Punjab Journal: Reflecting on Bhutta

by Diditi Mitra

During our bus ride to Rara Sahib gurdwara, the bus seemed to stop in the middle of nowhere, and dropped off a very well dressed young woman. We soon learned that we were stopped in the village of Bhutta, on the outskirts of Ludhiana. The young woman who got off the bus was headed to college.

Bhutta Group of Colleges3

Stepping off the bus

Above the college gates, which we could see from the bus, hung a huge sign that said Bhutta Group of Colleges. Surrounded by the rustic environment of the village was this modern structure enclosed within the gates of the college.  Somehow, it looked a bit out of place.

Nonetheless, it was a pleasant surprise to see the emphasis on education, and that too to see women walk through those gates of higher education in a state where female infanticide and foeticide is one of the highest in the nation.

Bhutta Group of Colleges 1

What looks like the middle of nowhere

A preliminary search on Google for Bhutta Group of colleges revealed some interesting information. It looks like the institution offers technical education to those in the rural areas of Punjab. Established in 1997 under the Punjab Technical University Act of 1996, they are affiliated with Punjab Technical University (PTU). As such, the mission of the Bhutta Group of Colleges is to advance technical education in order to facilitate development of Punjab.

Bhutta village itself, according to the Census data published by the Indian government in 2011, has a very high literacy rate. (The only state in India with close to 100 percent literacy is Kerala. According to Census 2011, the literacy rate in Kerala is 93.9 percent). Additionally, the village is comprised of a high percentage of people of scheduled caste background (about 38 percent) and the sex ratio in the village is 865 which is lower than Punjab state’s average of 895, i.e. there are fewer females than males in Bhutta. The child sex ratio in the village is even lower – 765 as opposed to Punjab’s average of 846. Presumably, this pattern of sex ratio that favors males over females is indicative of a higher rate of female infanticide and foeticide. Interestingly, according to an article published in The Indian Express, the author asserts that female foeticide is alive and well in the diaspora too!

Bhutta Group of Colleges2. Cropped for blogJPG

On her way

The Punjab government has strategized to curb female infanticide and foeticide. There are many critics of abortion of female foetuses or murder or abandonment of female infants. Also, India itself is an extremely diverse society with numerous strands of religious, cultural and regional beliefs. So, it is problematic to pin down female infanticide/foeticide as innately ‘Indian.’

Furthermore, it is necessary to note that high rates of female infanticide in Punjab, or other parts of India with high rates, does not mean that this is the only state or nation where patriarchy exists. The pattern is not suggestive of some kind of pathology possessed only by brown men as a colonial, or a racist, lens would have one believe. After all, India, and a few other developing nations, have had female heads of state. Of course, that does not mean that patriarchy there is absent either. Conversely, it does not mean that the West is free of patriarchy. Evidence show otherwise.  I would argue that this is how patriarchy, in conjunction with other social factors, lives in the context of Punjab and broadly, India.  Ultimately, what one must note is that patriarchy is not exclusive to the third world and that manifestations of it are likely to vary based on the specific socio-cultural histories of a place.

What is curious though is the high rate of literacy as well as the high proportion of people of scheduled caste background in the village of Bhutta. How are they connected to the availability of resources, like the Bhutta Group of Colleges, if at all?



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Punjab Journal: When the Jatt met his Juliet….

by Diditi Mitra

The Punjabi movies playing on a small screen at the head of the bus going back and forth between Ludhiana and Jalandhar was a genius idea to keep the passengers distracted from the assault of the high temperatures that is characteristic of summer in Punjab! The fans attached to the windows did not help keep the passengers cool. No curtain on the bus window was thick enough to keep the sun away. And, even the air-conditioned buses did not stop the profuse flow of sweat from all the glands in the body. Focusing on the films playing in the bus, however, kept us entertained. Clearly, the two gentlemen shown in the photograph were watching the screen, oblivious to the sweaty and hot realities of the journey. Will the Jatt ever find his Juliet? I surely wanted to know.


Riveted by Neeru Bajwa

Curiosity did get the better of me. So, after returning to America, on one of those aimless and restless nights while surfing through YouTube, I chanced upon the film, Jatt and Juliet, and watched it!

Interestingly, the film is set in Canada. It is a story of Sikh immigrants from Punjab. The lead characters in the film are Pooja (Neeru Bajwa) and Fateh (Diljit Dosanjh). While Fateh’s dream of financial success led him to Canada, Pooja made the journey to fulfill her educational desires. The two did meet in Punjab first on one of those visits to the American embassy in preparation for their departure. As fate would have it, from then on, they kept running into each other. The power of fate was such that they ended up sharing the plane ride to Canada where they were seated, accidentally of course, next to each other. And, the endless gifts of fate also led them to the same house in Canada where they lived as roommates. Quite predictably, after overcoming much differences, including their disgust of each other, the Jatt and the Juliet discover their undying love.

In reality, Neeru Bajwa, the actress who played the part of Pooja in the film, grew up in Canada. I first came across Ms. Bajwa in the documentary Bollywood Bound. Before venturing into Punjabi cinema, she had tried her luck in Bollywood – the most prestigious and glamorous of all film industries in India located in Bombay. But, her dreams were not realized. Ms. Bajwa began her career with Hindi television drama and then moved onto Punjabi cinema. Today, she is one of the leading ladies of popular Punjabi films. Bollywood has not been completely out of her reach though. She has performed in some Bollywood films as in this song with Akshay Kumar in the film Special 26.

For non-whites like Neeru Bajwa, who have grown up in North America (presumably, in other western nations too) and would like to pursue careers in cinema, the options are likely to be limited. Non-white faces like hers are not going to be accepted as American or Canadian, in her case. Additionally, racial marginalization in the society as a whole is likely to push the second and subsequent generations to cultural practices of their parents. A connection to something like Bollywood films, like the one felt by Neeru Bajwa, is to be expected. Looking to their parents place of origin can therefore become a way to overcome racial/ethnic barriers of the society and realize those goals.

Diljit Dosanjh, on the other hand, is a prominent Punjabi film actor and singer. Recently, he has starred in the upcoming, and much awaited, film Udta Punjab made in Bombay on the drug problem in Punjab.

Regardless, I am sure neither Neeru Bajwa nor Diljit Dosanjh ever imagined their immense value in the lives of perspiring, exhausted, and sometimes irritable passengers on those buses. They are their messiah. As such, they liberate those riders from the torturous summer heat of Punjab!

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Punjab Journal: What’s In The Bag?

by Shashwati Talukdar

Postal System4On our way to Jalandhar , the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. A smiling middle-aged man got on and reached for under our seats. At first we thought it was the police in plain clothes checking for drugs, since the ‘Punjab drug problem’ always came up in most of our conversations about the state, without any prompting from us.

Turned out, the pleasant gentleman was a rural postmaster collecting the mail for distribution in the area villages.

Perhaps our misreading of the situation says more about the times we grew up in than anything else. We came of age during the ‘Punjab Problem’ and the ‘Kashmir Problem,’ when very visible surveillance became a way of life, with random checkpoints and searches which seemed like so much security theatre, and a way to intimidate young women considered ‘loose’ for being out late.

It’s interesting we conflated the postal system with a surveillance system, maybe a connection that is not so farfetched. And I don’t mean in a Thomas Pynchon-‘The Crying of Lot 49’ way, or maybe I do.

The postal service is much older than what we know as the postal service now, one that was set up by the East India Company, which was in turn based on the Mughal system.  But the colonial post office was charged with responsibilities the older systems were not.

Radhika Singha,  in examining identification practices in colonial India, positions the post office as a place of Postal System3establishing administrative identities and fixing them. Fluid identities, especially those of non-sedentary communities were seen as deviant. Therefore fixing of identities was imperative to the imperial project. And the postal system was eminently suited to the task. The postal system identified populations as having fixed places of residence, pathologizing those who didn’t in the process. Additionally, the postal system was a conduit for financial transactions through money orders, which required a system of identification. And lastly, the postal system was also a site of surveillance.

So sensing a conspiracy in the innocuous act of collecting the mail may not be that farfetched after all. There is something in the DNA of the modern mail system that allows for it:

Since the British engaged in trade with India and also governed India, the political and commercial motives were important and linked. The welfare role of the post, though genuine, came later as a by-product of the network already established for political and commercial reasons. The service-for-the-people role of the post was secondary to its tool-for-governance role, both temporally, and in terms of importance.

(From a dissertation on the economic history of the Indian postal system by Sheetal Bharat)

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Punjab Journal: ‘Languaged’ Out

by Diditi Mitra

Pindi Attachi HousePre-packaged offering for those who have passed – is that what Pindi Attache House was selling? Pindi refers to offering on behalf of one’s family member who has passed – that’s what it means for Bengali Hindus. The busy lives that people lead today certainly make it difficult to set aside time for such rituals. Like pre-packaged food that one just goes home and heats up, pre-packaged religious offerings would mean that the only thing one would have to do is make the trip to the place of the offering? And, the availability of pre-packaged pindi in the market also means that capitalism had reached a new height. Nothing is sacred any more. After I spoke to a colleague though, I realized that pindi in the context of Punjab does not mean any of those things that were dancing through my head. Meena Dhanda’s answer was quite anti-climactic – not so exciting, and in fact, it was a heartbreaking reminder of the trauma endured by the Indian subcontinent. Pindi, she said, is sometimes used to refer to Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan.

Quite possibly, the owners of the attache store had connections to Rawalpindi. They migrated, not in the traditional use of the word, but in another way – The Partition of India on the basis of religion (Hindu and Muslim) and the resultant creation of Pakistan when India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. Punjab, being on the border of these two nationalist projects, was thus divided into East and West Punjab. The eastern part remained in India and western part now belonged to Pakistan.

People were forced to leave their homes. More than twelve million refugees moved between East and West Punjab itself, with a total of about fifteen million who had been uprooted. In The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia writes that “People travelled in buses, in cars, by train, but mostly on foot in great columns called kafilas, which could stretch for dozens of miles.” “It was the world’s biggest mass migration in less than nine months.” Death under these dire circumstances was almost guaranteed. About two million people died. Families were separated.

As a second generation bearer of the The Partition memory, I personally know people whose families are split by the border. The contemporary Urdu poet Nida Fazli of whom I am an ardent admirer had made the decision to continue living in India, although his parents moved to the newly formed Pakistan. Ethnic cleansing, including violence that targeted women, marked yet another dimension of this separation. Communities that coexisted for almost a millennium were now arch enemies of each other, attempting to erase the syncretic fabric of the society. In Rawalpindi, “‘A Muslim horde had descended on Kahuta like a wolf pack, setting fire to the houses in its Sikh and Hindu quarters with buckets of gasoline. In minutes the area was engulfed in fire and entire families, screaming pitifully for help, were consumed by the flames. Those who escaped were caught, tied together, soaked with gasoline and burned alive like torches.‘” Muslims, too, were not spared by the Hindus, contrary to what many Hindus would like to believe. Click here for a sample of stories of survival told by the Muslim refugees to Pakistan.

The beast in all of us had been unleashed.

Click on this link for a pictorial tour of this loss and trauma endured by people of the Indian subcontinent.

In Punjab, the violence was especially acute. It was “the storm center of partition.”  Sikhs, who formed a third community in Punjab unlike Bengal, were dispersed through central parts of Punjab where the dividing line between East and West Punjab was drawn – an important contributor to the intensity of violence in the province.  The Punjabi Sikhs who moved to the Indian side of the border faced another loss. Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak who was the founder of Sikhism, was now in Pakistan. It was no longer easily accessible.

Although my paternal grandfather migrated from what is now Bangladesh (East Pakistan at the time of The Partition and only in 1971 did it emerge as a nation independent from Pakistan) prior to The Partition, the trauma of separation from home and being forced to re-imagine one’s identity and homeland  were still present. In my father’s voice, I could sometimes feel the anger and the sadness of being exiled from ‘home.’ He was born in Rangoon, a time when Burma/Myanmar was part of the British administration, and would visit his ancestral home in what is now Bangladesh on vacation from his school. “I remember that house in Bangladesh,” he said one day on the phone, “and I still remember the house in Burma where I was born.” Any mention of Bangladesh troubled him, I remember. I still hear the lament for what once was India in the voice of Indians, like parents who lament separation from their children, especially those with whom they can never be reunited.

So the trauma and memory of The Partition lingers. One finds them in spaces unexpected, like Pindi Attache House in Ludhiana, Punjab. The Partition is “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.Personal accounts of the trauma are still being recovered, still being documented. It continues to inform the identities of those with ties to the Indian subcontinent.

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Punjab Journal: Hip Hop Mirzā’ī

by Shashwati Talukdar

Waiting for the bus to Jalandhar from Ludhiana felt like we were in a hiphop video. There was the sound of the bus station, the rush of people, and the star of the show – the conductor of the bus to Phagwara who was rustling up passengers for the ride.

Rustling Riders for Phagwara

Rustling Riders for Phagwara

At some point he realized that he had an audience and he obliged — striding up and down with just a right swing of the scarf, and the tilt to the head. The man was a performer and a star. And, we were an appreciative audience taking fan photos!

We couldn’t quite pin down the particularities of this masculine display, but it did remind me of my recent obsession with the Guru Ram Rai Durbar murals. Some of the finest examples of the mural paintings are portraits done in Mughal court style. How would have men (and all the portraits were of men) who looked like this have been understood by someone looking at these images in the 18th century? Definitely as eminent men with Mirzā’ī. That certain something that demarcated nobility as possessing qualities of loyalty, kindness, courage and spirituality. Qualities that were publicly displayed in how men dressed and presented themselves. Here is a piece from the larger film about this display of Mirzā’ī.

While how masculinity was coded in North India, differed among the Mughals, Marathas, Sikhs etc, they shared a pool of values and ideals. And how masculinity is codified may change over time, but the necessity of coding it never does. Nor does its public display. Mirzā’ī may have been transformed into Hip Hop. But our conductor man was channeling a long history of public expressions of North Indian men performing their gender.

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Punjab Journal: A Fair in Beggowal

by Shashwati Talukdar

Gurudwara fair chatris4

Chhatri on Beggowal’s Gurdwara

  Our hosts from the Jalandhar countryside were very keen we go to the fair at the Gurudwara in Beggowal, a place to which they had contributed handsomely. And indeed it was a handsome building. A fair was in progress, complete with neon squirrel light displays, and seva in the form of food and water.

Gurudwara Fair1

Seva at the fair

Beggowal is predominantly a Lubana village, as is the Gurdwara. And even a lazy researcher’s go-to, ie. Wikipedia, tells you that they were a nomadic people who became sedentary in the 19th century (Lubana.com has a brief outline of all the possible histories of the Lubanas). Interestingly, they seem to have become Sikhs in large numbers around the 1880s. So what was happening in the 19th century that could possibly explain all this?

A possibility from my engagement with a previous project suggests itself. The 18th century was a rather tumultuous time in the sub-continent. Not the least due to the coming of the railways in the wake of seemingly inevitable march of British Colonial progress. Nomadic peoples paid dearly for this particular political and economic reality. First, the coming of the railways destroyed (a detailed account of what happened to the Koravas in Madras Presidency is a good example) the livelihood of nomadic traders. Second, a system of colonial laws and economic arrangements created conditions such that many communities were unable to sustain themselves. They were increasingly marginalized socially and legally. Finally, the growing suspicion of nomadic communities and their criminalization with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, threw entire communities into a crises at the stroke of a pen. And many communities sought to escape their marginalization by transforming themselves. I do not know if the Lubanas were ever notified under the Criminal Tribes Act, but it was certainly the context of their lives in the late 18th century.

Gurudwara fair int2

Vyoma Gupta filming the interior of the Gurdwara


This LED Squirrel is animated

A second reality that was brewing in mid-19th century Punjab was the promotion of the idea of Sikhs as a martial race (in contrast to the rebellious Santhals, who got notified as a Criminal Tribe). A result of the changes after the first wars of independence in 1857, and the participation of Punjabi Sikhs in that particular conflict. This opened up career paths in the British Indian army. An attractive option in a world where traditional livelihoods were increasingly in jeopardy.

Whatever the reasons, the Lubanas seem to have, by and large, adapted very successfully to all the challenges and opportunities that presented themselves. And if our hosts were any indication, this was a community that hadn’t lost its ability to be successful. The Gurdwara they had funded was very well appointed, and the fair was not lacking for any up to date decorations, state of the art sound systems or any other arrangement you need for a large scale celebration.

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Punjab Journal: What is Western Union in Punjabi?

by Diditi Mitra

Western Union

Prominently Displayed on the Highway

As our bus hurtled down the state highway in the district of Ludhiana, ‘Western Union’ popped into our field of vision. The presence of Western Union, a company via which money is remitted internationally, signals the presence of migrant households in at least those villages. We also presumed that the immigrants from that area were likely to have traveled to America, given that Western Union is an American company. Perhaps as they rode away from their homes, or came back for a visit, they were reminded of their duty to support the family back home., preferably by using Western Union’s services.

Western Union, the company, is an old American institution. It began as The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company in 1851. Soon thereafter in 1856, the company’s name was changed to The Western Union Telegraph Company. The change in name reflected the links that were now established between the telegraph lines in the eastern and western parts of the United States. Nineteenth century was a time when America was in the throes of industrialization as well as a time of increased immigration from various parts of the world, including Asia. Over the years, Western Union has grown as a company. Here’s a video of how Western Union’s “culturally sensitive” marketing techniques in India furthers the company’s goals to make it an integral part of Indian immigrant lives.

As for remittances itself, journalists for the Times of India, Anahita Mukherji and Ashley D’Mello, reported that Kerala and Punjab are the two states in India that receive the highest remittances from its residents. Furthermore, India is the country that receives the highest remittances in the world, followed by China, Mexico, the Philippines and France. There was a slight decline in the remittances from 2008 and 2009, Mukherji and D’Mello write. But, the figures increased again in 2010, this time to amounts even higher than 2008.

Interestingly, Parasuraman, director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, asserts that along with being the highest receiver of remittances, India also has the highest number of return migrants – over 1 lakh (or 100,000) people return annually out of the 6 to 8 lakhs that emigrate every year.

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Punjab Journal: Migrating In

By Diditi Mitra & Shashwati Talukdar

Migrant Employees3

Fishery worker

Our host, while driving us to his village, stopped by at a fish farm that he had acquired. The caretaker of the fish farm was a migrant from Bihar, who lived with his family, in a mud shack by the water. His son was going to the local school. A friend of our host, who is a teacher, who had come along for the ride, immediately asked to see his books. The boy was going to a Punjabi language school, and was at the top of his class.

Migrant Employees7

Top of his class

While there’s migration out of Punjab, there’s also migration into Punjab. According to Census data published by the Indian government in 2001, about 8.7 percent of Punjab’s population is comprised of migrants from other parts of the country. Of all the Indian states, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana were the largest migrant sending states. Migration from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to Punjab has been slowing down though. The Census also reported that the three states with the highest proportion of in-migrants in 2001 were Maharashtra, Delhi and West Bengal. As for Punjab itself, the Census reported that of all the out- and in-migrants in the country for the year 2001, about .03 percent of people migrated out of Punjab, while approximately .05 percent migrated into Punjab (Census calculations are based on the total out- and in-migrants in India). Further, men comprise a higher number of migrants into Punjab. Work is the primary reason for men in general to have migrated. Women, on the contrary, are much more likely to migrate for familial reasons, like marriage. However, women are likely to become laborers when they migrate along with their husbands to various parts of India.  The women too become part of that migrant worker pool and contribute to the household income.
Migrant basket seller cu

The photographs offer a glimpse into the lives of those men, women and children who comprise migrant families in Punjab. The first is of the fisherman who, along with his family, had migrated to Punjab from Bihar, followed by a photograph of his son. On the left is a photograph of a migrant woman from Bihar. She had migrated with her husband. It was on our way to Chandigarh from Jalandhar that we saw her working alongside the highway – selling hand-made baskets.


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Punjab Journal: Farmland and Fisheries

by Diditi Mitra

FarmProduceFish5Driving through the vast areas of farmland with the return immigrants was a reminder that the village is very much alive in India. According to a report published in The Hindu on July 15, 2011, approximately 70 percent of India’s population lives in the rural areas. It is a decline by roughly two percent. Nonetheless, 70 percent is a significant proportion. Thus, any effort to obliterate the existence of the Indian villages is a denial of the lives and livelihood of many in the country. Above is a photograph of a person selling fruit and vegetables in the village of Beggowal, Punjab. One’s first impression of the photograph is of abundance. It looks picture postcard perfect. And, it is beautiful. At the same time, it is complex. This complexity unfolds as we continue with our journey through various parts of the state.

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Punjab Journal: Return Immigrants

by Diditi Mitra

Our own histories of being (im)migrants, from one big city to another as well as from a small town to a big city, within nations and across national boundaries made us seek out those who understood what these journeys are like. Our own journeys took us back to return immigrants–those who had left their villages in the Punjab and made journeys that sounded impossible, and were now back.

Meeting Return Migrants in Jalandhar (Photo by Vyoma Gupta)

Meeting Return Immigrants in Jalandhar (Photo by Vyoma Gupta)

In their village in Punjab, the returnees had reunited with their families. Perhaps that was something to celebrate. But, they had also left behind friends and relatives whom they had not seen in quite some time. We had brought back to them a piece of themselves – that’s what it felt like to hang with the immigrants who had returned back to Punjab from the United States. Some of them had lived in the States for as long as two decades. With us, had traveled stories of the land to which they were still connected, emotionally as well as through family members.

These histories of immigration also bound all of us together. All of us understood what it meant to have homes, and yet be homeless at the same time. Our gender differences did not seem to matter. They were all male and we were female. They were mostly from farming backgrounds and we were upper-middle class city people. In that experience of having immigrated though, we were connected. We were connected in our experience of being in-between homes.

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