they look at another. If they don't get it there, they look at a third one. This is an ongoing process all over the world.

As we wrap up this interview for today, is there anything you'd like to tell our listeners? Like what would you say about Punjab? What would you say they should do?

When you look at the Sikh question, which is in all the international headlines today, get a holistic picture of the Sikhs. Please understand that they are foremost builders of empires and nations. Even in India, you look at Punjab as supplying farmers and soldiers. Those are the two things. But look at transporters.

Eighty per cent of our freight travels are trucks, inland. And these Sikhs were carrying transport material around the country. I think they were stitching the country. When soldiers were winning you Kashmir and Poonch and Ladakh and Kohima and the Andamans, and they were defining these boundaries and the farmers were feeding you for 50 years, it was the transporters who were going around the country, stitching the country together, taking material from here and there.

Look at what this dynamic community which has served the nation so well, how is it being treated now? As a pawn in a larger chess game, where you want to polarise opinions around them and win elections in the country?

We saw this happen in '84. The Congress did it.

We don't want to see it happen again with another party.

Thank you, Aman. 

Oh, then, there's a request to the audience: Please suggest me a name. What should I call these people, who live outside Punjab, but within India. 

That is a good wrap-up.

How political parties have failed Punjab : “The wounds of Punjab”

by Fountain Ink

Jan 08, 2024

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