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Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten
ARKESH AJAY | Issue Dated: January 26, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Punjab | Aurangzeb to Mountbatten | Rajmohan Gandhi |

In the year 2005, while Rajmohan Gandhi was in Pakistan interviewing people for his encyclopedic effort to chronicle Punjab and it’s long history, he received a message from a woman who insisted on narrating the story of her husband Dawood Perwaiz, who was two-and-half years old in 1947, when he was brought to a Lahore refugee camp, with his head and elbow slashed. But one knew from where. And they thought that maybe the Gandhi could help. Lets stay on this a moment - fifty-seven years after it happened, a sixty-year old man still can’t let go of that home he left behind, somewhere across that border; the home he has no memories of. This story, contained in a chapter titled Insaniyat amidst Insanity, underlines “The tragic fact that the bulk of 1947’s stories will remain unknown and unrecorded”, but given how much is at stake for how many of us, it also underlines “the value of gathering what can be recorded”.

And hence, this book – because not only do we need to keep trying to understand as to why did Punjab witness such carnage in 1947, but also because since far longer back in history the ‘Punjab that was’ has been strongly relevant to everything that happened in this part of the world we now know as the Indian subcontinent.

Gandhi’s ambition is herculean, no doubt. For Punjab is not only expansive in terms of its geography (now spread over two countries) and history, but also in terms of the people the region includes: Hindus, Sikhs, and its largest constituents – Muslims. But the author, who is a reputed scholar and a celebrated historian, achieves this satisfactorily to a large degree, combining meticulous reading and research with a knack for picking out little stories of great human value, thus constructing a complete and poignant picture. The book benefits largely because of this; this is no drab chronicle of facts, though practically there is a new fact every alternate sentence, but an engaging story of how has a region lived over the last two-hundred-and-fifty years.

The book begins by attempting to catch us up on Punjab, before we meet it in the 1707, the year of Aurangzeb’s demise. In this first chapter, Punjab until Aurangzeb’s death, too many things happen in too few pages, and may leave the reader exasperated and often thrown out of the narrative. But as we move closer to the British Punjab, we begin to see the author exercising much more control over his material. After all, this is the man who has given us the definitive biographies of four of the most prominent figures of India’s freedom movement, and his understanding of the society and politics of the years during and about the Raj is detailed and impeccable.

It is this section that Gandhi’s postulations are not only very strong-footed, but also inspire further inquiry and debate – all of which only point towards the success of the author’s pursuit. Punjab, being the path invaders took for centuries, was always mired in the turmoil and violence characteristic to the middle years. When the British came, Punjab almost welcomed them, for it was a bargain for peace, and in any case, the Mughals were always considered outsiders. And again, the uprising of 1857 didn’t see much traction in Punjab. What the Raj brought to Punjab was a rare period of stability, and therefore any attempt to dismantle that didn’t inspire much trust in the people of the region.

The book captures this factionalism that found its way in the British Punjab in the late 19th century – based on communal lines: Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. What this did was provide counterweights to any anti-British impulses that any faction would develop, thereby often dampening Punjab’s participation in the freedom struggle.

Isn’t it thus a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions that when the British hatched the devious plot of partition, they decided to cut Punjab right through its heart?For generations, despite of their religious differences, Punjabis had lived by their punjabiyat, only to completely lose it in the maze the British led them into. They ceased to be Punjabis, and became only Sikhs and Hindus, or Muslims.

But humanity is a stubborn candle, and it managed to live through the winds of bestiality that blew through Punjab during the partition. In the book’s final pages, are carried many such wistful stories of ordinary Punjabis standing by each other during the massacres.

Starting from a place of deep personal love, and travelling through the songs and swords of its many poets, rulers and invaders, Gandhi brings to us all the Punjabs that have lived through the ages. This isahaunting portrait of a fascinating land and its resilient people.

Author : Rajmohan Gandhi
Publisher : Aleph
Edition: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-93-8227-758-3
Pages: 400
Price: Rs 695

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017