IT is truly a privilege to be here, on this spring day, in this invigorating intellectual space of Majha House, in the heart of this historic city that embodies the gypsy soul of Punjab. To be talking of freedom on the 23rd of March in 2019 in Amritsar seems most appropriate.
This year marks the 550th birth anniversary of the most exceptional spiritual master, philosopher and poet Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. The times Guru Nanak was born in, in 1469, in the small village of Rae Bhoe di Talwandi, near Lahore, were dark and cruel. People were bound by several tyrannies: there was the tyranny of the ruling class that wielded over them a merciless whip of injustice, discrimination and exploitation. There was also the tyranny of the self-appointed guardians of salvation. The people were at the mercy of the parasitical priestly class, whose interests lay vested in promoting blind faith, moribund tradition and empty ritual.
Guru Nanak’s message of universal love, compassion, equality of man and oneness of God was a revolt against these tyrannies. This message is still fresh and relevant 550 years later; the hard-fought freedoms have to be protected daily.
The second milestone is painfully relevant. We are a short distance away from Jallianwala Bagh, which saw, 100 years ago, a horrifying massacre, the worst possible demonstration of colonial oppression, arrogance and violence. Hundreds of innocents were killed and wounded by unprovoked military firing without a warning.
Humiliation was then heaped upon this cruelty. Weeks of martial law followed: illegal detentions, public floggings, the infamous crawling order, bombing of unarmed civilians by aircraft — the people of Amritsar and Punjab suffered all that and more. They had dared to question and protest the Rowlatt Act, the legislation that was an indefensible strangulation of basic human rights, natural justice and the freedom of speech. Such was the cynical British response to the huge Indian effort during World War I, an effort that had been assisted by Mahatma Gandhi himself.
During 1914-19, over 14 lakh men had been recruited into the British Indian army. Punjab’s contribution was larger than that of any other province. According to Michael O’Dwyer’s statement, 3,60,000 personnel were recruited from the province. One in every 28 men in Punjab was mobilised for the war, while the overall figure for India was 1 in 150.
There was initial enthusiasm and attraction, the chance of a steady income — Rs 11 a month; the prospect of a land grant or pension; the traditional call of honour or izzat. But soon this enthusiasm waned. There was despair, fear and anger at what the soldiers faced. O’Dwyer resorted to coercive recruitment, setting quotas for local officials to meet. Young men fled their villages and went into hiding; yet he recruited 3,60,000 troops.
The third milestone that we mark today is the day itself. On the 23rd of March, 88 years ago, Bhagat Singh, the most heroic of revolutionaries and all of 23, was hanged to death along with co-revolutionaries Sukhdev and Rajguru, 11 hours ahead of schedule. Not only was Bhagat Singh a supreme patriot and one of the most charismatic figures of the freedom struggle, he was also a thinker and an intellectual giant in the making, as is evident from his surviving writings. He had an instinctive grasp of political ideologies and revolutionary movements sweeping the world and a clear vision for a true revolution in India.
The tradition of revolutionaries did not begin or end with him. Already there had been the Ghadar movement, launched on the west coast of the US. They left their careers and farms, invested their money and their youth, and gave a narrative to the freedom struggle through their literature. Their struggle, however, did not end well — the conspiracy to revolt was betrayed, many were hanged to death or imprisoned for life in the Andaman jails. And in 1940, a man called Udham Singh, steeped in Ghadar literature and the most relentless of pursuers, who called Bhagat Singh his best friend and longed to die like him, assassinated O’Dwyer in London in a long-pursued revenge for the atrocities in Punjab.
As far as the present challenges are concerned, I have based my choice on the paradigm of perception, the images that first come to mind when we think of Punjab. Let me encapsulate these issues as the three Ds — Daughters, Debt and Drugs.
For years, Punjab has been perceived as a state with a highly skewed sex ratio and a strongly patriarchal mindset. Most unfortunate have been the related phenomena of female foeticide, neglect of the girl child, higher girl child mortality and maternal mortality. The good news is that at one level, we seem to have turned the corner. As per the 2011 Census, the sex ratio has improved to 895 as against 846 in the previous Census, though it still remains low on the list of Indian states.
Women’s literacy rate has been growing steadily — 70.7 per cent in 2011 — and is currently rising at a faster rate than that of male literacy. The work participation rates for women in Punjab, however, are not encouraging — 13.9 per cent as against the national average of 25.51 per cent.
The fertility rate in Punjab is down to 1.7 — below the replacement level. This is something that scholars will have to look at — is having fewer children simply the result of empowerment of women? How much of a role is played by the preference for the one-son family? Will there be more reliance on in-migration from more populated areas and what will be the socio-cultural repercussions on Punjabi polity and culture of such in-migration? When we combine this with our very clear trend of migrating abroad, the impact could be even more far-reaching.
The second issue is the agrarian crisis, ironical in a state that is known the world over for the Green Revolution that did wonders to the self-confidence of a country that was living from ship to ship of PL480 gift wheat from the US.
The soil which has seen extensive deployment of pesticides is overused. The quality of water is unfit for consumption in nearly 24 per cent of the area and is marginally fit for human and crop consumption in 22 per cent. Water-sharing disputes with other states have exacerbated the crisis. Punjab, however, continues to contribute heavily to the Central pool for wheat and rice.
Over-mechanisation and over-capitalisation of ever smaller holdings add to the burden of high cost of inputs, uncertainties of weather and failure of crops. The grip of commission agents (arhtiyas) on Punjab’s farmers is still very strong. These factors have contributed to the indebtedness of the small farmer, leading to suicides.
The third challenge is that of drugs, dangerous not only because of its implications for our present but also for our future — it can destroy the flower of the next generation, besides its destructive impact on the socio-economic fabric of families. The irony is that Punjab is not a producer of plant-based natural substances like opium or cannabis and their derivatives and does not manufacture the precursor chemicals which are processed into synthetic and psychotropic drugs. The demand in Punjab is met from outside the state through a supply network controlled by local, interstate and international criminal gangs. Once again, as during the time of Guru Nanak when invaders came from across the passes, the threat to a large extent comes from the Golden Crescent of the drug lands across the border.