Muslims Getting Visible at Punjab’s Landscape

Sikhs show solidarity with Muslims in Punjab.

Syed Ali Mujtaba | Caravan Daily

PUNJAB bore the brunt of the communal violence in 1947 during the Partition of India. The state witnessed an extremely turbulent and traumatic situation in the run-up to India’s independence and partition of the country.

The transfer of power from British to the dominion of India and Pakistan was accompanied by a large-scale transfer of population from both sides of the border. While Sikhs and Hindus were driven out of West Punjab, the entire Muslim population of East Punjab was ethnically cleansed or forcibly driven out of the state.

The carnage of humanity unprecedented in the annals of history was witnessed in both the sides of Punjab. The share of the Muslim population in East Punjab was 33 per cent before the Partition of India and in its aftermath, it plummeted to less than 00.50 per cent.

Virtually, the entire Muslim population of East Punjab was driven to Pakistan or were cleansed, their property was looted or forcible occupied, mosques were razed to the ground or vandalized, while women were raped.

However, the situation has drastically changed in Punjab. Muslims are growing fairly rapidly since the last seven decades or so in Punjab. Muslims are once again dotting the rural and urban landscape of Punjab. Today of the total 277 lakhs population of Punjab, the Muslim population is 5.35 lakh that is about 1.93 per cent of the total population.

Though Muslims share in the total population of Punjab still remains very low, the number of Muslims in Punjab has multiplied by six times in the five decades since 1961, while the total population has multiplied by a factor of 2.5. In 1961, the proportion of Muslims in the state population was only 0.80 per cent; it has grown to 1.93 per cent in 2011.

The growth in the share of Muslims has been much more pronounced during the last two decades and now Muslims population could be anywhere between 2 to 3 per cent in six out of the 20 districts of Punjab.

An interesting fact is that even amidst the holocaust of Partition, two Muslim pockets survived in Punjab. One is the principality of Malerkotla in Sangrur district, and another town being Qadian in Batala sub-district of Gurdaspur.

The Muslim population in Malerkotla and Qadian is quite different than those in other parts of Punjab. They are Punjabi Muslims, who have remained settled there for several centuries and are of the same ethnicity as that of the Sikhs and the Hindus. They have little in common with the Muslims that have migrated to Punjab from other parts of the country.

The Muslims of Punjab who are recent immigrants are culturally different from the original Punjabi Muslims.  A majority of them are farm labourers residing in the villages and those who are daily wage labourers or are concentrated in the towns and cities of Punjab. Even though they are culturally different, most of them are integrated into the linguistical milieu of Punjab.

The Muslims growth story in Punjab is very significant. There was 1.14 lakh Muslims in 1971 and it increased to 5.35 lakh in 2011. In Malerkotla there were 61.5 thousand Muslims in 1971 and has increased to 1.79 lakh in 2011. The share of Muslims population in Malerkotla has increased from 15.2 per cent in 1971 to 22.5 per cent in 2011. The proportion Muslim population in Sangrur district, which includes Malerkotla, is now near 11 per cent.

The Qadian town in Batala sub-district of Gurdaspur district is the birthplace of Mirza Gulam Ahmed, founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslims in 1889.  Qadian has a much smaller Muslim population in comparison to Malerkotla, but it has the second largest Muslim concentration in Punjab.  In Qadian town where the total population is only 23.6 thousand, Muslims are little more than 3000. Their share in the population of the town has increased from 4.4 per cent in 1971 to 13 per cent in 2011.

Elsewhere in Punjab Muslims have also shown a much faster growth rate. The number of Muslims outside Malerkotla has risen from 53000 to 356000. Cities like Ludhiana have a sizable Muslim population close to 2.5 lakh who are all migrants from other parts of India.

The stories of Malerkotla, Qadian are of course emblematic of the secular spirit of India in which different religions and sects continue to flourish and find dignity, security and prosperity, even in very tense times. These stories also remind us that in India since independence, minority communities have invariably grown faster than the majority.

To know more on the subject, I had a freewheeling conversation with Dr Mohammad Khalid from Malerkotla and who teaches Political Science at the Department of Evening Studies, Punjab University, Chandigarh.

The conversation took place at Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati, where both had come to take part in the conference on India Vietnam relations held on March 18 and 19. I had the privilege to share the room with Dr Khalid at the University’s guest house.

He narrates, “In the years following the partition, while Malerkotla continued to remain a haven of peace, there was an overall atmosphere of hostility towards Muslims and anything constructed as ‘Muslim’ was scorned off.  There seems to have a clear attempt of contempt towards Muslims denying them any place in the Punjabi society.”

He says, “There is a sea change in the communal and social situation of Punjab, since then. Now Muslims are no more vilified in the state and many pockets of Muslim settlement are visible in some cities of Punjab.”

The atmosphere has greatly improved now and it is no longer problematic to show one’s Muslim identity. The old mosques are repaired and made functional and where there are none, new mosques have come up. Muslims can maintain their distinct identity and freely profess their religious faith without any fear.

Dr Khalid revealed an important nugget on the religious context that may have some bearing on the Muslim population in Punjab. He elaborated that many Sikh brothers have protected the Muslims from the communal fury during the partition days, a fact which is little known. There may have vested interests in doing so as many such Muslims had occupational skills like being a carpenter, barber, mason, mechanic midwives etc. They were protected by hiding them in Sikh attire and alternate identity.

Now in the changed communal atmosphere in Punjab, such Muslims have come into open and have registered their names in the census list leading to a slight rise in the Muslim population. Such Muslims are now freely professing their faith visiting mosques and practising their religious rituals without any fear. This is a remarkable change witnessed in Punjab.

He said, “Now Muslims can be found in all walks of life. A string of Muslim Punjabi folk singers has emerged in Punjab. Sadrul Sikander, Master Saleem, Khan Sab, Kamal Khan etc are making their presence felt in the Punjabi music charts. The current heartthrob of Punjabi music is Khan Sab, he asked me to check his YouTube videos.

Muslims are active in the economics and politics of the state. They are freely doing business and some gaining prominence in politics as well, especially from Malerkotla, he said. The younger generation of Muslims in Punjab no longer carries the baggage of the past and they don’t have the kind of fear or insecurities that the earlier generation witnessed following the Partition.

Dr Khalid gave partial credit to the Shiromani Akali Dal for improving the communal relationship between the Sikh and Muslim communities. The Anandpur Sahib resolution, a key ideological document for Akalis, does include a clause on protecting the rights of all religious minorities in India.

Talking, about Muslim immigrants from other parts of India to Punjab, Dr Khalid said, “Such people are the backbone of the state’s economy. Without these labour forces, the state may come to a grinding halt.” He added that many among them are second generation immigrants and are now fully integrated into the Punjabi society.

Commenting on the upcoming election, Dr Khalid maintained that it will essentially be a political ‘dangal’ between the Congress and Akalis in Malerkotla city, with the Aam Aadmi Party doing well in the villages.


(Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. Views expressed here are his personal and Caravan Daily does not necessarily subscribe to them.)






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