Malerkotla in Sangrur district of Punjab is an erstwhile princely riyasat with a population of one lakh Hindus and Muslims is an oasis of peace in a strife-torn land. In 1947, when trainloads of slaughtered bodies were going from one side of the border to the other, Malerkotla did not loose its equilibrium. Decades later, when there was widespread violence between the Sikhs and the supporters of Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), a local sect, it was life as usual in this small town. Often in the aftermath of a communal conflict, one wonders what drives people to attack and kill their own. But Malerkotla is a place where neighbours protect one another. What’s their secret? Find out in this excerpt from Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India.
We have often visited places in the aftermath of a conflict – Gujarat, Manipur, Malegaon – to take stock of destruction of life and property and understand what drives people to attack and kill their own; the very neighbours with whom they have lived all their lives. But this time we were going to a place where neighbours protected one another. It is a place which has in fact remained so peaceful that it has never made headline news.
On the two-hour road journey from Chandigarh to Malerkotla, we followed a Sufi trail. We crossed Sirhind, the town famous for the mausoleum of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, leader of the Naqshbandi School of Sufism. Then we passed the princely state of Nabha and the infamous district of Fatehgarh Sahib which has the lowest rural child sex ratio in the country.
By the time we reached Malerkotla, it was evening. Our forst stop was at the famous Gurudwara Ha Ka Nara. We had heard that in the SGPC (Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee) officer here, there was a famous painting of the Nawab of Malerkotla, Sher Mohammad Khan. According to local lore, the nawab, an ally of the Mughals in their battle against the Sikhs, heard that the Viceroy of Sirhind, a close relative, had ordered the death of the two young sons of Guru Gobind Singh. The nawab was furious. ‘This cannot be. Killing innocent children is against the dictates of Shari’at and Islam.’ He petitioned the viceroy and Emperor Aurangzeb to stop this heinous deed. His efforts failed, and the two Sahibzadas were walled alive. The Guru, however, commended his effort and raised his hands in prayer for the nawab saying, ‘His roots will remain green.’ He also gifted him a talwar (sword) which, until today, is a prized possession of the House of Malerkotla. The prayer of the Guru, according to the people of Malerkotla, is the reason for the harmony among communities in this Muslim dominated town.
On our way back to the Circuit House, we stopped at a bookstore at Sherwani Gate which was owned by Jama’at-e-Islami Hind. We went in looking for literature about this unique city. In the back office, we met a young man Mohammed Aasaar, who had studied at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. He was secretary of the Jama’at. ‘Most of the people here, Hindus, Muslims or Sikha, are descendants of the original inhabitants of the town. Our mother tongue is Punjabi. We stay in mixed localities, attend each other’s festivals, marriages, births and deaths. All the communities are devoted to the founder of the Malerkotla State, the great Sufi saint, Hazrat Sheikh Sadruddin Sadr-i-Jahan. We are sheer o shakr (mixed like milk and sugar) with each other; we have no reason to fight.’ He said that, in Malerkotla, Muslims own land and are agriculturists. Most of them are from the Kamboj sect. Though their land holdings are small, they have become prosperous because of their hard work. He brought out a small Gurmukhi translation of the Holt Quran – the best evidence of the language-bond between the communities.
As we most through the gallis and mohallas of Malerkotla, we saw the truth behind his words. Ghettoization or polarization was almost non existent there. The homes and shops of people of both communities were located side by side.
Our final destination was the Malerkotla Palace, which sits hidden within a mini-forest of trees and bushes; a crumbling monument of bygone splendour and magnificence. Begum Munawar-un-Nisa, the third wife of Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan, the last royal descendant of the dynasty’s founder, Sheikh Sadruddin Khan Sadr-i-Jahan, presides over this ruin. Our visit was arranged by the SDM, a kind-looking Sikh officer who was on his second posting here after a gap of ten years. The palace itself is as imposing a monument as the palaces of Kapurthala or Patiala. We were ushered into the erstwhile ballroom of the nawab. On its walls were sculpted the monograms of the riyasat. On many places, the ceiling had caved in. Here, the Begum sat on a grand weather-beaten sofa. Her beautiful face was delicately lined. She wore a green ghagara with a diaphanous dupatta. She spoke softly. ‘Bibi, the story is too long. Where shall I start? I came as a bride in 1948 from the royal house of Tonk (Rajasthan). Sixty years later, here I am,’ she smiled and her surma (kohl) lined eyes lit up.
Our hostess, Begum Munawar-un-Nisa, had been waiting for us for the last two hours and was feeling tired. We had arrived too late to see her album of old photographs or the famous sword that Guru Gobind Singh bestowed on her husband’s ancestor. The light outside was fading just like the dynasty of Malerkotla.
It was late when we left the land of Sufi saint Hazrat Sheikh Sadruddin Sadr-i-Jahan, where the symbol of Sikh-Muslim unity, Nawab Sher Ali Khan of Malerkotla lied buried. We realized how important it was to listen to the voices of this town and to nurture its inherent harmony. Malerkotla should not be allowed to go the way of Malegaon. The latter, with a Muslim majority, has today become the site of communal unrest and bomb blasts. During our visit there, we had seen the anger of youth who are branded terrorists, with little hope of getting justice. Malerkotla, on the contrary, is humming with work and hope. India needs to learn from this part of Punjab.