One can’t be sure whether history is a whore or not but one can aver that historians especially the ones associated with kings and courts pimped their histories with what was palatable to their ruling elites.

In our own times, when kings and courts have been replaced with rulers and parliaments, even the most objective historical account can’t be fully objective because it’s product of a certain worldview upheld by the author. So one can assert that histories while being narratives of specific times also reflect the views of their authors. We won’t be baffled as long as we are able to detect the historians’ views concealed or embedded in their narratives. Authors usually hide their view of history in the name of objectivity but the bold among them have the integrity to make no bones about their way of looking at the past. One such scholar is Dr. Manzur Ejaz who has recently published his book titled “Punjab di Lok Tareekh [People’s history of Punjab]”. What he builds his trenchant narrative from is obvious from the title itself.

It’s a bold book in the sense that it challenges some firmly held assumptions and premises about the Punjab’s history, culture and language. But first some of the critical points and issues he raises about how the subject in question has been handled by historians in general. Historians, most of them non-Punjabi - which in no way debars them from writing the history of Punjab - have ignored following significant aspects: 1, they have not paid attention to the agricultural implements, the main stay of agrarian production, which remained almost the same from Maurya Empire to the early 20th century, 2, continued primitive construction of mud houses and buildings in the countryside in the backdrop of developed urban centres like Harappa and Gandhara has not been taken into account, 3, ethnic division [Harappa people versus Arya] has not been given an emphasis like class division, 4, rituals of birth and death -most significant in the life of individuals and groups- perpetuated by women have not been probed, 5, undue reliance on the scriptures, which are not histories but religious treatises – interfered with and interpolated over long periods of times – has led to skewed conclusions, 6, what is called ancient history of India is in reality history of ancient Punjab [ and Sindh] but historians tend to leave Punjab half way and jump to Gangetic plains where much later Brahmanism got entrenched from whose perspective Punjab is looked at, 7, historians have remained totally oblivious to the Punjabi literature, a receptacle of social, cultural and anthropological life, produced in the last 1,000 years and haven’t used it as one of the sources.

Dr. Ejaz raises many more relevant questions and creates his own perspective which may help the historians and scholars to look at Punjab’s complex past afresh. He attempts to address the issues he raises or already raised that have direct bearing on the historical narratives concerning Punjab. It’s not that he has ready-made answers or the answers he has will satisfy all the scholars. But he can’t be dismissed either. His approach is holistic. He harnesses his creative and imaginative skills to build his composite narrative from diverse academic and intellectual sources. Scriptures, religious treatises, standard histories, scholarly works, classical literature, linguistics,ethno-linguistics, ethnographic findings and genetics are the sources used by him for exploration and analyses. That nothing is off-limit to him makes him a scholar to reckon with. The added advantage he has is that he is exposed to urban life as much as he has been to agrarian society and his grasp of economics is as good as that of classical literature and folklore. He can collate information and data on historical and contemporary society, and has at the same time an ability to conflate apparently diverse issues with a view to reaching verifiable conclusions. His grounding in philosophy and logic stands him in good stead when it comes to making generalisations.

Let’s now share some of the bold assertions the good Doctor has made in the course of his book which some of scholars and historians may contest. He asserts that important religious practices and rituals of Punjab bear the imprint of Harappa culture despite the firm entrenchment of Arya social structure in the region. The prime carrier of such enduring influences happened to be Dravidian women who married or were forced to marry Arya men. The fact, he informs us, has been verified by recent DNA analyses of men and women from Punjab and the subcontinent showing different ethnic origins of male and female. He further says that dwindling indigenous tribes living on the margins of contemporary society hold vital clues to the faded identity of Harappa people. In Punjab, he asserts, indigenous groups associated with performing arts such as minstrels, musicians, soothsayers and masters of ceremonies came to be entrusted with the task of managing the religious rituals for the Arya elite. They evolved and preserved the traditions of classical music which is unique to the region. They, however, were denied the high status the Brahmans enjoyed performing such functions in the Gangetic plains. There had been no qualitative change/improvement, he says, in the agricultural tools and implements from Maurya era to the early 20th century which meant that mode of production remained static.

Dr. Ejaz strongly contests the assumption that Punjabi language is of Dravidian origin or has Sanskrit roots. Quoting linguistic data he asserts that Punjabi, organically linked with Munda of Austroasiatic languages family, has close affinity with Santali and Khasi languages spoken in Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Meghalaya in India. He tries to debunk the theory that Punjabi has Dravidian roots by claiming that Dravidian tribes moved into Punjab later than the arrival of Arya. As evidence he cites early the Aryan texts which, he asserts, show no Dravidian linguistic influence as the Dravidians hadn’t arrived in Punjab in that period.

Dr.Manzur Ejaz’s “Punjab di Lok Tareekh” published by Kitab Trinjan, Lahore, is not a run-of-the-mill book. It’s well-researched and referenced narrative written with an imaginative touch which imparts to it a glow of creativity.The author quite often abandons normal chronology and the conventions of linear narrative telling his story in flashbacks and flash-forwards.The book is very insightful; it challenges some of our assumptions by raising questions from people’s perspective. It’s indispensable for private and public libraries. —

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2019