The New England Sikh Society Hanover, Mass.
“The political independence of the new Third World countries,” according to the French sociologist Jean Duvignaud, “must be followed by social independence, which today does not exist.” He continues on to say that “the elite group that won political freedom has become a petrified ruling class whose very eXI8tence broadens the gap between the city and the steppe.”
Though Duvignaud wrote this in the year 1968 in his study of the Tunisian village of Shebika, he could easily have been talking about a village in India. Does India have social independence today even thirty-seven years after gaining political independence? If by the concept of “social independence” we mean the ability to obtain for itself an individual or collective freedom and to find “spontaneously … the social forms of its adaptation to change,” the answer is no, it does not. India is colonized by its urban elite, who have stepped in where the British left off.
The killing of thousands of Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab last June seems a repetition of the massacre by the British of hundreds of Indians at Jallianwalla Bagh (Amritsar), which, curiously enough, lies only a few hundred yards from the Golden Temple. Mrs. Gandhi’s action showed the same callous disregard for human life that was shown by the British; furthermore it reveals a disregard for religious sentiment by the invasion of the religious shrine of an industrious, thriving minority of India.
The government in India has openly shown that it has become, to the Sikhs, a colonial power. Like the British, it governs the Punjab as though it were a colony, exploiting its labor and its resources while not putting anything back into it. It governs by means of a bureaucratic structure that was taken over intact from the British, except that now urban elite, which Duvignaud so aptly called a “petrified ruling class,” fills the slots that were the prerogative of the British. Indians have to, even today, call these Tax Collectors and District Administrators “Sahib” as they did their British masters, they must still treat them as an aristocracy that is far above them in rank. And it 1s not merely that ant egalitarian, hierarchical aspect of this bureaucracy that is objectionable to the common people, it is also that this bureaucracy is riddled with corruption. Every cog in this bureaucratic machine takes, or demands bribes as their right and as a prerequisite of their position. From the District Administrator to the peon who guards the Administrator’s door, to every official in the Tax service, the public works department, the police, the telephone service, graft and bribery is the normal way of living. No ordinary person can exist without giving bribes at some time or the other, whether it is to get the very essentials of life like cooking gas or train tickets, or to obtain electricity or water for the farms, or even the use of government owned harvesters when the crops have ripened. Every person must compromise her or his integrity regularly in order to survive.
Indians, consequently, have been rendered effete by this bureaucracy. They see no escape from a life of servitude to these rulers, and feel bound by a consciousness of their shameful complicity in this dishonesty. The Sikhs have decided that it is time this slavery ended. It is time to really be a democracy, to be active participants in their own future, to throw off the cumbersome, stifling colonialist bureaucracy that hinders dynamism and change.
This bureaucracy is, furthermore, governed by a central government that is urban and elite, and which hence has very little knowledge of rural India, or even of the immense differences that exist at a regional, or even village, level in the various parts of the country, imposing plans and projects from a_ distant, alien city, the rulers are turning villages into merely negative spaces spaces that are nonurban, no dynamic, no progressive. The central government encourages the villages to become parasites on it by allowing those changes that it brings itself. The bureaucracy effectively stifles any self-help or self-transformation. Consequently, the city becomes, to the villager, the only place where wealth or change is possible, ending up, unfortunately, in the pitiful slums that exist in every Indian city.
The Punjab, however, is not a state which thrives on its cities. Its life lies in the farms and the farmers who inhabit the villages the same farmers that grow enough food to feed the rest of India. And the central government prevents improvements in the villages by its efforts to remain powerful, urban elite. By electric power cuts of 12 hours or more a day, by siphoning off Punjab’s waters, by imposing artificial wheat prices that allow a minimal profit to the farmer while allowing the merchant in the city to sell in the free market, by nationalizing banks and farming cooperatives as well as much of the farming industry, the center stifles the transformation of the Punjab. Even though, compared to the other poverty ridden states of India, Punjab is considered to be well-to-do and its desire for autonomy supposed to be merely a desire to grab whatever cake there is while much of India starves, yet Punjab does not get back anything comparable to what it gives. New Delhi is, for Punjab, just as exploitative as London was during the British rule. Punjab is denied the capacity to improve or transform spontaneously into what it has the potential to be. The Punjab farmers do not feel that their labor is given just recompense. They do not feel that they are “fated” to remain poor or starving. Their religion rejects such passivity. The Sikhs have always been called “progressive.” They are not content to remain a petrified society. The Sikh religion, which was essentially a movement of reformation created out of elements of Hinduism and Islam, has built a society and an ethic in Punjab that is very different from that of the Hindu majority in the rest of India. First, it stresses egalitarianism. Sikhism rejected the cast system, saying instead that all people were born equal. No person was fated to be a collector of refuse as a consequence of birth. It is out of this Hindu belief in the caste system that the present toleration of the hierarchy of urban elite and village poor, of Brahman rulers (to which caste Mrs. Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi belong by birth) and common people, exists. To the Sikhs such hierarchical divisions are intolerable. Sikhism, secondly, proposes that the right way to live is a life of work and family and service to the community. The life of meditation or reclusion is not requisite for salvation, anyone can be a priest, and anyone can have access to holy writings. To the Sikhs, therefore, work and community are necessary. Labor that does not benefit the family or the community which is what the artificial, minimal price of wheat ensures therefore becomes a source of immense dissatisfaction at the grass roots level.
The militancy of the Sikhs, by virtue of which the government of India is branding every Sikh a terrorist, has historically been a result of fighting for freedom against the Mogul rulers and later, the British. At present the fight for economic, social and religious freedom is arousing militancy that every Sikh can call up because of the historical past. During the fight for independence against the British, the reputation for being a warrior sect served to make many Sikhs fight and die for India. It served as well to make Sikhs enlist in the Indian Army in large numbers many of them realizing that the farms were getting smaller from generation to generation and that farming would not be profitable if everyone farmed. So the Sikhs went into the Army.
They also emigrated, in the twentieth century, in large numbers. Most Sikh families have at least one member who lives abroad and sends money home. The simplest research can reveal that it is not the farming alone that makes Punjab prosperous because the Government’s fixed price and policy of allowing only 18 acres of land to any family ensures otherwise. It is the emigrants who send money home, who buy land, subsidize their families, and pump foreign currency into the economy. Village banks have most of their investments from abroad while at the same time the local farmers remain indebted to them.
So the Indian government, the ruling urban, westernized, elite, afraid of Punjab’s self-transformation afraid that its wheat and its immigrants, in a free economy would take the power and wealth from the center and make Punjab an island of prosperity which the rest of India does not hope to achieve, is determined to keep Punjab a colony of India. Under the religious issue, which has become a rallying symbol for the Sikh fight for freedom, lies the threat to the center of Punjab’s desire for social independence its determination to throw off the neocolonialist rule of the urban aristocracy. Punjab is determined to step into a new life and not remain in what George Balandier in Sociologie Actuelle de Afrique Noire called “the surviving remnant of the colonial period,” by which is meant that no man’s land between traditional culture and the new life which keeps a society static. Having an inadequate concept of the structure of every village community, applying programs and laws across the board without taking into consideration diversities of culture, the center has failed to take India anywhere. Corruption, poverty, starvation, and religious animosi ties that have now arisen out of the failure of the elite that governs India. India, to the dynamic and hardworking Sikhs, seems to be going nowhere. And Punjab and its people have come to realize that they have to be free to transform themselves and in the process to shake off the parasite that feeds on them.