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FROM THE names of roads and places to portions in school textbooks, Punjab is planning to erase all remnants of the British Raj with a law borrowed from Spain and a title as ambitious as the move itself — Law of Historical Memory.
One Sikh studies scholar has already dubbed the proposal as a “waste of time and energy” but Punjab’s Finance Minister Manpreet Badal said such a law will enable people to look back with pride on their history before subjugation by the British.
“It will make Punjab the first state in the country to formally condemn British rule and destroy its remains,” Badal, who had pushed for the law’s inclusion in the Congress poll manifesto, told The Indian Express.
“The legislation will be brought in the monsoon session of the Punjab assembly. We wanted to bring it during the Budget session but too many legislations are lined up for that. This is in the process of being drafted,” said Badal.
“After enacting the law, we will destroy any vestiges and anything that appreciates that era. We will rather glorify the greatness of Punjab. For instance, we did not know where martyr Bhagat Singh’s pistol was kept. It was found in Indore. We will make efforts to glorify our heroes’ bravery,” said Badal.
“It should not be confused as an attempt to distort history but should be understood as a conscious effort to encourage widespread knowledge of Punjab’s past,” he said.
“We want to celebrate the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire as an era of greatness and strength. On the other hand, British era has to be formally condemned as the single most unfortunate, cruel and humiliating phase of Punjab’s history,” he said.
Badal said that the proposed law will facilitate the removal of every surviving colonial vestige that “serves to glorify subjugatory, racist and imperialist policies”.
“It will either be destroyed, or displayed in a manner that clearly functions as a reminder of inflicted injustice,” he said.
In effect, textbooks will be revised, and the names of places and roads, such as Lawrence Road in Amritsar, will be changed, the Minister said. However, buildings constructed in the British era would be left untouched as they were built “using our money”, said Badal.
The Minister said that the law would be based on a legislation by the same name, which was enacted in Spain in 2007 against the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Franco. The Spanish law condemned the dictatorship, and sought justice for victims of the regime and the civil war until 1939, when Franco’s forces prevailed over Leftist guerrillas opposed to him.
Badal, however, said that Punjab’s law would not go so far as to demand compensation from the British, seek justice for Jallianwala Bagh victims or bring back the Kohinoor.
“We do not want to get into a wrangling match with Britain, the outcome of which is uncertain. Our only motive is to educate the people of Punjab and sensitise them to the highs and lows of our history,” said Badal, the estranged nephew of Shiromani Akali Dal leader and former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.
While one historian in Punjab cautiously welcomed the move, others did not appear too impressed.
“They should engage stakeholders who can suggest ways and means to implement it. For instance, there is Cooper Road in Amritsar. That name should go, as Cooper was a very cruel British officer. Such names should be replaced with the names of freedom fighters. The government has to go ahead with the proposal with full application of mind,” said noted historian Malwinderjit Singh Waraich.
Others were not too convinced. “It’s going to be a waste of time and energy. It will also reflect our narrow-mindedness. Most of the vestiges of the British era have been destroyed already. The Field Ganj area and Montgomery chowk in Ludhiana are the two names with a British stamp that come to mind. They renamed Hall Gate in Amritsar as Gandhi Darwaza. But who knows it as Gandhi Darwaza? Sometimes, politicians think of an idea and go ahead with it,” said Dr Pirthipal Singh Kapoor, former pro vice chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and a Sikh studies scholar.
Dr Kirpal Singh, another Sikh scholar and historian at the Chandigarh-based Institute of Sikh Studies, said that if such a law came into existence, the Mall roads that exist in most cities in Punjab would have to be renamed. “What purpose would it solve other than creating a controversy?” he asked.