Punjabi identity, Punjabi voices come alive at ‘Agla Varka: Reimagining Panjab’

There’s something about Punjabi identity. “Seven years after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, I was still scared to wear my turban. I wore a woolen cap to travel in a train. Someone called and said, ‘Sardarji, chai lelo’ (Sardarji, take tea). When I was abroad, I let go of my turban again but an American man said, ‘You are a Sikh from Punjab.’ He knew from my nose and style of walking. More recently, on a news channel where I was talking about Biden and Trump, I was called a ‘potential Khalistani,’” says Navtej Sarna, author, diplomat and former Indian ambassador to UK, US and Israel.

When Punjabi panelists recently sat down to discuss Punjabi identities and their idea of Punjab at ‘Agla Varka: Reimagining Panjab, New Stories in a New India,’ organised by Majha House and Kuldip Nayar Trust, it was a houseful show. Sarna said Punjab is always at crossroads, but sometimes the crossroads get sharper. “Identities are very important in Punjab, because of the characteristics attributed to Sikhs and a larger Punjabi community,” he said.

Sarna was shocked when he was called a ‘potential Khalistani’ in a tweet during his interview. “38 years of service for the government and I’m still labelled a ‘potential Khalistani.”

He is worried about the stereotyping of Punjabis as ‘someone doing bhangra with a chicken leg in one hand and a double Patiala (peg) in the other or we are fierce warriors or Khalistanis. “We are caught somewhere between being a buffoon and a terrorist.”

Indian musician Rabbi Shergill, known for his sufi-Punjabi music, was one of the panelists. Talking about how he feels Punjabiyat has shrunk a little, he says, “I see Punjab as a memory, nostalgia and fragment of my imagination which may or may not have a bearing on Punjab. I speak an archaic version of Punjabi that I inherited from my dadi (grandmother). What we speak now (in pop culture) is a translated version, which is a mimicry. Today, while talking in Punjabi, I often find myself correcting my language, which should not be the case. I feel that Punjabiyat has shrunk a little.”

There are some who grew up in Punjab and inherited Punjabiyat (the essence of being Punjabi) while there are other Punjabis who grew out of Punjab and struggle with a fractured identity. Bani Singh, whose documentary ‘Taangh/Longing’ was based on her father Grahnandan ‘Nandy’ Singh, Olympian hockey player and 1947 Partition survivor, says she grew up outside Punjab but felt angered when someone made fun of her Punjabi. “There were always people from Punjab in our house, that way it was a very big langar always. I was a Punjabi for the rest of the country but when in Punjab, they made fun of my Punjabi.”

She says the whitewashing of Partition stories from history shocked and disturbed her mother. “As a student when I read out ‘India won its independence in a non-violent revolution’, my mother was disturbed. She told me that Punjab and Bengal had paid the price for Partition and that they were washed in bloodshed.”

Sharing his experience of growing up as a Hindu in Punjab, Vinayak Dutt says as opposed to the popular belief, very few percentages of the Punjab population is dependent on farming. He would always struggle with identity growing up and had to make people understand all Sikhs are Punjabis but all Punjabis are not Sikhs. While for Amandeep Sandhu, life changed overnight when from calling his father ‘Sardarji’, mob shouted, “Maaro saale ko, sardar hai.’ (Beat him up, he is a Sikh) during the 1984 riots.”

The session was moderated by Mandira Nayar, granddaughter of veteran journalist and former High Commissioner of India to the UK, Kuldip Nayar, who was also the founder of Editors Guild of India. Mandira Nayar, who is also the programme director Agla Varka, says the initiative is a tribute to her grandfather and that the idea of Agla Varka is to celebrate Punjab and Punjabiyat.

It also attempts to bring back the narrative and the idea of Punjab, as opposed to the negative narratives stemming from the Khalistan issue, the farmers’ agitation and the stereotypes of drug abuse. Author Kirpal Dhillon’s book ‘Identity and Survival: Sikh Militancy in India 1978-1993′ was released by Dr Ajai Chowdhury, co-founder HCL and Padma Bhushan recipient, while the session on Punjbai poets was dedicated to the memory of poet and writer Surjit Patar. It ended with a musical tribute to Punjab by singer Rene Singh.