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Hope and healing in Malerkotla

As Delhi reels from a riot-like situation, Natasha Badhwar recounts a recent visit to her ancestral village in Punjab to witness a large anti-CAA rally

The anti-CAA rally in Malerkotla became an enduring symbol of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh unity
The anti-CAA rally in Malerkotla became an enduring symbol of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh unity (Ajmal Jami)

I bought a new power bank to charge my phone in Malerkotla. As I stood waiting for the shopkeeper to find the product, I stood with my back to the shop and took in the sights of Truck Union Chowk. The roads were wider than I remembered, but then it was Sunday and all the shops in the market where shut. It was a very special day in this town.

There was an open jeep full of policewomen in front of me. I admired how well turned out and relaxed they all seemed, in comparison to the policewomen I am used to seeing in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. I almost felt like I could have been on a large-scale film set, surrounded by actors doing a dry run before they shoot the scene for real.

I wanted to visit the post office in Malerkotla but I didn’t. If I had asked around and gone there, I would have found my grandparents’ home right next to it. I would have found the window from where I first saw a Muharram procession, wondering why the adults were not reacting to what seemed alarming to me as a child. I would have gone to the terrace where the town photographer had taken family photographs of my grandparents, their three sons and their young families. My father and his brothers had played cards together on that roof and Dadaji had scolded the grown men for wasting their time with the idle game. I had blown a balloon that burst in my face and startled me. My Dadi had cooked in her tiny kitchen with Verka ghee. We had bathed by the handpump in the open veranda and Dadaji had sat me in his lap and told my cousins and me stories every evening. We had learnt to peel sugar cane with our mouths and chew on it, savouring its juice as it dripped down our chins. I remember some of the stories Dadaji told me in Malerkotla.

Almost four decades later, I had returned to the same place with Naseem, my 11-year-old daughter, to witness and participate in the largest coming together of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in Punjab to oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the Union government’s plans for a National Population Register (NPR) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Fourteen farmers’ and students’ organizations had come together to organize a march and day-long protest that created a central space for women protesters in the town’s Dana Mandi.

“Hindu-Muslim ladnay nahi denge,

San santalis hone nahi denge."

This was an oft-repeated slogan at the rally. “We will not allow Hindus and Muslims to be divided again. We will not allow a repeat of 1947." This popular slogan alluded to the divisiveness inherent in the CAA, NPR and NRC processes and vowed to oppose any institutional discrimination against Muslims in India.

I was at Delhi’s iconic Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest when I first heard that this rally was being planned in Malerkotla in Punjab’s Sangrur district. A large contingent of Sikh farmers had arrived in Delhi and spent almost a week expressing support and cooking large-scale meals to feed the protesters at Shaheen Bagh. I knew I had to return to Malerkotla to witness this solidarity in action on that soil.

Societal trauma is created in an instant of violence; the healing and restoration of mental health can take generations. The rebuilding of trust between communities and the emergence of leaders who can make peace and non-violence fashionable again demands sustained, painstaking work.

My father’s side of our extended family of Hindu Punjabis had lived through the terror of the Khalistan movement in Punjab. After the trauma of the violence of Partition in 1947, many of them had been uprooted again in the 1980s and migrated for a second time in their lives. As Hindu Punjabis, they no longer felt safe from the threat of targeted extortion, kidnapping and murder in Punjab and moved to the outskirts of Delhi to start lives all over again.

My mother’s side of our extended family had also been victims of the violence that accompanied India’s freedom from British colonial rule in 1947. While they have rebuilt lives and flourished again, both sides of the family have also been riddled with alcoholism, estranged relationships and suicides.

Along with my colleagues from Karwan e Mohabbat—a people’s campaign against hate crimes—I had gone to Malerkotla to bask in the atmosphere of solidarity and a people’s resolve to remain united. I needed this hope for myself. For my children.

As I finish writing this piece, a riot-like situation has unfolded in Delhi, the city I live in. Memories of the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 are still fresh in the city’s memory. I remember standing on the roof of my own home and watching bungalows and taxi stands set on fire. My own Sikh classmates returned to school weeks after school had reopened, their body and soul battered by trauma and humiliation.

After the sustained violence wreaked by the Uttar Pradesh police on anti-CAA protesters in towns like Muzaffarnagar, Rampur, Sambhal, Firozabad, Kanpur and Meerut in December, it is easy to imagine how easily the violence and its toll on people can escalate in Delhi.

There are calls to civil society groups to reach the over 20 women-led sit-in protest sites in Delhi and protect them with their presence. Citizens’ rescue teams are being formed. I will submit this column and heed the call, joining the efforts to restore peace and reiterate a people’s right to peaceful protests.

After I returned from Malerkotla, I spoke to my father on the phone. He asked me if I had looked for the home where we used to visit his parents during summer vacations in my childhood. Those might be some of our happiest memories together, because my grandmother died soon after they moved out of Malerkotla.

“I was overwhelmed by the noise and colour of the rally, Papa," I said to him. “It was beautiful, I took a lot of photos and listened to people. I have never seen Sikhs, Hindu, Muslims…women, children and men together like this in Punjab before." He seemed to beam with pride on the other side of the phone. “We will go back together soon," he said to me. “We will find that home."

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.


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