Walk down Punjab’s history lane
Reviewed by Belu Maheshwari

Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb To Mountbatten 
by Rajmohan Gandhi
Aleph Book Company. 
Pages 432. Rs 695

Rajmohan GandhiThe history of Punjab has fascinated researchers, political thinkers, sociologists, even the lay person, because of its chequered yet culturally rich past. The Partition of 1947, which was the biggest holocaust and migration ever seen before or afterwards, has fascinated the contemporary world. Why did an Indian state, which was economically prosperous and politically stable, kill the nationalist dream of freedom in unity?

The book delves deep into the political and social structure and traces the history of undivided Punjab from roughly the 11th century onwards. It is an amalgamation of secondary sources, with hardly any primary scholarship to its credit. This in no way takes away from the value of the book — it is lucid, written in a simple language and gives an overview of the political, social and cultural events which shaped the destiny of the state.

The march of time is very well chronicled; Gandhi is a storyteller who has kept the interest of the historian as well as the lay person in mind while weaving the history. Brief life sketches of men and women who enriched or shaped the political and cultural life of Punjab are interwoven into the narrative. Sufi saints, Bu Ali Qalander of Panipat, Baba Fakir, Bahauddin Zakaria of Multan, Jalaluddin Bukhari of Uch, Lalshahbaz Qalandar of Sindh aided the process of peaceful conversion to Islam, that started in the 13th century and continued till 19th century, without any known force being used. These saints and their disciples converted most of the Rajput and Jat tribes to Islam. Only a few Muslims came from Central Asia, most were converted from tribes in Punjab itself. That is why clans were more identifiable to a person than his religion till the 20th century.

Poets form part of the narrative. Bulleh Shah and his powerful love poetry is as easily understood in today's Punjab as it was during his life time as is Waris Shah's celebrated Heer, which was composed in 1766. The blunt and earthy Punjabi of his verses was what the peasant uderstood. Language has had a special place in the culture and politics of the region. The Sikh Gurus could get their message across as they spoke Punjabi which produced great synergy.

The Punjabi psyche has been studied and analysed deftly. According to the writer, it "always privileged survival". This psyche has been practical, yet also sceptical. In spite of Sikhs never being more than 10 to 12 per cent of the population, not even during Ranjit Singh's reign, their egalitarian thinking dominated. Caste did not play a negative role in the division of society.

The British rule has been dealt with dispassionately, the reasons for peace and prosperity have been enumerated, and so have the shortcomings, including the famous divide-and-rule policy. The growth of the Press, its role in politicisation and communalisation of issues like language of instruction and governance, are brought forth. The birth of The Tribune in Lahore, an English daily, brought out under the aegis of a Trust founded by Dyal Singh Majithia, suggests a wish to step out of a small world.

Identity formation among different religious groups intensified from 1880s and for this leaders of all sections along with the British are blamed. The Indian National Congress is not spared because the intransigence and obduracy led secular men like Jinnah to become the biggest votary of Partition.

The Unionist experiment, where all communities found representation, fell like a pack of cards in the face of frontal communal attacks. Gandhi’s question: "How are the Muslims of the Punjab different from the Hindus and Sikhs"? fell on deaf ears. The Radcliffe Award intensified hostilities, violence became rampant and there was total mayhem.

In the midst of chaos were strands of humanity. The writer relies on the comprehensive survey conducted by Ishtiaq Ahmed, which analyses available literature and also provides hundreds of eyewitness accounts from every district of undivided Punjab to prove humaneness did not vanish totally. The book underlines the way in which ordinary Punjabis in both halves protected endangered 'Others’, assisted escape and enabled survival. A vast majority of people, quietly and courageously, saved immense number of threatened lives. That, according to Rajmohan, is the under-reported story of Punjab. Categorically, the historian says the trigger for violence was Feburary 20, when the British announced their plan to quit India. Blame for the Partition is apportioned on every player in the arena, including the Congress. It fills a big gap in the writing of Punjab history, where you normally have books on specific topics or on a specific time frame. This covers a wider spectrum and gives an insight into roughly thousand years of Punjab’s history. The facts are not new but the treatment is comprehensive.