I'm an NRI Sikh and it saddens me to see Punjab fall through the cracks
The northern breadbasket of India has today become the narcotics haven of the country.
- Total Shares
Having read Douglas Murray’s recent best seller, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam, I thought it would be a good time for me to reflect on the plight of my own ancestral homeland, Punjab, a region which too is destined, I suspect, for a similar fate - albeit for different reasons entirely.
The northern breadbasket of India has never been much of a tourist destination for those who aren’t culturally or ethnically Punjabi like myself. It doesn’t have the beaches of Goa nor does it have the mountainous terrain of Kashmir or Himachal. Rather, it’s a flat, deforested and overpopulated patch of agricultural land.
It has a remarkable history nonetheless, sadly unknown to most in the west. Along with Mesopotamia and the Yangtze River area in China, Punjab was also a cradle of civilisation which flourished on the banks of the river Indus a few millennia ago. From the Greeks of Alexander to the Mughals of Babur, this fertile land of five rivers has been a gateway for various armies invading the subcontinent.
The Sikhs of Punjab have had a tragic history to endure. State persecution by the Mughals under Aurungseb led to the militarisation of the Sikhs and the formation of a martial order known as the Khalsa. The demise of the Mughals was only to be followed by the conquests of the Persian Nader Shah and later the Afghan Ahmed Shah Abdali. The Sikhs finally obtained their sovereignty under the influence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1799.
After his death, the kingdom fell into disorder and was shortly annexed by the British. Decolonisation in the aftermath of the Second World War saw Punjab being partitioned between the newly formed nation states of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The region erupted in the summer of 1947 seeing one of the greatest migrations in human history.
Lahore, once the capital of Ranjit Singh’s empire and the birth place of Guru Nanak, happened to fall on the Pakistan side of Punjab, and a once cosmopolitan city was subsequently largely ethnically cleansed of its Sikh population. Tensions on the Indian side of Punjab were re-ignited during the insurgency of the 1980s when Khalistani separatists fought for an independent homeland.
The Punjabis of India were rewarded for their endurance, and for some time they enjoyed the luxuries which came with residing in the richest state in the country. Over the last decade, however, the state appears to have taken a turn for the worst. The final nail in the coffin for the Sikhs is not coming from a foreign invading force like the Mughals, the Persians or the British, nor is it coming from the Indian government. Rather, the Punjabi people are themselves to blame. This is not a genocidal tragedy inflicted by bullets, but rather an epidemic of drugs, widespread alcohol addiction, female infanticide, low birth rates, farmer suicides, caste discrimination, mass outward emigration and religious conversion.
I have made four trips to my motherland, with my last visit being almost a decade ago. I am truly astonished as to how a prosperous and seemingly innocent society has cascaded into becoming the narcotics haven of India. To put things into context, amongst the youth of Punjab, 51.6 per cent were found to be addicted to drugs which is 18 times higher than the national Indian average of 2.8 per cent. The statistics regarding alcohol consumption are just as worrying. From a young age, almost every song I have heard at a Punjabi wedding reception makes some reference to extolling alcohol. When a child grows up on a diet of watching his relatives dance to "Jatt Ho Gya Sharabi" or "Patiala Peg", it doesn’t surprise me they might also become alcoholics when they are older.
Sikhs are also known to have the most uneven sex ratio in the whole of India, with 900 females for every 1000 males. This should be our biggest disgrace and embarrassment, more so than alcohol and substance abuse. I have always had the belief that Sikhism is the most progressive faith when it comes to the emancipation of women.
Our Guru’s fought endlessly against ancient customs of Sati, and strongly opposed the wearing of the veil. Sikh women like Mai Bhago often led armies into the field of battle, something which was unheard of at the time and still is today. It appears that old societal norms which aren’t inherently Sikhism related (and which often predate Sikhism), like the dowry, the celebration of Lohri and the degradation of women in the Punjabi music industry and folk songs, have all played a role in cultivating the vehemently misogynistic culture we see today.
According to census data, the fertility rates of Punjabi-Sikhs are so low, that it begs the question as to whether we would continue to even exist in India, within the not too distant future. The Punjab of 2070 will look very different to the Punjab I remember seeing as a young boy at my uncle's wedding. On almost all my travels abroad, be it to Hong Kong, Sydney or Barcelona, I have always encountered a relatively young male dominated community of illegal Punjabi immigrants. I find their stories very difficult to hear, as they discuss the lengths to which they went to leave Punjab, only to experience a harsher existence a few thousand miles away.
Outward migration and lower fertility rates are not the only factors which explain the Sikh demographic decline. A climate of religious confusion and a lack of Sikh leadership have created a vacuum for Christian missionaries and other religious sects to exploit. I was shocked to find that the recent conviction of the controversial cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim, attracted over two hundred thousand of his supporters outside the Punjab and Haryana High Court. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but the very existence of Sikhism itself seems under threat. Punjab is in serious need of another Singh Sabha movement.
Living in the diaspora, it is very difficult to see the land where your forefathers resided for centuries, erode within the space of a lifetime. Unfortunately, the discussion regarding Punjab amongst western Sikhs only seems to concern the events of 1984 – the invasion of the Darbar Sahib complex, the pogroms of Delhi and the military curfews which turned the district into a garrison state. 1984 strikes a very personal chord with me too. We have every right to stand in remembrance of this terrible episode in our history, just as the Jews remember the Holocaust or the Armenians recall the genocide of 1915. Nonetheless, the dialogue must move beyond this, and our attention should be focused on the Punjab of 2017. The Punjab of today.
I also believe it is important that we accept responsibilities of our own failures. Only by acknowledging and admitting to our own faults can we inspire a renaissance of reform. For too long have we pointed the fingers towards the Indian government. We seem to believe that everything is a part of a grand conspiracy by the "Hindu elite" to intentionally destroy and undermine Sikhism. I will concede that the federal government is not doing enough to monitor the porous borders of Punjab to prevent the flow of opium.
I am fully aware that recreational drugs are more accessible in the Punjab than any other state, and I have no doubt that the Punjab police often turns a blind eye to this. But ultimately, we the Punjabis bear the responsibility of consuming them, no one is enforcing it upon us at the point of a gun. Class A narcotics are readily available on most university campuses in the UK, but most students my age have not become heroin addicts overnight. Though more law and order is needed, this is a grassroots movement, which should instead be focused on education and raising awareness.
I have written an article which is critical of the notion of a "Khalistan" in the past, and I very much doubt it would be the solution to all the problems we are currently facing. The Christian right in America tried to curtail the sale of alcohol in the 1920s. It only meant that more alcohol was being sold illegally and in higher numbers than it was before prohibition was introduced. If we have survived the authoritarian regimes of the past, then we have every reason to make our mark and flourish in a multicultural democracy, albeit an imperfect one.