Saturday, January 13, 2007

This Above all
All in the name of elections

IN a few days three states will go to the polls. Of the three, the outcome of one which may indicate what the people think about the performance of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh Government in the Centre will be Punjab.

It is a border state which reacts sharply to changes in India-Pakistan equations. It has seen three wars fought in its territory. It has India’s third largest religious minority, the Sikhs, in majority. The outcome will indicate whether or not the Central Government policies are, or are not, even-handed in its treatment of other minorities, the Muslims and Christians.

Punjab remains the most go-ahead and the richest agricultural state of the Union. The results will indicate whether or not its farmers are, or are not, satisfied with what the state government is doing for them. Other issues like the future of Chandigarh and distribution of river waters will be shelved for the time being. The demand for Khalistan is dead. So is militant activity perpetrated in its name. Relations with Pakistan have never been better. The Sikhs have never had it so good as they have today. Credit for these achievements go to the Congress.

The main contenders for power are the same: on the one side the Congress is led by Captain Amarinder Singh, erstwhile Maharaja of Patiala, on the other the Akali-BJP combine is led by Parkash Singh Badal, head of Punjab’s wealthiest family owning vast tracts of farm lands and real estate.

Amarinder Singh has the state’s resources behind him. Badal controls the mini empire of Sikh temples managed by the SGPC and thousands of schools, colleges and hospitals run by it.

From what one can gauge from full-page advertisements in Punjab papers launched by both adversaries, money will be no problem for either party: it will flow like the waters of the Sutlej and the Beas. So will desi sharaab. Punjab retains its position as the number one state in the consumption of liquor and drugs.

So far only the names of candidates have been announced. They follow the old feudal pattern: sons, sons-in-law, nephews and other relations come first, next come caste affiliations: Jats, Khatris, Mazhabis (Dalit) for reserved seats. In larger cities like Ludhiana, Amritsar and Jalandhar, they are from the rich creamy layer. Elections need money; they have it.

Starry-eyed youngsters who dream of modernising India by ridding it of its pseudo-religious clap-trap do not appear in the lists of aspirants. For them no matter who wins or loses, it will be as the French put it: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more it changes, the more it remains the same thing).

Bhai Vir Singh

What Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore is to the Bengalis, Bhai Vir Singh (1812-1956) is to Punjabi litterateurs and is a cult figure of Sikh orthodoxy. The slightest criticism of his writings may invite the wrath of the Khalsa Panth on your head.

He was himself a strong upholder of Khalsa traditions. I recall staying a night on my way to Lahore in his spacious bungalow in Amritsar where he spent most of his life and died. It is now a museum.

There are Bhai Vir Singh sadans in major cities of Punjab and one in New Delhi. He always had a lot of admirers hanging around but made his appearance only at meal times to acknowledge their greetings. He was a man of very few words.

Once I and my newly-married wife happened to be at his breakfast table. Out of the blue Bhai Sahib blurted out, "Anyone who has eaten kuttha (non-kosher meat forbidden to Sikhs) should leave my table at once."

I could sense the remark was aimed at both of us. We had been living abroad during our student days and known for our unorthodox views. Neither of us budged from our seats. We finished our breakfast and took his leave to continue our journey to Lahore. It must have been around 1939.

I kept reading Vir Singh’s writings and was quite impressed by some of his short poems. He wrote an enormous amount of blank verse and a few novels as well. I have included three of his short poems in an anthology of my favourite quotations to be published later this year. I quote one:

Patthar naal neoh la baithee

Na hassey, na boley;

Sohna laggey, man noo mohey

Ghundee dilon na kholey.

Chhadiaan chhaddia jannda naahin

Milliyaan niggh na kaayee

hacchha jiven razaa hai teyree

Nazaron ho na ohley

(I fell in love with one made of stone

He would not laugh, he would not speak

He is handsome to behold

But his heart he will not unfold

I wish I could give him up but failed to do so

Meeting him gave no warmth, he was cold

So be it, do what you think is right

Only forever remain within my sight.)

Sidhu & Sandhu

Sidhu and Sandhu

Were two bandhu

In the Patiala road rage case;

The Punjab High Court

Breached the fort

By exposing their guilty face.

Sidhu and Sandhu

The two bandhu

Will depend on S.C. appeals,

But for the nonce

They must renounce

The Lok Sabha and TV deals.

(Courtesy: Prabhat S. Vaidya, Mumbai)