The problem

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REGIONAL and linguistic identities have often been viewed as being territory bound. Quite like the old notion of nations, territory presumably provides the physical and economic grounds for the growth of a distinctive cultural consciousness, as if linguistic/regional identities are more ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ than identities of nations or ethnics. Such identities were seen as being particularly so in the subcontinent, where national boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by the departing colonial masters.

However, such a priomordialist notion of regional and linguistic identities does not hold good in every case. Shared relationship to a territory does not automatically produce a cohesive cultural or political community. Territoriality of a given region becomes a meaningful reality only when it is claimed by some ‘community’/‘communities’. While it is possible that such communities in many instances are themselves constituted by territoriality of the region or its linguistic distinctiveness, this has not always been the case. Other social and political processes, such as religion, caste and even class could play important roles in the constitution of such identities. In other words, regions and regional identities are inherently fluid categories, constantly changing and being constructed by the relevant actors in given social, political and historical contexts.

The history of Punjab or Punjabiyat during the 20th century offers a good example of such a process. Though like many other provinces, the Indian Punjab too was reorganized as a separate state of independent India on the basis of language, it has over the years come to acquire a strong communitarian identity and is often seen as a land of the Sikhs. Despite the fact that Hindus and Muslims were in larger numbers in the region, it was the Sikhs who saw Punjab as the land of their origin and laid claim to it, successfully hegemonizing the regional/territorial identity of the Indian Punjab.1

The politics of a predominant section of the Punjabi Hindu elite, on the other hand, was geared towards de-ethnicizing and de-regionalizing themselves.2 While this certainly helped them in claiming the opportunities opened up by the new nation, it conversely helped the Sikhs in consolidating their claims over the region. Similarly, the Punjabi elite of western Punjab found Urdu as a more useful source for legitimizing their hegemony over the new nation-state of Pakistan. Muslim Punjabis, who constituted more than half the total population of pre-partition Punjab, thus rarely represented themselves through the idiom of Punjabiyat in post-colonial South Asia.

Religious communities have not been the only source of fluidity for the regional identity of Punjab. During the post-independence period, the Indian Punjab, for example, has often been imagined as a land of prosperous agriculture and, therefore, predominantly ‘rural’ in its cultural ethos and ‘ways of life’. Even though the green revolution technology was successful in several other parts of India as well, it came to be identified almost solely with Punjab. This success of agriculture also helped the locally dominant landowning caste of Jutt Sikhs to virtually emerge as the sole champions of the regional and religious identity of Punjab. The Akali politics of post-1966 Punjab was articulated not merely around the interests and aspirations of the Sikhs but also represented the agrarian interests and ethos of a dominant class of rural Punjab.3

The iconographic Sikh soldier/warrior of the colonial and post-colonial state was also quintessentially the Jutt Sikh peasant. It was this category of the mobile Punjabi peasants who, before any other community from the subcontinent, began to explore the western hemisphere.4 As is well-known to students of global migrations, the history of Indian diaspora in North America begins with Sikh settlements in America and Canada. Migrations of rural Sikhs to the countries of North America and Europe have not only continued over the years, but have almost become a cultural trait with the rural Sikhs in some pockets of Punjab. Though the Jutt Sikhs are not the only ones who have migrated out of Punjab to the West, they certainly constitute a bulk of the Sikhs living abroad.5

Apart from the long tradition of migrations and global contact, the Indian Punjab also had a vibrant urban economy. Until recently the industrial growth rate of Punjab was higher than the average for India. Punjab continues to be among the more urbanized states of India and ranked fourth in terms of the proportion of urban population among the major states of the country during the 2001 Census. Against the national average of less than 28 per cent, the urban population of Punjab in 2001 was 34 per cent.

Despite all these facts, the Indian Punjab during the post-independence period has been known primarily for its prosperous agriculture. Since the days of British rule, Punjab was viewed as a region with enormous potential for agricultural growth. The success of canal colonies in West Punjab motivated the colonial rulers to lay an extensive network of canals in the region. The Bhakra Nangal dam, one of the first major irrigation projects launched by the government of independent India, was also located in Punjab.

The success of the green revolution technology in the region did not come as a surprise to anyone. The state of Punjab soon became the land of prosperity and progress, an example par excellence of the economic achievements of India during the post-independence period, a ‘representative model’ of economic progress. The available statistics on various indicators of agricultural growth speak for themselves. Of all the states of India, Punjab’s growth rate in agriculture was the highest from the 1960s to the middle of 1980s. The annual rate of increase in production of food grains during the period 1961-62 to 1985-86 for the state was more than double the figure for the country as a whole. The percentage of high yielding varieties (HYV) of seed in the total area under food grains in Punjab was as high as 73% in 1974-5 (all India 31%) and 95% in 1983-85 (all India 54%). While Punjab had 17,459 tractors per hundred thousand holdings, the all India figure was only 714. The same holds true for most other such indicators.6 These achievements have also been widely recognized.7

At the sociological and political level, this growth of rural capitalism during the 1960s and 1970s imparted a new sense of confidence and visibility to the agrarian castes in different parts of India. Institutionalization of electoral democracy helped them dislodge the so-called upper caste elites from the regional and national political arena. In the case of Punjab, the landowning Jutts had already been the ruling elite of the region. The success of green revolution and institutionalization of democracy helped them further consolidate their position. In the emerging scenario even Sikh religious institutions came under their sway.

The triumph of agrarianism and the rise of the dominant caste farmers in the 1970s also set in motion a phase of populist politics at the regional and national levels in India. The newly emergent agrarian elite not only spoke for their own caste or class but on behalf of the entire village and the region. Their identification was not just political or interest-based and sectarian, as they saw themselves representing everyone, encompassing all conflicts and differences of caste, class or communities.

The economic supremacy that Punjab had come to acquire in independent India did not last for long. The rise of the Khalistan movement, a secessionist demand by a section of the Sikh community during the early 1980s, was a somewhat unexpected development since apart from its economic success, socially and politically too the border-state of Punjab had been a well-integrated part of India. Nor had there been any doubts about the nationalist credentials of the Sikhs. Not only had they participated in the nationalist freedom movement with considerable enthusiasm, the people of Punjab, along with those of Bengal, had suffered the most during the Partition of India in 1947. No other region of India had to pay such a price for freedom from colonial rule!

Not surprisingly, therefore, the rise of a secessionist movement in the state was for many a puzzle. Explaining the ‘Punjab crisis’ became an obsession with the academia and the popular press. A large volume of literature was generated during the early 1980s on the ‘Punjab crisis’. From political economy to modernization theory and even psychoanalysis, the academia applied virtually every available framework and perspective for understanding and explaining the ‘crisis’.

Contrary to much of the academic speculation, after some fifteen years of violence and bloodshed, Sikh militancy began to decline. This process started around the early 1990s and by the middle of the decade, the Khalistan movement was virtually over without having achieved anything in political terms. The end of the Khalistan movement, however, did not mean an end of ‘crises’ for Punjab. It was now the turn of economics and agriculture. The green revolution had already begun to lose its charm by the early 1980s. Several scholars had in fact attributed the rise of militancy directly to the crisis of Punjab agriculture. By the early 1990s, there were clear signs of economic stagnation. Unlike some other parts of India, Punjab had lost out on the opportunities opened-up by the ‘new economy’ and investments of foreign capital that had begun to come to India with the introduction of economic liberaliztion.

The discourse of crisis found more ammunition during the post-reforms period when Punjab and some other parts of India saw a sudden spurt in the incidence of suicides by cultivating farmers. By the turn of the century, agriculture in Punjab had lost nearly all its sheen, the emblematic Punjabi farmer seen nowhere in the new imageries of a globalizing India. The younger generation of those who once proudly identified with agriculture and rural ethos no longer seemed inspired by village life and the economic opportunities it offered.

Underlying the ‘crises’ generated by a decline of agriculture and disenchantment with the village were the changing ground realities. The changes that came about in the countryside with the success of the green revolution also produced a new class of rural rich who had experienced economic mobility through their active involvement with the larger capitalist market. The new technology gave them tractors, took them to the mandi towns and integrated them with the market for buying not only fertilizers and pesticides but also white goods and an urban lifestyle. Their changing aspirations could not be satisfied simply by being in the village. They began to send their children to urban schools and colleges for better education. Some of them also invested the surpluses they generated from agriculture into urban trade and other avenues of investments in the non-agricultural economy. Even those who did not have large size holdings tried to move out of the village. Most agricultural households in Punjab today have become or are trying to become pluri-active, ‘standing between farming and other activities whether as seasonal labourers or small-scale entrepreneurs in the local economy… Agriculture and farming is no more an all-encompassing way of life and identity.’8

The available official data on employment patterns in Punjab has begun to reflect this quite clearly. For example, the proportion of cultivators in the total number of main workers in Punjab declined from 46.56 in 1971 to 31.44 in 1991, and further to 22.60 by 2001. While the share of cultivators has been consistently falling, that of the agricultural labourers had been rising until the 1991 Census. However, over the last decade, viz. from 1991 to 2001, even their proportion declined significantly, from 23.82 to 16.30. In other words, though two-third of Punjab’s population still lives in rural areas, only around 39% of the main workers in the state are directly employed in agriculture. The comparable figure for the country as a whole is still above 58%.

Who is trying to move out of agriculture? The trend of moving out of agriculture is perhaps not confined to any specific class or category. While marginal and small cultivators seem to be moving out of agriculture, the bigger farmer is moving out of the village itself. The big farmers of Punjab invariably have a part of their family living in the town. Their children go to urban schools/colleges, and they invest their surplus in non-agricultural activities.

Not only has there been a fragmentation of farming classes, the rural social structure has also undergone a near complete transformation over the last three or four decades. My recent study of changing caste relations in rural Punjab clearly reflects this process. As I have argued elsewhere,9 commercialization and mechanization of agriculture on the one hand and introduction of democratic political process on the other have together fundamentally transformed caste relations in rural Punjab. Over the last twenty years or so a large proportion of dalits in Punjab have consciously dissociated themselves from their traditional occupations as also distanced from everyday engagement with the agrarian economy, which earlier provided the source of power for the locally dominant castes over them. They have also been investing in building their own cultural resources in the village, in gurudwaras and dharamshalas.

The growing autonomy of the dalits from the ‘traditional’ rural economy and structures of patronage and loyalty has created a rather piquant situation in the countryside with potentially far-reaching political implications. While the institutions supporting the ideas and structures of hierarchy have nearly disintegrated, the upper castes have not yet shed their prejudice against the former ‘untouchable’ groups. Nor have they reconciled to the changed ground realities. In the emerging scenario, local dalits have begun to assert for equal rights and a share from the resources that belong commonly to the village and had so far been in the exclusive control of the locally dominant caste groups or individual households.

Seen purely through economic data, Indian Punjab continues to be an agriculturally developed region of the country, producing much more than what it requires for its own consumption. Even though occupying merely 1.53% of the total land area of India, Punjab farmers produce nearly 13% of the total food grains (22.6% of wheat and 10.8% of rice) of the country. Interestingly, in terms of objective indicators, Punjab has been a ‘progressive’ state otherwise also. For example, in terms of the Human Development Index, Punjab is second only to Kerala. The available official data also points towards a revival of its economy. The growth rates of Punjab – agriculture or industry – are no longer negative. Notwithstanding the frequent reports of corruption and scandals, the urban centres of Punjab seem to be picking-up in terms of growth of infrastructure and real-estate.

However, the Indian Punjab today needs to be re-imagined in more than economic terms alone. The canvas of its change is much larger and broader. The fragmentation of village and its social structure, the growing differentiation among the agrarian classes, its rapid urbanization, will all have far reaching implications for the local power structure. Given that Punjab has a large proportion of Scheduled Caste population, the newly acquired agency among the dalits can also have serious implications for regional politics.10 The earlier hegemony of the rural Jutt culture is fast disintegrating from within and outside. This would also change the manner in which the dominant elite articulate the regional identity and their perceptions of the larger interests of Punjab.

As mentioned above, some pockets of Punjab have had a long history of out-migration, mostly to the developed countries of the western hemisphere. Over the years Punjabi/Sikh diaspora has gained in confidence and economic resources with a strong sense of identity and desire to participate in the development of the region and communities of their origin. They have also been investing in consolidation of their cultural resources that would give them respectability in the countries where they live as citizens, viz. mobilizing funds to set-up chairs in some of the most prestigious universities of the western world. They have been participating in the political process, getting elected to local and national political bodies which enable them in negotiating with the cultures and polities of their host societies.

The fast changing geopolitics of the world during the opening decade of the 21st century has important implications for the Punjabs and their futures. Though the hostile visa regimes of India and Pakistan continue to be an obstacle, traffic of common citizens across the Indo-Pak border has been steadily increasing. The larger politics of the two countries notwithstanding, this loosening of border has produced a sense of excitement and opened a window of hope for all shades and sections of Punjabis .

What implications would these new processes have for the manner in which we have imagined Punjab and Punjabiyat – within the national and global contexts? Will the processes of globalization and the new technologies enable the two Punjabs to rediscover their common cultural heritage? How would a loosening of the border and opening of trade routes influence the economies of the two Punjabs? Would the decline of agriculture and rapid urbanization of the state develop a new middle class imagery of the state? Though it is not easy to answer these questions, some of these processes are sure to bring positive and enriching outcomes. They will also require us to re-imagine Punjab(s) in idioms and identities different from what seem familiar and obvious to us today.




1. S.S. Jodhka, ‘Regions and Communities: Social Identities in Contemporary Punjab’ in Rajendra Vora and Anne Feldhaus (eds.), Region, Culture, and Politics in India. Manohar, Delhi, 2006, pp. 299-316.

2. Baldev Raj Nayar, Minority Politics in the Punjab. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1966.

3. Interestingly enough, it was not only the communally motivated right-wing Hindu organizations that opposed linguistic reorganization of Punjab during the 1950s and 1960s. Some dalit leaders from the state were also worried about the likely expansion in power of the landowning caste at the state level and its possible implications for the landless dalits who depended on Jutt landowners for employment at the local level (see Baldev Raj Nayar, ibid.).

4. See, for example, Darshan Tatla’s work on Canada, The Sikh Diaspora: The Search for Statehood. University of Washington Press, Washington, 1999, and Gurharpal Singh and Darshan Tatla’s work on Britain, Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community. Zed Books, London, 2006.

5. In contrast, this has not been the case with the Sikhs living in different parts of India, outside Punjab. A large majority of them are those who migrated from the urban centre of western Punjab at the time of partition and invariably belong to non-agricultural caste groups.

6. D.S. Kohli and N. Singh, ‘The Green Revolution in Punjab, India: The Economics of Technological Change.’ Conference paper, 1997.

7. For example, despite its criticism, the recent report of the World Bank on the Punjab economy lauds it as ‘India’s most prosperous and developed state with the lowest poverty rate... The remarkable development record of Punjab can also be inferred from the fact that it has already achieved, or is well on track to achieve, most of the Millennium Development Goals… Most citizens of Punjab have thus already achieved a level of socio-economic status that the majority of Indian citizens are unlikely to experience in their lifetime.’ World Bank, Resuming Punjab’s Prosperity: Opportunities and Challenges Ahead. Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Sector Unit, South Asia Region, New Delhi, 2004, p. 3.

8. Stefan Lindberg, ‘Whom and What To Fight?: Notes and Queries on Indian Farmers Collective Action Under Liberalisation and Globalisation.’ Unpublished seminar paper, Punjab University, Patiala, 2005, p. 11.

9. S.S. Jodhka, ‘Caste and Untouchability in Rural Punjab’, Economic and Political Weekly 37(19), 2002, pp. 1813-23. Also, S.S. Jodhka, ‘Sikhism and the Caste Question: Dalits and Their Politics in Contemporary Punjab’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.) 23(1-2), 2004, pp. 165-92, and S.S. Jodhka and P. Louis, ‘Caste Tensions in Punjab: Talhan and Beyond’, Economic and Political Weekly 38(28), 2003, pp. 2923-6.

10. Historically speaking, caste has not been a dominant idiom of Punjab politics. Caste interests or caste based political battles have invariably been fought under the garb of religious politics. Even dalits have waged their struggles for dignity and rights through religious movements. The Ad Dharam movement during the colonial period and mobilization by the urban Balmikis in recent times are good examples of this. However, in the changing contours of national politics, caste identities have acquired new political value, particularly for those from the dalit communities.