The Punjab government’s proposal to enact a law to erase remnants of the British Raj and celebrate the Sikh empire that preceded it, is deeply problematic. Manpreet Badal, the state’s finance minister, who is piloting the law, has promised that “all vestiges and anything that appreciates” the British era will be destroyed. Badal’s concern for Punjab’s past glory is understandable, but his belief that what followed the “glorious era” needs to be forgotten is questionable. The Raj, oppressive and exploitative as it might have been, is as much a part of Punjab’s history as the Sikh kingdom. Historical memory is a complex and fluid construct, subject to multiple interpretations and influenced by time and space. State initiatives, even those with the noblest intentions, in reconstructing the past have mostly been flat, divisive endeavours. They seldom reflect the ambiguities and complexities of historical processes and events.
The Punjab law will apparently borrow from Spain’s Law of Historical Memory, a legislation that nation enacted in 2007 to confront the ghosts of the civil war and the General Franco regime that followed. The Spanish law is not an attempt at erasure but an effort to excavate and memorialise a bitter past. It is estimated that over two lakh Republicans were murdered in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and thousands of partisans killed during Franco’s dictatorship that extended over four decades. Spain’s transition to a democracy in the 1970s was underlined by a bipartisan commitment to forgetting the atrocities of the post-Civil War decades. As part of the reconciliation process, legal immunity was promised to state officials from prosecution for war crimes and human rights violations. The Law of Historical Memory was legislated against such deliberate attempts to erase the memory and guilt of a tortuous period of history. It sought to address the cry for justice from the descendants of Franco’s victims. State archives were to be reopened, disappearances of people and exhumation of anonymous graves were to be undertaken under the law. The Punjab law, on the other hand, is not meant to address issues of justice or reparation, but simply to obliterate one chapter of history and celebrate another.
Punjab is not the first to contemplate wiping out a colonial past. Cities, roads, streets and public buildings are renamed by governments under the influence of nativist impulses or ideological politics. However, Punjab is taking this a step further by giving such reconstruction of history a legal ambit. The Raj legacy is hardly a pressing concern in today’s Punjab. Badal would do better to focus on the state’s public finances, revive agriculture and industry and address the drug menace.