Why Canada is a Bigger Problem for Punjab than Amritpal

by Apr 19, 2023Governance0 comments

Punjab is in the news again. Commentators have blamed administrative failure, discord between the Centre and the state, political vacuum, drug mafia, Pakistani intelligence, diaspora politics, and perceived danger to the Khalsa Panth from assertive forces of Hindutva as probable causes for the unexpected eruption of Waris Punjab De and its radical chief Amritpal Singh.

This was followed by news reports on protests in front of the Indian High Commissions, embassies and consulates in Canada, the United States, England and Australia.

To my mind, this is quite out of sync with the ground reality of Punjab, which is facing an existential dilemma of another kind – that of the unwillingness of youth to invest their future in the state. Punjab needs a different type of politics – one that gives primacy to enterprise, startups, professional colleges, sports, arts, culture, high-value agriculture, tourism, heritage, adventure and the human spirit. One that encourages youth to go abroad, explore and return to reinforce best practices from across the world instead of getting a one-way ticket to Canada.

While this has all been discussed on several forums, almost every political party is more focused on the next election instead of working on a strategy to make Punjab regain its numero uno status among states, a position it lost during the tumultuous 1980s. It is now 16th in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 19th in terms of per capita Net State Domestic Product (NSDP), with immediate neighbour Haryana pipping it on both counts.

Punjab lost its industry to Haryana during the ‘80s – and two decades later to Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir when the Concessional Industrial Package was announced for these states by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. States like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh improved their agriculture and procurement operations as Punjab also lost out on this count.

This column will address the visible changes in media, education, urbanisation, and migration: Factors that have not received the prominence they deserve in the mainstream discourse on Punjab.

The evolution of Punjabi media

Let us first discuss the media. In the ‘80s, rival newspaper groups Punjab Kesari and Ajit were quite inflammatory in their approach. Ajit (and Akali Patrika) expounded the case for Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – 14th Jathedar (chief) of the Damdami Taksal popularly associated with the Khalistan movement — in Punjabi. At the same time, the Hindi papers, Punjab Kesari (and Veer Pratap), were vehement in their critique of the militants, as the terrorists were then called.

Today, Ajit and Punjab Kesari have become Punjab’s most prominent newspaper groups, with editions in both Punjabi and Hindi and are therefore not addressing any one denominational constituency. Moreover, Dainik Jagran has a Punjabi edition which comes out from Jalandhar, and The Tribune has editions in English, Hindi and Punjabi.

Thus, news coverage and editorial commentary are far more balanced now than in the ‘80s, which is a welcome sign. Although the current state government has reportedly set up an inquiry against the editor of Ajit and stopped its advertisements, it is still the most widely circulated newspaper in Punjab outside of the Union Territory of Chandigarh.

Rise of professional education

The next factor is the rise of professional universities in Punjab: Medical, para-medical, engineering and management colleges, besides institutes providing training for various skill-based jobs, such as computer hardware and air hostess training. There are more students in these institutions than in traditional colleges with conventional subjects. Four decades ago, these colleges were the hotbeds of student politics. Outfits such as the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISF), Congress-backed National Students Union of India (NSUI) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) were all quite active during that era.

Back then, it was quite easy for the leaders of these student groups, which had the backing of their respective political parties, to press for the college’s closure on the slightest pretext. The fee was minimal, exams were held once a year and attendance registers were fudged in an unholy nexus between students, teachers and college management. Not so today. The semester system means that students must be alert throughout the year. Moreover, political parties are not so keen on supporting their student groups on every issue. The Left is in terminal decline, the Akalis do not want to create an alternative leadership to the Badals, NSUI has all but disappeared, and ABVP finds its growth hemmed by the management of DAV and Hindu colleges

In any case, according to the Punjab higher education secretary, the highest enrolment of students in Punjab is at Lovely Professional University (LPU), which does not tolerate any political activity on campus. This is in major contrast to Punjab of the ‘80s, where almost every student (except for those who went to medical or engineering colleges) was aligned with one political party or the other.

English Medium schooling is now popular. One also has to reckon with the mushrooming of English medium schools across the state. Even block and tehsil headquarters have English medium schools, and schools run by Singh Sabhas, Khalsa Trusts, Arya Samaj and Sanatan Dharam Sabhas are also vying for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE)’s certification. CBSE syllabus is more pan-Indian in its orientation. Whether it is history, civics, moral science, or languages, the ‘regional’ is not as salient as it was four decades ago. Such is the charm of English that more prosperous Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus are making a beeline for residential English medium schools outside the state.

New, inclusive neighbourhoods

Another factor is urbanisation. The relocation of families from villages and inner cities to new urban estates is creating neighbourhoods that are defined more by class and professional affiliation than caste. Thus, Medical enclaves or housing societies of advocates, architects, teachers, revenue officers, ex-servicemen and police officers see an intermingling, missing in the Katras, Kuchas and Gallis (nooks and corners) of yore in traditional towns – whether they were in Amritsar or Jagraon. Unlike in other parts of the country, Dalit professionals have also moved to these enclaves.

Linked to this is the factor of migration – both in-migration and out-migration. We will first take up in-migration in the industrial, agricultural and services sectors. Most of the agricultural labour and a substantial chunk of industrial labour are provided by migrants, who also form the bulk of fruit and vegetable sellers in the state.

Many cinema houses in the industrial areas of Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Mandi Gobindgarh show Bhojpuri movies. The second generation among them is purchasing property and automobiles and setting up small but significant micro-enterprises. These migrant workers are changing the demography of Punjab’s old Mohallas (neighbourhoods). Take the anecdotal example of Guru-ka-mahal in Amritsar. This is where my maternal grandfather and his extended family lived when I was in school. Today, the ground floors are devoted to jewellery workshops, and workers from Bengal and Bihar occupy the first and second floors.

Punjab’s Canadian dream

Last but not least is Punjab’s growing obsession with a ‘one-way ticket to Canada’. Based on my interaction with the young millennials I met during a recent visit to Punjab, the state’s youth is fixated on the idea of ‘Canada’ (which also includes Australia, the European Union and the United States), a thirst for betterment that cuts across class, caste and gender lines. The young women I spoke to were more vocal than the men and appeared more fed up with the political situation in Punjab. They were keener to focus on their professional growth. Organisations like Waris Punjab De can’t offer much to these bright young minds.

I must also mention that while the first wave of migrants in the ‘60s and ‘70s retained links with their villages and built palatial homes to announce their Velayati (foreigner) status, most of these mansions are now bereft of any occupants, with caretakers being left in charge of the place. Now entire families are moving abroad, and many villages have only children and the elderly, thereby affecting the entire social fabric of the countryside.

The Punjabi Muttiar (young woman) is more at ease in Birmingham and Toronto than in Nawanshahar or Jandiala. This, then, is the real issue – and all those concerned about Punjab should enter into a dialogue with the young generations to understand what can be done to bring them back to the land of their forebears. Make Punjab a hub for entrepreneurship, risk-taking and hard work – qualities Punjabis are known for.

(Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)

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