50 years of Punjabi Suba & still no closure : The Tribune India

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50 years of Punjabi Suba & still no closure

FIFTY years of Punjabi Suba Movement-led reorganisation of Punjab is a timely reminder to bring in a paradigm shift in the political, socio-economic and cultural patterns and resolution of conflicts.

50 years of Punjabi Suba & still no closure

For a Cause: Sant Fateh Singh agitated for a Punjabi Suba



Pramod Kumar

FIFTY years of Punjabi Suba Movement-led reorganisation of Punjab is a timely reminder to bring in a paradigm shift in the political, socio-economic and cultural patterns and resolution of conflicts. A perusal of various protest movements shows that they are coloured by fragmented diagnosis. Each event is considered in isolation. Solutions offered are inadequate, ambivalent and delayed. The process of resolution of crises in Punjab since Independence has been one of gradual de-democratisation. There has been whittling down of the basic rights of the people, abdication of fundamental obligation of the system and downgrading of legitimacy. From linguistic demarcation of states to state autonomy to demand, from sharing to apportionment to denial of waters; from the culturally rich Lahore to the modern city Chandigarh as a capital, to a tenantship in Chandigarh without ownership rights — constitutes the journey of 50 years. 

Punjabi society is yet to learn to bring closure. Historical accidents which changed the political and socio-cultural demography of Punjab are the Partition, which led to the division of Punjab in 1947 and the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966. The Indian Punjab was severely affected as its cultural and economic capital Lahore remained with Pakistan. The process of rebuilding and resettlement of a large number of Punjabi migrants was all the more difficult with the inheritance of a hostile border. The hostility centred around territory, apportionment of river waters and identity. More than 3 million people were displaced and thousands killed. Rather than confronting issues relating to political and economic sovereignty and citizens' well-being, political leadership continued to give expression to the pre-Partition politics of identity. 

The question of separate linguistic identity, intermeshed with religion, remained dominant even after Independence. Master Tara Singh, a prominent Akali leader on October 19, 1949, said that “Every minority except the Sikhs had been given justice. The Muslims demanded Pakistan they got it.” The Shiromani Akali Dal was in favour of formation of provinces on a linguistic and cultural basis, but at the popular level they tended to mix religion with language and made it a “life-and-death” situation for the Sikhs that a new Punjab be created.

In December 1953, the Government of India appointed the States Reorganisation Commission. In 1954, the Akalis launched a non-violent agitation for a Punjabi Suba. The States Reorganisation Commission maintained that Punjabi was not sufficiently distinct from Hindi and the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state is a disguise for a religion-based Sikh state. This was seen as a discrimination against the Sikh minority as all other 14 languages in the Constitution were granted statehood. Sant Fateh Singh, an Akali leader, accused the then government of being biased against the Sikhs, “If non-Sikhs had owned Punjabi as mother tongue, then the rulers of India would have seen no objection in establishing a Punjabi state”. The growing popularity of Master Tara Singh created the fear that the movement for a separate independent Sikh state might become stronger. To counter the demand for a Punjabi Suba, an agitation for Hindi was launched parallely, which advocated a “Maha Punjab,” irrespective of language. Communal overtones in this were explicitly visible. 

The increasing strength of the Akali Dal alarmed the Congress leadership. In 1956, an understanding was reached between the ruling Congress Party and the Akali Dal, after that several Akalis joined the Congress. A regional plan was conceived and that was accepted by the Akalis in their meeting on September 30, 1956. The new state was to be divided into the so-called Punjabi-speaking and Hindi-speaking regions. Two regional committees, consisting of the members of the legislature belonging to the respective regions, were to be constituted. However, this formula could not be implemented as S. Pratap Singh Kairon, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, came under the influence of Hindu communalists, and the Akalis walked out of this arrangement. The Akalis became firm on their view that political demography of Punjab was not favourable to capture political power in the state. They forcefully articulated their demand for a Punjabi Suba. After a struggle lasting for more than a decade, in 1966 the Sikhs were granted a state. Punjab was divided into Punjabi-speaking (and Sikh-dominated) Punjab and Hindi-speaking (and Hindu-majority) Haryana. In addition, six of Punjab's mountain regions were transferred to Himachal Pradesh. The Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966, was a unilateral decision of the Centre rather than a result of negotiations. The numerical dominance of the Sikhs as a single political entity was now unchallenged. The reorganisation did not resolve issues relating to the greater autonomy to the states, apportionment of river waters between Punjab and Haryana, reallocation of Punjabi-speaking areas and the transfer of Chandigarh.

It was treated as a territorial division, with the issues relating to autonomy not addressed. Moderate politics was made redundant as it was seen as a threat to the ruling party's monopoly of legislative power. The extremists, who were a threat to the system, were patronised to make the moderate political leadership redundant. The state resorted to frequent crackdown on the people and on those who had the clout to mobilise the people. Consequently, the demand for greater autonomy to the state was raised in 1973 and acquired the form of a movement in 1978. The situation was allowed to drift. The initiative was ceased by the extremists and the demand for an independent state became vociferous. 

Punjab was pushed into its darkest phase. It witnessed violent upsurges, suffered Operation Bluestar conducted by the Army to flush out terrorists from the Golden Temple, killing innocent devotees. The assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was followed by the November 1984 carnage against the Sikhs. The Punjab Accord was signed in 1985 between the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the late Sant Harchand Singh Longowal with a promise to transfer Chandigarh to Punjab by January, 1986, river waters issue was to be presented to a Supreme Court tribunal, and an inquiry held into the Delhi carnage. It was believed that the accord would put an end to violence. The transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab on January 26, 1986 was deferred by citing the reason that the Matthew Commission had failed to identify the villages to be transferred to Haryana. The reason was the narrow interest of the ruling party, the forthcoming elections in Haryana. It was announced that the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab would be on July 15, 1986. This award is yet to be implemented.

Both Punjab and Haryana, without a capital city, lost space that could act as a driver of growth. Punjab missed the IT revolution because it did not have the advantages of its own growth pole. Due to the absence of its own central business capital, it has suffered a major setback in the neo-liberal globalised economy.

Similarly, the river water dispute between Punjab and Haryana has been guided by apportionment rather than harnessing of water resources. Further, the political leadership has abdicated its responsibility to the judiciary. People have become indifferent to political rhetoric and administrative ad-hocism.

The manner in which these issues have been addressed provided much-needed legitimacy and justification to the decade-long use of violence. In hindsight, it can be said that if the deadlier politics manifesting in Operation Bluestar and November, 1984 anti-Sikh carnage, had not been unleashed, terrorism might have petered out in 1985 itself. The so-called Khalistan movement could acquire mass support only due to the ill-conceived Operation Bluestar and November, 1984, anti-Sikh carnage. This was the turning point. 

The lesson to learn is to apply closure by resolving the long-standing legitimate demands of the people. For instance, there is the visible trend of co-existence of Khalistan assertion with secular Punjabi identity. It has to be understood in the broader context of South Asia. Even in Pakistan, the identity formation, be it a Pakhtoon or Baluch, is contrary to the ideological basis on which Partition took place in 1947. These identities question religion as well as communal-based identity articulations. Therefore, the appreciation of this broader process of identity formation may provide a new thrust to linguistic, cultural or regional identities. Further, the river-water dispute to be resolved by emphasising harnessing of resources, the states to be provided with their own capital to act as a growth pole and evolve a creative framework for co-operative federalism. In totality, it would have meant harnessing of resources, to develop cooperative federalism and help the capital city to evolve not as a territory, but as a culturally vibrant and integrative space.

The writer is Director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh

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