Once home to the flourishing Indus Valley Civilisation and encompassing one of the most fertile regions on Earth, Punjab in South Asia is home to over 140 million people. Punjabis also make up one of the largest ethnic groups in the world and have large diaspora communities in Britain, the USA and Canada. Punjab has seen the armies of Alexander the Great, Ghaznavid garrisons, Mughal militaries and the British Raj. It is this complex history that has created a distinct Punjabi culture: it is a fusion of Indian, Arab and Persian traditions and religions. ‘Punjab’ comes from the Persian ‘Panj-Ab’ meaning ‘[Land of the] Five Waters’. These are the rivers of: Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. During the Partition of India in 1947, the region was split into Pakistani Punjab and Indian Punjab. By examining the two halves of Punjab, one can see the tale of determination, struggle and resilience which forms the modern Punjabi identity.
Pakistani Punjab forms the larger half of the wider Punjab region. It was a part of the vision of the All-India Muslim League, headed by politician Muhammad Ali Jinnah and poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal, both barristers of Lincoln’s Inn. The idea was to have a separate, Islamic nation state for the Muslims of India, who were lacking political representation and whose socio-religious culture was very different to that of Hindu-majority India.
Therefore, modern day Pakistani Punjab is characterised by its Islamic identity. Its inhabitants include Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and other religious minorities, but it’s perhaps best-known for its Sufi culture. The Parliament House in the capital, Islamabad, is where the Pakistani Parliament meets. This region is both the spiritual and political heart of Pakistan. Spirituality and politics in Pakistan often overlap, as is found in the case of former prime minister, Imran Khan.
Born in Punjab to Pashtun parents, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan became the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018. He wanted to revive Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan and set about doing this through addressing the modern issues that Pakistan faced. He encouraged the use of renewable energy, aimed to increase tax collection and sought to address Pakistan’s financial crisis. He led the country through the Covid-19 Pandemic until he was ousted controversially in 2022. Several criminal cases were brought against him, and he was deemed an incapable leader for failing to tackle issues such as the rising inflation rate. However, Khan had already made his mark on the Pakistani youth.
Since 2022, scores of Pakistanis have taken to the streets of Punjab, and elsewhere, to demand an end to the nepotism, corruption and feudalism that have caused the deterioration of both democracy and economic stability in their country. They have also campaigned for something else in particular: the innocence of Imran Khan. These protests, marches and calls for change are unlike anything Pakistan has seen in its 76-year history.
Across the Attari-Wagah border is Indian Punjab. It maintains a distinctly Sikh identity and is home to the city of Amritsar, the location of the Jallianwala massacre of 1919.
During Baisakhi season in 1919, the British, who were losing control of the region, announced a curfew on the city of Amritsar. However, many people still gathered in the Jallianwala garden, some just pilgrims coming back from worship at the Golden Temple. As the day went on and the crowd had increased, British Colonel Reginald Dyer, without any initial peaceful crowd-dispersing attempt, ordered his soldiers to block the exits and shoot at the crowd at Jallianwala. It was barbaric, tragic and a turning point in Indian history.
After Jallianwala, Punjabis were not going to remain under British rule, nor would they allow anyone to make decisions on their behalf. After much struggle and strife, the state of East Punjab was born.
East Punjab in India eventually became known as just Punjab. Many Punjabi families, particularly in rural areas, earn their livelihoods through agriculture. Land and farming techniques are passed down from generation to generation, and the fertile landscape of Punjab means that many families can be self-sufficient. Farming, agriculture and cattle-herding form a part of the cultural fabric of the region.
In 2020, the Indian President signed three controversial agricultural bills. These would have threatened the livelihood of many Punjabi (and Indian) farmers by not protecting them from potential exploitation by large corporations; the bills did not guarantee them a minimum profit in accordance with the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and they threatened the regional business relationships between farmers. So, the farmers, particularly in Punjab, began protesting.
There were marches, strikes, sit-in protests, and road and rail blockades. Farmers wanted the acts to be repealed. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets and there was a strong sense of community between the Punjabi farmers. There were even ‘langar’ kitchens set-up to provide free meals to anybody who needed them, as encouraged in the Sikh faith. Unfortunately, some farmers died or were killed during this time. Some decided to take their own lives as their entire identity, community and livelihood were being taken away from them. In 2021, the laws were formally repealed.
Punjab is a region physically divided but it is fundamentally spiritually, historically and ethnically united. Throughout history, the Punjabi people have risen in the face of injustice, no matter their religion. Guru Nanak once said, ‘work hard and honestly, always remember God and share with the needy.’ This aptly summarises the underlying principles of Punjabi culture.
By Myra Haq