Posted by: Vikram | August 24, 2014

Malerkotla, Punjab: A tripartite island of religious harmony in India (Part 2)

In the last post, we were introduced to the town of Malerkotla, the only Muslim majority town in Punjab. We saw how the town has developed and sustained a tradition of harmony between religious groups, despite the grave provocations during the politically unstable times of the 1700s, colonial manipulations, partition violence and communal tensions in independent India. How does the town maintain these traditions even in times of tensions ? Anna Bigelow presents an analysis of Malerkotla’s inclusive religious institutions and active preservation of historical memories of peace in her paper, “Punjab’s Muslims: The History and Significance of Malerkotla”. Dr. Bigelow presents a much more comprehensive study of Malerkotla in her book “Sharing the sacred: Practising Pluralism in Muslim North India.

Like it was during the colonial Raj, Malerkotla has been a Muslim majority town since independence as well, with around two thirds of its population identifying as Muslims in each census since 1951. With the sole exception of Chand Ram in 1954, the MLA from Malerkotla has always been Muslim, but the Muslim’s here have not pledged their allegiance to a single party consistently, and indeed, the city’s residents say they have voted for politicians from all religious backgrounds. With a rich history of community building, and being part of a democratic society, Malerkotla abounds in civil society groups and institutions and these maintain a secular culture,

Data shows that the leadership of many groups is inter-religious. For example, several of the largest occupational and professional groups, such as the Bar Association have multi-religious leadership. Such integration fosters open communication, reduces competition and tension, and helps create a sound basis for inter-religious interaction. Without both inter-religious and intra-religious organizations, sacred sites, educational institutions, and public events, the fabric of
the community would become unevenly balanced allowing certain groups to dominate to the exclusion of others.

Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus do have organizations catering to their specific religions but secular groups like the Sahit Sangam (Literary Society), Heritage Society, various Youth and Sport Clubs, the Tagore Fine Art Club and the Malerkotla Adventure Club provide ample opportunities for inter communal interaction.

Not only are secular groups abundant, but even the religious groups actively promote harmony in the town,

The Jama’at-i Islami leader in Malerkotla during my research was Maulana Abdul Rauf who passed away in 2003.  Maulana Rauf made enormous efforts to work in cooperation with local authorities. For the establishment of a new mosque in a village with few Muslims, he sought donations, labor, materials, and other supports from the entire community. At the ceremonies inaugurating these projects he invited Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Muslims, and used the opportunity to foster greater understanding of Islam in relation to other traditions. In Malerkotla during times of stress, Maulana Rauf and other Jama’at-i Islami leaders were active participants in Peace Committees and other bridge building efforts. Indeed, Maulana Rauf professed respect and admiration for the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader. As both the Jama’at-i Islami and the RSS were widely regarded as Muslim and Hindu radical organizations respectively, it is significant that in Malerkotla they were not oppositional groups and even worked together in some endeavors.

Further, the Shia Muslim community, although small in number is an active participant in Malerkotla’s plural culture.

In Malerkotla, though the Shi’a were few in number, during the first ten days of the month of Muharram in 2001 they were suddenly ubiquitous. As Malerkotla is the only place in Indian Punjab housing an active imambara, Shi’a from all over the state come here to celebrate Muharram. …. There are also a number of public processions, culminating on the tenth with a slow march through the center of town while chanting dirges for the martyrs and the performance of ma’tam, self-flagellation as a sign of mourning. Although the primary participants in the procession are Shi’a, groups of Hindus participate as well, especially young children for whom carrying a taziyya is regarded as an especial blessing. Hindus also often take vows before the taziyas that are permanently installed in the various imambaras in town. …. Sikhs, Hindus and Sunnis all perform the service of providing beverages and food to the processors, acknowledging the devotion necessary to sustain the long day of walking from one end of town to the other while chanting dirges and performing matam.

Thus, leaders and common folk from both sects of Islam play a part in maintaining communal harmony not only between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also between Shias and Sunnis.

Hindus are the second largest religious group in Malerkotla, and they belong primarily to the trading communities and Dalits. The smaller, but still substantial Jain community is also oriented towards trade. Religious harmony is also manifested in major Hindu festivals.

The largest non-Muslim religious festival in Malerkotla is Dussehra, the tenth day after the navaratri that is holy to Lord Rama. For the nights leading up to Dussehra, plays of the Ram story, called Ramlila, are put on at venues throughout town. On the day itself the entire town, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, all turn out at the Dera where a gigantic effigy of Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana, is burnt. This event is very significant as it, perhaps more than any other brings, together the entire community. Muslim groups sponsor booths at the Dera distributing free cold water to those in attendance. In 2001 the person staffing one booth said that while he did not himself believe in Rama and the events being celebrated, he enjoyed the spectacle and the opportunity to serve the community. Although the appeal of Dussehra for Muslims, and likely for most participants, is less religious than spectacular, the parade and celebration are enjoyed by everyone in town.

The dargah of Haider Shaikh, the dera of Baba Atma Ram, both serve as shrines which are frequented by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, and ensure that people from all three communities constantly remain in contact and build relationships.

In times of trouble, such relationships help ensure that moments of division become moments of solidarity,

In 2000, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, triggering several incidents of anti-Muslim actions such as the throwing of pig meat into a mosque and burning of the Qur’an. In Malerkotla both the Buddhas’ destruction and these anti-Muslim assaults were deplored. …. the entire community – Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu – held a general strike for a day. Thus a potentially
divisive incident was transformed into an act of symbolic solidarity against a variety of injustices. Other such moments, too numerous to recount, indicate an overall propensity towards conciliation rather than animosity among Malerkotla’s residents. Furthermore, these events demonstrate the amount of labor and effort that community leaders and members put into maintaining the level of peace and integration that Malerkotla has come to enjoy.

Thus Malerkotla and its people have built institutions and cultural practices that bank on the secular, democratic national project (popular elections, secular associations and groups), shared aspects of religion (festivals, shrines) and, above all, the town’s own memory of harmony to ensure a peaceful and prosperous today.


  1. […] 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. […]


    When I joined the madarsa, my family and I were told that I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the premises till the completion of my education. Not only were we not allowed to meet our families or any outsider during our stay, we were also prevented from talking over the phone unmonitored.

    We were allowed one supervised phone call a week to tell our families that we were okay. That’s not something I was okay with, but I didn’t really have a choice. Especially after my father agreed to those terms.

    Dalim Sheikh (one of the men who disappeared after the blast), who knew my father, had convinced him to send me there. He had told my father that it would be good for me and for the family. My father has been finding it difficult bringing up a younger sister and a brother since my marriage.

    I later found out that most of the students there were handpicked, like I was. Girls who were from very poor families, who could not be married off or were divorced or widowed. An initial donation of Rs 1,000 from my father was all that was ever taken for a stay that could have lasted years.

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