On Punjab

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 6:45pm

"I took it at Dr. Hari Singh Sevak Senior Secondary School in Kotkapura, Punjab (school named after my Nana ji, maternal grandfather in my mom's hometown)"

"I took it at Dr. Hari Singh Sevak Senior Secondary School in Kotkapura, Punjab (school named after my Nana ji, maternal grandfather in my mom's hometown)" Buy this photo
Courtesy of Harnoor Singh

Punjab. Literally the land of five rivers. . . or, well, it used to be. You see, even the name of our homeland brings pain these days. How can I tell you the pain of Punjab? Quite honestly, it is a pain that I can hardly even understand. My experience as a member of the Punjabi diaspora has been filled with tragic realizations, one after the other. In the moments where I realize that my Bebe Ji* did not just “develop” a brain tumor, but she likely developed it after growing up and spending much of her life in the “Cancer belt” of Punjab, a region so named due to the presence of villages having cancer rates near 100 percent. This, of course, is the result of Indian state-mandated pesticides that used by farmers in the region. Mind you, those pesticides were not needed when farmers were able to grow the crops they wanted on their land. The Green Revolution and the Indian State, in collaboration with powers in the West like Rockefeller, the U.S. and others, forced these farmers to adhere to Western standards of farming that were designed for high yield. What they did not realize was that these farmers had the wisdom of their ancestors and knew how to take care of this land. These crops and the water they require are drying up a water table that has allowed Punjab to be one of the most fertile places on earth, yet soon Punjab will be a desert. The land of five rivers reduced to none. The pain I feel comes from the fact that on this issue alone I could talk for days on end about farmer suicide, cancer rates, and how farming families are slowly being destroyed by the Indian state. There are so many more issues in my ancestral homeland.

And you see it was these farmers that invented this bhangra that you all enjoy so much, or perhaps you’ll recognize it more if I refer to it as “bong-ra”. You see, those same farmers that used to dance so joyously when their crops were successful are the ones committing suicide as their work only brings profits in their dreams these days. The five rivers are now diverted from the land of Punjab and sold back to Punjabi farmers. And yet that same water is sent to the rest of India for free. Yet I see so many engage in Punjabi culture without even realizing that the derivatives of my culture that they participate in may be all that is left of it in a few decades.

All I ask is that you realize how little is left of authentic Punjabi culture and the fact that the Indian state is systematically destroying Punjabi land and culture in a pure act of empire. The links to Palestinians being robbed of their water by the Israeli state should be recognized, but this also just proves that Imperial states are not creative in their violence. And of course, now we see Kashmir being prepared for full-on occupation as the Indian state, using their philosophy of Hindutva, attempts to finally complete its colonial project of destroying the one of the Muslim-majority state in the South Asian region. Of course, I cannot do Kashmir justice in a few lines, but I plead to all of you to educate yourself on what is happening to my Kashmiris and Palestinians and support their resistance and efforts to finally be free. But I digress.

This is not a claim of cultural appropriation. This is a plea to simply recognize that the minimizing of Punjabi culture to songs about “Patiala peg” and whatever other intoxicant y’all want to romanticize this week is just another violence on top of what Punjab has been put through for the past 72 years if you want to only speak of Indian state-sponsored violence. I just hope that I will see some responsibility in how Punjabi culture is represented in spaces and not simply minimized to hype music and getting hammered. For those of us that spend every day learning more and more about how much we lost, please remember us next time you understand Punjabi culture within this minimalistic lens. The spirit of Punjab cannot be boxed in, no matter how hard y’all try.

*Maternal grandmother