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Our Amritsar

- Ramanjit Singh

Throughout history there are events that change a city's destiny. The fall of Rome is often mentioned as the pivotal moment in history which changed its fortunes forever and that of the Roman Empire. You can say the same about the fall of the Mughal Empire's capital city of Delhi, after the 1857 War of Independence, when the British army, acting like marauders, went in and looted and killed its inhabitants for their alleged role in the mutiny. One thing that I have learned from history is that nothing stays constant. New rulers have a tendency to redefine the cities in their own terms and identity. They glorify their own power by building monuments and architecture that remains with us for centuries, reminding us of their existence along with all the others who predated them.

Out of these ruins, a new city emerges, new inhabitants bring energy and drive that replaces the old with the new.

Amritsar has gone through similar tribulations. In the old British Gazetteers, it is written that the city was the main trading center and the business hub of Punjab.

Pre-partition Amritsar trade routes connecting to cities and countries outside of Punjab

In the 1916 Punjab Gazette, the British administration described Amritsar as the 'entrepot of trade'. The connections to Iran, Central Asia, and to rest of India were vital for its development and prosperity throughout history.

Author and historian Ian Talbot has analyzed the development trends of Lahore and Amritsar in post-partition Punjab. In contrast to the resurgence of Lahore, Amritsar saw its economy deteriorate due to lack of historical trade links. Most of the supply of raw materials and business relationships with Lahore and western Punjab were cut-off due to Partition. This resulted in Ludhiana becoming the major industrial hub of east Punjab and Amritsar becoming a border outpost with very little economic vitality.

Some excerpts:

My colleague and Forum contributor Mr. Parvez Mahmood has written extensively about his birthplace Lahore. Growing up, he saw the city landscape change over time, trying to preserve its old glory while becoming a megapolis that now extends all the way to the Indian border. Just like Amritsar losing its Kashmiri craftsmen and traders, Lahore too lost its Hindu and Sikh businessmen who were the predominant business community of the city. Places like Shah Alam of Lahore were similar to Hall Bazar or the bazars of Lawrence Road at Amritsar. Cities were called twin cities not only because of their proximity but also because of their interdependence. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh traders were doing business in both the cities. They had properties and maintained residences in both.

Lahore-Amritsar were both hyphenated, as if they were one city. When one mentioned Lahore it also meant Amritsar and vice versa. Mr. Mahmood writes that "Lahore today has become a megapolis. In the process, it has lost its coherence and character: traits whose loss is evident to Lahoris and visitors alike".

I would say that the city's true identity is formed by its people who have settled in the same place for years and have built it from ground up. When a large section of that community leaves the city, then that void is very hard to fill. The newcomers do not carry the same legacy and have a hard time conforming to it or have any sense of belonging. You may have a big megapolis, but you willl never have a soul. You need diversity, different types of people, different mindsets to cultivate a culture that is multiethnic and progressive. Think of Paris, think of London, think of New York, and to some extent, Mumbai. Hindus and Sikhs of Lahore too were part of Lahore's soul which is incomplete without them.

In Fatima Bhutto's article, Punjab was lost when Lahore and Amritsar were separated. Just like how she emotionally describes the symmetry of the two cities, I too, quite often, get sentimental on how one can have the audacity to separate a soul. The interconnectedness was not just about trade but it was about shared history, it was about culture, it was about Punjabiyat. Our shared experience at Jallianwala Bagh, our shared experience of Sikhs and Muslims coming together to lay the foundation stone for Harmandir Sahib. Our shared experience of Hindus and Muslims praying together at the dargha of sufi saints. The Durgiana Temple, the narrow by-lanes of Amritsar reminds one of Lahore. You can stand in any street in Amritsar and it will remind you of Lahore. You can go to any Halwai shop and their jalebi would remind you of Lahore. Same is true on the other side where you stand in Lahore and it will remind you of Amritsar.

There is similarity because we are same people and same blood runs in our veins. As Fatima Bhutto says so eloquently: "This is the symmetry of South Asian history. This was the beauty of pre-Partition India—that it had the capacity and the heart to absorb everything and everyone."

You see, our attraction towards conformity and homogeneity has ruined us. Jinnah's stubborn pursuit of "two nation theory" has brainwashed generations of Pakistanis into thinking that somehow the non-Muslims are indeed different. That the kafirs had to be removed to build the land of the pure. I have tried so many times to give the benefit of the doubt that maybe there was a logic to this madness, that the creation of Pakistan indeed had a justification, but every time I venture into critical thinking by questioning my own reasoning, I always lose that argument. And I genuinely am trying to see if Jinnah was right. And with all sincerity, I believe in my heart that No he was indeed wrong. The separation was because of him and no one else. And maybe the British wanted this and there is evidence supporting that argument but nevertheless he was its champion and he got what he wanted. And sorry to say that the majority of the Muslims in what is now west Punjab wanted that separation (think of the feudal lords like Mamdot and so on).

This is the hard truth and I know a lot of my Pakistani friends would be disappointed in what I'm writing here, but I believe this from the bottom of my heart and without malice. All Jinnah had to do was simply walk 20 kilometers from Lahore to Amritsar and see the very idea of India, the idea of Punjab. On the ground, in these cities and towns there was no Muslim "fear" of Hindu dominance. This theory that we are two nations was manufactured to win a political argument and to espouse half-baked philosophies of the religious far right. I often say that with the combined population along with majority provinces, Muslims would have been as dominant in free India than they ever were before. The arch of history could have been different and today's political power structure could have been more balanced and not one sided. But when the idea of Partition was ultimately and reluctantly accepted by the Hindus and Sikhs then there was no justification for the non-Muslims to remain in Pakistan. Punjab had to be partitioned and it resulted in bloodshed that we, to this day, need to come to terms with.

Here's a recent article about the violence in Amritsar and in west Punjab. In Sheikhupura and Lahore, the mob was showing pictures of the violated Sikh and Hindu women of Rawalpindi. Mr. Ranjit Singh's family moved to Amritsar and he was an eye witness to the horror that was taking place in the city. He writes:

"One day, as I loitered around, I was startled to hear a loud shriek. A Muslim girl was running up the stairs of a double-storey building. She was shouting at the top of her voice, ‘I won’t be caught, you won’t get me.’ She had reached right at the top and I could a see a few men sporting turbans and with cropped hair a step or two behind her. She put her hands on the parapet and jumped over. In a split second, she lay on the road, a heap of broken bones, blood oozing out. After her came her floating veil. Somebody jumped up to catch it. Another man helped him cover the body. By then, passions had cooled somewhat and remorse had set in. Around her, Amritsar stood ashamed. The horrors of Partition were all-pervasive. That side of the border, and this."

How does one live and carry this memory till the rest of their lives? The floating veil of that innocent girl is a symbol of our collective failure as humanity to protect our fellow human beings. When I read that paragraph, I feel as if I have lost a part of my soul. What horrors have we committed as a community? And can this ever be reconciled?

I wish there was a way to go back in time and question Jinnah, I would ask these questions: Mr Jinnah, were we really so different that there had to be a border to separate us? You kept adding fuel to the fire of hate, and people eventually went mad. Don't you take any responsibility for your relentless pursuit of communal politics, of dividing people in the name of religion that resulted in the deaths and displacement of millions of innocent people? What did you eventually achieve after all this? Where is your "pure" Pakistan?

Animation of border drawn between Lahore and Amritsar

Partition was a like a dagger thrusted into the heart of Punjab. We still have not recovered from it and we are carrying its wound ever since. Jinnah's success was that he forced a lot of us into believing that we are indeed different. And we started seeing each other as Muslims or Hindus and not as fellow Punjabis or Indians. He exaggerated the prejudices rather than diffusing them. It's so easy to engage in the politics of hate. It's so easy to divide people, to sow doubts and tell them how they have been cheated. People are gullible, they love to settle scores thinking they have been victimized all these years without them even realizing it. Genius of a politician is to make people think they have been victimized and they need a way out. Once your base starts believing these lies, then sadly, the process of eventual separation from the "other" is irreversible. In Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs never thought that Muslims were any different or that we have any reason to hurt their feelings. For us they were like any other Indians. After all, we were all living together prior to Partition, weren't we?

Never in a million years we thought that one day we would leave Lahore. Same way Muslims never thought they would ever leave Amritsar. After all the carnage that had happened in the two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, the people of Punjab needed peace more than anything else. All they got in return was one political party, the Muslim League, which was hell bent on destroying the very unity that people had carefully pieced together that was based on a common identity and shared experience.

History is all mutated and morphed into some strange national identity in west Punjab. In Pakistan, Punjabis treat the rest of the provinces as mere rental properties that are there to enrich Punjab and that's about it. In comparison, east Punjab too went through its own crisis in the 1980s. Thankfully, common sense has prevailed and the state is functioning like a normal part of the Indian democracy. There may be residual feeling of injustice among a small minority but vast majority of the Sikhs have moved on. Nobody wants to relive those dark days of militancy and most importantly the younger generation wants jobs and economic growth more than anything else. Overall the development in Indian Punjab is highly commendable and this goes to the hard working and enterprising nature of the Punjabis.

Amritsar, after 1947, became an outpost in terms of trade and commerce. Most of the refugees from west Punjab shifted to Ludhiana and Jullundur. It took decades for it to recover and slowly it is growing and industrial investment has increased over time. The 1965 war and the bombardment of the city's Pratap Bazar by the Pakistanis on the very day of the ceasefire also contributed to the narrative that the city is too close to the border for any sustained development to take place.

Our Amritsar is a city that needs its old soul back. We want that floating veil to cover the wounds of hate. We want Amritsar to extend its hands once again to the rest of the world. We want Amritsar to remain that undying beacon of hope and of Insaniyat.


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