Looking beyond Balle! Balle!

Looking beyond Balle! Balle!

The author is bewildered by the extent of disquiet underneath the stock images of Punjab’s sunshine-yellow mustard fields, says M K Chandra Bose

The book is a grim litany of Sikh angst, alienation and decadence.

Punjab, the land of five rivers (Pan-Jab), has had a turbulent past, replete with sagas of wars, bravery and martyrdom. As the gateway to the subcontinent, Punjab experienced many invasions down the ages, making it a veritable melting pot. The land underwent several divisions with the present state existing as a rump of the original area.

It is debatable whether Punjab has got its due for its service to the nation. Today, the state is beset with a host of problems. This is the impression conveyed by this comprehensive volume, authored by Amandeep Sandhu. A Sikh who grew up outside Punjab, Sandhu always romanticised the land of his forefathers. Frequent travels to Punjab confronted him with a reality far removed from what he had imagined. The patriarchal and feudal nature of the Sikh society was a revelation to him.

A struggling state

From 2015, for three years, Sandhu travelled the length and breadth of Punjab, interacting with farmers, farm labourers, housewives, students, NGOs, government officials, political leaders as well as visiting gurdwaras, deras, ashrams and temples. The outcome is a unique account of contemporary Punjab with a historical backdrop. He examines the impact of political turbulence, including militancy on the people. His conclusion is that the political leaders of Akali Dal and the Congress have failed the people. A Punjab struggling with debt, caste oppression, gender bias, skewed sex ratio, unemployment and environmental degradation bewilders the author.

Sandhu debunks the notion that the Green Revolution was a boon to Punjab. The idyllic picture of the state as the nation’s food basket hides the havoc wreaked by the Green Revolution, he argues. Green Revolution, after initially raising farmers’ income, threw everything out of balance. Income disparities only widened. Excessive use of fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides turned fertile lands into carriers of diseases like cancer.

Punjab has had an uneasy relationship with Delhi ever since the formation of the truncated state in 1966. The greatest victim was Punjab’s composite culture, its ‘Panjabiat’. The Operation Blue Star and anti-Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi inflicted a body blow to the Sikh psyche. On the militancy years and the rise of the Khalistan movement, the author appears ambivalent as he fails to condemn the separatists soundly. He finds Bhindranwale occupying pride of place and reverence in many homes and public places. He quotes from an RTI response from the Union government to put the number of innocents killed at 11,694 during militancy, while 8,049 militants lost their lives along with 1,761 policemen.

Sikh religion in crisis?

Sandhu was rudely awakened to the reality of caste discrimination in the Sikh religion though it is based on equality, justice and truth. Dalits have their own gurdwaras. Upper caste Jats continue to oppress Dalits with the authorities looking the other way. The author cites instances of Jats using local gurdwaras to incite fellowmen to attack Dalits.

He finds the Sikh religion in crisis as the SGPC that controls gurdwaras has failed in spreading the messages of its gurus. Akalis, who have a stranglehold over SGPC, have failed to keep the community together. A young girl Gurleen Kaur was  recently denied admission to join a medical college run by SGPC on the grounds that she had plucked her eyebrows. The decision was upheld by the High Court and hailed by the Sikh diaspora. Sandhu is appalled that the vast ocean of Sikh thought and philosophy has been reduced to the presence or absence of hair on one’s body.

The book gives an insight into the failure of AAP in the last elections to the state Assembly. The writer attributes the AAP rout to its inability to understand Punjab’s terrain and culture. The ‘outsider’ label also hit it badly. Sandhu also discusses the impact of Hindutva politics on Sikhs. He argues that the RSS goal is to dilute Sikh identity so much that they stop asserting themselves as different from Hindus and fall in line with the grand project of India as a Hindu Rashtra.

Drug capital

The author delves deep into the drug problem eating into the vitals of Punjab society. He links it to the state’s economic and social ills. His interactions with addicts, parents and doctors convince him that it is the symptom rather than the disease. He also questions the government strategy of fighting the scourge by policing and punishing instead of treating it as a public health issue. 

For Sandhu, the extensive travels through Punjab in search of his roots turned out to be a voyage of self-discovery. He conjures up visions of a greater Punjab with one language, one culture and one people. But Delhi and Islamabad stand in the way. The volume is a grim litany of Sikh angst, alienation and decadence. It adds to our knowledge of Punjab with a wealth of well-researched data peppered with anecdotes.

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