If history is to be relevant, it has to mirror and reflect and expand our consciousness. Rajmohan Gandhi’s Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten is the first book in 125 years to chronicle the undivided Punjab from Attock to Delhi. The region was seven times the size of the Punjab in India. The book evokes both feelings: a sigh of relief and a sense of vacantness. The relief is that such a bloody history is behind us and we have moved on to becoming a democracy, moved away from monarchies, and hopefully such bloodshed will not happen again. The vacantness is that, like in our long history, in a year of parliamentary elections, in a nation as populous and diverse as ours, we still have not built a culture in which political parties groom their next generation of leaders.
Through the book, Rajmohan, while detailing the history of Punjab and dwelling upon the idea of Punjabiat, loosely translated as Punjabiness, which he considers was and is the binding factor for the religiously diverse people, asks: why was Punjab’s Muslim majority unable to fill the power vacuum when, post-Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire retreated from the province? The writer selects two ways of looking at undivided Punjab: geographically, the smaller land masses—the doab tracts between each of two of the five rivers of the land; and people, who in the pre-British times were identified not by their religion but zaat, social subdivision loosely equivalent to caste. If asked who or what he was, he might have mentioned his zaat or village before speaking of his religion. This approach could have led to the writer to bring out the travails and experiences of the subaltern communities, for they are a sizeable number and the Sikh religion sought to do away with caste, but the text remains largely canonical.
The writer details the eighteenth century, after the time of the Sikh Gurus and the death of Aurangzeb, through the invasions by Nadir Shah, the invite to the plunderer Ahmed Shah Abdali, thus showing how from being part of the Mughal kingdom, the region had become an Afghan Punjab. In a text filled with side plots, the writer focuses on Adina Beg Khan and the rise of the Sikh misls and goes on to depict the rise and consolidation of the territories by Ranjit Singh. However, it is surprising that the writer does not consider The History of Sikhs, a seminal text by J D Cunningham, for his study. After the Anglo-Sikh wars, the book changes from being an account of kings to that of the emergence of people as leaders of the masses. The book shows how the British developed the region through canals, roads and prison systems, and details the life and times of the Lawrence brothers and of John Nicholson and other deputy commissioners up to the Sepoy Mutiny 1857 when the British sowed the seeds of “divide and rule”.
Part of the book’s charm lies in bringing places like Sirhind, Sarai Rohilla, Ferozepur, Multan, Kangara Hills and many more to life while portraying the intrigues in the power circles. A serious reader could wish the writer had dwelt a little more on activities of the Gadhar party, the Singh Sabha and the Christian evangelists and educators as that was the trigger for most communities to start educational institutions and use the Press to influence people. The dynamics of the Muslim League and the Unionist Party and how the idea of Pakistan—P(unjab), A(fghania), K(ashmir), S(indh) and (Baluch)stan—started with Lala Lajpat Rai asking for regions to be demarcated as per religious domination make for fascinating reading. The text also suggests Indians were quite ready to push for independence from the British in the 1920s but for Mahatma Gandhi’s focus on satyagraha and non-violent struggle, which he hoped, would rid independent India of its violent past but has remained our nemesis till date. He asks, “Are they not all Punjabis, drinking the same water, breathing the same air and deriving sustenance from the same soil?” The book repeatedly shows that the idea of Punjabiat could not prevent the divisions and mayhem. Invoking it as nostalgia without anchoring it in the Sufi tradition or in the simple inter-religious faith that people harbour in their hearts or in the evolution of languages—Urdu, Punjabi and Hindustani—keeps it at a plane which could have been explored a lot more.
Rajmohan does not suggest a radical new way to understand and interpret Punjab’s history. Yet, for its clear, easy-to-read, chronology of events, the book should be read by all who seek insights into the genesis of the modern, secular, independent, Indian state.