The Voice from the Rural Areas: Muslim-Sikh Relations
in the British Punjab, 1940-47
he rural Punjab, the real Punjab…far away from the disease of communalism was a centre of merriments, festivals, folklore, sports and cultural gatherings. The Muslims and Sikhs enjoyed harmonious relationship throughout the rural Punjab but the mid-twentieth century proved havoc to this peacetime arrangements. This presentation is based on my own understanding to the historical events in the light of the oral history accounts which I mostly collected from the villages of the western Punjab. I interviewed few Sikhs as well but the understanding to the events is based mainly on the accounts retrieved from the Muslims who had been living side by side with the Sikhs in the western and eastern parts of the Punjab before 1947. Though these interviews are limited to some specific villages of district Kasur, Sheikhupura, Faisalabad, Jhelum, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Lahore, etc and cannot be a majority voice, nevertheless, the retrieved accounts can help depict the overall picture of the combined society, its split and migration experience.
The people of the rural Punjab have mixed approach towards the pre-partition Punjabi society and the partitioning phase but they had compatibility on few points like friendly relations between the two communities; the partition scheme of the Muslim League hit the relations; the violent leadership of the Akalis could not cope with the political situation; etc. The composition of a Punjabi village consisted of the landed people and the Kammi (manual working class i.e., carpenters, masons, weavers, blacksmiths etc to facilitate the farmers or landlords). The village setup may be summarized as follows:
1. The biggest landlord of the village who had a decision making authority in all the matters of the village and all the villagers were satisfied with his position and justice.
2. Next were the farmers with small holding, then tenants
3. then Kamis and
4. The Chuhras whose duty was sweeping etc.
5. The Punjab had been under the foreigners that helped the non-Indian or Arab origin castes like Araeen, Qureshi or Syed, Awān, Qizalbash, Ansāri, etc. to settle in the region who further achieved a big influence in the social and political affairs in the name of religion.
The Kammis was a professional class and not only poor but also considered as low-castes in the society. They were economically dependant on the Muslim and the Sikh farmers whether the farmers had small or big land. In the Punjab, having an agricultural land was a sign of respect and confidence. The Kamis were non-martial race and not allowed by the British to get jobs in police, army etc. until the World War II.
Muslims and the Sikhs had been living for centuries door to door as good friends though they had an antagonistic historical past more deep-rooted than the Hindu-Muslim enmity. Hindu and the Muslim heroes had different regions and times while the Muslim rulers and the Sikh heroes were contemporary and in the same land. Therefore, we see a direct clash between the Muslim rulers and the Sikh religious personalities. Both the communities sought the way to live together and ostensibly they were living with the Muslims on the basis of social inter-action and interdependence. The other factors may be summarized as:
Punjab is blessed with the saints who are still esteemed by all the communities. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims equally respect the saints like Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid Ganj-i-Shakar, Hazrat Mian Meer, Guru Nanak Dev, Shah Husain etc. The Muslim saints had much regards among all the communities who had got huge conversions to Islam and you know the issue of conversion put the Punjabi communities into an unremitting fight during the Mughal era but even then the respectable position of the Muslim saints had never been questioned in the Punjabi society. Their message of love and humanity won over the people who continued this harmony in the coming period.
The Muslims and Sikhs used to enjoy the folk stories of Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punu, Sohni Mahinwal, Mirza Sahiban, etc, sitting together sometimes for whole night. Every village had one place of sitting where all the interested people gathered and had pranks for whole night. The non-Muslims mostly joined the Muslims on the Moharram processions and other occasions like marriage or death ceremony.
The folklore of the Punjab contributed a lot to the harmonious relations between the Muslims and the Sikhs. Mahya, Tappa, Bolian, waran, jugni, Chhalla and other folk songs were owned by both and on any cultural event all the Punjabis enjoyed these folk songs together and with equal fervent.
The conversions within caste mainly the Jatts proved blessing. The Jat Muslims were sympathetic towards the Jat Sikhs who were the relatives by blood. They had changed their religions but still were brothers. It shows that the land of five rivers originally had been a liberal society and we see no persecutions or clash at the time of conversions. The cultural traditions overrode the religion in some areas of life. For example, there is no caste system in Islam and Sikhism and both believe that all human beings are equal irrespective of caste, status or colour. But both could not get rid of the traditional culture and no Jat liked (even today) to marry his daughter with a kami. The Muslim and Sikh Jatts had deep adherence to their religions but naturally were influenced more by the culture than the religions.
The position of the Muslims and Sikhs varied in the two parts of the Punjab. The eastern areas were non-Muslim dominated while the western were the Muslim majority areas. In the eastern part, most of the Muslims were poor and if someone had a chunk of land even then he was not effective in the areas as the Western Muslim landlords were. They were psychologically under stress because by adopting the pure religious ways of life, they could be aloof from the mainstream of the social life. On the other hand, the Sikhs in the Muslim dominated areas had a fertile land in the canal colonies and were living with a sound status. They were in business, trade and the services as well. They were not Kamis here in the western parts so they had more sound position as compared to the eastern Punjabi Muslims. Anyhow, the Sikhs had been kind enough to the Muslim Kamis and the poor villagers irrespective of their religious affiliation. The financial dependence or support sometimes bound them to support the political party which the landlords liked. For example, Odham Singh of Kakkar Gill (Sheikhupura) was a pious man who used to help the Muslims and Hindus. All the communities living in his village loved him but even then all the Sikhs and the Hindus were staunch supporters of the Indian National Congress under the influence of an active Congress member Amar Singh. The Muslims impressed by the individual benign personality of Odham Singh mostly voiced for the Congress. Sidhu Sikhs of the Kundal village in Tehsil Abohar (district Ferozepore) had the same position.
The socio-economic interdependence further encouraged tolerance. Being in the same streets, mandis, fields, cultural functions and other economic activities both were bound to the mutual interests. The Chaudhri and Sardar of the villages used to help their poor village fellows irrespective of their religious affiliation. Baba Jewna recalls that Odham Singh being a wealthy zamindar of the area, used to protect honour of all the Hindu and Muslim communities of his village. For these qualities, he was called “Bapu,” by the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. He had pledge to bear all expenditure of the marriage party called Barat of the poor families because he owned all the girls of the village as his real daughters. Sometimes he paid the land revenue of the poor cultivators whenever they were unable to pay the same. During the month of Ramazān (the Islamic month in which the Muslims observe fasts) he arranged Sehri and Iftāri for the people who were not stable financially. He regularly attended the Eid address and appreciated the good points. According to Niamat Ali from Sikhan Kanwan Wali (Kartarpura), the Sikhs of that village were mostly Jatts and Nihangs. They were encamped into two rival groups. The Sikh Chaudhris always rendered their financial and moral support to the Muslims whenever they needed particularly on the occasion of the marriages of their sons or daughters.
The political identity and constitutional rights hit the traditional arrangements particularly in the urban areas and they observed disputes on the religious festivals but the rural areas had an ideal and peaceful life. The tradition of revenge and blood feuds of the rural Punjab kept them away from the communal violence that acted as a kind of deterrence. There was also mutual forbearance which limited conflict. Minorities tended to defer to majority community wishes in the rural setting. Unlike in the towns, conflicts over such things as music before mosques or cow slaughter were not pushed so far as to disturb the rural economic interdependence.
The Panchayat composed of the eminent persons of all the communities of a village moreover had a full and an independent decision-making authority. During the British rule, all the prominent families were declared as zaildars and numbardar/lambardars which were given administrative and judicial powers. People were satisfied as their own people were making decisions and there was no involvement of the police and courts. Any dispute between the Muslims and the Sikhs was confined to the village and due to the non-availability of publishing activities the dispute was never supposed to travel to the other cities, villages and political parties. Chaudhri Khadim Hussain Chahal recalled that once the Muslim youth humiliated the Granthi on the way which infuriated the non-Muslims but the Punchayat resolved the issue and placated the non-Muslims within an hour. Such folly was never to be quoted and repeated in future. This shows the integrity and morale of the Panchayat, the implementation of its decision and its respect among the villagers.
The tradition of ‘exchange of turbans’ was a symbol of brotherhood or friendship. Pagg (turban) was a sign of honour for all Punjabis and could end enmity even after some bloody fight. If two men of any castes or religions had exchanged their paggs (turbans) then their relationship would become stronger than the blood relations. Each could sacrifice property and even life for each. This tradition also played an important role in securing the peace of the rural Punjab. The communitarian dominance under the religious values affected the minority life characteristics in the Punjab. The Sikhs women used to observe pardah strictly. The communitarian dominance conspicuously maintained the writ or authority of one community. The weak could not challenge the powerful. Furthermore, poverty kept the rural Punjabis engaged in the earning activities. Prosperity moves people to invest money, energies and time to the pursuits like political and civil society organizations while poverty does not let the people think above their daily needs. Therefore, the poverty kept the people busy in their own problems.
Conflict between Muslims and Sikhs
Under the natural arrangements, the position of the Muslims was hit severely because the Hindus and the Sikhs were sound financially. Religiously and socially they were much close to each other. They had no deep-rooted differences in social life as they could inter-dine, inter-marry, etc. while the Muslims were financially weak and isolated in the mainstream of life. This reality marked division of the society into two rival camps on the basis of the religious adherence.
The religion kept the two communities distinctive always far away from each other throughout the history. The concept of halal-haram, antagonistic memories, issue of Jhatka, Azān, route of religious processions, music before mosques, etc. moved them ultimately to the bitter past. The Sikhs never allowed the Muslims to touch their pots because, to them, this touch would make them religiously impure (Bhitt jana). Comrade Bishan Singh smiled and said “sometimes the Muslim class fellows deliberately touched our lunch in the school just to eat the better lunch and we had to be hungry for whole day.” Although such issues mainly hit the urban areas but the issue of Shahidganj and the Muslim demand for a separate state on the basis of religion attracted the rural masses gradually through the political conferences organized by the Shiromani Akali Dal and the all-India Muslim League which consequently influenced the rural Punjab as well.
The year 1947 brought bloody riots and the migrations started. Some Muslims and Sikhs helped the migrants while some condemned the Sikhs and mourned about what they lost during the bloodletting moves while crossing the rival community areas. None of the people (who were interviewed) called it ‘partition’ rather dangey or lutmaar. The accounts reveal the Muslims and Sikhs who were linked by the blood relationship, friendship, agricultural or business partnership, etc. did help each other and felt pains on the departure of their fellows. Mostly they requested the people of the rival community not to leave them and the village. The accounts also disclose that the people from humble background, non-Indian castes and Kamis were mainly involved in the killing and plundering. They intimidated the rivals so that they would provide them an opportunity to take away their precious belongings. Professor Khizr Virk told that they sent their Kammi to Sardar Mangal Singh Virk, head of their Sikh relatives to come to their village but they fled away to the Indian the same night. It was revealed latter when both met in the Atchison, Lahore that the Kammi said to Sardar Mangal Singh, “their Virk relatives have sent to him to give the Sikh Virks two options, accept Islam or get ready to be massacred.” Mangal Singh said that they could expect such treatment from them but under the violent wave we thought it truth and fled away.” The brutality by the non-martial castes inflicted upon the Sikhs and Muslims cannot be overlooked. The accounts sometimes show that the Muslim and Sikh hooligans attacked the women under the sexual lust. A Sikh in a village of Kasur said to the Muslim friends weeping loudly, “O brothers…. I allow my daughters to become Muslims….. For God sake, marry with my daughters…… I listen that the Muslim hooligans are raping girls…. My gherat does not allow me to move with my daughters….” Same stories are quoted by the Muslim migrants on the other hands. The Muslims most of the time don’t disclose what actually happened with their sisters and daughters so that these painful stories may not be repeated and quoted by the other people. The factors caused bloodshed can be summarized as the violent statements of the political leaders through press and the conferences, clashes between Muslims and Sikhs on the religious issues, material rapacity, exaggerated stories or rumours by the peoples and killing under the hostage theory. By the hostage theory, after listening stories of killing of the co-religionists, the rivals started killing the rivals in their areas who were not directly responsible of the killing. Many times, even friends in the rival communities became victim under this situation. A Muslim of an Arab caste from Hadyara Burky in the Lahore district told that the Sikh friends felt pain on their departure and escorted their families but when they found dead bodies of the Muslim women, children and youth on the way, the young men of the caravan decided to take revenge. When their parents came to know about their intentions they resisted but in the night dark, they went back to the same village and killed many people.
The Muslims helped the Sikhs and Hindus during the difficult time mostly by the Jat Muslims because they had been relatives. They did not like the decision of the partition but were unable to change the decision. They tried to facilitate the departing friends thinking it their moral duty. Ch. Akbar Ali Chahal from Kanganpur (district Kasur) himself escorted a poor Hindu family up to the river Satluj who in return helped many Muslims in crossing the river. When the Muslims tried to offer some money etc. to the mahtam, he refused flatly and requested them to convey his regards to Chaudhri Akbar Ali. By this, he wanted to convey a message of love and compensation. It was another picture of the partition.
The poor migrants faced mostly physical loss while the rich families lost property and the social status. The partition brought a major shift in restructuring the social status of the families in both the Punjabis. An interesting discussion I had with Sardar Ajmer Singh Sidhu and Narvair Singh. Narvair Singh expressed his feelings that MA Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi, all were non-Punjabi, no pain they could feel on the bloodshed of the Punjabis? This statement indicates towards a major problem of leadership crisis of the region. The leadership crisis historically hit the Punjab society. The region had been victim of the incessant foreign rule which should have motivated the locals to launch a movement or leadership to awake the locals up for protest but under the peculiar situation as mentioned above none could unite the communities on the Punjab question. Consequently, no leadership parallel to Quaid-i-Azam, Nehru and Gandhi the Punjab could produce. The Punjabi leadership during the freedom movement seemed dependent on the central commands which proved catastrophic to the Punjab. The Punjab Muslim League and the Shiromani Akali Dal could not take an independent course in the crucial phase of the Indian politics. ¡
Your name Date of interview
Father’s Name Place of Interview
Address before 1947 Present Address
Education Profession before 1947
NOTE: Originally this Questionnaire was in Punjabi (Shahmukhi). I have translated it into English for convenience.
Akhtar Hussain Sandhu
University of Southampton.
Ph.D. Scholar, Department of History
Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad,