At the ongoing Shaheen Bagh protest in Delhi, a Sikh farmer was asked why he had come all the way from Jalandhar, Panjab, to lend his support. His answer: mitti da karz utaran aaste. Because I owe a debt to the soil.
Soil, earth, land, and the tenuous yet abiding relationship that man has with it are the central concern of the CAA agitation as well as of Amandeep Sandhu’s excellent book, Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines. Panjabi by blood, but someone who has grown up outside the state, Sandhu said he felt an “emptiness about matters Panjab”.
To “resolve the hole in his heart,” he began a three-year-long peregrination through Punjab in 2015, getting drawn into the farmer agitations over white fly infestation, followed swiftly by the sacrilege of the Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs. These two developments were to have a ripple effect on state elections three years down the line.
From Pathankot on the border with Jammu, through Ferozepur on the Indo-Pak border, to the capital city of Chandigarh, Sandhu traversed the soil of his birth state extensively. In a battered car, riding pillion, and roadways buses, he sought out friends and farmers, students and saints, doctors and drug-addicts, leaders and leftists – a variety of Panjabis to help solve the dilemmas of his mind. It was an atavistic harking back, he was subliminally aware.
Early on in his journey, trying to make sense of what he was hearing, in sharp contrast to the popular representations of Panjab, he tuned to a song by Baba Farid, the thirteenth-century poet generally considered the father of the Panjabi language.
Uth Farida sutteya, duniya wekhan ja
Shayad koi mil jaye baksheya,
Tu vi baksheya jaen.
Turia turia ja Farida, turia turia ja…
Wake up O sleeping one, go see the world
You may find a blessed one,
And be blessed in return
Keep walking Farid, keep walking…
The perception-reality gap
Long before Johnnie Walker, Baba Farid had recommended to his fellow Panjabis that they ‘keep walking’. Crisscrossing the state, Sandhu discovered an essential dichotomy between the image of Panjab and its reality. The Panjab of today is the trifurcated state of post-partitioned India, born after the cleaving off of Himachal and Haryana. But the Panjab which Panjabis still allude to, the one from which they draw their military legends and valorous past, is the region that extended from “the Spin Ghar mountains in modern Afghanistan where the Khyber Pass is located, through Peshawar and Lahore in modern Paksiatn to the banks of the Yamuna where Delhi is located.”
Through history, the land had many names – Sapt Sindhu, Panjnad, Pentapotamia...until the fourteenth-century traveller from Tangier, Ibn Batuta, awed by the abundance of five rivers feeding the mighty Indus, named the land “Panj Ab” – the land of five waters. (Which is why the title “Panjab” is spelt here with an “a” from the original Persian.) Between this larger-than-life persona and its truncated shadow, Sandhu found the ground of Panjab riddled with “fault lines” of religion, caste, gender, economy, politics…
The personal is political
Folding his personal history into the history of Panjab, bolstering it with extensive data and on-the-ground reportage, Sandhu unfolds the narrative in sixteen chapters. Each chapter tackles a contemporary challenge, be it Sikhya, which focuses on the exodus of youth because of a serious job crisis, Karza, which explores farmer debt and suicides, or Paani, which examines how water is the lifeline of Panjab, which has no other mineral or resources.
Each chapter can be read on its own. It becomes a rich triple decker, however, with the long and tumultuous history of Panjab woven seamlessly into the narrative, which is also threaded through with the writer’s anxieties. Born in Orissa, living in Bangalore, Sandhu is looking to reconcile the Panjab of his childhood stories and summer vacations with the turbulent terrain he’s now encountering.
In an evocative passage in the chapter Rog – Illness – Sandhu reflects upon his mother’s death from cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart. “Panjab, too, like my big-hearted Mama, praised and lauded by the nation for being food producers, does not see its dire ailments and continues to believe in myths about itself.”
Panjab is “devastated by two mis-revolutions – Green and Khalistan,” Sandhu writes. The green revolution, while effective in increasing yields, now accounts for a land depleted of water and besieged by potent chemicals. The Khalistan movement arose out of many factors, foremost being the Centre’s failure to resolve the issues of YSL (Yamuna Sutlej Link) canal regarding Panjab’s rights over its water.
Instead, the governments – state and centre – used “band-aid” fixes resulting in an “unending cycle of water scarcity” in the land of perennial rivers, increasing the desertification of Panjab, and spurring an agrarian crisis year on year. Sandhu dwells on Operation Blue Star, the attack on Durbar Sahib in 1984, and its painful legacy, which persists even now.
The attack was planned months in advance with a model of Golden temple for the army to practise with. And yet, to this day, the air remains obfuscated as the government refuses to answer a simple question: “Who ordered Operation Blue Star – the council of ministers, the prime minister or the president?” Why have those papers not been made public? How does a democracy function when it is delinked from accountability?
Panjab as a microcosm of India
In his chapter Berukhi – Apathy – Sandhu says that “experiencing Panjab now was to experience India’s future”. What might sound like a tall claim has historical and current resonances. Panjab was home to Indus Valley Civilisation; it is mentioned in the oldest veda, the Rig Veda; it was the battleground for the epic Mahabharata, the famed gateway to Hindustan, the land that was partitioned to create Pakistan.
Today, though, it is reduced to the status of the “food-producing colony of the nation”, beset with “myriad problems that barely register on the national consciousness”. Panjab’s deep agrarian crisis should be a wake-up call for the rest of India. The years of militancy and right-wing rhetoric, and the the game of musical-electoral-chairs played between Akali Dal and the Congress, have taught Panjab that “the only pillars that stood in the ruin of Panjab were its resistance to power and hegemony”.
The state, familiar with Hindutva politics since the 1870s, has bucked the nation-wide trend of voting for the BJP in the past two general elections. As Sandhu asks: If the nation votes for a Hindu rashtra, how then does it fault the idea of Khalistan?
It is fitting perhaps that Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines was published in the 550th year of the birth of Guru Nanak, the original great peregrinator of Panjab, who travelled on foot from Mecca to Tibet. Sandhu’s book ranges from Mohenjodaro to Mardangi; from the persistence of caste (in an avowedly casteless faith) to the politics of gurdwaras; from drug addiction to religious deras, capturing a people in the throes of a great turbulence.
With “one generation lost to militancy, the next to drugs, and the present to exodus,” Panjab is seeking new directions. Sandhu is hopeful though that a solution is possible if we have “a political party focussed on untying Panjab’s multiple knots”.
With his fascinating, layered, contemporary account of Panjab, a far cry from the balle-balle virtuosity commonly associated with the state, Amandeep Sandhu, much like the Sikh farmer at Shaheen Bagh, has discharged his debt.
Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, Amandeep Sandhu, Westland Books.
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is an award-winning and bestselling writer of five books, including her latest, The Radiance of a Thousand Suns.