In Malerkotla, the only Muslim-dominated town in Indian Punjab, stands a three-dimensional 66-ft-tall memorial, which when viewed from all angles, looks like the Sikh khanda (double-edged sword). The difference though is that the 66-ft khanda has 66 gaping holes, with the size of the hole symbolising the age of the person blown by a cannon ball.
The story of this memorial is reflective of the divide that cow slaughter caused in the 19th century, and how the deep cut inflicted by the then rulers exacerbated existing fissures in the Indian society.
The story begins in 1871, when the then deputy commissioner of Amritsar sanctioned the opening of a slaughterhouse in the Holy City. While the sale of beef led to straining of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, the Namdhari Sikhs (also known as Kukas), who are staunch vegetarians, rallied against this decision. In an action that would result in five Namdharis being sentenced to death, a group of followers raided the slaughter house, killed the butchers, and set the cows free. For this act, four Namdharis were hanged on 15 September, 1871.
|That a staunch vegetarian community would kill butchers rather than allow cows to be slaughtered speaks of the emotive potential of this issue way back in the 1870s.|
The story does not end here. Four months later, when a Malerkotla judge ordered an ox to be butchered in front of a protesting Namdhari named Gurmukh Singh, a clash ensued. A band of 200 Namdharis proceeded towards Kotla to avenge the wrong, leading to 15 deaths including eight persons from Kotla, and seven of their own. Prompt action by the authorities and a judgement pronounced within a day of their arrest led to 66 of them being blown apart by cannon fire - now commemorated by the 66 holes in the 66-ft memorial.
The event has many legends embedded within. A man called Waryam Singh was too short for the cannonball to hit him. He is reported to have collected stones, created a mound and stood on top of the mound asking to be martyred. A 12-year boy Bishan Singh was being let off for being too young for capital punishment. On learning that he would be denied martyrdom, he rushed and assaulted British officials, and was immediately hacked to death.
A century and a half later, details of this story still continue to unravel, and these are very much a part of the idiom of the freedom struggle in Punjab. Their protest was as much reflective of their angst against cow slaughter, as it was a part of a wider movement against the British Empire, with the Kuka movement laying particular stress on boycott of British goods and services. It moved Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who in an article written in 1928, termed the Kuka movement as "a revolutionary transformative movement which made the first attempt for the independence of Punjab".
While the names of the Amritsar Namdharis were known to historians, those sentenced to death at Malerkotla remained anonymous till a dogged researcher Malwinder Singh Waraich unearthed the list and graciously shared them with me. That was in 2005, when I first reported the story here. Two years later, at the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Namdhari movement in 2007, the Punjab government acceded to a demand to create similar memorials in the hometowns of the Namdharis who were hanged in Amritsar.
That a staunch vegetarian community would kill butchers rather than allow cows to be slaughtered speaks of the emotive potential of this issue way back in the 1870s. That almost two centuries later, we are still reporting and discussing the story tells us that we have not come a long way since then.