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Punjab socio-economic report (Fategarh District)

Geography and History

Fategarh District of Punjab is named after the historic Gurdwara which is called “Fategarh Sahib”. This Gurdwara marks the site where in 1705 the two youngest sons of Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth and last of the Sikh Gurus) were martyred by being walled in alive. These children refused to convert to Islam and were thus executed by the order of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Our MATRIKA team felt quite emotional upon accompanying the dais and descending below the ground in the Gurdwara to pay homage at the exposed brick wall where this sacrifice is remembered and meditated upon. We also prayed at the smaller Mata Gujri Gurdwara which commemorates the Guru’s mother (the boys’ grandmother)—who according to legend counselled the young martyrs to remain faithful to their beliefs and to accept their death. It seemed profoundly significant to hold a workshop on childbirth with traditional midwives at a place associated with the death of young children—and a place considered sacred by the midwives themselves.

Formerly designated Sirhind, Fategarh District lies 50 kilometers West of Chandigarh and was the capital of the Pathan Suri dynasty. Humayan defeated Sikundar Shah here in 1555 which led to the establishment of the Mughal dynasty. Under the Mughal sovereigns Sirhind was one of the most flourishing towns of the empire and British gazetteers noted that it contained 360 mosques, tombs, sarais and wells. These ruins, which our MATRIKA team explored during workshop breaks, commence about a mile from the railway station and extend for several miles.

In 1995 Fategarh became a separate district which now covers 1,180 square kilometres with a population of approximately 5,00,000. Agriculture, which is the mainstay of Punjab’s economy, is the predominant occupation of Fategarh District. The fertility of the soil and industriousness of the people is demonstrated by the fact that in 1997-1998 Punjab contributed 68% of the wheat and 35% of the rice to the central pool whereas it only comprises 1.5% of the land. Wheat, legumes, maize, groundnut, red chili and some rice are grown in the Fategarh area. Although primarily known for its agriculture Punjab also has some thriving industries—including Hero bicycles at Ludhiana, India’s (and the world’s) largest bicycle manufacturer.

The Punjab was probably the part of India which suffered most destruction and damage at the time of Partition, yet today it is by far the most affluent state in India. Prior to Partition in 1947 the Punjab extended across both sides of what is now the India-Pakistan border. And Lahore, now capital of the Pakistani state of Punjab, was then capital of Undivided Punjab. The grim logic of Partition sliced the Punjab into a Muslim region (Pakistan) and a Sikh and Hindu region (India). As millions of Sikhs and Hindus fled eastward, and equal numbers of Muslims fled west, there were innumerable atrocities and killings on both sides. Indeed late into one night during the workshop the VHAP and MATRIKA team listened to the stories of two elderly dais as they recounted their experiences of Partition.

More recently Sikh political demands have impacted the state. Militants, originally protesting the dominance and economic exploitation of the Central government, have waged an agitation for more autonomy for the Punjab. And for the creation of a separate and independent Sikh state to be called Khalistan (land of the pure).

Annual Religious Fairs and Festivals of Fategarh

The usual Dussehra and Diwali festivals of Hindus are celebrated in the fall. The principle,and now the only, area festival celebrated by Muslims is the Urs Rauza Sharif which falls in the month of Safar of the Hijri Era and lasts for three days. It is estimated that about a thousand people attend from India and abroad. But none of the above compare with the Jor-Mela of the Sikhs. This event falls on 27th December and is held to commemorate the execution of the two young sons, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh. The program includes a huge procession, bathing in the sacred tank attached to the Gurdwara, a complete recital of the entire Granth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Book), kirtan or the singing of the Guru’s hymns and lectures. In recent years the gatherings of large numbers at a single place has begun to be utilised by political parties to propagate their respective political agendas.


The majority of the dais attending our workshop in Punjab were Sikhs, and Mahzbi Sikhs. Although in theory Sikhism does not have caste divisions, in fact and in practice, it does.

Concept of God and Spiritual Experience

In the hymns of Guru Nanak, God is called ‘the Creator Person’, ‘Self-existent’, ‘Eternally True’, and ‘Guru’. He is both ‘Enlightener’ and ‘Guide’-- He is benevolent and directs the world with His will. He is not only the Creator Person, but is also immanent in the world and is the Fount of all values and virtues, according to Nanak.

The spiritual experience of the Guru further highlights that ‘He is All Love, and the rest He is ineffable.’ The important aspect of this spiritual experience is that the Basic Reality (Sat), apart from being the Master of the creation, is guiding it with love. It is this spiritual experience of the Guru which determines the Sikh world-view: that the world is real, and not an illusion or maya. The bani (Sikh scripture) says, ‘True is He, True is His Creation.” Also the fundamental Reality is deeply interested in guiding the world in all its spheres—spiritual and material, in fact barely making a distinction between these two aspects, which are mainly man-made.

Rejection of Asceticism

Withdrawal, monasticism and asceticism are rejected by Guru Nanak’s teachings and instead, the householder’s life is embraced. He condemns the yogis for ‘being idlers, and not being ashamed of begging alms at the very door of the householder whose life they spurn.’ He declares that ‘liberation is possible even while laughing and playing’ and that ‘the God centered lives truthfully, while a householder.’ Earlier Indian spiritual systems accept monasticism, asceticism or sanyasa, but according to Nanak God is ‘the Gracious Master of the entire universe and life’ and faith in Him leaves the seeker no choice to select some aspects and leave others.

Interestingly Buddhism, Jainism as well as Islam and Christianity all consider the person who renounces the world to be the height of spirituality. In all these systems monasticism and withdrawal are encouraged as religious practices, and celibacy is a virtue. Some interpreters (Wendy Donniger, K Schomer and Kharak Singh) see this valorisation of renunciation, and the accompanying downgrading of women, as misogynist. With celibacy as the epitome of spirituality, woman becomes essentially a temptress, seducing men from their important spiritual pursuits. Guru Nanak himself, and all the Sikh Gurus with the exception of Guru Har Krishan, who died at a very early age, led a married householders life.

A corollary of rejecting asceticism is that the seeker has to express his spirituality in virtuous activity and deeds. A follower of God’s Will, from this viewpoint, cannot remain a bystander in life. He has to work according to his capacity.

Resisting Oppression and Injustice

Another responsibility which is expounded in Guru Nanak’s system, but which is new in the Indian context, is the spiritual person’s responsibility to resist and confront injustice and oppression. This responsibility found its logical conclusion in the martial figure of the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh who defended both Sikh and Hindu freedom to resist conversion and maintain their own religious identities.

Unlike most saints and bhagats, he criticised in detail all the faults in the social, administrative, religious and political life of his times. He deprecated the hypocrisy, and greed of Pundits and Mullahs; the social discriminations and practices of pollution following cast prohibitions; the corruption and bribery practised by public functionaries; theluxurious life lived by the rulers; their oppression of the people and their failure to give security of life to their subjects.

Health Problems in Punjab

According to the collaborating NGO, Voluntary Health Association of the Punjab, the abuse of alcohol and drugs is increasing in the state. Punjabis, particularly Sikhs, have always been stereotyped as hard working and hard drinking. But whether it is due to the years of turmoil and militancy in the state or the proximity to the Pakistan border across which heroin and other illegal drugs flow—substance abuse is rampant. As we travelled through the countryside our guide pointed out de-addiction centers. This abuse also leads to family economic crises and domestic violence.

Sex determination tests are widely available, even in rural areas and female foeticide is not uncommon. Sons are considered of value because they carry o the family name, inherit and work the land. Dowry demands are on the rise, increasingly consumer items are desired, available and advertised. The need or desire for a son used to cause some families to have 10 girls—but now this is avoided, if the family has money, by aborting a female foetus. Dais claim they see problems resulting from repeated abortions. Private clinics and hospitals perform abortions on request. The sex ratio in Punjab is currently 883 females for every 1000 males and seems to be declining rather than rising.

Patients taken to government dispensaries and hospitals by dais and health workers often get little co-operation from doctors. Lack of availability of essential medicines is also a problem faced in government health facilities. “Quacks” with questionable qualifications roam through villages selling antibiotics and other medications. Villagers buy and use these medicines for illnesses which are not considered emergencies as a “real” physician is expensive to see. It is often these “quacks” who are called to give injections during labour.

Matrika Workshop and Dais’ Work

The Matrika workshop was held on the Fategarh Sahib Gurdwara premises and drew dais from two underdeveloped blocks: Khera and Nandpur Kalod. Both of these blocks consist of 50% Majbi Sikhs (Harijan) and 50% Jat Sikhs. The dais are, of course, mainly Majbi. The organising NGO, VHAP, considered many areas of Punjab as location for the workshop and decided on this area because of its ‘backward’ and underdeveloped status.

Because of the proximity of Chandigarh and medical facilities available there many women from this area who go for institutionalised delivery if they have the resources. In fact dais reported that they were often paid more by the private nursing homes in the Chandigarh area to refer a case there, than they would receive if they, themselves, attended the birth at home!


VHAP was established in 1993 with a goal of “Making health a reality for the People of the Punjab”. It is a state-level federation of Voluntary Organisations engaged in activities related to health and development at the grassroots level. VHAP is federated to the Voluntary Health Association of India, New Delhi. There are similar associations in most of the states of India. It strongly believes that attaining ‘health’ is the responsibility of each individual and that the majority of illnesses can be prevented if all, both at the individual and society levels take proper care and attention.

VHAP conducts workshops, training programs and seminars on:

  • community health and development
  • health communications
  • holistic health
  • human resources development
  • school health and mental health
  • AIDs/HIV and STDs
  • rational use of drugs and pesticides
  • reproductive health
  • environment and health

VHAP also holds public campaigns and advocacy programmes; publishes and distributes health education materials.
Extracted from VHAP Annual Report 1997-98



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