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A virtual conference sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory (CSLR) featuring scholars, experts and practitioners who will examine the many religious traditions of South Asia and their diverse publics. Participation by invitation only. View selected videos and browse all essays here.

“The Loneliness of the Model Minority: Muslim Belonging in Malerkotla, Punjab”

Anna Bigelow

For decades, the Muslim majority town of Malerkotla, Punjab has been emblematic of communal harmony – the place where everyone gets along, where “peace reigns supreme.” As I have argued previously, the substantive realities that this reputation reflects is the result of hard work and constant vigilance to realize on the ground, even imperfectly. It also persists despite enormous pressure. The last decade since I wrote Sharing the Sacred on the town’s history and culture of communal harmony has proven challenging for Malerkotla’s citizens, but their labors continue. From the 2019-20 protests against the Citizens Amendment Act centered in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, to the Farmer’s protests at the Delhi borders, to election driven concerns, Malerkotla’s citizens continue to strive for belonging in an India where divisive nationalisms are ascendant. These efforts reveal the past and present of citizen strategies to build intersectional solidarities, to affirm and reaffirm a long-standing collective identity built on communal harmony, and to imagine a future India that is diverse, inclusive, and just.  

A former princely state, Malerkotla is now the only Muslim majority municipality in Indian Punjab – a state with a Muslim population just under 2% according to 2011 census data. It is also a place where the Punjabi Muslim population mostly remained in India in 1947 and where no one died during the violence that accompanied Partition. This singular status has long meant that all eyes are on Malerkotla during any period of communal (interreligious) strife affecting Punjab. From the widespread unrest after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, to the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999, to the unrest after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan in 2001, to the Godhra pogroms of 2002, to the Mumbai Taj hotel attacks of 2008, and other flashpoints, Malerkotla “coincidentally” appears in the regional, and sometimes national, news. Additionally, we hear about Malerkotla in the press on Muslim holy days and days significant to the history of Malerkotla, such as the January 17 anniversary of the 1872 British execution of Namdhari Sikhs or the commemoration of the martyrdom of Guru Gobind Singh’s two younger sons that was memorably protested by the Nawab of Malerkotla in 1705, an act known as the Haa da Naara or Cry for Justice. Even minor political incidents and issues of economic or educational development are often conveyed through the filter of religion in media coverage of the town. But by far the overwhelming narrative is one of communal harmony – as the Wire recently headlined a story by political scientist Neera Chandoke, “In Malerkotla, One Can Find the Vestiges of India’s Forgotten History of Tolerance.” In this essay, as in so many others, we find the heady mix of nostalgia and utopia – a combination that seeks to mobilize the unquestionably powerful symbol of a town of peaceful, patriotic Muslims as emblematic of a more universal past and a model for a less conflicted future. This is a significant amount of pressure on a town of under 150,000 people. And there are real questions to ask about the impact of this pressure on Malerkotla and its citizens. 

These few examples begin to illustrate the amount of vigilance and constant effort required to remain visible and resist erasure. That such stories garner attention beyond the state media suggests that there is a wider public that longs for such narratives to help bolster the struggle for multireligious belonging in contemporary India.

In her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine speaks in poetic prose about the effects on Black Americans of being a model minority: “They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure” (11). India today is witnessing a buildup of erasure of Muslim histories and Muslim futures. Textbooks alter or eliminate any contributions or achievements of Indian Muslims in the past (see, for example, Tanika Sarkar’s essay in Majoritarian State, 2019). Assaults and lynchings of Muslims in the name of cow protection or love jihad go uninvestigated and unpunished. And calls for a genocidal campaign against Muslims in the model of that perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar are met largely with silence from the government and law enforcement. And as these events unfold, and especially in Punjab, eyes are always on Malerkotla. 

On May 13, 2021, Malerkotla became the 23rd electoral district of Punjab. The declaration by then Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was made on ʿId al-Fitr as a gesture acknowledging the unique status of this Muslim majority region in Indian Punjab. Seen by supporters as a positive move to ally his political party (at the time the Indian National Congress, Amarinder has now started the Punjab Lok Congress), with the region’s reputation for communal harmony, it was unsurprisingly critiqued by political rivals as pandering at best, or divisive appeasement at worst. Indeed, this relatively insignificant act was taken up by elected officials several states away as, for example, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP weighed in to describe the making of the Punjabi district as typical of the “divisive politics of the Congress.” No stranger to communal division himself, Adityanath’s comments seek to frame policies that offer a perceived benefit to a minority community as engendering division and resentment through preferential treatment that unfairly penalizes those who have benefited from the status quo. In a similar vein, the BJP’s national spokesperson Shazia Ilmi accused a Malerkotla based aide to Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi of the Congress Party of “trying to disturb communal harmony.” The incident in question here involves some remarks that the aide, Muhammad Mustafa, made that were insulting to the local Mirasi community. Mirasis in Malerkotla are a hereditary group of Muslim singers and performers and stigmatized as low caste entertainers. While Mustafa’s comments may reveal cultural and social prejudice towards this historically marginalized community, the BJP reaction is also evidence of political opportunism that seeks to drive wedges between minority groups. Electoral strategy aside, such BJP efforts to represent other political parties and policies as divisive and communal, while engaging in divisive and communal pursuits of their own, is not just hypocrisy. It is also a strategic probing for weaknesses at the outer defenses of a town that has built its identity on being the place where everyone gets along. The narrative in praise of Malerkotla’s atmosphere of brotherhood runs directly counter to assertions that Hindus and Muslims have decisively different cultures and cannot coexist. 

And so Malerkotla’s Muslims, and many non-Muslim residents, labor to resist erasure through a steady parade of patriotic performances and acts of solidarity with other religious communities. During the protests against the Citizen’s Amendment Act and National Registry of Citizens, thousands of people – mostly women – gathered at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi from December 15, 2019, until the pandemic lockdown that began on March 24, 2020. While this was the epicenter of much mobilization, demonstrations occurred throughout the country, including in Malerkotla. Several student leaders and poets who had galvanized the Shaheen Bagh community came to Malerkotla on February 9, 2020, organized by a group calling themselves the Haa da Naara Sangharsh Morcha. Among the poets was Nabiya Khan who recited her poem “Ayega Inqilab/The Revolution Will Come” with the refrain ayega inquilab, pehenke bindi, chudiyan, burka, hijab – revolution will come, dressed in bindi, bangles, burqa, hijab. The sentiment as a rallying cry is well suited to the women-led demonstrations and to the multi-religious culture of Malerkotla. 

After the sudden shutdown for the pandemic on March 24, 2020, thousands of workers were stranded at jobs that no longer existed and many had to walk home without other resources. In Punjab, people without food or work could reliably find food at the langar (communal free kitchen) at the many Sikh gurdwaras. From Malerkotla, loads of grain were sent to the center of the Sikh community, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. While making their deliveries there, the Muslims who had brought the grain prayed namaz on the plaza outside the complex, images of which went viral on social media

In the fall of 2020, the Farmer’s Protest geared up in opposition to a set of agricultural bills that many farmers, especially from Punjab, objected to on numerous grounds, including the absence of government secured prices that would promote a living wage for farmers. As Malerkotla is a primarily agricultural district with farmers of all religious commitments, it was not surprising to see langar tents staffed by Muslim delegations from the town. Local solidarity demonstrations were also held, including some primarily mobilizing women. 

Importantly, it is not only Malerkotla’s Muslim population that engages in these repeated performances of belonging. Gestures of respect, friendship, and resistance to forces of division are also frequent local and regional news items. For example, in June 2021 it was reported nationally when Sikh farmer Jagmel Singh donated land for a mosque in Malerkotla district. Or, in May 2021, the Haa da Naara Gurdwara in Malerkotla hosted a group of Muslims for namaz while also providing langar to Muslim youth at a local madrasa during the lockdown. 

These few examples begin to illustrate the amount of vigilance and constant effort required to remain visible and resist erasure. That such stories garner attention beyond the state media suggests that there is a wider public that longs for such narratives to help bolster the struggle for multireligious belonging in contemporary India. It also indicates that efforts to divide the community and undermine the hard-won comity are underway. Raising the profile of the town in such outlets may produce a double effect, both reinforcing the collective ethos of harmony in Malerkotla and making it more appealing than ever to undermine it. The romanticization of the atmosphere of bhaichara is also a danger as it obscures the work involved in asserting and maintaining inter-group trust and promoting political and social solidarity as a collective good. ♦

Anna Bigelow is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Bigelow’s work explores how everyday devotional life in shared sacred spaces illuminates the shifting terrain of ambivalently secular states.

Recommended Citation

Bigelow, Anna. “The Loneliness of the Model Minority: Muslim Belonging in Malerkotla, Punjab.” Canopy Forum, June 13, 2022.

Selected Sources on Malerkotla: 

Bigelow, Anna. “The Crucible of Peace: Pluralism and Community in Muslim Punjab,” in Vasudha Dalmia and Martin Fuchs, editors. Religious Interactions in Modern India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019 (pp. 274-305). 

“Hagiography and History: Haider Shaikh and His Interlocutors,” in Jon Armajani and James Lindsay, editors. Historical Dimensions of Islam: Essays in Honor of R. Stephen Humphreys. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 2009 (pp. 217-232).

Memory and Minority: Making Muslim Indians,” Numen: International Review for the History of Religions, Volume 58, 2011, (pp. 375-403). 

“Narratives of the Life of Haider Shaikh (d.1515) in Punjab,” in Barbara Metcalf, editor. Islam in South Asia in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009 (pp. 144-157). 

“Post-Partition Pluralism: Placing Islam in Indian Punjab,” in Farina Mir and Anshu Malhotra, editors. Punjab Reconsidered: History, Culture, and Practice. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012 (pp. 409-435). 

Saved by the Saint: Refusing and Reversing Partition in Muslim North India,” Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 68, Number 2, May 2009, (pp. 1-30).

Sharing the Sacred: Practicing Pluralism in Muslim North India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 

“A ‘Tazkira’ for the Times: Saving Islam in Post-Partition Punjab,” in John Renard, editor. Tales of God’s Friends. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009 (pp.219-233).Virdee, Pippa. From the Ashes of 1947: Reimagining Punjab. Cambridge, 2018.