The two Punjabs: Drifting apart?

People-to-people contacts between India and Pakistan will mean nothing if commerce does not pick up. An appreciation of Indo-Pakistani prospects requires looking at Punjab-Punjab.

Once again, with Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf meeting in Havana, we are likely to get back to the slow business that defines the peace process between India and Pakistan. Amidst the rhetoric about people-to-people contact, talk will yet again veer back to initiatives that can bring the two Punjabs closer.

But so far, what is remarkable about the process is the extent to which symbolic gestures that reach across the Atari-Wagah border have substituted for any real achievement. In between the only two definable achievements – the Delhi-Lahore bus in 1999 and the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus in March 2006, as far as 'Punjab' is concerned – the peace process replicates the cooperative belligerence of the 'beating retreat' ceremony at Wagah (See accompanying story, "Their vengeance"). Over the years, jawans on the two sides of the border have learned to march in step for the ceremony, mirroring every gesture of aggression the other summons, much in the fashion of the expulsion and counter-expulsion of diplomats that takes place here after every round of violence in India or Pakistan.

Spectators on either side of the Wagah border exhort their jawans throughout the ceremony, but once the charade is done for the day they wander as close to the border as they can, to peer at their counterpart citizens. There is little to separate the two – the faces, features and languages are the same, perhaps a few more sherwanis on one side and a few more turbans on the other. And on this similarity, nostalgia has created an edifice of 'people-to-people' contact that really amounts to very little.

The fact is, much of the cultural contact has been based on myths that some people on either side of the border are content to sustain. Even if we leave aside the traffic generated – both across the border and in the media – by the select few journalists and artists who seem to form a part of every official and unofficial peace delegation, there is much that we get to hear about cultural commonality and shared heritage that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Bonhomie, and nothing more

It is sufficient to look at the efficacy of the people-to-people contact in the context of the two Punjabs, because if it does not work in this setting then the chances of success on the larger scene are remote. The shared heritage, the composite culture of Punjab, is often cited as a basis for this process. But this Punjabiyat did not come in the way of the massacres of Partition; if anything, it is far less relevant today. To ignore this is to ignore what has transpired on both sides of the border over the past 60 years.

In the Indian Punjab, the politico-religious Akali rhetoric, when it seeks to consolidate Sikh votes, revolves around a history of oppression and resistance that ties together Mughals and Muslims. With elections due in the state early next year, such language will be prominently displayed. It is precisely this rhetoric that explains the ease with which the Akalis have established and maintained an alliance with the BJP. A party that rightly made much of the violence unleashed by the Congress against the Sikhs in 1984 has remained unmoved by the active connivance of the BJP government in Gujarat in the mass murder of Muslims.

This is particularly important because the Punjabi identity in India has increasingly becoming identified with the Sikhs. The Hindu Punjabis over time have distanced themselves from the language, a process that started with the Punjabi suba movement, which sought statehood on a linguistic basis but at the same time was structured such that a territorial unit could be carved out where the Sikhs would be a majority. Moreover, in a state where the language was largely identified with the rural Jat peasant, the urban Hindu shirked from an open affiliation with a culture that was largely seen as rustic.

This distancing was exacerbated during the years of militancy and terror in Punjab, in the 1980s and 1990s. The movement for Khalistan, always a minority movement even among the Sikhs, was fuelled by an increasing narrowing of vision, which failed to see the Sikhs as rooted in an Indian context.

In fact, the only positive change that has come about in this attitude has largely been a result of the spread of cable television and mass media. Motivated in part by the popularity of Punjabi music, it is suddenly no longer considered unfashionable for the urban young to speak the Punjabi language. It is still too early to say, however, just how far-reaching the ramifications of this shift will be.

Across the border, the situation seems to be worse. The state of Pakistan is inseparable from the Punjabi Muslims who control every aspect of the nation state's functioning. But in a schizophrenic act rooted in the very ideas that led to Partition, Punjabi itself was given short shrift. An entire population that continues to term itself Punjabi has no access to schooling in the language itself, and there is no major Punjabi newspaper in Pakistan, whereas there is a surfeit in Urdu and Sindhi.

In fact, if the reality of this Punjab-Punjab divide were to be measured, the diasporas in England, Canada or the US would provide more than enough evidence. Nowhere has the gulf between Punjabis on religious terms been bridged by the notion of a shared cultural identity. There is nothing preventing the intermingling of the Muslim Punjabi and the Sikh/Hindu Punjabi communities in those countries, but the fact is it has not taken place. Recent events have even seen Sikhs in the West making greater efforts to distance themselves from Muslims – Punjabi or not – in order to avoid hate attacks or security screening at airports.

When Punjabis from India and Pakistan meet in London or Toronto, there is generally genuine warmth and a desire to speak a common language; yet every such encounter is still marked by subjects neither chooses to discuss. These issues continue to divide Punjabis where they are – the bonhomie remains just that, leading to nothing substantive, as is increasingly the case with the Indo-Pakistani peace process.

Economics, not travel

But would this imply that people-to-people contact is meaningless? Not quite – it is just that it remains peripheral, and there is no reason to put much store by it in the absence of other longer-lasting efforts at inter-linkage. In the existing climate, the euphoria generated by sentimentality can be no real basis for a peace process. Neither does this argument claim that there was never a basis for a shared culture; it is a statement that, under the existing circumstances, there is none.

The area where progress can be made, and on which there should be no real disagreement on either side of the border, has to do with economic linkages as opposed to the mere people-to-people contact by peaceniks and artists. Perhaps the best example of this is the Majha region of Punjab state. This is the area around Amritsar that lies north of the Beas River. Before Partition, the two cities of this region, Lahore and Amritsar, were respectively the cultural and financial centres of all of Punjab. While Lahore has retained its pre-eminence in Pakistani Punjab, Amritsar found itself a trading centre on a closed border. A region that had linguistically, politically and religiously dominated Punjab sank into insignificance. That terrorism in the state – a phenomenon that cannot be reduced to any one straightforward explanation – was largely confined to the Majha region was no coincidence

But over the past four years there has suddenly grown an air of optimism in the Majha, one that is not generated by the prospect of being able to travel to Lahore. The possibility of trade across the Wagah border has sent land prices soaring, and this is not to be seen only as a speculative measure related to local concerns. This has brought in money and investment from outside that is already affecting the so-far moribund economy of the region. Every hiccup in the peace process is today greeted with anxiety in the Majha. Some trade, though limited, has begun across the land route to Lahore. Thus far, however, it has been Islamabad that has been reticent in allowing substantive progress on this score.

Curiously, even when President Musharraf argues for a peace process that can continue through the incidents of violence, he does not realise that he is making the strongest case for trade ties. People-to-people contact will be a natural calamity of any violent act in the two countries. Irrespective of who may be to blame, the singing of ghazals in the aftermath of the Bombay blasts is a meaningless act, but surely no one would object to the passage of food grains across the border. Even Indian hawks do not object to a process wherein the balance of payment is naturally in India's favour. For Pakistan, this creates a durable process of the very nature that the Pakistani president is arguing for.

Trade ties create linkages that are resistant to the periodic fluctuations in the Indo-Pakistani relationship. In the absence of any real progress on the Kashmir issue – and it is difficult to see where that progress can come from in the short term – commerce between Punjab and Punjab, and between India and Pakistan, remains the only guarantee of real achievement. Today, the irony of the fact that the Majha is the most significant backer of the peace process should not be lost on anyone. It was on this soil, after all, that the bloodiest and most significant battles of the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan took place.

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