Punjab bore the brunt of communal Partition of India. In the transfer of population, Muslims from eastern side of Punjab shifted to Pakistani side while Hindus and Sikhs migrated from the Pakistani side to the eastern side of Punjab. According to the 2011 Census, while Sikh formed 57.7% of the population in Punjab, Hindus constituted 38.5%. Muslims were merely 1.93%. The district of Sangrur had the largest number of Muslims i.e., 171,000 in absolute numbers or 10.82%. Of these, majority of them lived in Malerkotla, a town known for communal harmony even during the Partition when areas on both sides of the border were engulfed in the communal frenzy and lakhs of people fell victim to the senseless violence. Malerkotla stayed calm, largely because 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh blessed the Nawabi state for its valiant opposition to killing of two sons of the revered Guru. Wazir Khan, the governor of Sirhind under the oppressive rule of Emperor Aurangzeb, had ordered bricking alive of two boys, nine-year old Zorawar Singh and seven-year old Fateh Singh. It was a punitive measure against Guru Gobind Singh who was actively engaged in opposition of the Mughal rule.
But this diktat from the Mughal court was opposed by the then Malerkotla ruler Nawab Sher Mohammed Khan. He lodged his protest against the ruling. This protest and call for justice and tolerance left a deep imprint on the Sikh psyche and impact on the Sikh narrative. This became the major reason for Sikhs and Muslims protecting each other during the Partition and Malerkotla emerging as an icon of peace and harmony thereafter.
The State of Malerkotla had pursued secular traditions since its foundation of a State was laid by Nawab Bayazid Khan in 1657 with the blessings of Guru Gobind Singh who allowed him to raise a fort (Kotla). It is said he invited a Chishti sufi Saint Shah Fazal and a Bairagi Hindu saint Mahatma Sham Damodar for the foundation laying ceremony. Both blessed the site in a public enactment of pluralism.
On May 14, Punjab Chief Minister Amarendra Singh announced creation of Malerkotla as the 24th district of Punjab. Some sections within political circles have attributed communal motivation for the move. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister was quick to condemn the move as part of the ‘divisive politics’ of the Congress. But the facts prove to be contrary. Malerkotla in its new Avatar as a district will have no more than 12% Muslims. Sikhs still rule the roost with 63% population of the district and Hindus will be the largest minority with 23%. However, the Malerkotla town does have Muslim majority which is a historical continuity. The town is dotted with nearly 200 mosques, most of them very small. It has four Muslim-managed high schools, which is a rarity in Punjab. Given the large number of Muslim girls coming out of these high schools, the Punjab Wakf Board started the Islamia Girls College in the town in 2013 for girls to continue higher studies. The Punjab Wakf Board, the richest Wakf Board in India, also runs the Haleema Hospital in the town. The Eidgah of Malerkotla has received generous grants from all governments regardless of the party in the saddle of governance. It is perhaps the most picturesque Eidgah anywhere in the subcontinent what with canals running underneath the pathways and gazebos dotting the meadows and glades sprawling over ten and odd acres. The town can also boast of Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan Institute for Advanced Studies in Arabic and Persian which is affiliated to Punjabi University, Patiala.
Malerkotla was so far part of the Sangarur district. Despite being a large commercial centre, it did not have good connectivity with national as well as State capital Chandigarh, nor even with big cities like Ludhiana. It lies on Delhi—Ludhiana railway line. Yet major trains skipped it as the town had no official significance. The town lacks good educational and healthcare facilities. It does not have any institutions for professional courses. The town boasts of the largest vegetable market (i.e., sabzi mandi) within the State. Besides, the town hosts the largest embroidery industry within India. Badges for the uniforms of military, police and several other professionals are manufactured here. It is a cottage industry employing a large women workforce.
According to Mr. Abdul Shakoor, a social activist, the town supports a large number of small and medium industries manufacturing sports goods and track suits, rollers for flour mills, hardware, and units that produce parts of bicycles and sewing machines.
The folks here expect that with the upgradation of the town into a district headquarter would allow it to acquire modern civic amenities such as professional educational institutions, hospitals, good connectivity with the State’s capital as well as surrounding commercial and industrial centres.
M A Siraj is Bengaluru based seasoned journalist who writes for a variety of newspapers including The Hindu, and news portals.