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Respected But Surrounded

- Ramanjit Singh

In reading through the books and articles written about the impact of Partition, one comes to a realization of the fault lines that existed under the surface between Hindus-Sikhs and the Muslims in pre-Partition Punjab.

In the interviews with the older generation, people would often say that there were hardly any differences between the two communities and that they coexisted peacefully. That there was no religious tension before 1947 and that people used to participate in each other's festivities such as marriages and other events. Most often people would say that "they were very nice to us" when it came to social interactions and that they were always fair and principled in their dealings.

One line that I still remember where one person said about the Muslims that "O apni chaudhar kayam rakh day si", roughly in English it means that they used to maintain their prestige in society. Similar things were being said of the Hindus and Sikhs by the Muslims that "O saddey naal badey changey si", that they were very nice to us. These are just few of the comments that highlight the close social relationships that existed between the communities.

However, there were also differences that existed among Muslims and non-Muslims which eventually superseded any close bonds that were nurtured over the years. Differences were not only related to food where one community avoided eating or sharing food with the other but also there were deep religious tensions that were bubbling under the surface. When it came to food, Hindus and Sikhs would avoid eating at a Muslim house, and at Muslim weddings, food was cooked separately for the non-Muslims. Also in the towns and cities, the public drinking fountains had signs saying 'Muslim paani' and 'Hindu paani'.

When it came to religious interactions, the differences were not just about the lingering memory, especially among the Sikhs, about the past persecution during the Mughal era but also the fact that there existed very little religious co-mingling or interaction between the communities. Punjab was predominantly a Muslim province and there's no question that this fact formed the foundation of the culture and society that existed in the pre-Partition Punjab.

Islam, and more importantly, Sufi Islam permeated every part of the Punjabi culture whether it be music, folksongs, poetry, or language. The poetry of Baba Farid Shakarganj became part of the Sikh's Guru Granth Sahib. The Dargah of Baba Farid in Pakpattan is one of the most revered Sufi shrine. Waris Shah's "Heer Ranjha" and from Sargodha, Hafiz Barkhurdar Ranjha's "Mirza Sahiban" formed Punjab's two of the most famous folktales.

Bulleh Shah's poetry became an integral part of qawwali, a music genre that represents the devotional music of the Sufis. Shrine of Daata Darbar located in the city of Lahore was, and still is, the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia. It was built to house the remains of the Muslim mystic, Abul Hassan Ali Hujwiri, commonly known as Daata Ganj Baksh. The site is considered to be the most sacred place in Lahore. Shah Hussain's short poems known as Kafis are used in the Punjabi music. Shah Hussein's death anniversary is celebrated every year during Mela Chiraghan (festival of lights) in Lahore.

Like the names I have mentioned above, there were many other famous Sufi poets and saints that brought the ordinary Punjabis closer to Islam. Their shrines jotting Punjab's landscape became centers of spiritual gathering for thousands of Muslims who visited these dargahs to pay homage and to celebrate the lives of these extraordinary men. Being a Muslim and being a Punjabi became two sides of the same coin for the vast majority of the people in Punjab.

In every town and village, Sufi Islam became a major factor in religious conversions. In pre-Partition Punjab, these conversions were happening gradually, not solely through force but more often by the influence of Sufi saints. It is said that entire Hindu and Sikh villages converted after reaching a consensus among elders. Some would convert because they wanted to marry a Muslim woman. Some converted because they were considered lower caste in the rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. Some converted because of their social conditions, some converted out of sheer convenience, some converted because in certain periods only Muslims were allowed to own a property but most converted because they were drawn towards the teachings and the philosophy espoused by the Sufi saints.

It is in this context one should place themselves in the Punjab province where non-Muslims felt uneasy and out of place. Province with close to 70-80% Muslim majority in large parts, the sheer sense of being outnumbered would have been overwhelming. They were being outnumbered not just by demographics but more importantly by the lifestyle and the belief system that governed the lives of the Muslim majority. The entire system was built around a lifestyle that was different than those of Hindus and Sikhs. The Islamic history, their revered Maulanas, their Imams, their codification of rules and language in religious rituals were all different if not alien to the non-Muslims. The minorities adapted, they accepted the reality of where they were and their Gurdwaras and Temples coexisted in the Muslim areas. They were respected but were surrounded.

Sheikupura, where Nankana Sahib is located, is a district that had close to 70% Muslim majority in 1947. And this was the stark reality in the western and central Punjab districts. Take a look at the temples that still prop up in a wide angle picture of Rawalpindi to get an idea. In one place, I read that social pressure also played a major factor in the conversions. How one would feel if so many are following a different faith. Wouldn't one think 'what is wrong with me, why don't I join them'? The social pressure to assimilate with the rest persisted among thousands of non-Muslims and it played a role in the religious conversions over centuries.

The pre-Partition Punjab, from a pure demographic perspective, was primarily a Muslim province, where even the Hindu and Sikh majority areas were mere small islands in the vast sea of Islamic influence. Muslims interacted with the Sikhs and Hindus the same way how any majority deals with a minority. Minority is there but not really there. Important but not really that important. Its presence is accepted but not really appreciated. The presence of Hindus and Sikhs did not really register in the minds of the Muslim population. Muslims in their self-righteous mind were focused in their day to day lives and followed Islam and considered Punjab as theirs. To them, the very meaning of Punjabiyat was to be close to Islam.

In Hasan Abdal, Sikhs went to Panja Sahib and Muslims went to Wali Qandahari's Dargah and that was how things were in that era. Separate faiths, separate lifestyles, coexisting in an era that was soon coming to an end. In Amritsar, Sikhs went to Darbar Sahib and in Lahore, Muslims went to Daata Darbar and any religious inter-mingling was rare. Although the presence of such important figures as Bhai Mardana and Mian Mir in Sikh history is important but here too the religious orthodoxy all but erased their existence, as if these individuals were merely used as props to talk about Hindu/Sikh and Muslim "unity" and then they were conveniently forgotten.

Similarly, the only memory that Muslims have of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is that he converted the Badshahi Mosque into a horse stable and everything else that he did in terms of having key Muslim ministers and generals in his army, building new mosques in Lahore are conveniently forgotten. A lot of the false narratives were deliberately created by the British to nurture a lasting sense of hatred among communities. There was respect for each other but the religious divide seems to be evident and probably there was a virtual sense of separation that existed between the communities that nobody talked about openly but was palpable in the larger scheme of things.

No religion preaches hate and the people of Punjab, prior to 1947, to a large extent were trying their best to adapt to the changing demographics and believed in the fact that despite religious differences, despite the burden of history, they can make their lives and the lives of their children better.

Their Pirs were as revered by the Hindus and Sikhs as they are revered by them. Their Gurus were as revered by the Muslims as they are revered by them.

But the underpinnings of this coexistence started to crumble in the early months of 1947.

And so in the beginning of 1947, the growing political and religious tensions created a siege mentality among the non-Muslims. I should also note that the majority (about 70-80%) of Police officers and constables in Punjab till August 1947 were Muslims. This was deliberately done by the British to divide the communities. The violence against Hindus and Sikhs started in early 1947 in the frontier areas (Potohar) of Punjab and NWFP. The growing violence converted into full fledge ethnic cleansing in Rawalpindi district in March of that year.

Imagine the fate of Hindu or Sikh families living in Sargodha or Jhelum. Even though the Muslims would never have thought of treating them badly but in the minds of the non-Muslims, the siege mentality was so stark that the fear of being converted or getting killed was real. When violence engulfed all of Punjab, there was a sense of panic.

The events in Rawalpindi in March of 1947 all but cemented the belief that, after Partition, their fate would lie in the hands of those who will have very little interest or concern for their well being.

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