On Eid ul-Fitr in May, the Punjab government announced the formation of the new district of Malerkotla by carving it out from Sangrur district. Malerkotla is a Muslim-majority district, the only one in a State where Muslims account for just below 2 per cent of the population.
After an online launch of the new district, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said on Twitter: “Happy to share that on the auspicious occasion of Eid ul-Fitr, my government has announced Malerkotla as the newest district in the State. The 23rd district holds huge historical significance. Have ordered to immediately locate a suitable site for the district administrative complex.” The launch was also attended by Razia Sultana, the Malerkotla MLA who is also the Water Supply and Sanitation Minister, and Sunil Jakhar, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president.
In the pre-militancy days of the 1980s, the State had 13 districts. Since then, successive governments have carved out new districts as much for political expedience as for administrative ease. Thus, Tarn Taran, which neighbours the Indo-Pakistan border, was made into a separate district. More recently, Sangrur was split to create Barnala district. Now, the same district has given birth to Malerkotla.
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Amandeep Sandhu, author of Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, said: “We know that any region develops when made a district, but in Panjab [his preferred spelling], I think it is a case of too many districts. It is more a status change than real change on the ground.”
The formation of Malerkotla district is interesting. Some 64 per cent of the population is Muslim, while Sikhs and Hindus together account for 34 per cent. The Congress government’s decision to make Malerkotla a district marks the fulfilment of its electoral promise in 2017. In its manifesto, the party had promised to create a new Malerkotla district, and with the election to the State Assembly scheduled for next year, the move comes not a day too soon, especially since the local residents had been demanding the same for the past two decades.
The new district does not comprise the city of Malerkotla alone but will incorporate Ahmedgarh subdivision and Amargarh mandi, neither of which has a Muslim-majority population.
The formation of a Muslim-majority district evoked predictable noises of protest from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, dubbing the move “unfortunate” and claiming that it went against the principles of the Constitution. In a tweet in Hindi, he said: “Any distinction based on faith and religion is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. At this time, the formation of Malerkotla (Punjab) is a reflection of the divisive policy of the Congress.”
Reacting to the tweet, Amarinder Singh asked the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister to stay out of Punjab’s affairs, “which are in much better shape than those in U.P. under the divisive and destructive BJP government, which has been actively promoting communal discord in the State for the past over four years”. He asked: “What does he know of Punjab’s ethos or the history of Malerkotla, whose relationship with Sikhism and its Gurus was known to every Punjabi? And what does he understand of the Constitution, which is being brazenly trampled every day by his own government in U.P.?”
Amarinder Singh was also quick to remind Yogi Adityanath of the practices in Uttar Pradesh where places such as Mughal Sarai junction and Allahabad have been renamed Deen Dayal Upadhyaya junction and Prayagraj, respectively.
Yogi Adityanath’s criticism of the Punjab government’s decision drew flak all around; even the farmers currently protesting against the three agrarian laws spoke against it. A farmer asked: “What does he know about coexistence and communal harmony? Where was Yogi when the farmers were protesting?”
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Incidentally, when farmers started their rallies against the new farm laws in September 2020, the residents of Malerkotla first provided the protesters with food and later sent sacks of wheat and rice to local gurdwaras to augment their stocks in the face of a rising demand for food. Even mosques came forward to donate cereals for farmers.
Amandeep Sandhu said: “As far as the BJP is concerned, no one in Panjab cares. With the mood against them due to the farm laws and the break-up with the Akali Dal, they are persona non grata in Panjab.”
Som Prakash, a BJP member of Parliament, thought it wise to hail the move. A day after Yogi Adityanath questioned the decision, Som Prakash posted a series of tweets to thank the Chief Minister. He said: “I congratulate the people of Malerkotla and thank the Chief Minister for declaring Malerkotla as a district. It is a rich tribute to the Nawab of Malerkotla Sher Mohammad Khan who protested the execution of the two Sahibzade [sons of the Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh].”
Mubarak Manzil palace
The State government did not limit itself to carving out a new district. It has acquired the Mubarak Manzil Palace with a view to restoring it to its original glory.
The Chief Minister also wrote to the Aga Khan Foundation in the United Kingdom to undertake the restoration of Mubarak Manzil Palace, the residence of the last Nawab of Malerkotla. The government also plans to establish a Government Medical College in the name of Nawab Sher Mohammed Khan at a cost of Rs.500 crore. It has allocated a 25-acre plot of land for this purpose.
Malerkotla has an illustrious history of not just religious coexistence but also striving for justice in the face of heavy odds. Founded in the 15th century, it owes its existence to a Sufi saint named Shaikh Sadruddin-e-Jahan, also known as Haider Shaikh, who was granted the Maler settlement by the Lodhi Sultan Bahlol. Later, his descendant Bayzid Khan was given the title of nawab by the Mughals in 1657. When laying the foundation of Malerkotla, Bayzid Khan invited a Chishti saint named Shah Fazl and a Bairagi Hindu saint named Baba Atma Ram to bless the site. It was among the first steps to promote communal harmony in the township.
Malerkotla has had a chequered history with see-sawing relations with the neighbouring kingdoms. At one time it enjoyed amicable relations with the Mughal emperors, including Aurangzeb.
However, the relations nosedived over the issue of bricking the two minor sons of Guru Gobind Singh in 1705. Similarly, the Malerkotla nawabs at one time supported Ahmed Shah Abdali, and at another time they aligned with the neighbouring kingdoms of Patiala, Nabha and Jind against Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1809, they accepted British protection.
The place’s claim to fame and anecdotal history comes from its shared history.
During Partition, when the whole of Punjab was burning with communal hatred, Malerkotla was an oasis of calm and harmony. While Muslims migrating to Pakistan were often attacked elsewhere, in Malerkotla no one was harmed. Malerkotla was a special zone where no one who entered while fleeing from rioters was attacked. This “special peace zone” status that Malerkotla enjoys can be traced to the blessing of Guru Gobind Singh.
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As highlighted by the State government’s dispatches on the district formation, Shaikh’s descendant, Sher Mohammad Khan, was the Nawab of Malerkotla in the early 18th century. He had staunchly opposed an anti-Sikh decision of the Subedar of Sirhind, Wazir Khan, in 1705.
Wazir Khan wanted to kill two young sons of Guru Gobind Singh, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, aged six and nine, respectively, by bricking them into a small, airless space. Sher Mohammed Khan not only opposed this cruelty but appealed to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to spare the lives of the little boys. He considered it an un-Islamic act to torture the children for any dispute with the father. The Mughal emperor was hostile to the revered Sikh guru.
When the Guru Gobind Singh came to know of Sher Mohammed Khan’s efforts to save his sons, he reportedly blessed the nawab and the people of Malerkotla with everlasting peace.
During Partition and during the time of militancy, and later in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, Malerkotla continued to be a haven of peace. In a few stray cases where mosques were damaged, the local non-Muslim residents joined in to repair the damage. Likewise, a Hindu temple and a Jain prayer hall that were damaged by miscreants were rebuilt by local Muslims.
Amandeep Sandhu said: “Panjab loves its Muslims, that is a given from the time of Guru Gobind Singh and the younger Sahibzade. Malerkotla remained untouched during Partition. Since Panjab and Sikhs already regard Muslims of Malerkotla highly, let us read this move as administrative and political. The main trades of the people of Malerkotla are embroidery and blacksmith works, and to some extent, leather. All three languish badly. They need economic incentive, regulation and protection.”
The new district marks the arrival of hope and challenges.