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BJP's Punjab Poll Ad: Only Those Ignorant of History Will Mock Sacrifices of Their Own

This is not the first time that the BJP has tried to drive a wedge between Sikhs and Muslims.
Screengrabs of the BJP's Punjab ad.

Only a people that are ignorant of their history would mock the sacrifices of their own. Then again, for the Bharatiya Janata Party, history started in 2014 and the rest of India is being strong-armed into a cruel amnesia.

The BJP’s latest election ad in Punjab might, however, have overdone the opiate that maintains the oblivion. For the BJP have either misread their audience, or forgotten who they are addressing to think that in Punjab, of all states, they can mine the deep wound of Partition for electoral benefit.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Then again, this is not the first time that they have picked at that wound. The gimmick of Partition Horrors Day (announced as COVID-19 raged through the country) was possibly a cheap trick aimed at snubbing Pakistan’s Independence Day and drawing away attention from the death and despair of the pandemic. But the message to those who had actually lived through the pain of Partition was that their experience and loss – which stretched for months in the fear and heat of the summer of 1947 and beyond — was for the BJP just a day of political rhetoric, a sound and light show of political spectacle. In this callousness, their home and self were cleaved not once, but annually.

This cynical ploy can only fail. In talking about partitioning land and possessions to drive a wedge between Muslims and Sikhs for a few Lok Sabha seats, the BJP forgets that for some, partition is still a living memory. For their children, it is part of their heritage. It is the inheritance of loss – the trauma and guilt of losing family and friends, and the incompleteness of our history, where part of our heritage lies in a land that is beyond an almost impassable border. My grandparents’ homes are just ‘there’ – but ‘there’ might as well be on the moon as far as visiting goes. 

Also read: Punjab 1947: Bloodied and Partitioned by Competing Nationalisms

The Sikhs have paid with blood for their reassembled lives in free India. The traumas of Partition – of losing everything and having to start again, virtually from scratch – are only just buried, and it would be unwise to rake up that history. After losing half their homeland and the seat of their historical empire, the Sikhs chose to rebuild their lives in India by moving on – ‘mitti pao’, or bury it, they said. But that does not mean that they have forgotten the pain of leaving, losing, letting go. And, it is not just material possessions that were lost to Partition (though those were considerable, and the compensation of necessity paltry).  The Sikhs lost compass points of their religion – Nankana Sahib (as the birthplace of Guru Nanak, arguably the fountainhead of their faith) and other shrines lie across Cyril Radcliffe’s line of blood. They are not to be fobbed off with a scurrying visit to Kartarpur Sahib, after begging for a visa that will allow for a few snatched hours of worship.

Worshipping birthplaces is in vogue in today’s India – but clearly only for some.   

Of course, this is not the first time that the BJP has tried to drive a wedge between Sikhs and Muslims. The troll factory has been busy for years with its version of Sikh history where everything was glorious until the Mughals arrived.

A painting of Guru Tegh Bahadur.

Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom provides particularly rich pickings for this twisted vision, for it involves the trolls’ favourite bogeyman, Aurangzeb, the Kashmiri Pandits whom the BJP claim to champion (though it would be interesting to hear from the Kashmiri Pandits how they feel about their homeland now – which too has been partitioned) and a Sikh Guru who was cruelly beheaded by a tyrant.  Of course, that is only half the story, and again an insult to Sikhs to suggest that Guru Tegh Bahadur’s story can be hijacked to promote religious polarisation.   

Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life fighting for the right of a people – and by extension, all people – to practise their own religion freely and without fear.  He was not defending Hinduism (which the Sikh gurus had differences with, especially over practices such as the caste system, idol worship and so on) but defending the right of the Kashmiri Pandits to live by the religion they chose. 

Aurangzeb had served the Kashmiri Pandits with an ultimatum – convert to Islam by a certain date, or face death. Guru Tegh Bahadur went to Delhi and offered his life to Aurangzeb instead so that the Pandits could continue to live and worship as they had done for centuries.  Despite what the BJP’s trolls say ad nauseum, Guru Tegh Bahadur’s quarrel was not with Islam, but with Aurangzeb’s religious intolerance. For the BJP to hold up Guru Tegh Bahadur as leading the resistance to Islam is therefore a gross dishonouring of the ultimate sacrifice that he made in defending the freedom of all religions.  

The problem with distorting history is that after a point, everything is negotiable – who you are, where you came from and where you are going.  At that stage, the price that was paid in blood for your freedom becomes as a myth to be bartered for another, shinier, foundation myth.  

It is said that those whom the gods would destroy, they first deprive of reason.  If so, the nation that the gods would destroy, they first deprive of history. 

Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher who primarily focuses on security and politics in the Indian subcontinent.

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