In Malerkotla, One Can Find the Vestiges of India's Forgotten History of Tolerance

The senseless and relentless march of violence has made us forget who we are and how we have lived, worked and prayed together for centuries.

Listen to this article:

As dusk fell and the country prepared to bid a final farewell to Lata Mangeshkar, Shah Rukh Khan and his secretary Pooja Dadlani mounted the steps to the platform where Lata lay draped in the national flag. Both of them offered prayers for her soul in their own different and unique ways. I must confess, I was moved.

A snippet from a song of yesteryear came to my mind: ‘Yeh Bharat Desh hai Mera’. Today, we need to modify the opening lines and say insistently: ‘Yehi Bharat Desh hai Mera’. This is what my country is; this is what it stands for.

The senseless and relentless march of violence has made us forget who we are and how we have lived, worked and prayed together for centuries. We have also forgotten that till today, in the midst of all this consuming hate and violence, Indians of all religious persuasions continue to worship side by side at the shrines of Sufi saints across the country. Take the remarkable case of Malerkotla, a town in Punjab that has never had a single communal riot. 

Malerkotla during Partition

At one point in time, India was known as a country which welcomed people from all parts of the world. Poet Firaq Gorakhpuri had famously written: “Sar Zamine-e-Hind par aqwame-e-alam ke Firaq/ Kafile baste gaye/ Hindostan banta gaya”.

“India was created as a plural society,” wrote the poet, “by successive waves of migration.” In 1947, a society that had been shaped by a groundswell of travellers deciding to settle in its territory witnessed processions of bedraggled, dispossessed people leaving their homes in Punjab. 

Also read: BJP Leaders Draw Flak for Falsely Claiming SRK ‘Spit’ at Lata Mangeshkar’s Funeral

No one has been able to accurately estimate how many Punjabis lost their lives in 1947. The administration had collapsed and no one seemed to know what would happen to them. As insecurity turned into rage, violence submerged entire villages and neighbourhoods, trains and roads.

Processions of refugees walking painfully with their pitiful belongings strapped onto their heads took days to reach their goal, if they managed to do so unscathed. As the caravans of Indians and Pakistanis carrying their pathetically small belongings crossed, people began to attack each other mercilessly.

Almost all of Indian Punjab experienced a complete ethnic cleansing, except for two towns. The first is Kadian, located 20 km from Gurdaspur, which is the headquarters of the Ahmadiyya community.

The second is the town of Malerkotla, neighbouring Patiala, where over 90% of its population is Muslim. The rest is composed of Sikhs and Hindus.

Except for some aristocrats, the Muslim inhabitants of the town did not migrate to the newly-formed country of Pakistan. The Muslim Nawab remained in the town. What’s more, Malerkotla did not witness the Partition riots which continue to scar the memories of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims till today.

In fact, thousands of Muslims fleeing from murderous mobs in other parts of India found safe haven in the city. Sardar [Major] Balwant Singh, who was the minister of law and order in 1946, wrote that at the time of Partition, about one lakh Muslims from other areas of Punjab took shelter in Malerkotla. Not a single killing took place in the whole state. All of them were safely sent to Pakistan.

Sardar Patel, the then home minister, on request, sent one battalion of the Indian Army to help the Nawab’s army send the Muslims to the Pakistan border. Though the resources of the town were stretched thin due to the large number of refugees; though crowded and unhygienic conditions led to the outbreak of disease; and though families in Malerkotla began to suffer due to a paucity of food, every household contributed to provide for the refugees.

The history of Malerkotla

A 1911 map showing Malerkotla and the neighbouring princely states.

A 1911 map showing Malerkotla and the neighbouring princely states.

Malerkotla was ruled, until 1982, by a Muslim family which traces its origins back to Sadruddin, popularly known as Sheikh Sadar-i-Jahan, a Sawani Afghan of Daraband in Khurasan. A holy and pious man, Sadruddin, planned to spend his life in seclusion and settled in Bhumsi, a place which lay on a tributary of river Sutlej.

In 1450, Bahol Khan Lodhi, the then governor of Lahore and Sirhind, decided to spend the night there. Impressed by the piety of Hazrat Sadruddin, he promised Sadruddin that if and when he (Lodhi) became the ruler of Delhi, would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to him.

Bahol Lodhi took over the reins of Delhi Sultanate in 1451, becoming the first Afghan ruler of Delhi. Subsequently, in 1454, his daughter Taj Murassa Begum married Sadruddin. Bahol Lodhi also gave Sadruddin a tract of land containing 12 large and 56 small villages [including Maler], in addition to Rs 3 lakh as dowry.

The population of Bhumsi increased rapidly thereafter and in 1466, Sadruddin founded the town of Maler, which in a short period of time became large enough to include Bhumsi and, later, Kotla. The Malerkotla family which ruled the state until 1982, when the Nawab passed, is descended from Sadruddin’s son, Isa. 

Sadruddin was a powerful spiritual leader. At the symbolic centre of Malerkotla lies the mazar of Sheikh Haidar, as he came to be known. From the 15th century onwards, a fair was held at the shrine every Thursday. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs offer money, jewellery and grain, in the form of cooked rice, at the shrine.

On the first Thursday of every month, the fair took on larger proportions and thousands of people from outside the town come to pay their respects at the shrine. The author of the Malerkotla Gazetteer of 1904 was puzzled by this: “It is strange that these fairs are mostly attended by Hindus, though Sadruddin was a Muslim saint.” The shrine represents not only a shared physical space for all religious communities; it illustrates the flexibility of identities that Punjab is known for.

Also read: Malerkotla, Where Tolerance is a Way of Life

Ethnographers are intrigued by the variety of practices seen at the dargah; Hindus and Sikhs even touch their foreheads to the shrine. The multi-confessional community has been inspired by the traditions of Sufi culture in Malerkotla since the time of Sheikh Haider. This is a town in which Sufi tombs co-exist with temple bells, hanging in the front of a mosque. It is said that when the keeper of the shrine raises his hands in Islamic prayer, a tattoo of the Hindu spiritual symbol, ‘Om’ is discernible on his wrist.

Pilgrims to the shrine have unbounded faith in the generosity of Sheikh Haider. Town dwellers believe that Malerkotla escaped the horrors of communal riots because it had been blessed by him, and continues to be so blessed. More significantly, they believe that they are blessed by the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh. 

Guru Gobind Singh and Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan

The story goes thus: A descendant of Sadruddin, Nawab Sher Mohammed Khan, was a loyal vassal of Emperor Aurangzeb. He helped the Mughal armies in the battle of Chamkaur Sahib against the army of Guru Gobind Singh. However, he opposed the inhuman treatment meted out to the two sons of the Guru, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, by the Viceroy of Sirhind.

Sher Mohammed Khan, a close relative of the Chakaldar Wazir Khan, lodged vehement protests against the inhuman act of bricking alive the two sons of the Guru. The Nawab argued passionately that crimes against children were against the glorious tenets of the Quran and Islam, and that history would not forgive those who sought to murder children. Wazir Khan refused to listen to this counsel and the Nawab of Malerkotla walked out of the court in protest. 

A portrait of five Sikhs and Guru Gobind Singh on the march. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Charles Singh.

Sher Mohammed Khan subsequently wrote a protest note to Emperor Aurangzeb. ‘The humble and devoted petitioner,” he stated, “begs to lay his humble appeal before your most gracious majesty and hopes from your imperial majesty’s unfathomable kindness and illimitable magnanimity that the august person of the shadow of God…. be pleased to bestow his compassion and forgiveness on the young sons of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikh nation.”

“It would be quite compatible with justice,” the letter went on to state, “if the Emperor wished to inflict punishment on the Sikh nation, but it would in no way be consistent with the principles of sovereignty and supreme power to wreak the vengeance of the misdeeds of the whole nation on two innocent children who, on account of their tender age… are unable to take a stand against the powerful Viceroy.”

The act, he said, is against the diktats of Islam and the laws propounded by the founder of Islam. This atrocious act would perpetually remain an “ugly blot on the face of your Majesty’s renowned justice and righteousness. It may be considered that the mode of inflicting the punishment and torture as contemplated by the Viceroy of Sirhind can, by no means, be considered compatible with the principles of supreme rule, equity and justice’.

Guru Gobind Singh thanked the Nawab of Malerkotla for his intervention, even though it had failed to prevent the death of the two Sahibzadas. The Guru blessed him with a Hukamnama and a Kirpan, which are among the prized possessions of the Malerkotla house. Guru Gobind Singh also promised that the Muslim community in Malerkotla would never be harmed in the times to come.

According to a documentary by the Discovery Channel, the moment Muslims fleeing from murderous Hindu and Sikh mobs during partition riots crossed the boundaries of the town, the mobs pursuing them were halted by a white horse which patrolled the borders of Malerkotla. The white horse, it is believed, was the steed of Guru Gobind Singh, the protector of the Muslim community in the town.

The last of the descendants of Nawab Sher Mohammed Khan, Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan died in 1982. On the occasion of the tercentenary celebrations of the birth of the Khalsa, the late Nawab’s wife, Sajida Begum, sent greetings to the Sikh community.

Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Iftikhar Ali Khan – CC BY-SA 4.0.

The act symbolically reminded younger Sikhs that the Sahibzadas had sacrificed their lives for the protection of their religion. She asked the Sikhs to remember the great sacrifices of the young Sahibzadas and abstain from any act which might deprive them of the blessings of Guru Gobind Singh.

If the first strand of tolerance was woven by the spiritual inclinations of the rulers (that is, Sufism), oral histories, which speak of the benediction given by the Guru, composed the second strand. The third strand woven into this fabric was the nature of princely rule.

The Nawabs practised tolerance. Till today, the inhabitants of the city do not consume either pork or beef. This had been decided by the Nawab. The rule of the Nawab was marked by generosity and kindness to all his subjects, irrespective of their religious affiliations. Each of the 22 rulers offered high posts to Hindus and Sikhs and bestowed privileges and property on members of the two minority communities. 

Oral histories, shared forms of worship in the mazar and a respect for tradition have instilled a perceptible sense of belonging among those who live in the town. The traditions help create a political community.

When our research team visited Malerkotla a few years ago, we saw that the citizens of the told showed exemplary democratic leanings. They possess a strong sense of ownership of collective public life and saw themselves as shareholders in the public sphere. Pride in their unique historical tradition of tolerance and bhaichara (fellowship) – which withstood the partition of Punjab – is accompanied by a deep-rooted commitment to ward off any threat to this tradition.

Now that the Nawabi tradition has come to an end, and competitive electoral politics have come to dominate the town; now that communal organisations have consolidated their position in Malerkotla, can the inheritance survive? The question is a troubling one. Perhaps tolerance was a feature of pre-modern rule and cannot be replicated in a market economy and a competitive electoral system.

Still, people of different religions pray together at the dargah of the saint. This should set an example for the rest of the country, obsessed as it is with demonising the minority Muslim community.

Regrettably, a ritual of mourning, movingly performed by Shah Rukh Khan at the last rites of Lata Mangeshkar, generated terrible abuse and allegations. These abuses do not compromise the Islamic system of prayers and mourning; they illustrate the terrible hate that has engulfed self-styled representatives of the Hindu community; they reflect the degradation of public ethics; they reflect small minds and smaller hearts that are unable to appreciate different ways of praying for the soul of the departed.

On October 24, 1947, sitting on railways stations in a Punjab that bore witness to the madness that had overtaken its people, the poet Agyeya wrote in his series of poems, Sharanarthi, that an “epileptic fit” had overtaken Punjab. History repeats itself and we are once again left diminished and ashamed of what has happened to our country and our religion. 

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.