IN the past few years there has been a splurge in the construction of several significant memorials and museums on certain select facets of the history of Punjab. The most ambitious among these are the Khalsa Heritage Memorial, Wada Ghalughara at Kup Rahiran in Sangrur district, Chhota Ghalughara in Chak Abdalwari in Gurdaspur district and Chhaparchiri in S.A.S. Nagar (Mohali).
The most recent addition in this list is the proposed memorial on Operation Bluestar within the Golden Temple Complex (Amritsar), which I thus see in a sense of continuity. Significantly, all these memorials have a peculiar character and tend to engage with particular kinds of histories of martyrdom, wars, violence and genocide that the region has suffered since the 16th century.
The framework of time and space with which these memorial engage with relates to specific episodes within the realm of political conflict of the Sikhs against the Mughal state and later the Colonial government on the one hand, and contemporary post-Independence state on the other.
A broad construction of region’s history through these memorials bring to fore the idea that Punjab has always been engaged in wars, conflicts, invasions and violence which is dominantly religious in nature. These memorials are also premised on the creation of a binary of Sikhs against the Muslims, the British and more recently the Hindus.
In a limited perspective, these museums and memorials intend to narrate and retell significant sacrifices made by Sikhs fighting against injustices and oppression of various hegemonising tendencies.
However, as a historian one seeks to contest the limited frames of these narratives since they leave out more significant histories of peace, which has inspired centuries of co-existence between various communities. In this context, I raise a fundamental question of ‘intent’ and seek to explore the choices which sectarian politics impinges upon the public domain for narrow political gains? After all. what is it that we want to leave for future generations to remember?
I am sure none of us would like to promote re-emergence of bloodshed and violence for the youth of Punjab. How should we then remember yet forgive and forget those facets of terrible histories which left indelible scars on popular memory and reconcile them with contemporary realities?
How would creating war and violence memorial make better humans out of our generations? I propose, as many others have, that if we keep larger objective of building the future Punjab in mind, we should be building memorials of peace and reconciliation. This objective cannot be achieved through selective tales of shared memories of violence.
In the context of the Partition, documentary filmmaker Ajay Bharadwaj underlines that while narrating the tales of violence, "We often prefer to shut out the whole episode with a wall of silence," and instead target Muslim communalism, which is dominant in the narratives of popular Partition histories and continue to be taught in the schools and colleges of the region.
Similarly, the violence experienced during the terrible days of terrorism in Punjab is vetted out against each other by the Sikh and the Hindu communalists. Is there then any ‘final solution’ of these vexed issues? Can we ever emerge out these binaries? Fortunately, there are numerous parallel narratives of peace, which continue to inspire the lived lives of Punjabis in contemporary times and have been nurtured threw centuries of shared coexistence.
Why should these narratives be missing from the historical discourse of the region? Let us briefly discuss some of these narratives.
I begin with the second half of the 16th century. The popular tale of Dulla Bhatti (a Rajput Muslim zamindar), which is continually narrated during the Lohri festival of Punjab, retells the story of how in a dominantly Muslim province of Punjab, a local zamindar saved the ‘honour’ of two (Hindu) Brahmin girls, from the gaze of a Mughal officer, who, on hearing about their beauty, wanted to acquire them, by secretly arranging their marriage.
The tale continues to be popular among the Sikh-dominated province of Punjab. I emphasise the religious (though non-descriptive) identities here to highlight how kinship relations and local ties in medieval Punjab where intertwined with caste and ethnic identities and played a significant role on shared existence amid the centralising tendencies of Mughal state.
Two narratives associated with the tenth Sikh guru retell the stories of Bal (baby) Gobind and the sacrifice of his two young sons. Pir Bhikam of Patiala had this ‘dream revelation’ that a new sun had risen in the east at Patna. He and two of his murids embarked upon a journey to the town to seek the blessings of the baby and dispel the doubts of the latter. They also carried along two pots of sweets, one from the house of a Hindu and another from the house of a Muslim. At Patna, the saint placed two pots of sweets in front of the child, desiring to know what would be his attitude to the two major religious traditions of India. As the child covered both the pots simultaneously with his tiny hands, Bhikham Shah felt happy concluding that the new seer would treat both Hindus and Muslims alike and show equal respect to both.
In the second narrative, when two young sons of Guru Gobind were captured by Wazir Khan, the Nawab of Malerkotla, Sher Muhammad Khan wrote a letter to Aurangzed protesting against the Emperor’s order to execute innocent boys. Guru Gobind apparently thanked the nawab and proclaimed that the Sikhs of the region will henceforth offer their oblation to the buried patron saint Haider Shaikh of Malerkotla. Guru Gobind’s sons could not be saved, neither did Aurangzeb survive. But, until today the memory of this episode continues to draw both Sikhs and Hindus to the shrine of Haider Shaikh and over the centuries this narrative has transformed into a cultural idiom of shared sacred space. One is reminded of Gandhi’s famous critique of dominance of violence in the narratives of history where he says that "the fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love" which has guided the course of history.
I thus again seek to raise this fundamental question about envisioning the kind of society we want for our future generations. Amid the spirals of violence which continue to determine region’s history, it is the hope of peace and reconciliation which should determine the imagination for the future. Can’t we have a memorial where we collectively mourn the killings of innocent people during the last century; a memorial which condemns violence meted out against Hindus, innocent Sikh youth, human rights activists and also millions of those who were killed in violence of Partition? We need to ponder over these questions rather than glorify one form of violence over the other. Resistance to an oppressive order is justified only when it is itself committed to peace. At least, this is what centuries of historical encounters tell us with the hope that ‘lest we forget’. We also need to recover the narrative of shared existence from a generation which will soon be lost unrecorded in the annals of written histories.