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Partition and the Land of Baba Nanak

By Shandana Waheed

Ranjeet Singh – ‘The Lion of Punjab’

Ranjeet Singh, considered the ‘Lion of Punjab’ by many, laid the foundations of the Sikh Empire in the Northwest Indian Subcontinent during early 19th century. This is considered the golden period of Sikh rule in Punjab. However, the Sikh legacy in Punjab dates back to the time of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru and the founder of Sikhism. After Ranjeet Singh’s demise, the Sikh empire began to crumble. By 1849, it had lost two Anglo-Sikh wars. Hence, Maharaja Duleep Singh, son of Mahraja Ranjeet Singh, became the last Sikh ruler of Punjab when the British annexed Punjab.

The decline of Sikh prestige after 1841

Obviously, it was a huge loss for the Sikh community politically and religiously. Punjab was not only the Sikh emperor’s seat, but also the Sikh people’s holy land. During his reign, Ranjeet Singh sponsored the rebuilding and maintenance of Sikh Holy sites all over India, but Sikh heritage never flourished anywhere like it did in Punjab.

Rise in Muslim population in Punjab coincides with Sikh decline

The partition of Punjab in 1947 was another shock for the Sikh heritage. According to the boundary commission reports available in Punjab archives, Muslims were a minority in Punjab between the years of 1881 and 1901 according to the census data. It was only after 1911 that Muslims in Punjab started to appear as a numerical majority, which kept increasing in the census reports of 1921, 1931 and 1941.

The controversial Boundary Commission

The boundary commission reports suggest the Sikh community had reservations about the 1941 census figures, believing them to be effected by political motives, as Muslim League had already emphasised the importance of numerical majority by its Lahore Resolution presented on March 23, 1940. The Sikhs numbered just under six million, out of which almost five million were settled in Punjab, where all Sikh states lied. Moreover, concerns were raised over the Lahore and Multan divisions, whereas the Sikh community was concentrated in the districts of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and Montgomery (now Sahiwal).

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Sapru committee’s recommendations based on Sikh heritage in Punjab

In addition to the population argument, the boundary commission reports also mention the constitutional proposals of the Sapru committee that favours Sikh claims to Punjab based on their heritage, not only as the last rulers of the region but also with regard to their holy sites that stretched from Sirhind on one side to Panja sahib on the other; with the Golden temple in Amritsar at the centre of the province of undivided Punjab. Not to forget that the birth place of Guru Nanak is in Rāi Bhoi Kī Talvaṇḍī (present day Nankana Sahib), and his resting place is Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, Kartar Pur, both in present day Pakistani Punjab.

Sikh claims recognised by the British

It is documented in the reports that the claims of Sikhs over Punjab were recognized by the cabinet mission in 1946. Viceroy Lord Wavell mentioned Sikhs in his proposal for playing an influential part in Punjab. Sir Robert Needham Cust, secretary to the Royal Asiatic Society and assistant to the political agent Punjab, in linguistic and oriental essays called Punjab the “Sikh Land or the Land of Baba Nanak”. In 1946, while replying to Master Tara Singh, Lord Pethick Lawrence, British Secretary of State for India and Burma, wrote “It is inconceivable that either the constituent assembly or any future government of Punjab would overlook their (Sikhs’) special place in the province.

Document source: 1947-Boundary commission reports, Punjab archives, Civil Secretariat, Lahore.

Sikh pilgrimages to their holy sites in Pakistan

No doubt today, after almost 70 years of partition, the Sikh community and Sikh heritage remain important and significant in Punjab. This dawned on me during my recent trip to Pakistan. I visited Gurdwara Punja Sahib in Hasan Abdal, one of the most sacred holy sites in Punjab, where every year, thousands of Sikh Yatris come for pilgrimage. Muslims are not allowed to enter the Gurdwara premises without prior permission, while Sikhs are allowed to visit and pray anytime. It encloses a running Langar Khaana and a school to teach Gurmukhi to the children of the Sikh community. The property is administered and controlled by Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB), along with eighteen other Gurdwara Sahibs in Punjab, which are fully functional and well maintained.

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Pakistani Muslims also acknowledge Sikhs’ relationship with Punjab

In my meeting with Deputy Secretary (Shrines) Imran Gondal, I learned that ETPB facilitates approximately 7000 visas for different Sikh festivals including Bisakhi, Jore Mela, Barsi Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and the Birthday of Guru Nanak. In addition to the Sikhs I met in Gurdwara Punja Sahib, I interviewed many Sikhs while wandering the streets of Hasan Abdal and Rawalpindi. It seemed like these Sikhs enjoyed a special status as a religious minority in a Muslim majority country, because of their legacy and heritage in the province. Though the horrors of the partition of Punjab are not forgotten, that some measure of reconciliation has occurred between the two communities in Punjab, and even Pakistani Muslims realise that there is a special relationship between Sikhs and the land of five rivers.

Picture courtesy: Sheraz Aslam

Shandana Waheed

The author is a graduate of New York University and a cultural and political analyst.

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