Punjab Journal: Of Modernism and Punjab

by Shashwati Talukdar and Diditi Mitra

Faculty Housing Hallway, Punjab Agricultural University

Part I

Punjab is perhaps the state that best exemplifies India’s modernist dream. And nowhere is this clearer than in the architecture. The last image I have of our visit is of the Punjab Agriculture University Guest house, where we stayed during our visit to that region of Punjab. It was spacious, comfortable, and quiet. Looking like what most of Corbusier’s architecture in Chandigarh, the city that he planned looks like. Chandigarh is the capital city of both Punjab and neighboring state, Haryana. It is the flagship planned city of post-independent India. Architects Albert Mayer and Maciej Nowicki started planning it in 1949, but the master plan was done by Le Corbusier. The city was completed in 1960.

Corbusier may have been the high priest of Modernism, but his call to prayer has been answered by Indian citizens in unexpected ways. If you go to Chandigarh today, you see that the city square he planned as a space for subjects to become citizens, lies fallow and is full of weeds, the balconies that he planned in public housing to function as ‘spaces to open the mind’ have been made functional as kitchens or an extra bedroom by its residents. The traffic may be rational, and surprisingly orderly in a country with some of the worst traffic in the world, but Le Corbusier would probably be incensed with how the populace has interacted with his design.

They say Corbusier didn’t even bother to visit India when he designed the city of Chandigarh. And during the time it was coming up, he only visited a few times a year (in all about 22 times). And did not move there. He just had a beautiful modernist dream that was planted in the Punjab plains. And therein lies the rub. An open square without any shade does not make sense in a country that suffers from oppressive heat in the summers. Nor do balconies, to ‘improve the mind’ make sense for families that are often multi-generational, where space must be devoted to the needs of the family and not the individual. And so some see Chandigarh as a failed experiment:

On one level, then, Chandigarh is the hollow shell of Indian democracy, a representation without content, a museum to the deadly rationalism of a French modernist architect and the naive optimism of the first Indian prime minister after Independence…..

Corbusier’s dream may have gone rancid, and maybe it deserves to.

Part II

The recent success of populist movements, at least in India and the United States, would certainly signal the impending doom of liberal western modernity of which this kind of architecture is a symbol. This kind of “modern,” it’s source being the Enlightenment with reach far and wide through projects of colonization requires deliberation.

The urban generations of the post colonized world, like India, and in fact as well as the generations in the developed parts who have reaped some benefits from it, might view it positively. They have been raised to see themselves and the world through the lens of a Eurocentric conception of advancement, normalized as “natural.”The privileged urban classes in societies previously colonized do have something in common with their counterparts in the western world as well. There too, the privileged are not likely to see this path of development as necessarily a problem. They have ignored the plight of their disadvantaged sisters and brothers – people who were excluded from this modernist project.

Thus, modernity, with its foundations in scientific knowledge, scientific logic and the associated definition of progress, has not borne fruit for all of humankind. It left out significant segments of people from the project, deliberately or not. Failure of this vision was, consequently, inevitable. Or at least, one can say that this vision of progress has met with a great deal of resistance.

Right now, we are in a moment in time where one has to take stock of the past, its impact on the present and ways of moving forward. More importantly, how can all this be done with inclusion for all?

Rebuilding with another vision is perhaps the order of the times we are living through, and may as well be the same for at least for sometime to come.

In sum, we thought of ending the series with this post on modernity because it forces a reflection on the ways in which Punjab embodies the modernist project in India.

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Punjab Journal: Saints and Babas

by Shashwati Talukdar

srichand2Religious practices have a way of spilling out of prescribed boundaries. The figure on the poster of Shri Chand, in the front of the bus is what tempted me to go to Punjab. It’s the same image that is in the Guru Ram Rai Durbar in Dehradun, and one of the threads that connects Garhwal and Punjab.

A closer look at the poster .

A closer look at the poster .

Shri Chand, the son of Guru Nanak is considered the founder of the Udasins. It is a branch of Sikhism that has gone its own way. Or it could be said their practices place them ‘outside the parole’ of Sikh institutional authority as represented by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandhak Committee (SGPC). And as NK Aggarwal would argue, taking religion beyond the simple of binary of orthdox and heterodox.

In the bus we took, juxtaposed with images of Shrichand, were the images of leaders of Deras. Further complicating my understanding of Sikh institutions being solely the purview of Gurdwaras. Deras have leaders, and the following of live gurus in not part of the religion, event though the leader of the Dera might preach from the Sikh scriptures.

babaranjeets2On our bus was an image of Sant Baba Ranjit Singh Ji Dhandriawale. This was a small poster among so many that populate the surfaces of any Indian city, but something about this caught our attention. Maybe it was the Khalsa imagery or his quizzical gaze. (translated kindly by Amandeep Sandhu1)

We have since found out that he is a big tent preacher, with a very large following, and based in Dera Dhadrianwala. Our friend Jass informed us that he is a staunch protector of the faith, in the sense of disapproving of popular musicians like Babbu Maan who take on religious posturing, on the other hand he does not support the Khalistan movement (a movement for a separate state for the Sikhs) and has an on again and off-again relationship with the SGPC. Here is a video of Babbu Maan responding in song to criticism by Baba Ranjit Singh:

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Punjab Journal: “’47 to ’84”


Jalandhar bus stop

by Diditi Mitra

Posters of the film ’47 to 84’ were difficult to ignore if one was traveling in Punjab in the summer of 2014. The title charts the violence experienced by Sikhs from the Partition, discussed in one of our previous posts in this series, at the time of Indian independence in 1947 and connects it with the violence inflicted upon Sikhs when the Indian army attacked Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, on June 6, 1984.  Harmandir Sahib, also known as Darbar Sahib, is the holiest place of worship for Sikhs. It is troubling to note that this attack occurred during commemoration of the martyrdom of the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev.


Harmandir Sahib, Golden Temple. Source: www.bestphotostheworld.com

It was believed that the Golden Temple was harboring Sikh “terrorists” who were fighting for Khalistan, a separate Sikh state.

Over 125 other Sikh shrines were simultaneously attacked. On the false pretext of apprehending ‘a handful of militants’ lodged inside the Golden Temple, the Indian army unleashed a terror unprecedented in post-independence India. It took the use of Vijayanta tanks to win the fight for the army. These let loose a barrage of highly explosive shells, which destroyed the Akal Takht, the temporal seat of the Sikhs.”

And, the horror faced by Sikhs on that fatal day of June 6 1984 was actually not the end of it. Assassination of the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, by his Sikh bodyguards on 31 October, 1984 – a killing that has been associated with Operation Bluestar, or shaka neelataara, to raid the Golden Temple — resulted in organized violence against Sikhs.


Violence on Sikhs in 1984. Photo: Deccan Chronicle

The carnage lasted only 4-5 days, October 31 to November 4, but it traumatized a community for years to come. Sikhs were burnt alive with tires around their necks, women were raped, Sikh stores were looted/destroyed. This systematic assault, and not a riot which is incorrectly used to suggest a spontaneous and unorganized eruption of violence against Sikhs, was carried out with full support of the state machinery. Click here to read the story of one of the survivors of this pogrom, Amarjit Singh Walia. He also lived in Daltonganj, Bihar – a place that has generally not received attention in this context.

Such is the fate of minority groups everywhere – one person’s actions are generalized onto the entire group and then treatment for the “other” group follows accordingly.

To get a glimpse of the traumatizing results of this pogrom, one has to only watch the documentary film Widow Colony. Here’s a clip from the documentary.

Notably, the call for Khalistan was heard prior to independence. Sikhs, like Muslims, desired a separate Sikh nation. They were apprehensive at being part of Hindu majority independent India. Additionally, while not a separate state, demands were made by Sikhs for greater autonomy which led to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973. The promises made in that resolution were not honored by the Indian government either.

“Which nation shall I call my own now?” reads the Punjabi subtitle of the film ’47 to ’84 – a question that I suppose Sikhs have been asking ever since. Click here to view a trailer of the film.

The year 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the attack on Darbar Sahib. This film, and a few others that were released around the same time, was perhaps a way to lend voice to the injustice and the trauma endured by Sikhs – voices that the Indian state continues to silence.


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Punjab Journal: A Week of Silence

by Shashwati Talukdar & Diditi Mitra

This week we will not be updating the Punjab Journal. This week marks thirty two years since the pogrom against the Sikhs of North India. Thousands of people were killed and justice has eluded the victims. The perpetrators have never been called upon to pay for their crimes. Nine commissions of enquiry have been instituted. Nothing has come of it. The architects of the pogroms have been allowed to live out the rest of their natural lives in comfort and security. And many have continued with their careers in public life. Given this history we feel stalled in our tracks of talking about our travels through Punjab. We feel too angry, too sad, and too disheartened. We’ll continue next week.

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Punjab Journal: The Eternal Vigilance of Bhagat Singh

by Shashwati Talukdar

The busy bus inter-state bus stop in Jalandhar has a tiny triangle ofbhagatsinghstatue2 a park. Not very user friendly, it has a forlorn statue of Bhagat Singh in one corner. This statue shows him wearing a turban. Clearly, it marks him out as a Sikh. This is an interesting shift. Bhagat Singh is usually immortalized in the popular imagination as wearing a hat and sometimes holding a gun, or with a noose in the background. What could be the reason he was portrayed like this? Was it because a European accessory like a hat would make him too alien, and his Punjabi Sikh identity was what was necessary to assert here? A Sikh identity that was fused with the incontestable patriotism of a figure like Bhagat Singh.

Bhagat Singh on TV

Bhagat Singh on TV

The statue seems to have been installed in 2007 which is also the year Parkash Singh Badal came back to office as Chief Minister of Punjab. Given his connection to the Sikh clergy, which has been one of co-optation by him and thereby the blurring of lines between church and state, to benefit Badal and his family’s political ambitions, the installation of this statue is perhaps a perfect emblem to seal that connection in the Punjabi electorate. It is perhaps a reminder to the good Sikhs of Jalandhar, i.e. in order to be good Sikhs they need to be patriotic by supporting a person and party that seeks to identify itself as not only the secular leader of all Punjabis but also their spiritual leader and thus, by blurring the distinction between church and state. Or it could mean the exact opposite! A call to all true Sikhs to be like Bhagat Singh and rebel against an undemocratic government, that is, it was an oblique call to oppose the current government. It’s hard to know what the answer is without knowing the players in this particular local drama. However, the statue was certainly a clue as to what questions to ask.

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Punjab Journal: Tea and Papers


by Shashwati Talukdar

Across from the Press club of Jalandhar is a pavement tea stall, the first thing that was open, a place where we could get that morning cup of tea all researchers require. We had company – a whole group of men who got their tea and read the paper before they got to work. The number and variety of papers that seemed to be available in Punjabi was impressively large. And it looked as if people were reading papers everywhere, including the bus, which makes sense given that the overall literacy rate is higher than average for India, and interestingly it seems to be on par with what is average for all of India, while female literacy rates are higher than what is the average for India.

newspaper-cu-2Interestingly it wasn’t the young people we saw reading these papers, and indeed literacy in Punjabi seems to be declining, despite the rich written and oral culture of Punjab on both sides of the border. In recent years there has been an effort to build bridges through language across the border. Maybe this chai shop with mostly middle-aged men, is actually a harbinger of the future. Or, maybe its the migrants to Punjab who hold the key to literacy in Punjabi. (h/t Pritam Singh)

In any case independent media is threatened in Punjab, as it is elsewhere in India and the world. Even though the newspaper culture looks very robust.

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Punjab Journal: Christianizing Punjab

by Diditi Mitra


Bus stop, Jalandhar

A call to follow Jesus Christ: “Prabhu Isu Masih-ji da pukar” says the Gurmukhi script. The script in devnagari, right below it says “Prabhi Isu Masi-ji ka pukar.” “Isu Masih” is the Indian name for Jesus Christ. The poster caught our eyes as the bus pulled out of the station in Jalandhar. It raised all sorts of questions: What kind of Christianity is being spread in the rural areas of Punjab? How strong is the presence of Christianity? And, more importantly, is there a backlash against the expansion of Christianity and if so, of what kind? Should those converting and those spreading the word of Christ worry about their safety in light of the recent campaign by the right wing Hindu fundamentalist movement for ‘ghar wapsi,’ i.e. to (re)convert non-Hindus in India back to Hinduism with the assumption that all non-Hindus in contemporary India were forcefully converted into that ‘other’ religion. Something to think about, isn’t it?

While all of the above raised questions regarding Christianity, Hindutva, and Punjab are too big to tackle here, some light can certainly be shed on some of them.


A closer look at the posters

A cursory Google search on ‘Christianity in Punjab” revealed that the population of Christians in the state is notable enough to be wooed for the state Assembly elections in 2017. According to an article published in The Indian Express, the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, met with leaders of Punjab Christian United Front in order to get a sense of the issues faced by the group in order to define the “party’s manifesto” for the elections in 2017. The search also resulted in news stories about ‘ghar wapsi’ of Christians in Punjab. Rather curiously, the RSS performed ‘ghar wapsi’ functions not to (re)convert Christians to Hinduism, but ‘back’ to Sikhism. Yudhvir Rana, author of the article published in the Times of India entitled “In Punjab, Sangh brings Christians back to Sikhism,” writes that the RSS has plans of holding more such ‘ghar wapsi’ functions which he asserts will in fact taint the relationship that Shiromani Akali Dal, and the BJP by way of that party, shares with Punjab.

An article by Ravi Dhaliwal published in The Tribune would suggest that the relationship between the Christian leaders and these two political parties are already strained. Lack of burial grounds, employment opportunities and preservation of the churches are at least some of the unmet demands of the group.

Interestingly, Christian leaders dispute Census estimates of less than a percent of Christians in Punjab. Imanul Rehmat Masih, a Christian leader, argues that the percentage is in fact 7 to 10 percent. But, the government, according to him, undercounts Christians in the state in order to mask the fast growing attraction of the religion among Punjabis and to extend political power to the group.

Click here for a report published by the Pew Forum that points specifically to the spread of Pentecostalism in India.


Kirpa Bhavan Ministries

On our trip, we had the opportunity to visit one of the evangelical organizations in the village of Paragpur. We also met with one of the pastors in the village of Buta and got some insights into the breadth and depth of Christianity in Punjab.

Christianity has a long presence in Punjab – since the early nineteenth century. But the religion and its followers continue to experience resistance as a minority religion in India as a whole. Physical attacks on Christians and destruction of churches are just a couple of ways in which their minority status becomes apparent.

So, are Christians completely accepted in the context of the Hindu dominant society of India? The answer is: no. As a minority group, Christians are subject to prejudice and discrimination in the society.

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Punjab Journal: Music

by Shashwati Talukdar


Getting a music list

This taxi driver epitomizes our aural experience of the state. Everywhere we went, it seemed we were surrounded by music. From the recitation and singing in the Rara Sahib Gurdwara, to how a conductor attracts customers.

The auto driver had a tricked out auto, with customized speakers and lights. I asked him who was on his I-pod (that’s what he used) and he was shocked that we didn’t know the name of the artists.

We wondered why all the music we encountered was so good. Was it the tradition of Urdu poetry, or Sufi philosophy, was it the importance of music in Gurudwara services, with its great attention to form and not just the words?

Most of what we heard was amazing, and some of it simply left us dumbfounded:


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Punjab Journal: Maseet

by Shashwati Talukdar

On the way to Jalandhar from Ludhiana, our kind and talkative taxi driver suddenly grew quiet and said just one word, ‘maseet.’ What’s a ‘maseet?’ We didn’t immediately catch on, but realized that he said the Punjabi word for masjid (mosque). He didn’t elaborate. And we didn’t press it. He looked old enough to have been born before the 1947 partition. We were perhaps just queasy about maseet3talking about trauma. Why bring it up, when all of us know those stories? When we know how those stories have scarred the landscape.

In the middle of the newly painted houses and signs of prosperity, this decrepit old building that is not used for the purpose it was built, suddenly silenced us. What had happened to those people who used this mosque? Were they part of the group that were pushed out and eventually went to the other side of the border? If so, surely they and their children talk about the trauma of partition the same way we do on this side of the border. And, even if ‘those people’ continued to live on this side of the border, the destruction endured by the mosque was perhaps endured by them as well.

We like to think of ourselves as victims, but weren’t we perpetrators too?

An interesting counter-narrative to this sad looking maseet, is the story of the Guru ki Maseet. An abandoned masjid, taken over by the Nihangs and then made available to Muslims. A feat of inter-religious harmony, but by no means achieved easily. It took negotiation and compromise. For a more scholarly account read Anna Bigelow’s article about  this shared sacred site (if you can get behind the damned firewall). The case of Guru ki Maseet makes it clear that the received notion that religious differences are intractable is by no means a given. If there is an institutional will to overcome conflict, such sharing of sacred space is possible. It is erroneous to think of sacred spaces as being always exclusive, it can have multiple meanings, and successful management of such spaces can be achieved through a historicization of the space and not separating its history from its location.

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Punjab Journal: A Day in Rara Sahib

by Diditi Mitra and Shashwati Talukdar

On the bus to Rara Sahib

On the bus to Rara Sahib

Our visit with Balbir Singh ji (see previous post) to Rara Sahib Gurdwara in Karamsar, Ludhiana was the first trip that took us through the villages of Punjab.

The gurdwara is located near Ludhiana, Punjab in the village of Rara Sahib. It was constructed in the early part of the twentieth century subsequent to the visit of Sant Isher Singh-ji and Sant Kishan Singh-ji. The village Rara was transformed into Rara Sahib after the visit of the sixth Sikh guru, Guru Hargobind-ji in the seventeenth century.

One of the features of the Gurdwara is the continuous rendition of paath rarasahibinterior1and kirtan. Apparently it goes on day and night, every single day without a break. And we would venture to say, it is much more beautiful than what you’d hear from Harmandir Sahib. Here is a live feed from Dukh Niwaran Sahib, that is comparable to what we heard in Rara Sahib.

On the second floor of the main building was a permanent exhibit of paintings. The first image that greeted us was a sign saying “self photography strictly prohibited.”


‘Self Photography is Strictly Prohibited’

It wasn’t that taking photographs was prohibited. The use of the Gurdwara as a tourist destination is what was objectionable.


‘To save Jogi Bharthari from hell, Guru Nanak Dev Ji takes him to Junagadh for his marriage with Princess of Junagadh (Daughter of Kamlapat Juna) through stirit val (sic) power’

Most of the images had to do with incidents from the life of the Gurus that are familiar to everyone. An image, however, stood out. This was the image of Bharthari  — something we had not really associated with Sikhism. Bharthari is a Gorakhshnathi Saint, a figure of reverence for some Udasins ( for a discussion of how Udasins stopped being part of the Sikh panth read this, if you can get behind the firewall). And here he was, his story conflated with that of Guru Nanak.  Despite the hardening of boundaries of Sikh identity over the last hundred and fifty years or so, this image, which one imagines had been purged out of Sikh religious institution had survived. For a the current status of who is considered a Sikh and who is not according to the ecclesiastical powers that be, see Amandeep Sandhu on the status of Sahajdhari Sikhs.

rarasahibinerior13We had lunch at the langar in Gurdwara. Scores of women were seated in rows, hovering around a hot oven in the extreme heat of summer in Punjab, making rotis. Making bread was their seva, or service, as part of Sikh religious duties. The particular task of seva – cooking – is of course gendered. That observation, while difficult to overlook, is not the entire picture of the kitchen though. Clearly, it is a space that women have carved out for themselves, albeit within the confines of social expectations. So then one has to consider that this space is likely where women form close bonds, a space to talk about their lives, and it is likely to be a place where women offer support to each other. This space for seva is also then a space for women’s community.

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