Wielding a powerfully sensitive pen, Rajmohan Gandhi leads us across the snow-capped mountain-kingdom of Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass and Kandahar, to the Mughal palaces in the Red Fort at Delhi, covering, in the process, the vast province of Punjab — seven times larger than the present-day Indian Punjab. Within a single volume of perfectly referenced study — Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (Aleph Book Company), the author places before us 240 years of Punjab’s violent history, and the survival instinct and tactical strategy of this garrison state. The book focuses on the death of the splendid Mughal Empire, rivalled in world history perhaps only by the Roman Empire. Everything about the Mughals was larger than life — from the majesty of the Emperor to the pomp of the imperial court, from the splendour of its architecture to its sublime music, from the prosperity it engendered to the anarchy it left behind.

And like in all empires, it was generally the peasant who was taxed for the regal spectacles at the imperial court. While bombarding the walls of the Red Fort in 1858, a junior British army officer described the Emperor’s establishment as ‘the sink of the city’.

Gandhi tells us about the struggle for national resurgence, Pax Brittanica and the tragic partition of India on communal lines that bloodied the country as never before; the latter engineered by the Raj as a logical extension of its Divide and Rule policy to tear asunder the fabric of unity and insaniyat worked out by the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities over long centuries of living and handling life together. The holocaust and barbarity witnessed in 1947, killing 250,000 Hindus and Sikhs and 500,000 Muslims, however makes one wonder whether the unity the author refers to was, in fact, ephemeral.

Gandhi’s book examines the undivided Punjab, known for its economic progress, vigour and music, indeed its ability to withstand foreign invasions, absorb and carry on with a sound practical sense, central to Punjabi character. This study fills a gaping void after Syed Muhammad Latif’s 1889 work on Punjab’s history, besides other fragmented works.

Contending that Punjab had a personality and history of its own, the author writes that today’s population in the Indian States of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, as well as Pakistan’s Punjab province, must confront this to better understand the history of their forefathers and ‘Punjabiyat’. Defining Punjabiyat may be difficult; yet, it is symbolised by poets like Faiz and Amrita Pritam, writers like Manto and Khushwant Singh. To imagine that Punjab’s history started post-1947 is to erect a granite wall between our past and the present. The Punjabi language has existed for more than a thousand years, revealing a distinct identity.

However, the author’s suggestion that Punjab’s history has always dictated the history of India appears to stretch derivative logic too far. Punjab had little to do with South India, for example.

Gandhi’s postulation that Punjabi Muslims were unable or unwilling to fill the post-Aurangzeb vacuum deserves serious consideration. On the other hand, the Marathas, Afghans and Sikhs contested for power in the Punjab, with the Muslim majority remaining aloof.

The author gives us good insight into the administrative arrangements in Punjab: Doab, it seems, was an expression coined by Emperor Akbar for the fertile land lying between two rivers.

Like a British gazette of yore, Gandhi describes castes and customs in Punjab and the manner in which, oftentimes, they were carried forward during conversion to Islam. He also provides a rare insight into Sufi thought, reflective of the sense of belonging and meaning it gave to bewildered people during the turmoil that followed the crumbling of the Mughal Empire in Punjab.

“Give me not a knife but a needle. I want to sew together, not cut asunder,” sang Baba Sheikh Farid. We also get glimpses of Amir Khusro, the poet-musician, and Nizamuddin Auliya. We learn of the flourishing trade and prosperity during the reign of Emperor Akbar who, in 1574, gifted to Sikhs the tract of land on which the Harmandir Sahib was built.

The Punjab was in awe of Mughal grandeur. The history of the Sikhs and Mughals was inter-related. The last Sikh Guru Gobind Singh saw his minor sons cruelly walled to death, before which Guru Teg Bahadur was executed under orders of the Mughal Emperor; there were terrible atrocities committed on the Sikhs by the Subahdar of Sirhind in Punjab, giving birth to the Khalsa and the Khalsa Durbar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Having established the first indigenous kingdom in Punjab in 800 years, Ranjit Singh ruled over the region and vast tracts of north-western India and Afghanistan for 50 years, laying down the principles of good governance.

Gandhi systematically leads the reader through the serpentine corridors of 18th- and 19th-century Punjab, with his dazzling pen portraits of hundreds of persons… Banda Bahadur, Adina Beg, Moglani Begum, Hayat Khan of Wah.

About Sikh valour, the author says that no Sikh accepted Islam to save his life. “The Sikhs vied with each other in the precedence of death.”

Little wonder then, that by 1900, nearly half of the British Indian army was recruited from the Sikh community. During the upheavals in Punjab — the invasion by Nadir Shah, the ten attacks by Ahmed Shah Abdali, the Marathas, the Sikh Misls and so on — the peasantry groaned under the levies by rival armies and raiding parties.

The hazards of medieval life — prison, torture, unnatural death — were predictable milestones in the career of every ambitious individual well into and beyond the 18th century. Therefore, economics and expediency largely dictated loyalty in Punjab at this time.

The concomitant intrigue and dishonesty is a reflection of the social milieu and, therefore, the poetry of Bulleh Shah dwells on human introspection and the search for life’s essence. In these circumstances, Punjab welcomed British rule and, indeed, the Raj gave it canals, modern agriculture, employment, education and, best of all, peace during the high noon of the Empire between 1859 and 1919.

The very Empire that then destroyed the century-long progress. English education that attempted to destroy the refinements of Mughal India, her ancient spiritual tradition and timeless civilisation through Macaulay’s minute on education in 1834, and barbaric acts like shooting and blowing up Indians through canons resulted in the Quit India movement. The British had to leave India in disgrace.

Their design of partitioning India succeeded. They were able to turn Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims and leave behind anarchy and destruction in the sub-continent. To avoid partition, Mahatma Gandhi offered the premiership of undivided India to Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah; his offer was never taken seriously by the Viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten, who had decided to teach the freedom fighters a lesson they would not easily forget.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill rejoiced in the communal massacres that followed after the British left in haste and ignominy, a year earlier than the notified announcement of Independence. In its sunset, the Raj succeeded, with Indian help, in turning the struggle against the British into a Hindu-Muslim, Sikh-Muslim quarrel.

Rajmohan Gandhi’s masterpiece is recommended as compulsory reading for students of history and civil servants, particularly those serving in Punjab and Haryana. The book rekindles memories of undivided Punjab and of my mother, who at 90 told me she was a Pakistani, as her home was in Lahore.

When I was posted as Ferozepore Divisional Commissioner, she would regularly drive to the Hussainiwala border and, with the innocence of the superannuated, command me to take her home to Lahore to look at the Chenab in spate; the emerald green waters of the Indus flowing unconcerned about human folly, in the lingering shadow of the Hindukush Mountains.