Even as the second Covid wave muted Eid festivities this year, a box of sweets still quietly found its way from Malerkotla’s Aqsa Masjid to the town’s Laxmi Narayan temple with the message ‘Chand Mubarak’.
The mandir and masjid have shared a common wall for decades in Malerkotla’s Somsons Colony. And for years, their caretakers have greeted each other without fail on Eid and Diwali. The tradition has remained unbroken through the pandemic.
In the colony where Hindu and Sikh families are in majority, Aqsa Masjid caretaker says the community has never faced any issue.
Few kilometres away at Talaab Bazaar, prasad from shops of several Muslims owners is offered by devotees at the Hanuman temple.
At the historic Gurdwara Haa Da Naara Sahib, devotees irrespective of their faiths, prepare langar every day for Covid patients – something they have been doing since the pandemic started.
At Malerkotla, which is the only Muslim majority town in Punjab with over 90,000 Muslims, 28,000 Hindus and 12,800 Sikhs as per 2011 Census, the gurdwaras, mandirs and masjids intersect each other’s path in almost every street, but people of this town have always imparted some crucial lessons in peaceful co-existence.
So on Eid, as CM Captain Amarinder Singh declared Malerkotla as Punjab’s 23rd district of Punjab, it was a decision welcomed by all irrespective of their faith. Miles away, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath found fault with it and tweeted, “Any distinction on the basis of belief and religion is contrary to the basic spirit of the Constitution of India. Presently, the formation of Malerkotla (Punjab) district is a reflection of the divisive policy of the Congress.”
Questioning the UP CM’s premise of divisiveness, Chetan Sharma, the priest of Laxmi Narayan temple, questioned: “If a medical college and hospital will come up in Malerkotla, will only Muslims get treatment there showing their ID cards? No, that hospital will be for all, be it Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. We, the people of Malerkotla, want development and better facilities for our town. If it is becoming a district, then facilities that will come along will be for all, not just Muslims. Our local MLA, Razia Sultana, had promised before polls that Malerkotla will be made a district. Everyone here is happy with this decision.”
He added: “Few days back on Eid, our neighbouring Aqa Masjid sent us a box of sweets like every year. We share a common wall but we have never allowed any political issue to disturb harmony here.”
The caretaker of the mosque, Mohammad Shabbir, said:”Temple management always coordinates with us during Ramadan. It is Hindu-Sikh dominated colony but we have never faced any issue, instead everyone respects masjid too. A district would mean that we don’t have to travel to Sangrur for basic works. There is nothing related to a specific religion here,” says Mohammad Shabbir, caretaker, Aqsa Masjid.
The unique social fabric and communal harmony of Malerkotla town has passed several tests through history — be it the Partition when Muslims here chose to stay back and there was no communal violence, the Babri Masjid demolition and the most recently, the Ayodhya case verdict in November 2019 — when the town was turned into a fortress with heavy police security, but no untoward incident was reported. It was only in June 2016, when the holy Quran was allegedly desecrated, its pages found strewn in streets, that an angry mob had resorted to an arson at the house of then SAD MLA Farzana Alam, wife of former DGP Izhar Alam. That incident had happened ahead of the 2017 Punjab Assembly polls.
SAD had then blamed Congress for “pre-planned attack” and conspiracy, but Razia Sultana, currently Malerkotla MLA from Congress (wife of retired DGP Mohammad Mustafa), had refuted allegations. Later, police had named AAP MLA Naresh Yadav (from Delhi) as an accused in Quran desecration, but he was later acquitted by the court.
As Punjab approaches another Assembly election, the Congress government’s decision to make Malerkotla a district may has raised the hackles of UP CM, but his tweet has been met with criticism from locals and political leaders alike.
Farzana Alam (67), former local SAD MLA, once an ally of BJP, said, “A district is never made on the basis of religion, but only when it is actually needed. It has not been done just to make Muslims happy. It would mean development for people of Malerkotla.”
“People of Malerkotla have never really listened to outsiders who have tried to instigate or destroy their peace,” she said on Yogi’s tweet.
Standing as a testimony of Malerkotla’s communal harmony is Gurdwara Haa Da Naara Sahib, which was built by Sikh community as a tribute to erstwhile ruler of Malerkotla Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, who had raised his voice (‘Haa Da Naara’) against brutal execution of Chhote Saahibzaade (youngest sons of Guru Gobind Singh — Zorawar Singh (9) and Fateh Singh (6) – by Nawab of Sirhind, Wazir Khan.
Head priest at the gurdwara, Narinder Singh (47), said, “Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan had objected to the execution of Chhote Saahibzaade and said that their fight was with Guru Gobind Singh, not his small children. He had refused to take revenge from children. Even as he could not stop kids from being bricked alive in a wall, he had walked out and given ‘Haa Da Naara’ in their support. Later, the last ruler of Malerkotla– Ifthikar Ali Khan had given land to Sikh community to build this historic gurdwara as a tribute to Sher Mohammad Khan. The ‘Quila Mubarak Manzil’ is located closely to the gurdwara,” he added.
“People who do not know about the glorious history of Malerkotla should not interfere. Now that it will become a district, people like us won’t have to go to Sangrur which is 35 km away for small works. We even have to pay toll tax for travelling from Malerkotla. Since the pandemic started, people here irrespective of their religion, are helping in preparing langar at the gurdwara which is delivered for Covid patients. There is hardly any person here who is unhappy about Malerkotla becoming a district,” said the gurdwara priest.
Yogi’s comments have even invited sharp reactions from his own party colleague Union Minister Som Parkash and Aam Aadmi Party MP Bhagwant Mann.
Sangrur MP and AAP state president Bhagwant Mann said, “Who is Yogi Adityanath to comment on Malerkotla? This town has a special place in the heart of every Punjabi. In 1947, not a single Muslim migrated from Malerkotla. We got the regional passport office opened here because people here travel to Mecca-Madina and Pakistan often. To make Malerkotla a district is an administrative decision which will bring development hopefully. The town still does not have good educational institutions for both boys and girls beyond Class 12. The government senior secondary school for boys still does not have something as basic as commerce stream. We should focus on development for people of Malerkotla, not their religion. Yogi should keep his seeds of hatred for somewhere else and first handle UP,” said Mann.
Government has announced setting up of a medical college in name of Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan for Rs 500 crore, a government college for girls, a police station managed by women staff only and restoration of Mubarak Manzil Palace for the new district.
BJP MP and Union Minister Som Parkash had tweeted, “I congratulate people of Malerkotla and thank Chief Minister ji for declaring Malerkotla as a district… It is a rich tribute to the Nawab of Malerkotla who protested execution of two Sahibzaade… Malerkotla is a symbol of communal harmony…”