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Punjab: Past imperfect, present tense

A lot of people ask me to attempt Punjab’s contemporary history. My standard reply is a no, and I have two reasons for saying so. First, I think I am not the perfect writer to pen history, but it is the second reason that scares me more. Writes Khushwant Singh.
By Khushwant Singh | Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
UPDATED ON MAY 18, 2014 12:42 PM IST

A lot of people ask me to attempt Punjab’s contemporary history. My standard reply is a no, and I have two reasons for saying so. First, I think I am not the perfect writer to pen history, but it is the second reason that scares me more.


I fear that if the contemporary history is written with all honesty, it will have to be classified as one of its kind. As a tale of a land, which after ushering itself into one of the most-watched agriculture revolutions, within decades plunged itself into terrorism, and later in the twenty-first century shepherded its youth into drugs.

An unbelievable story of fate having gone horribly wrong despite the land being home to hard-working people! Let us regress ourselves to the era of the 1960s when Punjab was much more joyful and happy. Its youth were robust and took pride in their farming and physical prowess.

It was called the era of the green revolution, which was made possible through the efforts of a Norwegian-American scientist Norman Borlaug and his team of Indian scientists with the PAU as the epicentre.

These folks created new strains of Mexican dwarf wheat which changed the fortunes of the Punjabi farmer and Punjab forever. Well almost, till destiny had other plans.

Politicians divide
Unfortunately for Punjab, its politician has always been its bane, since this was also the time when the politician of the day should have understood the changing dynamics of the Punjab economy.

He instead of being vigilant and preparing for the transition, which would turn prosperity to an advantage, was busy dividing people on religion and language. You can call it the era of Sants, Gianis and Masters.

The politician only invested his time and resources in politics, and did nothing to invest in education, research, or institutes of excellence which would give the youth the chance to catapult to newer opportunities.

The lack of it is visible from the migration abroad that took place in the nineteen sixties and is thriving till now.

Obviously, the fault lines would show up any time. They did, and with a vengeance, as each wrangling sowed the seed for the turbulent times witnessed in the last one and a half decades of the 20th century.

Prosperity, if not harnessed well, is like a ticking time bomb. The ensuing mayhem not only consumed innocent lives but led to horrific incidents which permanently scarred the Punjabi’s psyche and work and business culture.

The turmoil meant businesses moving out of Punjab, education in tatters, no expansion of industry or agriculture and no new initiatives.

With very less occupation, no opportunities and education taking a beating the situation was ripe to be exploited. Enter drug lord with political patronage, even though the latter wants us to believe it’s more the ISI than him.

He hired the unemployed who in return peddled it to their jobless colleagues who were frustrated with lack of opportunities.

Damage done
Peace did return to Punjab but the gun had taken its toll, which would manifest itself in many ways in the coming years.

The politician not learning from his past mistakes, instead of applying himself to rebuilding Punjab engaged in finding fault yet again. Moreover, the Punjab problem had given a rise to whole new crop of politicians, majority of them who had risen from the ranks of petty scoundrels and they soon entrenched themselves in the politics of...

Enter the 21st century. What do you see?
Tell me if I am wrong when I write that the education sucks; health services are in a pitiable condition; law and order is a matter of concern; no youth is confident of starting an enterprise; technology is far from being latest; all ambitious school pass-outs apply for admissions outside the state since there is hardly any institute of excellence; private universities produce highly unemployable graduates; cities are filthy, traffic kills more people on a daily basis than terrorism did; power is scarce; bureaucrats are just concerned with their postings. And to top it all, the scourge of drugs!

All those who travel through Punjab extensively will bail me out that sometimes it is a scary situation to see youth in a state of daze during peak working hours.

The blame has to be fixed and people made accountable. One way to make them so is the academic way, but proper fixing can only happen if the common Punjabi rises and pledges to do his bit.

Until Punjabis seek the change they want, the 21st century Punjab will remain progressive only in advertisements and political rhetoric.

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