Guest post by SIMRAN KAUR
Shekhar Gupta is at it again: lacing an insidious agenda with just enough actual facts that even the targets of his vitriol become eager to swallow. Aspiring Indian Journos, this is how a good Sardar Joke—and while you are at it, jibe at the poor, the rural, the unemployed, the mourning—is done, while earning your paycheck yet again as an esteemed Editor-in-Chief, at best with head-in-clouds, at worst, a stake-in-oppression.
Shekhar G’s latest thesis: The rest of the country has moved on but Punjab has become a prisoner of its boisterous old stereotype. It has forgotten its entrepreneurial energy, its competitive spirit and slipped into a complacent, decadent trance of perpetual balle-balle.
His first argument for the thesis of Punjab’s decline: “the Punjabification”…of Punjab. He bemoans that signs and posts are in Punjabi, in Punjab.
The 50s and 60s saw Punjabi Hindus becoming the unique community to denounce their own mother-tongue. Upping the ante, G. ridicules Punjabis who use Gurmukhi, the script developed in the time of the Sikh Gurus. He finds tell-tale signs over Punjab (he notes his fieldwork of actually travelling on the Grand Trunk Road and flying over Punjab by helicopter recently) of the people being un-couth: signage on Punjabi establishments, in poor English.
You will take a minute figuring out what the “burgars” and “nudles” painted on so many fast-food shops mean, or why Lily is always spelt “Lilly”, whether it be the name of a restaurant in Phagwara or a beauty parlour in Bathinda…If you haven’t figured out already that this, indeed, is Singh’s English.
Brilliant two-birds strike, Shekhar G.
He negates the language of an entire people, while himself no stranger to the historic battle to keep this language alive in post-British Sahib India. On de-colonization in 1947, while Commissions were set up to examine linguistic and cultural boundaries for other Indian states—including Andhra, Karnataka, Maharashtra—Punjab had to launch a civil disobedience movement (again), to receive the same consideration. Demand for recognition of Punjabi was suddenly pegged as questionable: Punjabi Hindus were conniving convinced to distance themselves from Punjabi, and Punjabi Sikhs found themselves accused of asking for a Sikh-majority, Punjabi-speaking state (gasp!). Tens of thousands of Sikhs courted arrest in the late 50s and 60s—in the famed and celebrated way of the 30s and 40s—protesting for language recognition. Why Sikhs, who had repeatedly been given assurances of the protection of their unique identity and homeland—as they gave up their lives in struggles against the British and then opted to stay with Gandhi in India rather than join Pakistan or form their own Country in 1947—are put on the defensive when it comes to ‘Punjabi for Punjab,’ is beyond logical explanation. Other explanations do come to mind.
Secondly, the new Sahib deftly dodges the real questions behind the misspelled Burgers: the real questions around the dire state of education in Punjab. Sure he mentions a few damning statistics. But, this erudite fellow seems to have skipped the overwhelming consensus in the literature (of the English-only variety, G.) that to improve education levels for a developing nation’s children—not for the GD Goenka or Delhi Public Schools that cater to the 1%—the first step is quality education in the mother tongue. Our kids need to learn to think in one language, fully and freely, before they go speaking the language of …well, the other.
But Shekhar G. need not worry about solutions—he has a Problem People to highlight.
Another supporting factor for his thesis is the lazy Punjabi farmer who must be persuaded to toss out his entrepreneurial laziness and move out of the self-destructive wheat/ paddy cycle.
This from the man who has written elsewhere on Indira Gandhi’s brilliance in bringing the Green Revolution to Punjab.
Shekhar G. damns the same Punjabi farmer who was forced into a wheat/paddy (rice) cycle by Madam Gandhi and the Central Government policies that—proving Sikh and Punjabi ‘paranoia’ correct—have sucked dry the land, once of plenty.
Sitting in his air-conditioned office, G. seems to have missed the last decade of documentation around farmer suicides in Punjab. Or, more chillingly, his point is that these kisaans are dying of laziness? Wonder why “bored” kids, who cut school and claim there is “nothing to do, yaar,” don’t just kill themselves for fun, 100 in one village, nay, Delhi gated colony, at a time? Suicides and in fact multiple suicides in many rural families are documented by schools like Harvard, Columbia, and many other English-speaking institutions, Mr. G!
In any case, Mr. G then gets to his usual point about Punjab’s well-deserved peace dividend after a bloody decade stolen by terror.
The blue-starry eyed man is all praise for the terror unleashed under Indira Gandhi, a great leader as he has reminded us in the past, repeatedly. He reminisces on her genocidal “mistakes” during her last year in another piece:
…these mistakes were not rooted in the paranoia and insecurities of her second phase, but in the heart of a rejuvenated leader who would not allow her or her nation’s authority to be taken lightly. That it ended so tragically with her insistence that her Sikh bodyguards could not be removed is such a fitting tribute to her. Even in her death she ensured that at least one point on which historians would never disagree is that she was, ultimately, a secular, true-blue Indian patriot.
And Shekar G has elsewhere bemoaned how Army men—with their impeccable English and table manners of course—who led the attack on the Darbar Sahib, the “Golden Temple,” the Vatican of the Sikhs, (and 42 other gurudwaras on a religious holiday to target large amounts of pilgrims) have not been thanked enough for their killings:
Dayal, after spending nearly a quarter century in relative anonymity imposed on all the key figures involved in Bluestar, passed away unsung on January 29 this year. Nobody seemed to have remembered to even write a footnote to the fading away of one of the greatest Indian soldiers ever.
When G. has such serious failings to worry about, why think of the near 50,000 farmer suicides that his paper regularly underplays?
Much less then countless Sikh deaths at the hands of terrorist police and army officials, which he simply sees as the Punjab’s “dark days.”
Punjab should have risen, a Phoenix, after the dark period in which the brave Shekar G. remembers once being the only passenger in the so-called Flying Mail to Delhi, which ran at 15 km an hour because of the fear of bombs.
Never mind the illegal cremations; custodial rapes; impunity and promotions for all killer cops and no acknowledgement, forget accountability from New Delhi. Punjabi Sikhs should just have risen one morning, forgotten their dead and ‘disappeared’ sons and daughters, made disappear the decades old countless unaddressed socio, economic, and political demands and started speaking the Queen’s English, to make Shekhar G. more proud of the land he grew up in.
[Punjab] has lapsed, instead, into a self-destructive chill.
Yes, G., there is a chill in Punjab. It’s deathly cold. But this wasn’t a lapse. This is the result of well-laid plans. And like Native Americans in US, Punjabi Sikhs today are also themselves participants in the policies of destruction highlighted by acts such as Madam G’s.
As in other post-conflict areas, drugs are all the rage. And, you might have read about the drug nexus that is assiduously monitored and run by local Punjab police and politicians, disbursing the dirty drugs throughout Punjab’s poorer youth and the cleaner stuff to the richer kids in Chandigarh and Delhi, who snort but still speak perfect JNU English?
Don’t get me wrong: Punjab has serious problems. One of them is ill-wishers like Shekhar G. In a concerted effort, he reminds Sikhs, again and again, and with his editorial flair, that a lesson was taught in the 80s and 90s, and never dare raise your voices again or ask about the roots of your problems. And he threatens softly…the targets know it’s a threat, others only see nice prose.
… but if you have Sikh friends, as all of us do, you’d know one thing about them: they wear their “minority” status most lightly. It may be their confidence, self-assurance, or maybe just the belief in Guru Gobind Singh’s invocation of the principle of one Sikh being as good as “sawa lakh” (1.25 lakh) others that you rarely find a Sikh talking like a victim. That, probably, is also the reason why the community has forgotten 15 years of terror and violence, and forgiven us, the rest of the 98.5 per cent, particularly the residents of Delhi, for the massacres of 1984 that put Gujarat of 2002 in shade, and moved on.
G. does this for a living. I have to get back to work.
So, we’ll forego commentary on the rest of his “airplane” article. But if you must, read for his selective telling of the Punjabi immigrant story. Of course he does not mention the vibrant diasporic communities and rather reduces the immigration story to:
Young Punjabis today … want to escape and run low-level services overseas or fill up European jails as illegals.
Maybe note here, as elsewhere, his disdain for the blue-collar workers. For the Aam Aadmi.
Yes, note that he does in fact give one Punjabi Sikh aam aadmi, Bhagwant Mann, kudos:
“He is not a mere clown”—high praise from G!—while of course leaves out the many other Punjabi activists, thinkers, writers, singers, poets, and community workers alive and well in today’s Punjab,who are fighting the odds, on the ground and with love in their hearts. They don’t put out billboards announcing their dedication, Mr. G., but then, even if they did, you might miss it, on your cursory drive on the national highway or flight over our heads.
Yes, Mr. Gupta, Punjab is chilled. Killing a generation of us and never addressing the underlying inequities would do that to any community. Having you remind us of that and reinforce the silence around the killings would do that too.
Your shoe on our neck might not make us yell in perfect English. O, but, we are yelling.
Sometimes, you should rejoice, we release our pain by building airplanes on our rooftops, and if we are fortunate enough, by getting in an actual one and flying far away from you. But enough of us live and breathe right around you to recognize what lies beneath your sheep’s clothing.
Simran Kaur is an activist, accountant, reader, mother, and Punjabi, who spends her time between Moga and Canada.