Singhu, the village at the key entry point to Delhi from the north on the Grand Trunk Road, is now the most familiar dateline in our newspapers.
Protesting farmers, predominantly from Punjab, have built a mini-township. Reporters and cameras going there can find new stories every day. A pizza langar, massage chairs, a spa, gyms, portable toilets, camper beds, clinics, pharmacies, and most importantly, libraries and reading rooms.
In this melee of news coverage, visuals, politics and controversies, admiration and sniggering, one picture caught my eye this last week. Manisha Mondal, a young news photographer from ThePrint, caught a wonderful moment at a reading room at the protest. Three women are engrossed in reading books; in fact, so caught up reading they do not notice the camera. Above them is a painted board. For me, it tells an important story.
The signboard reads, in Gurmukhi and Roman, “Udta Punjab nahin, padhta Punjab”. Translated and elaborated, it means, it isn’t a Punjab high on narcotics; it is an intellectually rich Punjab.
To those who might not follow Hindi cinema closely, Udta Punjab was the name of a 2016 Bollywood film which was described by some as a black comedy, but was in fact a deeply political venture. Punjab was heading for elections. The Akali-BJP coalition was in power. On no indicator, social or economic, Punjab was in any great shape. One big concern was rising drug addiction, especially among its young.
That, for the opposition Congress as well as the new entrant, Aam Aadmi Party, was the chosen vehicle to ride to power. Under two terms of the Akali-BJP government, the proposition was, Punjab had regressed into a heroin/smack/cocaine-addled state. Every village had almost the entire youth addicted. And Akali politicians, including a politician brother-in-law of Sukhbir Singh Badal, were the ‘kingpins’ of drug mafias.
The film even had a politician that mimicked that brother-in-law. It painted a doomsday portrait of Punjab where everybody was either high, or drunk, a gang-rapist, a smuggler or if a politician or a cop, complicit with all these. Truth to tell, while it got the entire country to focus on Punjab, it upset many in the state. We have problems, but not like these.
How many in Punjab can even afford heroin, forget cocaine — that your rich kids do in the bars and clubs of Delhi/Mumbai/Goa? The film came on the eve of the state election. The voters dumped the Akali-BJP coalition but also rejected AAP, riding the Udta Punjab wave, with the usual promises of jailing all powerful ‘mafiosi’, including the brother-in-law.
In the course of time, the Udta Punjab story deservedly faded. It gave Punjab a terrible name. Of course, the brother-in-law was exonerated by all agencies and even won defamation cases against some of the most respected newspapers.
That signboard, therefore, is Punjab’s response to that negative stereotyping of a people who take pride in their vibrancy, which goes way beyond bhangra. This is to say, there is more to us than you thought. As a child of united Punjab, I’d say, well done. We, in any of the three states that emerged post the division in 1966, have many faults, but we were never so bad.
Neither does all our youth snort at bhangra-pop concerts; nor do our fathers and uncles smuggle heroin rather than toil to put roti-chawal on your plate. Nor do they victimise the poorer migrant labourers who come in from Bihar to work on our farms by gang-raping and trafficking their young women: Remember the character ‘Bauria’ that Alia Bhatt played in that film. It was brilliantly done. But it was a scandalous characterisation for the state and its people.
The reality — if you spend any length of time in rural Punjab, or even talk to any of those you go to for sound-bites of ‘langar-eating’ selfie videos at Singhu, they will tell you proudly how well they treat their labour, or ‘bhaiyyas’; how they can’t do without them, build shelters, protect them.
At which point, I would begin to reflect on it a bit more deeply. Can’t I notice that some of the same eminent faces who painted the state as “udta Punjab” are also celebrating it as “padhta Punjab”? AAP is providing free Wi-Fi and toilets, besides political support. The pan-national Left is in the vanguard of the campaign. Nobody, nobody is talking of the drug menace which, by the way, is a reality, though not fractionally as portrayed in that scandalously defamatory film.
What has happened in the past four years for a Diljit Dosanjh to acknowledge such a remarkable udta-to-padhta turnaround? Has Amarinder Singh’s Congress government done such a spectacular job? Even he won’t claim it.
The cast of characters celebrating the glory of an omni-virtuous Punjab is the same as “udta Punjab”. Except that then, one stereotype suited them, now it’s another.
Punjab and Punjabis have their apprehensions, distrust and grievances over the farm laws. The state, especially its proud Sikh population, also has a defiant view of ‘Dilli Durbar’, ever since the days of Emperor Aurangzeb, who executed Guru Tegh Bahadur at what is now Gurdwara Sis Ganj (because he was beheaded there), in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. In the mid-19th century, there were the vicious Anglo-Sikh Wars. In the 20th, there have been a series of mass protests generally against what’s been seen as the bullying, or ‘dhakka’ of Dilli Durbar. That’s why the Akalis came up with the Anandpur Sahib resolution on Baisakhi Day, 1973. It sought a new definition of federalism that we could describe as Article 370+++.
The consequences were bad, most of all for Punjab, where several tens of thousands died in terrorism between 1981 and 1993. It was also a time when a crippling flight of talent, capital and entrepreneurship took place.
Ludhiana, among a few chosen cities in colonial India described as the Manchester of the east, lost its most entrepreneurial families. Punjab was left to remain as an agrarian state, as the rest of the country zoomed. Punjab missed the post-1991 growth surge.
Punjab was still complacent, being the richest state in the country by way of per capita income. But other states were industrialising and catching up. Year 2002-03 was the last when Punjab still had its top spot. Today, hold your breath, it is number 13. Its per capita income, sadly, is just about 15 per cent above the national average. Forget small states like Goa and Sikkim, it is now way behind Haryana (fifth) and Himachal Pradesh (12th) carved out of it. It can still take pride in the fact that the average Punjabi is three and a half times richer than a Bihari. But she also earns one-third of what a Goan does. And the Haryanvi, who didn’t inherit any river waters though the state had the driest lands, has a 50 per cent lead over the Punjabi.
Check out the data produced by a committee set up by the Amarinder Singh government, led by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, which had many experts, including from think-tank ICRIER. The data, which you can find here, shows how, even in agriculture, Punjab is falling behind. In the 15 years between 2004-05 and 2019, Punjab averaged 2 per cent farm growth. Bihar is 4.8, Uttar Pradesh 2.9. Even Haryana and Himachal beat it at 3.8 and 2.7. Maharashtra, already 25 per cent richer per capita, has seen its farms grow at 3.4 per cent, enlarging the gap.
Data tells us a harsher story. For sure, MSP and subsidies should continue for many years. But Punjab needs to rediscover its entrepreneurial impulse. Instead of limiting its ask to MSP, it should seek freedom to use its lands. Even Haryana has opened up more in that area, especially letting its farmers rent their lands for logistics and godowns. Punjab and its farmers need economic freedom, liberty of land use, not the wheat-paddy-MSP comfort. If they don’t see it now, and let this current adulation get to them, they will end up neither udta nor padhta, but closer to that other Punjab Bollywood has popularised: Fukra (puffed up) Punjab.