The Sunday Story: Echoes in a walled city

Amid the recent political upheaval in Punjab, The Sunday Express travels to Amritsar, the state’s political, religious and cultural hub, and sees the slow slipping away of an older city. What it is being replaced with, no one is really sure.

At the once stark Jallianwalla Bagh complex, nationalist numbers now blare over loudspeakers. (Photo: Rana Simranjit Singh)

In Amritsar, the onus is on the mask-wearer to explain herself. Inside the Golden Temple complex, where covering your head is mandatory, and enforced strictly, you scarcely spot a person with a mask. At the Temple, it is easy for anxieties — including Covid fears amid a still raging pandemic — to be soothed by the unchanged rhythms of piety.

As always, the blue of the holy sarovar opens up to the skies above, the Harmandir Sahib still stands bathed in calming white and gold. The devotees and tourists remain unhurried and patient as they complete the parikrama and wait in long queues for darshan, and everything and everyone is touched by the grace of the gurbani. It was, it is, a place to hope for the better and suspend disbelief.

But outside, lies a city that is changing, one that sounds more disconnected to its past moorings, more anxious and despairing — and more accusing.

In Amritsar, the taxi driver, who is also a farmer, looks out of the window with a furrowed brow at the possibility of clouds and informs you that rain at this time will not be good news for the paddy crop. He has gone to Singhu border “two-three times”, and his brother makes the trip to the site of the farmers’ agitation more regularly. “How many Gujaratis join the Indian Army?”, catching your eye in the rearview mirror, he asks challengingly.

With Captain no longer CM, it remains to be seen if Bargari sacrilege will be an election issue. (Photo: Rana Simranjit Singh)

That Punjab’s contribution to keeping India safe and fed is not acknowledged by the rest of the country, especially under the Narendra Modi-led Centre — is the oft-echoed grouse in a city intimately tied to the village.

Dark speculation about Punjab’s two main political rivals being hand in glove behind the people’s back festers alongside grim rumour about the Centre wanting to impose President’s Rule. The latter rumbling is now encouraged by the roiling of the numbers’ game in Chandigarh with the change of chief minister ahead of next year’s Assembly polls.


The heavily Bollywood-inspired drumbeats and war cries of the daily beating retreat ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border have resumed after a Covid-induced break. They now find a kindred echo at a sombre memorial in the centre of the walled city.

At the newly renovated Jallianwalla Bagh complex, the starkness has been broken by the throb of nationalist numbers that play on loudspeakers.

Sound, colour, mural, landscaping have been added to the enclosed ground where General Dyer’s troops fired at Indians protesting against the Rowlatt Act in 1919, killing hundreds. An exit has been added, too, at a distance from the narrow lane that was, at the time of the massacre, the only point of entry and exit — it breaks the oppressive sense of being closed-in that the empathic visitor could partake of, even if fleetingly.

“Bureaucracy views everything that is memorialised as something to be celebrated. Sensitivity to place, memory in the right context, is missing,” says Prof Sarbjot Singh Behl, head of the Architecture Department at Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU). The glass that has been used, ostensibly to give a better view of the Martyrs’ Well, interferes with a direct connection, he says. “As a child, I remember peering into that well… A museum could have been added to its surroundings, without interfering with the main space. Space is sacrosanct, space is memory.”

Amritsar has suffered the loss of memory before. The circumference around the Golden Temple was demolished in the late ’80s, for the Galiara project, citing security considerations, a fallout of Operation Blue Star. It was the oldest layer of the city.

Now the slow slipping away of an older Amritsar, more scarred but also more gracious, may go unlamented. “I organised a lecture, there were 150 students of architecture in that hall, none of them had gone to the renovated Jallianwalla Bagh,” says Professor Behl.

“I don’t want to go there now,” says Satpal Danish, painter and photographer, whose grandfather did some of the fresco work on the main dome of Darbar Sahib, and whose uncle was martyred at Jallianwalla Bagh, a young man of 17. “He had gone there with his father, his body was found the next day… Uss mitti mein shaheedi ki mehak nahin hai (that soil is no longer redolent of martyrdom),” he says.

The generation that narrated the stories of Partition, and about Lahore, Amritsar’s twin city, is fading. “Our elders were connected to Pakistan. We have heard from our fathers and mothers, our fathers and mothers in-law, about the journeys they made. I got goosebumps when I took some students on an exchange programme to Pakistan about 15 years ago… The next generation will not have those storytellers or stories,” says Amandeep Bal, professor of history at GNDU.


Outside the Partition Museum in the historic Town Hall building, full of poignant, carefully documented frames of people buffeted by nations, Baldeep Kaur, a UPSC aspirant, who is visiting from Jalandhar, says: “How will change come if people like me go abroad? My family wants me to go, but I have this keeda (stubborn streak), I want to stay.”

Anyone with an ear to the ground in Amritsar will tell you that Baldeep’s voice risks being drowned out by the thumping chorus of the leavers.

The young continue to line up at the IELTS coaching centres — passing the International English Language Testing System is necessary for students who want to go abroad for study, work or migration. The sprawl of the IELTS industry points to an older Punjabi wanderlust, a will to make a better life, and higher aspirations in the state of the Green Revolution.

But it also points to something less robust — a vote of no-confidence in a state where the successes of the Green Revolution also laid the ground for complacency and lack of political vision; and where, together with the decade lost to terrorism, they contribute to present-day absences in a state lagging behind in industrialisation and the dotcom revolution.

Matrimonial ads mirror a desperation to leave, and also a reversal of the dowry trend. As hard-working daughters overtake spoilt sons in academic achievement, the greater demand is for the bride who clears the IELTS and sponsors the groom — all expenses paid by his family.

The bride’s family dictates the terms: “Jat Sikh ladki jisda Canada da visa aaya hoiya layee… ghatto-ghat 10 kille waale ladke di lorh… saara kharcha mundeyaan wallon (For a Jat Sikh girl, Canada-bound, needed a boy with at least 10 acres of land, all expenditure to be borne by the boy’s side).” “Vyaah pakka (marriage assured)” some ads also promise — to assuage growing fears about contract weddings.

Another trend, many say, may be catching on in town and village. Earlier, sons and daughters who went abroad sent money back to rebuild homes into grand residences with columns and chandeliers. Less and less so. Now, families speak of selling land, and winding up businesses, to join their children on foreign shores.

Outside KPC Academy, an IELTS coaching centre in the upscale market complex on Amritsar’s Ranjit Avenue, Talwinder, 24, and Simranjit Kaur, 23, are waiting for their morning class to begin.

Simranjit has done B.Com and wants a business of her own. “There is no freedom, no opportunity here. I want to go to Brampton, I want my own restaurants and stores.” Talwinder, a mechanical engineer, wants to set up a repair workshop in Toronto. “My father has a workshop here. But you go out, he says.”

Meet the parents in different settings in Amritsar, and it’s the same story, over and over again. In a group of businesswomen at an event organised by FICCI Flo in a plush hotel, many have stories of breaking a glass ceiling, but no one wants their children to stay in Punjab. Because “there is no industry, no jobs”. Because “expectations are high, and also the frustration”. Because “I am married to a broad-minded man, but my daughter may not be so lucky”.

The continuing exodus of the young has accentuated the crisis of the classroom — “we would get at least 100 applications for the 30-odd seats in the Master’s programme in history, but now anyone who applies gets in”, says Professor Bal. Very few of her colleagues in GNDU have not sent their own children abroad, she says.

In Amritsar, the young continue to line up at IELTS coaching centres. (Photo: Rana Simranjit Singh)

A group of businessmen sitting at the city’s well-known Giani tea stall after their morning walk, count out the reasons for pessimism: “Price rise, unemployment, drugs, electricity prices, no industry, social insecurity”. Once a bustling trading centre, Amritsar has been steadily losing its industry, including the textiles it was famous for, to other states. There are no signs of IT hubs coming this way either, they say.

You can almost touch the fear: If the children don’t go abroad, they will fall into drugs, become “vela” or wastrels.


In conversations across the city, people cast the onus of bringing the farmers’ agitation to an end firmly on the Centre. The Centre, or PM Narendra Modi, is widely seen as, if not outrightly anti-Punjab, insensitive and obstinate.

It is also clear that what started out as a popular opposition to the Centre’s three farm laws, pushed through amid a pandemic, without consultation with stakeholders or parliamentary debate, is becoming more amorphous.

The movement has rallied farmers who have hardly any security or safety nets, and who fear being abandoned to the greed of large corporates. It has united students, traders, professionals, homemakers and others, who are emphatic in their support for the farmers’ cause.

But it is also gathering unto itself anxieties and insecurities borne of Punjab’s other crises — be it lack of industrial development, low quality education, rampant corruption or missing jobs. It is invoking past traditions of Sikh valour and resistance against Mughals, Afghans and the British.

It is being led by farm union leaders who speak in many voices on the endgame.

At the district office of the Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, part of the 32 outfits that make the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), and affiliated to the Communist Party Marxist (Punjab), Ratan Singh Ajnala, vice president, acknowledges the challenges of a movement that goes on for so long: “Spontaneous mobilisation has reduced, people’s attention will be diverted by the election campaign. Now we have to do more meetings and announcements in villages… We also have to steer our sangathan away from the fanatics.” The prime goal is repeal of the “black laws”. And then, “to defeat the BJP”. “Even if the BJP repeals the laws, the country is not safe in its hands,” he says.

About 25 km from Amritsar, Satnam Singh Pannu, who leads the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, which is active and has a following in the Majha area, says: “We have a separate stage, but we coordinate with the SKM.” Pannu’s outfit was accused by other unions of breaking ranks and moving to the Red Fort on January 26, the day the movement lapsed into violence.

“For us, all parties are the same. Our fight is against the system, and the big corporate. Even if the laws are repealed, kheti ka sankat (agriculture crisis) will remain, and a kheti neeti (farm policy) will need to be fought for,” he says.

Lives have been lost in the course of this movement; the investment of sentiment, energy, time and resources only grows; and anyone who negotiates a compromise risks being called “gaddar (traitor)”. “The agitation has gone beyond the three laws, a new leadership of peasants has come to the fore. I see a new beginning,” says Prof JS Sekhon, former prof of political science, GNDU.

In village Jahangir, on Amritsar’s edge, a group of elderly farmers who have gathered in the pind di sath (village commons) talk of the trips that continue, one tractor goes every 15 days as one comes back, from the village to Tikri and Singhu.

“I stayed at Tikri for a month,” says Mukhtar Singh. “My daughter-in-law and grandson, who are abroad, call me and say: ‘Go bapu, go to Tikri’,” Tirlok Singh says. “If you sleep now, your land will go. What else is there, what will remain, they say.”


An election is coming to Punjab, along with the winter. It is early days yet, but take a straw poll in Amritsar, and the incident of be-adabi (sacrilege) at Bargari is a prominent issue.

An act of sacrilege was reported in 2015 from Burj Jawahar Singh Wala village near Bargari town in district Faridkot, followed by police firing on protesters in Kotkapura and Behbal Kalan, in which two protesters were killed. Arrests were made, a main accused was killed in prison, many got bail. In popular perception, justice has not been done — because of alleged collusion between the Badals, who were in power when the desecration and police firing took place, and Captain Amarinder Singh, who formed the next government.

Now that Captain is no longer CM, it remains to be seen if the Bargari issue will have as salient a place in the election that will come. This will also be the first Assembly election after the farmers’ movement began, in a bi-polar polity made three-cornered by the AAP’s performance in 2017.

This time, the Congress’s appointment of a Scheduled Caste CM, Charanjit Singh Channi, a first in the state, could also create a new political fact on the ground. Or not.


“Dharam pyaara ya dharaa pyaara/ dharam naalon dharaa pyaara”. Is faction more dear than faith/ faction is more dear than faith — that Punjabi folk saying may point to a larger reality of politics in Punjab.

The “dharaa” or faction is seen to matter more in a political culture in which the edge is taken off caste and community differences by the gurus’ egalitarian message and philosophy.

If you belong to a “dharaa”, you are protected from “dhakka” or being pushed around by the powerful, and get your problems attended to — not if you stay non-aligned. Dharaas are entrenched in every village, they have a long life of their own.

People may sympathise with the farmers, but they will vote according to the dharaa they have aligned themselves to in their village, that gives them protection and patronage — that is the hope of the Punjab politician, conspicuously sidelined by the farmers’ mobilisation in the state. “On farmers, people may be united, but otherwise, it will be political division as usual,” a senior Akali politician in Chandigarh says.


After the exit of Amarinder Singh as chief minister, Amritsar’s Navjot Singh Sidhu has taken centrestage. For now, Sidhu is seen as the power behind the new CM Charanjit Singh Channi. Even Congress politicians who earlier professed allegiance to Captain, now speak of Sidhu’s vote-catching potential, allegedly captured in a Prashant Kishor survey.

Why Sidhu? A senior minister in the outgoing Amarinder Singh cabinet describes a larger predicament: “A party needs to invest in people, not surveys. Punjab seriously lacks talent in the political class.”

The problem also lies in the nature of party decision-making, he says. “An MLA needs at least two years’ work to win an election — getting things done for constituents, making an appearance on occasions that matter to them. But tickets are distributed with only days to go before the election. This then leads the party, gasping for breath, to look for the wonder weapon.”

Is Sidhu the solution to the problem, or its symptom? There are no answers yet, only this question in Amritsar.

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