Sunday, September 8, 2013


The region has seen a lot of strife and bloodshed but there are numerous traditions of peace and cultural pluralism that are thriving. Why not focus on these when we build memorials? We should be conscious of our responsibility towards the future generations

Yogesh Snehi

Instead of creating memorials that remind us about violence, we should be building memorials of peace and reconciliation like this memorial (R) of writer Robert Burns (L) in Edinburgh
IN the past few years there has been a splurge in the construction of several significant memorials and museums on certain select facets of the history of Punjab. The most ambitious among these are the Khalsa Heritage Memorial, Wada Ghalughara at Kup Rahiran in Sangrur district, Chhota Ghalughara in Chak Abdalwari in Gurdaspur district and Chhaparchiri in S.A.S. Nagar (Mohali).
The most recent addition in this list is the proposed memorial on Operation Bluestar within the Golden Temple Complex (Amritsar), which I thus see in a sense of continuity. Significantly, all these memorials have a peculiar character and tend to engage with particular kinds of histories of martyrdom, wars, violence and genocide that the region has suffered since the 16th century.

The framework of time and space with which these memorial engage with relates to specific episodes within the realm of political conflict of the Sikhs against the Mughal state and later the Colonial government on the one hand, and contemporary post-Independence state on the other.

A broad construction of region’s history through these memorials bring to fore the idea that Punjab has always been engaged in wars, conflicts, invasions and violence which is dominantly religious in nature. These memorials are also premised on the creation of a binary of Sikhs against the Muslims, the British and more recently the Hindus. In a limited perspective, these museums and memorials intend to narrate and retell significant sacrifices made by Sikhs fighting against injustices and oppression of various hegemonising tendencies.

However, as a historian one seeks to contest the limited frames of these narratives since they leave out more significant histories of peace, which has inspired centuries of co-existence between various communities. In this context, I raise a fundamental question of ‘intent’ and seek to explore the choices which sectarian politics impinges upon the public domain for narrow political gains? After all. what is it that we want to leave for future generations to remember?

I am sure none of us would like to promote re-emergence of bloodshed and violence for the youth of Punjab. How should we then remember yet forgive and forget those facets of terrible histories which left indelible scars on popular memory and reconcile them with contemporary realities?

How would creating war and violence memorial make better humans out of our generations? I propose, as many others have, that if we keep larger objective of building the future Punjab in mind, we should be building memorials of peace and reconciliation. This objective cannot be achieved through selective tales of shared memories of violence.

In the context of the Partition, documentary filmmaker Ajay Bharadwaj underlines that while narrating the tales of violence, "We often prefer to shut out the whole episode with a wall of silence," and instead target Muslim communalism, which is dominant in the narratives of popular Partition histories and continue to be taught in the schools and colleges of the region.

Similarly, the violence experienced during the terrible days of terrorism in Punjab is vetted out against each other by the Sikh and the Hindu communalists. Is there then any ‘final solution’ of these vexed issues? Can we ever emerge out these binaries? Fortunately, there are numerous parallel narratives of peace, which continue to inspire the lived lives of Punjabis in contemporary times and have been nurtured threw centuries of shared coexistence. Why should these narratives be missing from the historical discourse of the region? Let us briefly discuss some of these narratives.

I begin with the second half of the 16th century. The popular tale of Dulla Bhatti (a Rajput Muslim zamindar), which is continually narrated during the Lohri festival of Punjab, retells the story of how in a dominantly Muslim province of Punjab, a local zamindar saved the ‘honour’ of two (Hindu) Brahmin girls, from the gaze of a Mughal officer, who, on hearing about their beauty, wanted to acquire them, by secretly arranging their marriage.

The tale continues to be popular among the Sikh-dominated province of Punjab. I emphasise the religious (though non-descriptive) identities here to highlight how kinship relations and local ties in medieval Punjab where intertwined with caste and ethnic identities and played a significant role on shared existence amid the centralising tendencies of Mughal state.

Two narratives associated with the tenth Sikh guru retell the stories of Bal (baby) Gobind and the sacrifice of his two young sons. Pir Bhikam of Patiala had this ‘dream revelation’ that a new sun had risen in the east at Patna. He and two of his murids embarked upon a journey to the town to seek the blessings of the baby and dispel the doubts of the latter. They also carried along two pots of sweets, one from the house of a Hindu and another from the house of a Muslim. At Patna, the saint placed two pots of sweets in front of the child, desiring to know what would be his attitude to the two major religious traditions of India. As the child covered both the pots simultaneously with his tiny hands, Bhikham Shah felt happy concluding that the new seer would treat both Hindus and Muslims alike and show equal respect to both.

In the second narrative, when two young sons of Guru Gobind were captured by Wazir Khan, the Nawab of Malerkotla, Sher Muhammad Khan wrote a letter to Aurangzed protesting against the Emperor’s order to execute innocent boys. Guru Gobind apparently thanked the nawab and proclaimed that the Sikhs of the region will henceforth offer their oblation to the buried patron saint Haider Shaikh of Malerkotla. Guru Gobind’s sons could not be saved, neither did Aurangzeb survive. But, until today the memory of this episode continues to draw both Sikhs and Hindus to the shrine of Haider Shaikh and over the centuries this narrative has transformed into a cultural idiom of shared sacred space. One is reminded of Gandhi’s famous critique of dominance of violence in the narratives of history where he says that "the fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love" which has guided the course of history.
I thus again seek to raise this fundamental question about envisioning the kind of society we want for our future generations. Amid the spirals of violence which continue to determine region’s history, it is the hope of peace and reconciliation which should determine the imagination for the future. Can’t we have a memorial where we collectively mourn the killings of innocent people during the last century; a memorial which condemns violence meted out against Hindus, innocent Sikh youth, human rights activists and also millions of those who were killed in violence of Partition? We need to ponder over these questions rather than glorify one form of violence over the other. Resistance to an oppressive order is justified only when it is itself committed to peace. At least, this is what centuries of historical encounters tell us with the hope that ‘lest we forget’. We also need to recover the narrative of shared existence from a generation which will soon be lost unrecorded in the annals of written histories.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Bhopal: A Never Ending Tragedy 

In the midst of recent Supreme Court verdict on 07 June 2010 in the Union Carbide gas leak case, Bhopal has once again drawn attention of national and international debates. We were a team of eight members comprising of a professor each from CanadaDelhi and Amritsar, two students from Canada and a reporter from BBC London along with two locals, who visited the premises of the Union Carbide factory at Bhopal on 12 July 2010. Our team was denied entry beyond the second gate and asked to seek permission from the Collector’s office.

Bhopal is a pertinent example of criminal impunity of the perpetrators of a heinous crime by the state against its own citizens. It is a gory example of a development model where lives of common folk are discounted to create hazardous mega-structures in the name of economic growth. Significantly the site where Union Carbide was setup was then the periphery of the city where the people on the margins lived in a slum (basti) right opposite to its premises and whose lives did not carry much significance to those in power.

A cancer patient who does not have enough funds to buy medicines (Photo by Simon Chilvers) 

Among the victims of the tragedy we met Hamida Bi who looked visibly old and spoke vividly of the time she has seen, right from the fateful night of the gas leak to systematic loss of lives of her family members including her husband and children. Hamida has also been central to the mobilization of women in the entire movement against the state machinery which has continuously expressed lack of seriousness for the victims of tragedy. She narrated how in the event of mishap and at the behest of the authorities, the area was cleared of people and dead bodies of Muslims where buried enmasse and Hindus were burned without religious rites.

Subsequently Bhopal victims have been fighting a joint battle in the court and public domain demanding compensation and quality access to the treatment of victims who continue to be affected by the after affects of exposure to the poisonous gas. We heard of cases of still-born infants, multiple disabilities of those otherwise born, prolonged tuberculosis, etc. Sadly the fake medicines provided by the hospital established by the state government, exemplifying utter contempt of Court injunctions, shattered the lives of the ailing victims instead of curing them. The vicious cycle of rising expenses on the treatment from private hospitals and clinics worsens the condition of those who are unemployed or have meager income to sustain their medical expenses, leading to continuous loss of precious lives.

The only available compensation that government has been forced to pay has been from the verdicts of the court. Rukhsana Begum, another victim of the tragedy, narrated the incidents when during the exercise to ascertain the quantum of compensation the government officials would ask if their children were fake and illegitimate. The state reflects a cruel paradox when fully aware of its own ‘criminal neglect’ of its people, it instead tries to criminalize the latter. When the organs of the state cannot protect innocent lives, its very existence comes to question. This scenario is amply reflected in the entire tribal belt of central India where continuous neglect and exploitation of indigenous people has eventually led to an appropriation of the entire debate by Maoist violence.

This entire experience resonated with the lives of these two women who have lost almost everything in their lives. They are continually fighting battles in personal and public lives, trying to secure every bit of hope which attaches significance to their existence. From litigations, dharnas and advocacy to ensuring lives of continually ill members of family, their education and employment, these women are fighting crucial battle against the state authorities. It could not have been possible without the steadfast support of Jabbar Bhai who has stood by the cause of victims. Union Carbide tragedy has devastated the lives of thousands of people which are estimated to be 30,000 of those killed until now and more than a lakh who are suffering from multiple ailments.

The Centre has recently moved a curative petition to the Supreme Court seeking 11 fold hike in relief to the gas victims. The Tribune (December 4, 2010) quotes the figures of people dead as 5,295 (as compared to SC count of 3,000) and the number of cases with minor injuries as 5,27,894 (as against 50,000 estimated by the apex court earlier)

Rukhsana pointing towards the Union Carbide Factory (Photo by Simon Chilvers)

For the past sixteen years Swabhiman Trust took up the cause of providing training in multiple skills to Hindu and Muslim girls to give them a sense of dignity and help them support their families. It has rekindled hope for many and the centre has since then also become pivot of various activities for the victims of an unprecedented tragedy in human history. Swabhiman not only redefined the inter-communal relations of victims but also transformed the likes of Hamida Bi and Rukhsana Begum. Hamida proudly narrated how in the wake of tragedy she abandoned burqa. She has until now lost 35 members of her family in the tragedy. Rukhsana accompanied us to the families of Muslim and Hindu victims and would occasionally ask for photograph with the victims reflecting a sense of solidarity, a collective sense of hope.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Understanding Ayodhya


Why aren't we discussing Ayodhya verdict? Are we comfortable with the idea that court has been fair enough for all the parties involved? The precedence set by the verdict has in a way de-legitimized the secular fabric of our country. Faith and that too majoritarian cannot be a justification for such a ruling. I am hearing Mr. Advani saying that the verdict has justified his rath yatras!!! What next??

Sad part is that earlier we used to think that higher Judiciary was perhaps the only organ of our constitution which was dispensing fair justice and was custodian of Law. The judgement ha shown least consideration for law. Faith and majoritarianism seems to have been major drivers of the judgement!

The fact if that the matter was primarily of ownership of property and while deciding this we have to somewhere decide the timeline from where we have to begin. Even if we presume that there was a temple below the mosque, how far can we stretch the debate of ownership; certainly not before British came to India when records of rights began to be maintained. And how can we justify the present demolition in a secular democratic INDIA on the pretext of an incident which is perhaps a reflection of a feudal arrangement.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Managing Conflict in Colleges

Managing Conflict in Colleges

-Yogesh Snehi

Managing Conflict and understanding social behaviour form an integral aspect of any college/university administration. Conflict can literally be defined as disagreement or incompatibility at the level of thought. It can also represent a state of non-violent and even violent tussle, unrest and struggle. Thus when one tries to grasp the ways to ‘manage conflict in colleges’, the nature and conceptual framework of the conflict should be kept in mind. Further, the term ‘managing’ itself is problematic. It is significant to understand and devise ways to ‘resolve conflict’ than to ‘manage’ it. The latter implies a piecemeal arrangement, a proposition which is dangerous for Indian democracy as pertinent issues continue to remain unresolved. I intend to understand conflict through various perspectives, vis-à-vis personal and social.

Conflict generally begins at the emotional level. The ‘matters of home’ and the attitudes of parents are crucial to the genesis or resolution of conflicts within self and with others. Matters as trivial as parental dealing of a child’s emotional and material needs or behaviour and resolving conflict between siblings will be crucial to understand the origins of conflict. Dealing with opposite sex, with teachers, friends and colleagues and college authorities is something which an individual learns in the family. Thus family plays a significant role and every emerging issue in a college needs to be dealt through an active involvement and counselling of parents along with students. Student counselling should become an integral part of college administration.

Colleges and Universities constitute a crucial stage in the psychological growth of the youth in India. In a country where some colleges and universities lay emphasis on segregation of boys and girls within the classroom and outside, psycho-sexual conflict begins at this level. Further, the state also lays emphasis on establishing separate colleges for boys and girls, which further accentuates the conflict. Human desire to know the ‘other’ which involves multiple layers of sexual, emotional and social curiosities is the second step in understanding conflict. Colleges should focus on encouraging interaction between the ‘genders’. Inter-dining, inter-gender sports and dialogue should be encouraged to break the social barriers of caste, class and gender. It helps in breaking gender-related myths, reduces sexual tensions and is a first step in harmonising conflict in colleges.

Social behaviour also helps us in understanding day-to-day conflict in colleges. Notion of caste and class play a vital role in formulating these conflicts. Indian society has varied layers of caste and class hierarchies. Such notions inevitably foster ‘group-formation’ among students. Group-formation is essential to solidarity between members of various castes and classes, at times to resist oppression and hegemony. But in areas where social behaviour is marked often by feudal tensions of caste or/and class conflicts, such attitudes will be reflected in college politics too. Besides inter-state/ regional groupings also play a significant role in fostering solidarity on the one hand but also conflict on the other. Very often minor personal tussle transforms into inter-caste, inter-class or inter-regional conflicts.

Dealing with such conflicts requires rigorous encouragement of intra-caste, class and regional interaction which would help in breaking the narrow parochial barriers of social behaviour. The engagement of teachers and academia is extremely essential in this exercise. Academics have to find answers to issues related to the society and channelizing the energies of students towards constructive activities relating to their day-to-day problems. In addition to it, in a multi-ethnic/religious society like India, conflicts can also turn into inter-ethnic/religious violence. It is essential to engage students in critically debating on these issues, discussing and eliminating biases and fostering peace and cooperation.

Ideology has played a significant role in the emergence of student politics. In the 1960s-70s, student unrest in colleges was significantly determined by various ideological positioning. Elections to student council/bodies continue to be fought on the lines of state or national political parties. In a majority of cases party conflicts lead to apparently unavoidable conflict in colleges. Violent forms of such conflicts are condemnable but politics should be placed in a proper perspective. Rather the effort should be on shaping leadership and extending debates by organising discussions on political issues. De-politicisation is a serious character of students’ politics in colleges; the focus should be on guiding their energies on socially productive behaviour, critical thinking and nation building.

Efforts should be laid on building leadership but at the same time delinking students’ politics from narrow and divisionary party feuds. It is further essential to differentiate between physical violence and unrest. While violence is condemnable and unacceptable in any democratic society, unrest is crucial to the evolution of social thought. It strengthens criticality and dynamism in social behaviour. It is also essential to understand that equal participation of both boys and girls can inculcate cohesiveness and conjure social responsibility. It is also essential to engage students in academic debates which strengthens intellect and fosters democratic solidarity.

Conflict also manifests in the form of rampant gender-based eve-teasing and occasional cases of molestation in the colleges. Many colleges have enacted strict laws against such cases. These measures should be strengthened in colleges throughout India. Eve-teasing and molestation degrades human and individual dignity and ruptures emotional integrity. Though laws can act as effective deterrent, it is essential to engage and sensitise the perpetuators of such violence. There are other forms of violence, for instance in the colleges and university hostels of Panjab University, where students are often known to hurling both physical and verbal abuses on mess/canteen workers who live in pitiable conditions. Authorities should be intolerant to such incidents. These migrant workers suffer from multiple forms of alienation. Their living conditions are a grim reminder of our social reality. Students should rather engage with such core issues of progressive politics.

Violence is an articulation of emotional, sexual and psychological anxieties on the one hand and social, economic and political underpinnings on the other. Productive channelization of students and academic churning on these issues can be crucial to resolving and managing conflict in colleges. In cases of violent conflicts colleges resort to protective policing, but in the long run these measures should be corroborated with a more sustainable mechanism of conflict resolution. Yet there are other forms of conflicts between teachers, with management, which should be equally addressed in the interest of students.

Acknowledgements: This presentation benefits from a panel discussion 'Culture of Violence and Academic Atmosphere in Panjab University’ organised by Critique on 26 August 2003. I am also thankful to Deepa Sharma for her useful comments. It was presented at the 80th General Orientation Course at Academic Staff College, Panjab Unversity, Chandigarh on 16 December 2008.

Martyr as Bridegroom: A Folk Representation of Bhagat Singh

Martyr as Bridegroom:

A Folk Representation of Bhagat Singh

By Ishwar Dayal Gaur (Delhi: Anthem Press, 2008)

Reviewed by Yogesh Snehi

Bhagat Singh and his tirade against British imperialism has largely been studied and analysed either through nationalist, Marxist and revolutionary perspectives, or through terrorist and communitarian perspectives. These perspectives have until recently been dominantly elitist and give little space to popular representation of history. The book under review is an attempt to construct the image of Bhagat Singh from the perspective of the people. The study attempts to ‘explain him and his revolutionary career from the viewpoint of popular literary and cultural traditions of Punjab; how the Punjabi people, the carriers of these traditions, look upon him’ as a bridegroom (p.xiv). It is also an attempt to enlarge the debate on ‘representations’ in Indian historiography.

Gaur has divided the book into six chapters. He tends to theorise the various trends in historiography and literary traditions of India and emphasises that while political and state boundaries are different from the boundaries of cultural heritage, legacies both sectarian and nationalist are also too narrow to accommodate folk heroes of Indian subcontinent. He situates his argument in the context of historically evolved Punjabi ethos of non-conformism, non-sectarianism and counter-hegemony, which have been crucial to an understanding of the history of Punjab. These folk representations testify that during the struggle against British imperialism, the general people of India were not passive and dormant participants. ‘They were an active social force who responded enthusiastically and culturally to their martyrs, their struggles and their martyrdoms.’ (p.9)

The author tries to locate the trajectory of ‘a Punjabi martyr’ and their martyrdom in tradition and history through various narratives of ‘Sikh’ martyr Guru Arjan Dev, ‘outlaw’ martyr Dulla Bhatti, ‘lover’ martyr- Hir-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnun and Sohni-Mahiwal, ‘patriot’ martyrs like Bhagat Singh and others. Bhagat Singh is understood as a human being imbued with emotions and sentiments, a social liberal crusader against caste through a network of alliances’, a prolific writer and an organic intellectual who through his art of rhetoric and metaphor uses various simile, metaphor and legends from Indian history, an actor who unfolds various hues of his personality and as a prisoner committed to intellectual growth and political rights of prisoners in colonial India. Thus Bhagat Singh emerged a hero even before his death and descended deep into the minds and hearts of the people of Punjab.

The most significant treatment of Bhagat Singh is the popular depiction of his martyrdom. These folk representations provide an alternative discourse for understanding the literary and cultural context of the ‘month of martyrdom’ when Bhagat Singh was executed. Gaur probes the writings of Kalidasa, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah and others, and locates the advent of spring season with social change, playing of Holi with self-sacrifice and eagerness to meet his fiancée, death. Folk songs, especially the genres of ghori, marhi and qissa, and their themes of love and eroticism, of heroic and chivalric activities and of sacrifice and martyrdom are instrumental in the evolution of death-bridegroom or marriage-martyrdom motifs in the historical trajectory of Punjab. The image of virgin-martyr Bhagat Singh, narrated in the folk genre of qissa, is more revealing and multifaceted than the nationalist and Marxist narrations. Folk culture reinvents the virgin-martyr and weds him to death.

Dialogical narration is a peculiar characteristic of Qissa Bhagat Singh. The range emotions, sentiments and the inanimate objects which are used as metaphors in qissa are essential to situate the history of emotions. Bhagat Singh di Marhi is an elegy written on the aspirations for freedom by Bhagat Singh who for their realisation wedded death and devalued the significance of the death penalty. Thus, Bhagat Singh belongs to the Punjabi space which resonates with the legends of the virgin-martyrs or martyr-bridegrooms like Salar Masud Ghazi, Haqiqat Rai, Ajit Singh, Jhujhar Singh, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh. His ancestors are ‘virgin’ martyrs and therefore he is well grounded in the history and culture of Punjab and is assigned vernacular sensitivity and specificity through cultural idioms, customs and traditions. This work is of immense significance for general reader and those interested in alternative discourse in Indian history.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hyper-Masculinity in Amritsar (Punjab)- India

Hyper-Masculinity in Amritsar

by Yogesh Snehi

The city of Amritsar is unique in a number of ways. On the first day of navratras (nine days of fasting and festivity before the day of Dusshera), hundreds of children and adults (unmarried sons) dressed as langurs can be seen on the streets of the walled city flocking to Bara Hanuman Temple at the Dugiana Temple complex to celebrate the langur-mela. Not only Hindus but Sikhs and Muslims also dress their children in colourful princely-attire like monkeys after fulfilment of their wish of a male child.

Langur-mela typifies the intensity of hyper-masculinity in Amritsar. According to Surinder Kumar Billa the president of All-India Hindu Shiv Sena more than 10,000 langurs throng the Temple during navratras (The Tribune, Amritsar Plus, 13 October 2007). Punjab has been historically been notorious for its low sex-ratios (with general sex-ratio at 849) and the practise of female infanticide and foeticide. With urban sex-ratio of 862 (per 1000 males), Amritsar may not fare as bad as its counterpart Ludhiana with urban sex-ratio at 783, but the former is an epitome of culture (Punjabi-sabhyachar) and has a bearing not only on Punjab but also bordering districts of Himachal Pradesh.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Conversions, Caste and Communalism: Globalisation, State and Challenges of Secular Politics in India

Conversions, Caste and Communalism: Globalisation, State and Challenges of Secular Politics in India

By Yogesh Snehi

In the past two years the debates on religious conversions, caste and communalism have gripped India in a serious imbroglio which is fallout of the present nature of state politics in the country. The years 2007-08 have been the most volatile ever since the anti-Godhra riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002, which exposed the role that the governments in India have played in arousing communal passions through state machinery. These are difficult times, and the time that would follow poses more complex challenges for state-politics in India.......

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