Posted by: Vikram | August 6, 2014

Malerkotla, Punjab: A tripartite island of religious harmony in India (Part 1)

In India, the state of Punjab is usually associated with the Sikhs, who form the numerical majority there. There is also a significant Hindu minority in Punjab. It is less well known that Punjab houses a small but significant minority of Punjabi Muslims, who in fact compromise the majority of the population in the historical town of Malerkotla. In her paper, “Punjab’s Muslims: The History and Significance of Malerkotla“, Anna Bigelow of North Carolina State University points out that Malerkotla’s significance is not simply the presence of Punjabi Muslims, but also the real tradition of harmony, which as Bigelow points out is actively maintained through inclusive institutions and practices, and is

not merely a modern extension of the past reality. … Indeed, the term most frequently employed to characterize the communal atmosphere is bhaichara, meaning communal brotherhood. … Malerkotla is no utopia and the present peace is the product of active efforts on the part of the local authorities and residents to make the unique history of the town a symbolically significant resource for community building and pluralism in the present.

Bigelow begins with an overview of Malerkotla’s early history. The settlement of Maler was founded in 1454, with the territory being granted to the Sufi saint Haider Shaikh by the Delhi Sultanate, who is the progenitor of Malerkotla’s ruling family. Bigelow mentions,

the Shaikh is described as a very pious man of much celebrity in his time. … He settled on the bank of a small river to engage in religious devotions. According to numerous sources, in 1451 Bahlol Lodhi encountered the saint on his way to conquer Delhi at which point he established the Lodhi dynasty. Bahlol Lodhi asked the saint for the blessing that he would be victorius in the war. After conquering Delhi, the Sultan returned and in 1454 married his daughter Taj Murassa Begum to Shaikh Sakhruddin, and gave her a number of villages in the region as a marriage portion.

The state grew further during Mughal rule, acquiring the appendage Kotla after its rulers acquired the permission to build a fort from Delhi. As the Mughal Empire declined, Malerkotla sought increasing independence from Delhi.

One of the most significant events of those times, especially for Sikhs, is the ‘ha da narah’ or ‘cry for justice’. Bigelow recounts this important memory in detail,

After the Guru [Gobind Singh] and his family broke through the siege at Anandpur [1705], his mother and his two younger sons, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh were separated from the Guru. They were betrayed, captured, and taken to Sirhind where their fate hung in the balance. Refusing to convert to Islam, the sahibzadas were condemned to be bricked alive into a wall. Of all the assembled allies of Wazir Khan, the Mughal governor of Sirhind, Sher Muhammad Khan was the only one who spoke up in the child’s defense. He declared that their quarrel was with the father not the sons, and that their lives should be preserved. He went so far as to declare the death sentence un-Islamic, violating the acceptable rules of combat.

Other versions of this historical event also mention that the governor offered a large part of his treasury to have the children cremated with the appropriate rites. Needless to say, this historical memory contributes hugely to the feeling of ‘bhaichara’ between the Muslims of Malerkotla and their non-Hindu co-citizens.

With the decline of the Mughals, new players such as Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Marathas, the British and the Sikh Empire emerged on the political scene. After dallying and fighting with all of these forces, the Nawab of Malerkotla finally threw his lot in with the British,

Finally, in 1809 the British and the Maharaja signed a treaty which placed the Cis-Sutlej region in which Malerkotla is located under British protection. From 1809 onwards Malerkotla supported the British and assisted in a number of key campaigns – against Kabul, in the Gurkha wars, and also during the 1857 Rebellion.

Although, the rulers of Malerkotla remained loyal to the British until the end of the colonial Raj, the region started being affected by the various nationalist movements sweeping through India in the early and middle 1900s. By the 1930s, religious tensions were rising in Malerkotla, pitting Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims. Bigelow mentions,

Identity politics were the order of the day as the combined effects of nineteenth century reformist movements, British enumerative authoritarianism, and the communally based factions within the Independence Movement, particularly the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, took root. Especially since the consolidation of British authority in the nineteenth century, imperial policies distributed social and political opportunities based upon religious and ethnic identities. Simultaneously, and partially as a response to these efforts, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim organizations developed that defined and disseminated revivalist tendencies.

Despite these troublesome winds, Malerkotla remained relatively calm in the years leading up to independence. It was one of the few regions in North India that remained peaceful during the partition. Bigelow mentions,

According to all the people and records I consulted, Malerkotla was peaceful during partition. The refugee situation strained local resources to the limit, but the violence that shattered Patiala, Nabha and Jind never occured withing Malerkotla’s borders. Some residents attribute the peace at partition to the brave leadership of the Nawab and the vigilance of the kingdom’s army.

This is truly exceptional, given that Punjab, with its highly militarized peasantry experienced exceptional levels of violence, and was ethnically cleansed.

Post independence, the rulers of Malerkotla joined PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union) as a constituent state of India. With the introduction of democratic politics, the Nawab and his family entered electoral politics and have been elected as member(s) of the Punjab Legislative Assembly on many occasions. Since independence, Malerkotla has urbanized and industrialized with extensive land and agricultural reform. The formerly non-elite Kamboj caste, which makes up 40% of the constituency’s population have been the principle economic and political beneficiaries of the post-independence abolition of zamindari, and state promoted industrialization. Their growth has mainly been at the expense of the formerly dominant Pathan caste to which the Nawabs belonged. Yet, the communal harmony of the town has been maintained, even during the stressful times following the Babri Masjid demolition and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.

In the next post, we will see how Malerkotla continues to maintain its communal harmony by employing its shared and inclusive institutions and historical memory of peace. See Part 2.

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