Red, White and Black

Punjabi Identities: before and after partition
21 June, 2006, 2:43 am
Filed under: general, India, Pakistan

Ishtiaq sahab wrote a very interesting piece in the Daily Times yesterday. The article briefly researches the evolution of Punjabi identities through the times. The nature of pre-colonial Punjab has been described as plural, with most of the leaders according patronage to all religious sections of society. It was interesting to note though that inter-religion and inter-caste boundaries were still strictly defined:

As was common elsewhere in India, Punjabi Muslims and non-Muslims did not eat together and marriage between them was taboo. Hindu eating habits were governed by rules of pollution and were also applied by the superior castes against lower ones.

Some villages and areas were entirely Muslim or Hindu-Sikh but there were mixed villages and urban localities too.

There were some villages in which both Muslim and Hindu landowning and cultivating castes lived together.

Another thing that strikes me: while the religious groups lived within their specific boundaries and ‘limits’ there seems to be a lack of open hostility and animosity. Unfortunately, all of this changes with the advent of the British in Punjab:

…changes in social structure and communal organisation began to take place after the British established modern education institutions and a capitalist economy. Muslim aversion to British rule prevailed even in the Punjab. In fact during the 19th century Wahhabis had gained influence in the Punjab as a result of the jihad movement launched by Syed Ahmed Shahid Brelvi.

Due to such factors Hindus and Sikhs left Muslims behind in educational and economic terms.

Hindus and Sikhs were the first to take to modern education and establish modern businesses and enterprises.

These developments helped promote a more exclusive and puritanical religious identity. Moreover, while all three communities spoke Punjabi at home, Muslims began to declare Urdu their mother tongue in the census records, Hindus identified themselves with Hindi, and Sikhs with Punjabi.

This turn in events is interesting. It does explain why the mutual coexistence of 700 years collapsed so suddenly and violently and I can only imagine these events being repeated all over India. The ultimate result was the emergence of the two nation theory and then partition.

It’s mind-boggling how the arrival of one foreign race destroys the identities constructed so painstakingly over centuries.

[Story here]


13 Comments so far
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Eeh? Why blame the Brits? They saw a divide existing, and exposed the cracks thats all.
As the article you quote notes, the people didnt even eat together – I suppose that reduces the amount of intermingling. A shared language can hardly be the basis of integration. If there’s little integration, then its fairly easy to degenerate into specific/different schools of dogma.

Comment by sukhi

I wouldn’t agree with Sukhi. Language could have been the common ground on which to build upon; something future generations might have done had te British not intervened.

Comment by I Me My

They had centuries to build it. If they couldnt build it during that – how would the build it in a few decades?

Comment by sukhi

I somewhat agree with sukhi, the basis of two nation theory had been in the making ever since muslims entered the sub continent. One of the key reasons in my opinion is that majority of muslims (even to this date a very significant population) were not locals, they either came with the conquerors from arabians lands, or as traders and later on from persia and turkey with the moghuls. Most of the locals turned muslims were also from the lower castes and caste system . Plus they did get kinda used to the whole ruling idea, 2-300 years are not enough to diminish the racial and religious boundaries.
One example would be the way even to this date french and english canadians behave..they still proudly are very french and very english, for the world they r canadians, but beneath it all, they r still holding strongly to their own identities.

i dont think india would have been even able to survive as a panache of religious identities and even national identities. even to the years close to paritition and after that, the muslim language was heavily influenced by persian itself, a fact evident even to this date…sooo we were always heading towards this. somehow you can have one ruling party and a submissive party and it works, but when you have one ruler and 2 submissive strong parties with a hell lot of differences, it doesnt stay put very long.

Comment by maria

Just stumbled upon your blog. Its a good read, keep up the work.

Comment by sanjay

😀 yaar…you know, your writing reminds me of how passionate you ACTUALLY are about world affairs and pol. i love that 😀

Comment by nausheen

Around 60% of pak’s claim to be punjabis, 14% pakhtuns, 12% sindhi, 7% muhajirs (mainly muslims from UP, bihar etc), 4% balochs, 3% other. I dont see any possibility of a signifant number of middle eastern origin here. It is also a well established fact that the invading muslim armies were small in number, there has never been any record of a large scale muslim migration into the indian subcontinent. The muslim language in question here (Urdu) also has a distict south asian origin (if one looks at the grammer, basic words, connectors etc) and is identical to hindi (which had evolved from other local north indian languages (awadhi, maithli, bhopuri etc). even today the classical north-indian/pakistani vocal has roots in those local NI languages and not classical Urdu or Hindi). It was only later that Urdu started borrowing from Persian and Hindi from Sanskrit (for higher/complex words). So, to say that the muslim-language (ie Urdu) has a persian/turkish/arabic origin is incorrect.
In my opinion only the ruling muslim elite were of foreign (MI/Persian/Turkish) origin and the local converts started emulating them. A good percentage of the local converts were also from the higher castes (brahmins, rajputs etc).
French-Canadian analogy is not valid here as unlike Canada where the french and english immigrants had completely replaced the locals this was not the case in the indian subcontinent.
There seems to be no evidence to indicate of a different racial stock between muslims in Pak (punjabis, sindhis muhajirs) and their hindu counterparts in india.

Comment by arabian_knight

Sukhi is correct to say that a shared language is not the basis for Integration. 700 years of, essentially, ignoring each other’s existence does not a united people make.
This is known as ‘grudging co-existence’ but nothing more. Until we all abolish the hypocritical boundaries that keep people apart, humanity will not move into the future as one – and THAT is what we need to do.
I love Asian people (I’m White British – not that that matters) and I don’t differentiate between Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, blah blah blah. I have excellent relationships with all of my Asian neighbours and have found that my interest in them has sparked their interest in each other.
Okay, I may be counted as naive for my outlook, but when a neighbour needs help, I’m there – just as they are for me. Now THAT is integration.

As a footnote, it is my earnest belief that religion (and I’m Christian) is the greatest hindrance to unity that humanity has to overcome. I’m not suggesting we abolish religion, but can’t we, for Heaven’s sake, see the humanity behind the Faith?



Comment by Patrick

Interesting discussion; I am a Pakistani muslim and thought might throw in my two cents’ worth.It is much more than a shared language here; I have friends from hindu and sikh backgrounds and the similarities far outnumber differences. The Brits may have committed some wrongs but at the end of the day, it is Indians who split their country. As far as genetics goes, it has been scientifically shown that there is no racial differences between the groups of north Indians called Punjabis on either side of the border. There is something called evolution which has been overlooked here; we would have gradually moved on with more education and understanding, possibly similar to parts of western Europe; bearing in mind in the last hundred years alone,in two world wars, they (the europeans) have killed millions of people belonging to rival countries in the name of silly nationalism. Look at the EU now! I wish partition hadn’t happened but all is not lost folks. Why can’t we emulate the EU and work towards a common purpose in the Indian subcontinent. We have an emerging educated middle class on both sides of the border; why can’t we behave like the mature human beings that we so claim to be, and grow even maturer together!
And by the way, Waris Shah, Baba Farid, Bulhe Shah and above all unifying figures like Maharaja Ranjit Singh are part of our common heritage and no one but us ourselves can be held responsible for what happens from now on. The tales of sohni mahinwal, heer ranjha, and the legends like Jagga Jatt and Dulla Bhatti are the heritage of those who are prepared to rise above silly parochialisms.
By the way, does any one really believe that there are educated muslim, sikh, hindu or christian families who wouldn’t share a meal together in today’s world! Things evolve and change and just because two or three or four groups of people are different from one another, doesn’t mean we have to divide countries up time and time again til we live in our own little kingdoms like ancient times! Surely this can’t be regarded as progress and moving forward by anyone’s standards.

Comment by Usama Majeed

ya nice work anyway.and good to see a positive comment from a pakistani friend (usama majeed).

Comment by abhimanyu

This is exactly the mentality that has been responsible for where we are today, attempts to score cheap points! The reality on the ground is very different indeed. Much of the last 60 years have been spent justifying the unjustifiable; the so-called two-nation theory teaches nothing but intolerance and hatred; if it was such a solid foundation for partition, what exactly happenend in Bangladesh?

Move on guys and get a grip on reality!

Comment by Akram Cheema

Well said Akram! I visited all of the above websites by Mr Ansari and found nothing but a rhetoric; a constant wave after wave of hatred towards anything Indian. For anyone trying to criticise Mr Gandhi, they should first look at Mr Jinnah’s character; an anglicised agnostic turned “champion of the Indian Musalman”. Gandhi was nothing but human and had plenty of flaws, but he had a courage and determination that none of the Muslim Leaguers ever possessed! They had no backbone to this day! The consequences are ours to bear for good.

Just what are the achievements of Pakistan to date? We live a pathetic existence with a few rich people trying to create this pseudo-image to the rest of the world but in essence, what exactly do we have to proud of? The only thing in abundance is this false pride without substance that gets brandished around at every opportunity both inside and outside the country. If Mr Ansari is so taken by this new theory of “ethnic/cultural as well as religious differences”, then maybe the proponents of “Sindhudesh” have just a valid a point for “independence” of their own!

This pride without substance is the hallmark of our newfound “aryo-Pakistani” civilisation, if I am allowed to coin a phrase. All these overseas Pakistanis who are so in love with the country and so profoundly patriotic, maybe they should go and live in the “Islamic Republic”, like an ordinary man with no contacts and resources! And when I use the term Islamic republic, I use it advisedly!!

Comment by Tahir

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