Saturday, August 19, 2006

Where peace reigns supreme

The sleepy, underdeveloped town of Malerkotla wears many badges. It is the vegetable capital of Punjab, nursery of poets and athletes, workplace of artisans and craftsmen. The most heartening, finds Maneesh Chhibber, is its history of communal amity

Lakhs of devotees throng the Idgah on Id.
Lakhs of devotees throng the Idgah on Id. — Photos by Parvesh Chauhan

ON July 30, Sajida Begum (66), an ex-MLA and wife of the late Iftekhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Malerkotla, passed away after a prolonged illness at a hospital in Mohali. While her death got a fair share of space in newspaper reports, what rekindled the interest of the public as well as the authorities in the small town of Malerkotla was the tussle between the Wakf Board and family members of the late Begum over the ownership of Sheesh Mahal, said to be worth many crores.

Finally, on August 2, the local administration sealed Sheesh Mahal on the ground that it was necessary to do so in order to prevent any damage to the valuable articles and the Mahal, spread over eight bighas in the heart of the town.

"Overnight, hordes of relatives, many of who had not even visited the begum when she was alive and ill, arrived in the town and started claiming ownership rights over the Mahal. We had to intervene," says Indu, Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Malerkotla.

Why is Malerkotla so important? Why do such ownership issues make headlines? Why is this small, almost non-descript town of Punjab under media glare.

The answer lies in a small but very vital statistic related to the town: after Partition, Malerkotla, one of the princely states in pre-Independence India, had the highest Muslim population. And, the situation has not altered much.

Even today, Muslims constitute almost 65 to 70 per cent of the total population. Ever since it was made an assembly constituency, Malerkotla has always returned a Muslim candidate to the Punjab Vidhan Sabha, with some of them even going on to hold ministerial positions in the state.

Malerkotla is also better known as the vegetable capital of Punjab. It supplies vegetables not only to the region but also other parts of the country.

The badge-making industry located in the town holds the distinction of manufacturing hand-woven badges and scrolls of honour for foreign universities, including Cambridge and Oxford, the British Army and the Royal Air Force.

Another achievement, locals claim is that the town has never witnessed any major communal clash. Old-timers in the town recall that immediately after the Babri Masjid demolition, when some hot-headed youngsters tried to stir up trouble, elders from different communities sat together and did not allow any problem to arise.

"Malerkotla has never been a problem area. We celebrate all religious festivals, be it Id, Divali or Gurpurb. Our religious affinities have never divided us. All of us are Punjabis first, and Hindu, Muslim or Sikh later. This is our strength," says Prof Mohammad Rafi, secretary-designate of the soon-to-be set up Punjab Urdu Academy at Malerkotla.

Dr Rafi — who took up Malerkotla as the subject of his doctoral thesis — asserts there is more to the town than just Muslims and vegetables. He says the area has a history of producing excellent poets and qawals. "Who hasn’t heard of Munshi Karim Baksh Karim, Sheikh Bashir Hassan Bashir, Manzur Hassan Nami, Gopal Mittal, Bhagwandas Shola, Amtul Kafi Laila?"

A number of players of international and national repute have also grown up in this town. While the Muslim Club, Malerkotla, was among the top football teams in the country at one point of time, Government College, Malerkotla, has been a nursery for many renowned players. Ajmer Singh (athletics), Brig Labh Singh (athletics), both Arjuna Awardees, Jaipal Singh (boxing) and Kulwant Sandhu (women hockey) are just some of the names of players from the area who represented India at various international events, including the Asian Games.

The town might have maintained its distinct culture, religious ethos and social harmony, but it has not witnessed much growth in its civic infrastructure.

"Come here during rains. Water floods the streets and the drains overflow. Look at the roads, small lanes, drainage system. Everything is inadequate. The government should maintain this historic town in a much better way," laments Shah Mohummad, a small shopkeeper in the town.

Another resident, Sham Singh, who grows vegetables, speaks of the bad condition of the road from Khanna to Malerkotla. "Every morning, this town sends vegetables to all corners of the country. But, so far, no government in the state has bothered to take proper care of this area."

The residents may have to face a number of civic problems but they are proud of the growing number of Muslim girls attending school and college.

"One of the biggest challenges for the Muslim intellectuals has been to persuade other Muslims to provide proper education to their girls. But, here in Malerkotla, we have achieved encouraging results. It is no longer considered a taboo for girls to get formal education," states Mufti Fuzail-ur-Rahman Hilal Usmani of the Darus Salam Islamic Centre, Punjab.

Usmani, who is the Punjab’s chief Mufti, is sure the town will pass all tests to preserve its unity-in-diversity culture. "This small town can be an example for other regions in the country to follow. We have a history of communal harmony and I am sure nothing can destroy this," he asserts. Inshaallah!

‘Malerkotla has Guru’s blessings’
Sushil Goyal

The Shahi Maqbara of Haider Sheikh
The Shahi Maqbara of Haider Sheikh

Malerkotla, one of the oldest princely states in the region, is a predominantly Muslim area. What ensures the small town its place in history is its link with the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

It is said when Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, against whose tyranny the 10th Guru had waged a relentless war, decided to kill the two sons of the Guru, one of the Nawabs of Malerkotla, Sher Mohammad Khan, vociferously opposed the move. He appealed to Aurangzeb to spare the lives of the Guru’s sons who had been captured by the Mughal army at Sirhind.

It is said that the Nawab declared that the decision to execute them was against the tenets of Islam. In his appeal, he is told the Emperor that even if his plea was not accepted, he would have the consolation of having performed the sacred duty of seeking what was right and just. Incidentally, the same Nawab had been fighting the Guru along with Aurangzeb’s armies.

After being informed of the Nawab’s deed, the Guru is said to have blessed the house of the Nawab, declaring that its "roots shall remain forever green." Old-timers say this could be one of the reasons the town produces so much vegetable throughout the year.

The state of Malerkotla was actually founded by Sheikh Sadruddin-i-Jahan, who hailed from a village in Afghanistan, in 1454. He was followed by his kin, most of whom ruled wisely.

During Partition, when almost the entire Punjab witnessed communal bloodshed, rioting and looting, Malerkotla was a shining example of communal harmony.

The last nawab, Iftekhar Ali Khan, who passed away in 1982, was an elected MLA. Two of his wives, including Sajida Begum, whom he divorced later, also became MLAs.

Predominantly agricultural, Malerkotla today also boasts of many industrial units. The main places of interest are the Idgah, Shaheedi Samarak built in the memory of Kuka martyrs, the Shahi Maqbara of Sufi saint Haider Sheikh and the tombs of various rulers.