Why a Chowk in Punjab Represents the Era of War-Like Nationalism

Juxtaposing the humane spirit of Bhai Ghanaiya with a MiG 21 aircraft runs the risk of downplaying the former.

Bathinda: By-passing Bathinda at the Bhai Ghanaiya chowk (roundabout) on the city outskirts, one can now spot the airframe of an MiG 21 fighter plane in a take-off position, facing the monumental statues of Bhai Ghanaiya and the injured Mughal soldiers gulping water from his goat-skin vessel (a war scene from the 1704 Anandpur Sahib battle).

The airframe of the decommissioned fighter plane, which killed many people including its own pilots in crashes, stood three times the size of Bhai Ghanaiya’s statue. This comes as a surprise to any commuter with knowledge of the historical importance of Bhai Ghanaiya’s efforts to quench the thirst of dying and injured enemies during the Mughal-Sikh war period of the early 18th century, 160 years earlier than the concept of the Red Cross that came into being in 1863.

“Raising the MiG, that killed so many people, parallel to the Bhai Ghanaiya chowk is so contradictory. Both aesthetically and historically, it is sheer nonsense,” said Gurpreet, a well-respected painter and activist of the Sobha Singh Memorial Artistes Society in Punjab.

“When I saw the MiG there for the first time, along with friends, all from the artistes ‘mandal’, we discussed this dichotomy for 15-20 minutes while travelling through that place,” he said.

“Bhai Ghanaiya chowk is a monumental crossing and every such crossing should ideally uphold the spirit of the monumental personality,” he further explained.

Members of Punjab’s Tarksheel Society (rationalists’ society) were also taken by surprise when asked for their opinion on the presence of these contradictory symbols at the same site. “Yes, what you are saying is right. My personal opinion is that this aircraft could have been installed somewhere else as it really contradicts the thought of Bhai Ghanaiya. But we (Tarksheel Society) have so far not deliberated over this issue,” the society’s executive member Bhura Singh Meghma Sarja from Bathinda told The Wire.

The statue of Bhai Ghanaiya. Photo: The two installations at the chowk. Photo: Prabhjit Singh

Rajinder Bhadaur, who heads the Tarksheel Society, said, “I do not find this fighter plane as a matter of any pride. We are against any catchy monuments on highways, as they cause mishaps. But specifically looking at this fighter craft, the government is, of course, creating a war-like nationalism in the minds of the people.”

A man from the nearby Bargadi village, who stood at the said crossing, when asked about his take on the issue, quipped, “Who thinks so deep?” He, however, said he was waiting there for his friend, who told him last night to wait at the “jahaz wala chowk” (aircraft roundabout). “Yes, my friend named this place as ‘jahaz wala chowk’,” he smiled, though unaware of concerns that people will now use the aircraft to describe the roundabout, forgetting Bhai Ghanaiya.

Social activist Lakha Sadhana fears this prospect as well, saying it should remain Bhai Ghanaiya chowk for “all the relevant reasons”. He sees the two juxtaposing images as “a deep-rooted conspiracy of imposing a war-like nationalism in the minds of the people”. “This all is done to garner votes, like we saw before the parliamentary elections, when a military confrontation with Pakistan took place. I ask now where has the warlike atmosphere vanished after the elections,” he said.

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“The next war will be very horrifying, everybody knows it. I fear that the present regime at the Centre will declare war against Pakistan close to the next Lok Sabha election in 2024, the way they are moving,” he said.

Lakha had gained popularity as an activist when he led a movement under the banner of ‘Punjabi Maa Bolli Satkar Sabha’, for the cause of Punjabi language two years ago. The organisation’s activists had then blackened all the Hindi signboards of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) along the highways in the region. This action eventually forced the NHAI to install fresh signboards with Punjabi on the top, followed by English and Hindi.

“We are planning a protest against the installation of the warplane in the face of Bhai Ghanaiya’s monument,” he said. “We are vigilant of our culture and history, and of our language,” he added

Official letters and the credit war

Notwithstanding the ideological contradiction between the two installations at the site, the ruling Congress in Punjab and the SAD-BJP cadres have resorted to a battle over who gets credit for installing the MiG’s airframe.

Punjab finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal was present for the plane’s installation on December 26, along with his party men. The local BJP and SAD leaders were quick in taking credit for the model aircraft.

The Wire tried to contact Manpreet Singh Badal, but he was inaccessible.

“This MiG there is the brainchild of (Union minister and Bathinda MP) Harsimrat Kaur Badal,” Bathinda mayor Balwant Rai Nath told the local media, issuing the copies of his reminder letter written to the then-defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman in August 2018 for the model aircraft or tank “for the sake of patriotism and beautification of the city”, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

“Installing the tanks and aeroplanes create patriotism among the citizens, particularly in the hearts of children. Patriotism is one of the best virtues of men and out children learn that mother and motherland are superior to heaven and children are ready to sacrifice their own interest for the good of the country,” stated the letter that the mayor wrote to Sitharaman.

“Of course, we all have faith in Bhai Ghanaiya’s thought of peace and saving the enemy from dying but we never had any intention to contradict this thought (by installing the MiG model), we just realised that the sight of this aircraft would inculcate patriotism among the children,” the Bathinda mayor said.

In an October 2015 letter, a joint secretary of the Ministry of Defence wrote to Harsimrat Badal’s principal secretary that her “request for the fighter aircraft model has been examined and registered at number nine in waiting list for category D, that is- ‘state government/municipal corporation’ for the models of tanks and aircraft top be installed in different cities”.

The Bhai Ghanaiya chowk had come up in 2015, during the last Badal-regime in Punjab. The state government had roped in a renowned sculptor, Farid from Uttar Pradesh, to carve out the statues depicting the ethos of Bhai Ghanaiya during warfare.

The MiG 21 frame. Photo: Prabhjit Singh

Who was Bhai Ghanaiya?

Bhai Ghanaiya, who was originally the disciple of Guru Tegh Bahadur, had taken up the task of quenching the thirst of the wounded soldiers in the battle of Anandpur Sahib in 1704. He served water to all the injured and the dying soldiers without any discrimination between the Sikhs and the Mughals. This had irked the Sikh soldiers in the battlefield and they complained to Guru Gobind Singh. The Guru summoned Bhai Ghanaiya and sought his explanation. At this juncture, Bhai Ghanaiya told the Guru that he did not see any difference between a Sikh soldier and a Mughal soldier as he saw “only human beings” striving for the water and that made him act accordingly.

Sikh historians recorded that the Guru, after listening to Bhai Ghanaiya, even gave him the balm to apply on the wounds of all the soldiers irrespective of their religion and leanings. The Guru then acknowledged him as a “God-fearing saintly soul.”

Prabhjit Singh is a freelance journalist with extensive experience covering Punjab and Haryana.