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Muslims are once again dotting Punjab’s landscape

By Syed Ali Mujtaba

Punjab faced the full fury of the communal violence in 1947during thePartition of India. The state witnessed an extremely turbulent and traumatic situation in the run up to the independence and Partition of the country.

The transfer of power from British to the dominion of India and Pakistan witnessed a large scale transfer of population from both sides of the border. While Sikhs and Hindus were driven out of West Punjab, the entire Muslim population of East Punjab was ethnically cleansed or forcibly driven out of the state.

Carnage of humanity unprecedented in the annals of history was witnessed in both sides of Punjab. The share of Muslims population in East Punjab was 33.0 percent before the Partition of India and in its aftermath it plummeted to less than 00.50 percent. Virtually, the entire Muslims population of East Punjab was driven to Pakistan or were cleansed, their property looted or forcibly occupied, mosques razed to the ground or vandalized, women were raped etc.

However the situation has drastically changed from then and now. Muslims are growing fairly rapidly from the last few decades or so in Punjab. Muslims are once again dotting the rural and urban landscape of Punjab. Today of the total 277 lakhs population of Punjab, Muslim population is 5.35 lakh, about 1.93 per cent of the total share of population.

Though Muslims share in the total population of Punjab still remains very low, the number of Muslims in Punjab has multiplied by six times in the five decades since 1961, while the total population has multiplied by a factor of 2.5. In 1961, the proportion of Muslims in the state population was only 0.80 percent; it has grown to 1.93 percent in 2011.

The growth in the share of Muslims has been much more pronounced during the last two decades and now could be anywhere between 2 to 3 percent in the 6 out of the 20 districts of Punjab.

An interesting fact is,  even amidst the holocaust of Partition, two pockets of Muslim population survived in Punjab. One is  Malerkotla in Sangrur district, and other is the town of Qadian in Batala sub-district of Gurdaspur.

The Muslim population in Malerkotla and Qadian are quite different than those in other parts of Punjab. They are Punjabi Muslims, who remain settled there for several centuries and are of the same ethnic stock that of the Sikhs and the Hindus. They have little in common with the Muslims that have migrated to Punjab from other parts of the country.

The Muslims of Punjab who are recent immigrants are culturally different from original Punjabi Muslims.Majority of them are farm laborers residing in the villages and those who are daily wage laborers are concentrated in the towns and cities of Punjab. Even though they are culturally different, most of them are integrated into the linguistically milieu of Punjab.

The Muslim growth story in Punjab is very significant. There were 1.14 lakh Muslims in 1971 and it increased to 5.35 lakh in 2011. In Malerkotla there were 61.5 thousand Muslims in 1971 and increased to 1.79 lakh in 2011. The share of Muslim population in Malerkotla, has increased from 15.2 percent in 1971 to 22.5 percent in 2011.The proportion Muslim population in Sangrur district, which includes Malerkotla, is now near 11 percent.

The Qadian town in Batala sub-district of Gurdaspur district is the birth place of Mirza Gulam Ahmed, founder of the Ahmadiyya sect of Muslims in 1889. Qadian has much smaller Muslim population In comparison to Malrekotla, but is the second largest Muslim concentration in Punjab.  In Qadian town where the total population is only 23.6 thousand,Muslims are little more than 3 thousand.Their share in the population of the town has increased from 4.4 percent in 1971 to 13 percent in 2011.

Elsewhere in Punjab Muslims have also shown a much faster growth rate. The number of Muslims outside Malerkotla has risen from 53 thousand to 3 lakh 56 thousand. Cities like Ludhiana have a sizable Muslim population close to 2.5 lakh who are all migrants from other parts of India.

The stories of Malerkotla, Qadian are of course emblematic of the secular spirit of India in which different religions and sects continue to flourish and find dignity, security and prosperity, even in very tense times.These stories also remind us that in India since Independence, minority communities have invariably grown faster than the majority.

To know more on the subject, I had a freewheeling conversation with Dr Mohammad Khalid from Malerkotla and who teaches Political Science at Department of Evening Studies, Punjab University Chandigarh.

The conversation took place at Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati, where both had come to take part in the conference on India Vietnam relations held on March 18 and 19. I had the privilege to share the room with Dr Khalid at the University’s guest house.

He narrates; “in the years following Partition, while Malerkotla continued to remain a haven of peace, there was an overall atmosphere of hostility towards Muslims and anything constructed as ‘Muslim’ was scorned off.  There was a contempt towards Muslims denying them any place in Punjab’s society.”

He says; ‘there is a sea change in the communal and social situation of Punjab, since then. Now Muslims are no more vilified in the state and many pockets of Muslim settlements are visible in some cities in Punjab.’

The atmosphere has greatly improved now and it is no longer problematic to show one’s Muslim identity. The old mosques are repaired and made functional and where there are none, new mosques have come up. Muslims can maintain their distinct identity and freely profess their religious faith without any fear.

Dr Khalid revealed an important nugget on the religious context that may have some bearing on Muslim population in Punjab. He elaborated that many Sikh brothers have protected the Muslims from the communal fury during the Partition days, a fact whichis little known.There may have vested interests in doing so as many such Muslims had occupational utility like being carpenter, barber, mason, mechanic, midwives etc. They were protected disguising them in Sikh attire with changed names.

Now in the changed atmosphere in Punjab such Muslims have come into open and have registered their names in the census list leading to a slight rise in Muslim population. Such Muslims are now freely professing their faith visiting mosques and practicing their religious rituals without fear. This is a remarkable change witnessed in Punjab now.

He said “Muslims can be found in all walks of life. A string of Muslim Punjabi folk singers have emerged in Punjab. Sadrul Sikander, Master Saleem, Khan Sab, Kamal Khan etc are topping the Punjabi music charts. The current heart throb of Punjabi music is Khan Sab,” he said, asking me to check out you tube videos.

Muslims are active in the economics and politics of the state. They are freely doing business and gaining prominence in politics as well, especially from Malrekotla. The younger generation of Muslims in Punjab no longer carries the baggage of the past and don’t have the kind of fear or insecurities that the earlier generation witnessed following the Partition.

Dr Khalid gave part of the credit for improving communal relationship between the Sikh and Muslim communities to the ShiromaniAkali Dal. The Anandpur Sahib resolution, a key ideological document for Akalis, does include a clause on protecting the rights of all religious minorities in India.

Talking about Muslim immigrants from other parts of India to Punjab, Dr Khalid said, such people are the backbone of the state’s economy. Without these labor forces, the state may come to a grinding halt; Dr Khalid added that many among them are second generation immigrants now and are fully integrated into the Punjabi society.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He has done his doctoral research on ‘The Demand for Partition of India that is published as book in 2000.  He can be contacted at [email protected]