The muezzin’s call to prayer blends seamlessly with the aarti at a nearby temple late afternoon at the bustling Jarg Chowk in Malerkotla.
Women in burkhas and saris bustle about, chatting in Punjabi and breaking into giggles now and again. A young girl in a hijab helps her friend pick a rakhi.
It is another ordinary day, as different faiths attest, in Malerkotla — Punjab’s lone Muslim-majority city. Locals here treat arson and stone-pelting, fallout of an alleged desecration of the Quran on June 28, as an aberration. A blot brought about, they say, by outsiders.
They point to their history: the once princely state, ruled by the Nawabs of Afghan and Pathan descent, have no any ghosts from Partition. It did not witness a single episode of communal clash or violence even as border regions burned during those times. During Punjab’s militancy era, the city was termed a ‘safehouse’ — a refuge.
Dr. Mohammad Jamil U R Rehman, member, district peace committee, says, “Those who inflamed the situation and incited violence were not locals: one was from Jind in Haryana, the others from Pathankot. The mob were people who shifted to Malerkotla from either Bihar or UP and are unaware of our history and legacy; they are ignorant,”
He adds: “We were in the namaz when we heard about the incident and immediately called a meeting. We first buried the pages of Quran and then addressed the masses. We told them that we cannot let down the teaching of Baba Haidar Sheikh, by being violent.”
The June flare-up was an outsider job, insists Rehman. “One was from Jind in Haryana, others from Pathankot. The mob comprised people who shifted to Malerkotla from either Bihar or UP, and are unaware of our history and legacy,” he says.
Humanity, not religion, is the cornerstone of Malerkotla’s peace, he says. “We told them (rioters) these dirty political games should not divide us. The people understood and went home.”
Locals swear by the bond they have formed over the years based on the mystical strains of Sufism.
Much of it was on display when violence over the alleged desecration, left eight people, including police, injured, and left vehicles torched. Calm, however was restored within a day.
Watch | Why Punjab’s Malerkotla did not boil over after Quran desecration
Police records back up the locals’ assertions. In five years, there has not been one case of rioting or communal tension registered at the Malerkotla station.
Randhir Singh, the Malerkotla DSP says, “There are cases of hurting religious sentiments but they never reach the courts as they are usually settled among the parties. The troublemakers are not locals but labourers and artisans in factories here who have come from other states. It is easy to instigate and mobilise them so troublemakers target them to create tension in the area.
It’s all in the economy
Spread across 122 sq kms and with a population of 1.07 lakh, Malerkotla, in the state’s Sangrur district,
relies on artisans manufacturing hand-embroidered batches, flags, banners, ceremonial dresses and uniforms for Indian forces, the US army, the UN, Congo, Turkish, Canadian and Rwandan police and Kuwait.
The shops are owned mostly by Muslims and majority of the artisans are Hindu. The two communities have been working together for generations. Among those is Vijay Lal (38), who is busy crafting a batch for the Rwandan police. He has spent his life working for Mohammad Rana, who he calls “abba”. Before Vijay, his father, Mohan Lal, worked for the Ranas.
“I was ten when my father passed away. For me, home has been this workshop and abba who taught me my work. I have never thought of them as people from another community. I know if trouble comes my way, they will be the ones to help. I come to the workshop in the morning, go to their house to eat and then return to work. We celebrate all festivals together and I also visit the mosque with them. We have been brought up this way,” Vijay says.
Rana agrees: “We do not know if it is something to do with the blessing of Sufi saints on Malerkotla or is it just us, but the thought of getting violent over communal lines never struck us. There have been problems, some people have tried to create a rift, but they have been set right.”
“Here, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims own joint businesses. The economy is based on this relationship. While most manufacturers are Muslims, buyers are Hindus. We know if we start fighting and burning down each others’ shops, it is us who will suffer...Why should we let political games hit our livelihood?”
A few meters away sits Dharam Chand, who has been running his shop of handcrafted badges since 1947; his artisans are Muslims.
“I owe my life to a Muslim who saved me during the dark hour of Partition. I have over 10 Muslim artisans working for me for the past 25 years. Their hands are nimble and their work-cut to perfection. I learnt it from a Muslim myself,” he says.
“Why would I ever have any ill feelings for them? The temple or the god is not feeding me and my family, it is this business and I cannot imagine it without my Muslim brothers,” he adds.
“I have grown up with my Muslim friends and know about their religion better than mine. We exchange gifts on Eid, Diwali, Holi. During Ramzan, I go with them to end Roza (fast). It has been like this for generations. Now people are spoiling it for political gains. But I am sure that people of Malerkotla are smart enough to ignore them,” he laughs.
The Sufi way
alerkotla never sleeps and its shops have no shutters. Even at 2 am the discourse here revolves around Sufi philosophy and prose, much like a group outside a stall exchanging shayari over tea. The city’s qawals, have kept alive the voices of Khusro and Auliya, and believe that the Sufi Kalam (Sufi poems) has kept Malerkotla unscathed till date.
“We convey to people the basic lessons of humanity through the words of Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusro, Hazzarat Nizzamuddin Auliya, Khwaja Sahab. This is what has kept Malerkotla together. People here know that religion is just a tag; God is one. One may not go to the mosque or the temple or Gurudwara but should always aspire to be a good human,” says Mohammad Javed Irshad, son of Irshad Rehmat Qawal and a tenth-generation Qawal of the family.
Javed says he performs Qawali at programs jointly arranged by Hindu, Sikh and Muslims. He has also trained his son. “Religion that divides is nothing but a disgrace,” he says.
The harmony between the communities dates to the time when the state was ruled by the Nawabs. The last Nawab, Iftequar Ali Khan, locals say, treated religions equally. When there was a clash, he intervened personally to restore peace. His palace, the Mubarak Mahal, is in ruins and his Begum, Manwer Ul Nisha, in her nineties, lives in the structure. “Nawab sahib was very strict. He never let religion become a bone of contention. He loved his Hindu staffers more and trusted them with major responsibilities. His main adviser was a Hindu. Till he was alive, he never let any tense situation develop in Malerkotla. Since he safeguarded both Hindus and Muslims during Partition, everyone respected and listened to him,” she says.
For the love of the game
Mohammad Irshad’s idol is Jagdeep Singh. The son of a vegetable vendor, Irshad (16), spent hours outside the only football field in Malerkotla, where his father set up a cart. His only source of entertainment: watching players. Irshad says Jagdeep Singh was the inspiration for his enrolling at the city-based Al Kausar Football Academy — where most members are underprivileged.
Singh, a member of the academy and a minor celebrity here, has made the cut for U-17 World Cup squad. On his part, Irshad himself has made it to a national camp. “I aspire to be the next Jagdeep who will be selected for a World Cup training camp. Siting outside the field I used to see Singh score goals and these people celebrating. It is then when I approached Singh and he encouraged me to join. Each day after coaching, I used to spend six hours extra on the field. It paid off and I was selected for the national games. Credit goes to Jagdeep,” he smiles.
The academy does not charge for the training or the merchandise it provides members, which is funded by Star Impact shoes. “Once they are on the ground, they are just players. The thought of them being a Hindu or a Sikh playing with a Muslim does not even cross their mind. The aim of this club is to bring together all these kids to channelise their energy into something constructive. If we do not have this club, half of the youths will be into drugs. Religion does not have a place on the field,” says Mohammad Rafiq, manager. He adds, “During the football world cup, we had put up big screens on the ground and we all come together to watch the matches. These kids have been playing together for years and share a strong bond.”
The recent Dhaka terror attack on July 1 and the attacks in Europe have disturbed young Hindus of Malerkotla. They fear that they could soon be in the firing line, even though none of the attacks have anything to do with Malerkotla.
Ajay, a local says, “We have never faced any discrimination and have lived peacefully but now we have started to feel insecure. What if we are cornered? We fear for our children. With these attacks across the globe and the extremist Muslims brainwashing, how long will it take for them to reach Malerkotla? If they can brainwash educated people like the ones involved in the Dhaka attack, the Muslims here can also be influenced. The fact remains that we are a minority here.” says Ajay.
“There never used to be a curfew here earlier, but after the episode of Quran desecration, a slight rumour and the police imposes a curfew. Earlier this year there was a rumour that some Muslims slaughtered a cow and threw the head near a temple. The culprits were arrested and there was no incident of violence, but why should I live in constant fear? I now plan to leave the city and shift to Jalandhar,” he adds.
Mahant Swaroop Bihari Sharn, a religious guru, rubbishes the concerns as inconsequential. “It is the media that is the culprit. These handful of young children watch the news and feel they are sitting on a time bomb as we are in minority here. The migrants who have come from UP and Bihar for work here also pollute their minds. What they do not understand is that we have the blessings of the Sufi saints and nothing will ever break this city.”
“At weddings, they (Muslims) appoint two caterers. One for them who feast on meat and the other for us Hindus. The ones who serve the meals are also separate. They respect our sentiments. They even get cards printed in two separate languages: Urdu and Gurumukhi. Some of them have even done kanyadaan at Hindu weddings,” he adds. As they say here in Malerkotla- “Chand tu bahut khushnasib hai. Yahan Eid bhi teri aur Karwa (Karwachauth) bhi tera.”