Udta Punjab: Rising like a Phoenix from its Fractured Past!

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Punjab had won it’s its statehood some years after India’s but this had not entirely satisfied the Sikh majority. The Green of the sixties had given the Jat Sikhs and the landowners the first taste of rapid growth and modernisation. A small but important section had climbed up the social ladder and soon spread out to Europe, USA, London, Canada and the Africa. Money was being sent back home in plenty. The land was bought and farmed by hired wage labourers. Exploitation of the lower classes like leather workers, sharecroppers, scavengers, carpenters, washer-men, sweepers, blacksmiths and such others was bringing disrepute. They were denied of their dues and rights, as the entrenched aristocracy went slow or sabotaged implementation of the land reforms. The Gurudwaras had slowly become exclusive and in very subtle ways were reluctant to open out to the poor. The Hindu Punjabis for their part always saw in the rise of Jat Sikhs a threat to their business or agricultural interests. A new fractured was lurking in the shadows, contrary to what had been so generously conceived by the visionary Sikh Gurus. It was verily going to seed. Akalis and the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) hung on to a regressive, chauvinistic and authoritarian ideology, riding on the enormous funds of the Gurudwaras. The Congress, on its part, was to continue with an uneasy polygamous marriage of convenience, with different and contrasting parties. The Communists risked much but not to great success. Into this melting pot, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) rallied round the disenfranchised lower castes and was mobilising them under a new flag and ideology with great success. The Sikhs had themselves squabbled and split. Like always the politicians and the powerful had together sold out its own power base – the people and was busy killing the golden goose. Sunil recollects the history and politics of the region, in the new weekly series, Place & Politics, beginning this week, exclusively for .

My friend Tokon had been very keen to see the Golden Temple, Jallianwallabagh, Wagah Border and all that was there to Amritsar. I am not particularly religious. But having been born to a Bengali, Hindu Brahmin family, God and religion were not just a part of the necessary vocabulary of growing up but one seemed to encounter its all-pervasiveness while living, sleeping and eating, on a daily basis. Even perhaps in our dreams. That aside, history and the Sikhs as a community fascinated me since childhood. The Sikhs were martial, handsome, big and strong compared to the generally undernourished and famished Bengalis. They had fought the Mughals valiantly and were hardworking farmers too.Interestingly, Bengali households found them to be trustworthy and reassuring enough to recommend their to hire Sikh driven taxis, when unaccompanied, for their reliability.

The day finally came when Tokon, my wife and I made the trip on the morning of August 21, by Swarna Shatabdi Express, from Delhi to Amritsar.

This was the first time all of us were making the journey to Amritsar. Tokon and I had become senior citizens save Aarti, who is on the wrong side of fifty, devout and god-fearing. She was our travel planner.

trainAs the train chugged away passing through large and vast fields of green, small and unknown stations, crowded bazaars, wide highways and lines of trucks, my thoughts strayed to the pioneering social reformer Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Fed up with the idolatrous Hindu Brahmins, the oppressive caste system and the in society, he preached and sang about a new radical social order. Kabir, Farhad and many others joined in the chorus for change and upliftment.These were the days of social renaissance and we are talking about the 15th and 16th century. Subsequent Gurus added to the secular character of this newly formed religious order while reinforcing it with a war-like, aggressive ideology. My grandmother used to recount stories of how the Muslims, used to constantly harass, loot and attack these swathes of land.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his exploits of daredevilry as far as Afghanistan, fighting for the British in the two Great Wars, the revolutionary Bhagat Singh, the freedom-loving spirit of the survivors of Komagata Maru, sacrifices of innocent civilians in the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, the altruism and courage in the INA was the stuff of bedtime stories: the essential Sikh. Post Independence they were to be seen as far east as Imphal or south in Cochin. They were entrepreneurial, mechanically savvy and loved to work on emerging technologies. Hard working, they drove trucks and taxis across states.

Punjab had won its statehood some years after India’s Independence but this had not entirely satisfied the Sikh majority. The Green Revolution of the sixties had given the Jat Sikhs and the landowners the first taste of rapid growth and modernisation. A small but important section had climbed up the social ladder and soon spread out to Europe, USA, London, Canada and the Africa. Money was being sent back home in plenty. The land was bought and farmed by hired wage labourers. Exploitation of the lower classes like leather workers, sharecroppers, scavengers, carpenters, washer-men, sweepers, blacksmiths and such others was bringing disrepute. They were denied of their dues and rights, as the entrenched aristocracy went slow or sabotaged implementation of the land reforms. The Gurudwaras (Sikh Temple of Worship)   had slowly become exclusive and in very subtle ways were reluctant to open out to the poor. The Hindu Punjabis for their part always saw in the rise of Jat Sikhs a threat to their business or agricultural interests. A new fractured social order was lurking in the shadows, contrary to what had been so generously conceived by the visionary Sikh Gurus. It was verily going to seed. Akalis and the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) hung on to a regressive, chauvinistic and authoritarian ideology, riding on the enormous funds of the Gurudwaras. The Congress, on its part, was struggling to continue with an uneasy polygamous marriage of convenience, with different and contrasting parties. The Communists risked much but not to achieve great success. Into this melting pot, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) rallied round the disenfranchised lower castes and was mobilising them under a new flag and ideology with great promise. The Sikhs had themselves squabbled and split. The new pretenders, the Nirankaris laid claim to being the true leadership of the Sikhs. The ‘Radhey Swamis’ also threw in their lot. Like always the politicians and the powerful had together sold out their own power base – the people and were busy killing the golden goose. My thoughts raced ahead, in no sequence or chronology, recollecting the history and politics of the region.

Suddenly, the train jerked to a stop. A whole heap of talk, noise, and movement in the aisles got me back to a sense of the temporal. We had reached Amritsar as I was to step on the soil of Punjab for the first time. I was excited and curious.

On the 22 nd day of August, around 6 in the morning, we were at the Swarna Mandir. Most shops leading to the temple were closed, residential houses were still to feel the first rays of the sun and remained tucked into their snug bed sheets. Sweepers’ brooms screeched to clean the roads and open spaces, while the early risers were warming themselves to a steaming cup of pati-tej chai (strong tea) from their favourite roadside vendors! The meandering path was margined by garish, unkempt hotels and shops to disappoint, as it curled upwards to the Golden Temple. It was a maze of alleyways, sometimes chokingly narrow and sometimes wide as souks, as if the history of assaults by Mughal, Afghan and later, the English, from the 17th to the 19th century had permanently infused a sense of siege even into its architecture and town planning.

A bandana to cover our heads was provided for free, while we removed our shoes and handed over to a matter-of- fact caretaker. Thereafter, we stepped into a clean patch of water in a marbled drain of sorts to clean our feet before entering the sacred premises. And then was the spectacle! We stood at one of the four enormous gateways leading into the Golden Temple located at four cardinal directions, symbolising the inclusiveness of the Sikh faith for all religions, caste, creed or colour. As we descended down the flight of stairs, a striking sight filled our eyes: the golden Harmandir Sahib (the abode of the Gods), majestically shimmering on the surrounding placid waters of Amrit Sarovar (the lake of ambrosia). Out of habit and reverence, our heads bowed in prayer. Interestingly, the place of worship, the other gurudwaras, restrooms and the marbled walkways have been deliberately designed down below to emphasise humility and gratitude as the central virtues of this young faith.

Thought and conceived by the third Guru Amardas in the mid 16th century, it was Guru Ram Das, who helped its construction. The fifth Guru Arjan Singh gave further shape and substance to Harmandir Sahib A.k.a Durbar Sahib (the Court of the Lord), completed it in a manner of speaking. Guru Arjan on his part compiled and placed the Adi Granth (the Holy Book of Sikhism of more than 7,000 Sikh, Sufi, and Hindu hymns, set to 31 ragas and calibrated to different moods, occasions, and times of the day) in the heart of the Durbar Sahib. Each day before dawn, the Sri  is transported in a palanquin from the Akal Takht to the sanctum sanctorum, to be read and sung from, until late night. The waters of the Ravi were channelised to keep the tank water filled and it was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who contributed in gold to give the temple its famous persona. The Akal Takht (the Throne of the Timeless One) one of the five Takhts, but highest in importance was added by Guru Hargobind. This was to be the seat of temporal power. Thus, both the temporal and spiritual (the concept of piri and miri) were co-located in the precincts of this historic temple. A square walkway of marble with intricate inlays (typically reflecting the congruence of Mughal and Hindu architectural styles) circumlocutions the Harmandir Sahib. While walking through, I noticed the many hundreds of ceremonial plaques, commemorative pieces and marble stones of various regiments with the names of officers and men embedded in various walls. The Harmandir Sahib also stood as a testimonial of the acts of bravery and sacrifices and martyrdom of its brave sons fighting for the British stretching from Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Malaya, Turkey and later for the Indian Army.

The two Bunga Ramgarhia Towers stood as erect sentinels of the Guru ka Langar (community kitchen) building, which provides a simple vegetarian meals to all devotees for free and accommodates as many as one hundred thousand devotees in a day. The soft and serene sound of the Shabad, which starts playing pretty early and goes into the late night, envelops this awesome place in a spiritual embrace of bliss. This unique blend or contrasts in sight and sound entrances the believer and the unfaithful alike!

The inexorable mystique and mythology engulf at each step….The three old Ber trees (jujube) fascinate the inquisitive. Sikh Gurus preferred to plant jujube trees in the religious places (Gurdwaras). In the Golden Temple, Amritsar, the historic jujube trees are the signs of rich heritage. Ber Baba Budha Sahib is one of the oldest jujube trees and is considered 440 years old. As this tree was associated with the Saint Baba Budha Ji, hence it is called Ber Baba Budha Sahib. Dukh Bhanjani Ber and Lachhi Ber are also very old jujube trees.

Many such stories have kept the faithful in awe. Fact and fiction combine ever so often in this Temple of the Gods. We feel weary and sad for the time has come to leave. The three of us would carry our very own impressions. Some new, some shared and some very private and personal. We shall tell new stories to the ever-growing numbers of the faithful or just curious. And thus the sacred word shall spread. Aarti perhaps feels blessed and is very grateful; Tokon considers himself fortunate to have made it this far. I remain, though, both despondent and reverent thinking of that tragedy of June 1984 that should have never happened. Though I know temples no longer is the final frontier for the pious alone, anymore. What with the evil and misdirected finding strange retreats!

Operation BlueStar it was. The devout and the well-meaning together rue the divisive politics of those days and the impious entry of the Indian Army boots into its sacred interiors, the pathology of a Bhindranwale, heartless and avoidable loss of lives of the innocent and the wanton destruction of the holy of holies, Harmandir Sahib, in a free India by the tanks, helicopters and armour of the Indian Armed forces. A Prime Minister and a Chief of the Army Staff paid with their lives. So did several hundreds of Sikhs later during that sad year.

The proud Sikhs seemed to have been wronged by desperate measures. Punjab no longer has the rivers flowing freely. No longer do the fields dance the bhangra or beat the Dhol when green and golden. Poverty and casteism are back with a vengeance. Selfish politics rules the roost….The Shabad of equality, non-discrimination and brotherhood are slowly dying in the Punjabi hearts. He suffers. The nation bleeds. The hurt lingers still, refusing to heal!

And finally, on the way out, our sincere ineffable but shared prayers to that One Onkar, was to make this land once again, the Land of the Brave and Fair, soared unseen!

Until then…

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Photos by the author.

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Commissioned in the Indian Airforce (IAF) in 1978, Sunil Kumar Banerjee took premature retirement in the rank of Wing Commander. Military Combat Free Fall Instructor for over a decade and have made over 1000 parachute jumps over different Dropping Zones. He is the Founder Member of the elite “Akashganga”, the Indian Air Force Team and was featured in the Limca Book of Records for pioneering work in Canopy Flying in India.