Punjab: A history from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten By Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph, Rs 695
In the 1980s, Punjab was synonymous with bloodshed. Rajmohan Gandhi’s scholarly offering on the history of undivided Punjab — the Indian state of eastern Punjab is one-seventh the size of the original territory — shows that the region remained a cauldron of conflict during various epochs. Attacks by Afghan conquerors and, later, by Mongols in the pre-Mughal era were followed by a period of calm during Mughal rule. But Aurangzeb’s demise unleashed fresh chaos as Afghans, Marathas, Mughal governors and Sikhs competed to fill the power vacuum. Later, the stability offered by the reigns of Ranjit Singh and the British gave way to the horror of the Partition.
Gandhi recounts these violent episodes chronologically, thereby dealing a body blow to the popular perception of Punjab being the land of peace and prosperity. But a historian, much like a sleuth, not only punctures myths but also pursues truth. Gandhi, too, embarks on addressing some crucial, but unanswered, questions. Why did Punjab’s Muslim majority, for instance, fail to take up the mantle of political leadership after the exit of the Mughals, a phenomenon that helped the Sikhs carve out their own kingdom? Gandhi’s explanation hints at two crucial aspects: the emergence of a common identity on the Sikh side and the existence of a rigid hierarchy among Muslims. “… Sikhs across Punjab had found a common purpose. They felt they were a single people. On the other hand, Muslims across Punjab saw themselves as belonging to a clan, tribe, locality or landlord, not to one another.” In the process, Gandhi also plugs a gap in existing scholarship. In the Introduction, he notes that apart from Ikram Ali Malik’s study, which, incidentally, leaves out the whole of the 18th century, there have been no attempts to chronicle Punjab’s history from 1707, the year Aurangzeb died.
Another query Gandhi addresses relates to Punjab’s tepid response to the events of 1857. The Gogera rebellion apart, Punjab remained largely peaceful during the revolt. This is because Sikhs and Muslims made common cause against the mutineers who fought against the British to reinstate a Muslim monarch as India’s emperor. This exposes the limitations of the argument presented by nationalist historians that 1857 was India’s first war of independence.
Gandhi also restores a sense of balance while examining the independence movement and its impact on Punjab. He argues that apart from the Mahatma and Jinnah — the national leaders — regional politicians like Fazl-i-Husain, Master Tara Singh, Khizr Hayat Tiwana and others played significant roles in shaping the region’s political discourse during the independence struggle.
The field of Gandhi’s enquiry is vast and complicated. But what remains remarkable is his deft control on the narrative. He illuminates the chaotic developments in post-Mughal Punjab without ignoring a single strand that had a bearing on the times. Moreover, even though his account remains a political history of undivided Punjab, Gandhi remains alert to the need to view art and culture as useful resources in deciphering political developments. The idea of punjabiyat — enriched by the literary and spiritual works of poets, authors, Sikh gurus and Sufi saints — remains central to this work.
Undivided Punjab and the ethos of punjabiyat have been confined to the realm of memory. But Gandhi’s plea to examine their legacies ought to be heeded for the sake of lasting peace.