Faith, Gender and Activism in the Punjab Conflict


Mallika KaurPalgrave Macmillan, Indian edition January 2022.

“There are so many things we don’t know (…) And so many things we know that have not been recorded or preserved,” says Judge Ajit Singh Bains, one of the protagonists of the book of Mallika Kaur, to the author at the very beginning. introduction to this fascinating new book that seeks to embrace the unknown and preserve what is known but nearly lost for future generations like mine. Judge Bains recently passed away. His story, along with countless others, is fortunately preserved. Through these stories, Kaur provides a multi-layered account of modern Punjabi and Sikh history. Defying strict academic or narrative categorizations, Kaur connects the finer details of personal history to a larger political story. It focuses on the lives of those who stood up for the rights of others during the most dangerous times in Punjab. Such principled citizen activism is inspiring and relevant not just for Punjab, as we recently saw at the farmers’ protest, but indeed for the world in 2022.

As Kaur explains in its introduction, this book is committed to following the stories of “noncombatants bent on honoring the ‘nameless’, rather than debating the tiniest machinations of the ‘leaders'”. Through her work, of course, she commemorates countless names that weren’t honored with enough memory before this tale. She refuses silence and opposes denial and erasing wrongs through lucid personal testimonies of human rights defenders. One such defender Kaur talks about in his book is Baljit Kaur.

Baljit Kaur is a pioneer, but also a woman – like too many of our mothers and grandmothers – whose decades-long contributions have received little recognition, even from those of us who study history and the Punjab conflict. Through various conversations, even as the gracious Baljit Kaur serves “tea with courageous serenity,” we learn about her strategic use of her family’s connections and her chance to travel to Punjab in its darkest moments, recording the violations of human rights on what was previously the imported family. video camera for birthday parties and children’s functions. We are led to imagine Baljit Kaur demonstrating in front of the police stations and speaking in low voices to the brutalized families inside their homes. While Baljit Kaur’s own works testify to a life lived for truth and justice, Kaur’s conversations with her capture the personal story – as well as the silent personal sacrifices – behind this legacy.

Above all, this book lifts the veil on the gendered dangers of the conflict by amplifying the narratives of its female protagonists. “Their stories critically highlight how attention to various forms of gender-based violence is a prerequisite for transitioning from conflict to just peace,” she writes. Some of Kaur’s protagonists are survivors of severe brutality, while others have documented the widespread nature of that brutality. Kaur’s work amplifies the muffled voices or “whispers,” as the title of the book calls them, of those who have witnessed and fought against injustice.

Written in two parallel timelines, his work reinforces the centrality of memory and history to Punjabi political realities. Sometimes uneven, the two timelines of pre-Partition Punjab and modern Punjab history come together in 1984. While many accounts of 1984 in India limit their observations to the Delhi pogrom in November 1984, Punjab begins its recollection and his mourning in June each year. What happened between those pivotal months of 1984 is also explored in the final chapter, “Ten Thousand Pairs of Shoes”, dedicated to all who took off their shoes outside gurdwaras across Punjab in June 1984. , never to return.

Authors often tend to summarize and paraphrase the narratives on which they build their work. However, given his background in human rights law, Kaur knows better than to substitute testimony for his observations. She often takes a step back and lets her protagonists speak their truth in the first person. She authenticates these statements with meticulously archived court records, newspaper excerpts and other official orders.

In a conflict where faith and activism have been pitted against each other by pro-state assimilation machinations, Kaur is unafraid to highlight the importance of faith in building resilience. community. As can be understood from the record number of UAPA arrests in Punjab and the crackdown during the historic Kisan Morcha (farmers’ protest), the persecution of Punjabis and Sikhs continues. Faith often becomes a direct marker for fabricating chauvinistic consent to such persecution.

Kaur weaves the corroborated testimonies of her main characters with Gurbani Shabads (hymns), recollections from her own childhood, and fragments of her family’s memoirs. In many ways, this book is a work of community remembrance, and Kaur sewed a cover from scraps of community and personal memorabilia. In doing so, she has woven a powerful tool of catharsis and collective healing.

(Guneet Kaur is an international human rights lawyer and researcher, currently pursuing doctoral research at Humboldt University in Berlin)


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