The Makers of Modern Punjab
A Review by Gajindar Singh
Authors: Dr Kirpal Singh & Prithipal Singh Kapur
Publisher: Singh Brothers, Amritsar.
Pages: 174+; Price: 225/-
There was a time, not long ago, when authenticity and evidence were confined to the written word; without it all claims to substantiation and confirmation were merely shrugged off as heresy or rumour mongering. The historians in the Twentieth Century had summarily dumped many viable sources as myth by applying this yard-stick to measure reliability. However, the value of oral sources began to be realised more and more and the historic value of oral evidence began to be recognised with the winds of change in scientific and technological advancement and adoption of new systems of communication. The oral methods and procedures came to be frequently recognised with the utilisation of the phone and frequent travels and the diary keeping of the old order became less fashionable.
Dr. Kirpal Singh, the doyen of historians in Punjab has worked hard in establishing Oral History Cell in the Punjabi University, Patiala, from its very inception, as the value of oral sources began to be realised more and more and the historic values of oral evidence was recognised. For instance, the professional historian has had to revise his sources of evidence more and more on the tape recorded reminiscences. The practice of shunning the oral evidence has been drastically revised.
Dr. Kirpal Singh has a rich collection of such oral evidence. He traveled more than once to the United Kingdom to interview British officials connected with the tremulous period of the transfer of power to the two new dominions of the Sub-continent, India and Pakistan to record their personal role in dissolution of the British Indian Empire, for posterity. He also interviewed the main players and makers of modern Punjab to preserve important evidence which would have, otherwise, been lost. Such subtle details would have remained unrecorded; these were not available in the archives. The importance of very personal reactions of the persons who had the burden of the nation on their shoulders can only be gleaned orally. It is as vital as the oral traditions of the past which were so far dumped as unauthenticated. In this stupendous job, Professor Prithipal Singh Kapur, the co-author, shared research from the very beginning as Research Assistant and eventually rose to be Director, Punjab State University Text Book Board and Pro-Vice Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University at Amritsar.
Dr. Kirpal Singh has selected fifteen personalities with whom the authors had meaningful dialogue; their perceptions of the compulsions of the situations, as well as their inner feelings, are set down in the pages of the book under review, for future references by scholars to understand the march of events as these were revealed and the stark truth came out in interviews recorded by the authors. For instance, Master Tara Singh’s clarification of raising slogans denouncing Pakistan and not the popular myth spread in Punjab at that time that he tore down the Muslim League flag outside the Punjab Assembly at Lahore in 1947, a rumour which led to massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens and frenzy of communal bitterness which has lingered after six decades of the partition of the country. He also had a feeling that Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru’s cool attitude towards him may have to do with Master Tara Singh’s rejection of Moti Lal Nehru’s plan of future political set up of India which had not provided any safeguards for the Sikhs. Another startling factor was the leakage of overtures of Muslim League and the British sympathisers to any possible benefit to the cause of the Sikhs by Baldev Singh to Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, frittering away any bargaining value and advantage of the Sikhs with the Congress.
The chapter on Principal Bawa Harkrishan Singh, the longest in the book, is full of vital information about inner rivalry between the leaders who formed Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee for the liberation of the Gurdwaras and the fire-brand leaders of Shiromani Akali Dal initially formed as a voluntary task force to keep the Nihangs at bay. And how SGPC moderates were outmaneuvered by Akalis wresting central stage and thus became a political force to reckon with. About the Nankana Sahib tragedy, Bawaji is of the opinion that despite Mahant Narain Das’s perfidy, it ‘could have been avoided, if we were cautious,’ and ‘we were also very much to blame’. Bawa Harkrishan Singh states in his interview that during transfer of power in 1946-7, ‘we have been unintelligently following a dream of political power for the Sikhs with no basis to stand upon.’ That is because the Sikhs in pre-partition Punjab were not in numerical strength any where except for one tehsil! The position radically improved in Punjab after amalgamation of PEPSU into Punjab and, of course, in the redrawn Punjabi suba. Ironically it was the false declaration of Hindi as the mother tongue that kept many Punjabi areas outside the boundaries of Punjabi suba, thereby augmenting further the majority ratio of the Sikhs in a redrawn Punjab state. As a consequence, the Punjabis who found themselves in Haryana could not get assimilated into dominant Haryana customs, rites and culture.
The formula adopted by the British and accepted by the Congress and Muslim League was communal, and its sole criterion was the head-count of each community on ‘one-head-one-vote.’ The Sikhs went on harping about the irrelevant issues of their claim on annexation of their empire in mid-Nineteenth Century, their sacrifices in the military service of the British and their contribution towards revenue and taxes on their considerable properties and assets, including Gurdwaras in the region being carved out as Pakistan. They never considered that Muslims had similar grounds for claiming most of the country, including U.P., Bihar and Delhi. The difference in their respective attitudes being that the Muslims were led by far-sighted legal luminaries against the myopic, rustic, ignorant folks as the Sikh leaders. The Congress readily and eagerly accepted the principle of one-man-one-vote most beneficial to the Hindu absolute majority which in one stroke gave them all India ruling option that they could not secure for past one thousand years. There was no reason or motivating factor for their easing the Sikh tension, a mere minor irritation.
Each and every chapter of this absorbing book reveals the strong character of each leader and many facets of their personalities which would not be possible without these interviews recorded by the authors. These recorded statements are of immense value for the historians of future who go deeper into the study of the Punjab in the worst bloody turmoil at the time of Indian Independence in mid-Twentieth Century.
Another stormy person was Parma Nand of Jhansi and his life story reflects the determination, selfless devotion to patriotism and the hardships endured by him and hundreds of people who kissed the gallows or stayed life long behind bars to give the country its self respect and independence.
The reminisces of Maj. General Mohinder Singh Chopra are particularly moving in stating the plight of lakhs of people who had to flee their habitations with their assets plundered, their honour ransacked, their confidence in life and their self-respect badly mauled as never before, perhaps worse than the Mughal experience, by ineptitude of the aspiring leaders and a tired and incapacitated British administration all of whom never expected such devastation out of an agreed resolution of the Indian problem. It was to be expected as Major J.M. Short admitted at a later date, “As I see now, it was inevitable.”