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The Changing Demography of Punjab


We are living in the age of democracy in which numbers count and majority rules. At the time of the partition of India in 1947, Sikhs were recognised as one of the three contenders for power, when the British decided to quit. Muslims were in a sizeable majority in the eastern as well as western parts of the Indian sub-continent, which entitled them to Pakistan. Sikh population was scattered. The only area where they were marginally in a majority was one tahsil (Taran Tarn) of Amritsar district. Therefore, the question of an independent Sikh state or Khalistan did not arise. The British were in a hurry to leave. An eleventh hour proposal that could have taken care of the interests of majority of the Sikh population, besides some Hindu population in the areas that went to Pakistan, was to create an `Azad Punjab' between India and Pakistan with areas drawn from both sides of the present border. In this state, the Hindus and Muslims were almost equal in numbers. The Sikhs would still be in a minority, but would hold the balance of power. Had this scheme materialised, no forced exchange of population would have been necessary, and the riots and bloodshed in which lakhs were killed, and millions rendered homeless, would have been avoided. Jinnah was agreeable, provided the Sikhs agreed to cede this state to Pakistan. Sikhs wanted the right to secede in case their experience with Pakistan was not happy. Jinnah would not concede this under any circumstances. That was the end of the proposal. Sikhs had to choose between Pakistan and Indian union. The Sikh leadership, in their wisdom, opted for the latter. This was a natural decision in view of the age-old ties between Hindus and Sikhs, and their common suffering under Muslim rule in earlier history. Congress leaders including Mahatma Gandhi gave solemn assurance to the Sikhs that India would not adopt any constitution that was unacceptable to Sikhs. Pandit Nehru was magnanimous enough to declare that an area could be carved out in North India, where the brave Sikhs could enjoy a `glow of freedom', which they richly deserved.

Unfortunately, the trust reposed in the Congress leadership proved to be misplaced, and a Constitution was adopted which Sikh members of the constituent Assembly had refused to sign in protest. When reminded of his promises, Pandit Nehru replied, "Times have changed."

The Congress was committed to formation of linguistic states. The exercise was undertaken in 1956. While unilingual states were created for all other languages, the same was denied to Punjabi language for no other reason than that the Sikhs could be in a majority in that state. Obviously, care was taken that Sikhs do not, by any chance, enjoy the promised `glow of freedom', because `times had changed'. In fact, the Patiala and the East Punjab States Union (PEPSU), where Sikhs had a slight majority, was merged with the surrounding areas of Punjab.

This flagrant discrimination forced a prolonged struggle on the Sikhs, which ended in 1966 when a truncated Punjabi-speaking state was conceded in a manner utterly devoid of grace. Large tracts of Punjabi-speaking areas were taken out and distributed between Himachal Pradesh and the newly created state of Haryana. Its Capital, along with the surrounding Punjabi-speaking rural areas, was taken over by the Centre as a Union Territory. Its river waters, its only natural resource, were also taken over by the centre. Under the Constitution, river waters is a state subject, but Punjab was deprived of its constitutional right of control of river waters, so that the bulk of the Punjab river waters continues to flow into the non-riparian states of Haryana and Rajasthan, absolutely gratis . In the mean time, Punjab farmers have been forced to install over a million tubewells to partially meet the water requirements of their crops, involving an investment of billions of rupees on the part of poor Punjab farmers. These tubewells have to be deepened continually. The water table is falling rapidly so that Punjab is heading fast towards desert conditions.

What is even more astonishing is the fact that the hydro-electric power from the Punjab rivers, also goes to the non-riparian states in the same proportion as water. The Sikhs may well be asked, "Why did you accept such a truncated state, no more than a dignified Zila Parishad, with such adverse conditions attached?" The wisdom of the choice is indeed questionable. The only consideration that seems to have weighed with Sikh leadership, has been the need for a sizeable geographical unit, where Sikhs could claim a majority. Here was an opportunity they did not want to miss. They hoped also that the inequities and the apparent injustice in the creation of the Punjabi-speaking state would be removed in the course of time through persuation or agitation. The view can be appreciated, since the community had suffered so much in the past in the game of numbers.

In 1966, when the present state of Punjab came into being, the Sikhs constituted about 60.5% of its total population of 135.5 lakhs . By 2001, the total population rose to 24,621,326 out of which approximately 146 lakhs were Sikhs (59.9%), against the Hindu population of 89.98 lakhs (36.9%). Apparently, these figures show that with the formation of the present-day Punjab, the Sikh objective of having a Sikh majority state as a political base for safeguarding their religion, culture, traditions, etc., was achieved. The events of the past few decades, however, do not support such a conclusion. More often than not, the state has been ruled by the Hindu-dominated Congress. Only for brief intervals during this period, has the SAD, considered a representative body of the Sikhs, been able to constitute a government in the state, and that, too, with the support of BJP Hindus, rather than on its own strength.

The apparent majority of Sikhs in the state secured at a tremendous cost, is also very precarious. There are a number of factors that continue to erode its base. For example, Sikhs have seldom been united under one political flag. Large sections among them belong to Namdhari, Radha Swami, and even Nirankari sects that have traditionally been counted as Sikhs. They have seldom voted with the Panth. It is doubtful if they would return themselves as Sikhs, if they had the choice to enlist themselves as members of their own separate sects in the census. Then, there are the Mazbhi Sikhs, Ramdasias and some other so-called backward classes who are not happy with the social treatment meted out to them, particularly in the rural areas. Other factors that tend to dilute the majority of Sikhs are the large number of deras operating in the state which have attracted a following that cannot be ignored. We are only aware of the role of Sacha Sauda in the Feb 2007 state Assembly elections in the Punjab. Such deras are obviously on the way out of the Sikh fold.

In addition to the above, mention must be made of the following factors which affect the balance of population and threaten the Sikh majority status in the State:

_ Influx of labour from the neighboring states. They are all non-Sikhs. While seasonal labour from other states is welcome, and even necessary for seasonal farm operations, it is highly probable that their seasonal visit might lead to their permanent settlement in Punjab. Political parties encourage them in all possible ways to settle here to serve as their vote banks. The number of such immigrants as were born outside Punjab, was 17.5 lakhs in 2001, and is believed to be higher today. Most of them are non-Sikhs from the surrounding states of Haryana, Rajasthan, UP and Himachal Pradesh, besides Bihar.

_ The accursed operation Blue Star and the repression of Sikhs that followed it for several years, led to the killing of countless number of young Sikhs. A sizeable number of them escaped to other countries as refugees or political asylees.

_ The widely prevalent evil of female foeticide in the state has led to a dangerous imbalance in female to male sex ratio, which is fraught with serious social implications.

_ Industrial and economic policies followed by the central and state governments affect the movement of labour as well as structure of population in the state adversely.

_ Lack of quality education in rural areas of the Punjab renders the rural youth unfit for jobs in the emerging information technology and other technical jobs. These industries have to draw upon other states to meet their requirements, at the cost of local population.

No systematic studies have been made to assess the incidence of these factors. It is recognised, however, that these, and possibly many more, have far-reaching implications. These have already jeopardised the security expected from a Sikh majority state. Theoretically, Sikhs constitute the majority community in the Punjab, but if the factors pointed out above continue to operate unchecked, one fine (?) morning we might wake up to find that Sikhs are no more the majority community in the Punjab. This might happen sooner than later. The situation demands serious notice. The impact of various forces at work has to be studied, trends in the changing population structure identified, and suitable corrective measures taken in time. Else, we might inevitably go back to the pre-1966 times, necessitating another prolonged struggle.

It is gratifying that the Institute of Sikh Studies is holding a seminar on the theme `The Changing Demography of Punjab' at its campus in Chandigarh on the 10-11 th November, 2007. Top scholars have been invited to present papers on various aspects of the problem. Eminent economist Dr Sardara Singh Johl, formerly Deputy Chairman, Punjab State, Planning Board, has agreed to deliver the keynote address. We hope the exercise will yield recommendations of far-reaching significance, which will help the planners as well as leaders of the political parties holding power in handling the problem on a long-term basis.


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