The History of Punjab: Under the British Raj, 1849-1947

punjabBattle of Sobraon, 1846.

As the once-great Sikh empire declined after the death of its founder Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the 39 year-long golden age of Punjab soon vanished in merely less than 10 years under successive unstable rulers. The Anglo-Sikh wars officially put an end to the Sikh Empire. In 1849, the East India Company decisively defeated the Sikh Empire at the Battle of Gujrat bringing to an end the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Following the victory, the East India Company, which functioned as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown annexed Punjab on 2 April 1849 and incorporated it within British India. It was one of the last areas of the Indian subcontinent to fall under British rule.

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Punjab Province, British India. Source: Wikipedia

Punjab under the East India Company

Under the Company’s rule, the province of Punjab remained relatively independent and peaceful. The Board of Administration that was sent to Punjab after the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1846, continued to administer and rule over the newly acquired province. The Board was led by Sir Henry Lawrence, who had previously worked as a British Resident at the Lahore Durbar and also consisted of his younger brother John Lawrence and Charles Grenville Mansel. Below the Board, a group of acclaimed East India Company officers collectively called Henry Lawrence’s “Young Men”, also known as “the Paladins of Punjab”, assisted in the administration of the state.

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Punjab in 1880. Source: Wikipedia

The board was responsible for numerous reforms, including the abolition of internal duties and the establishment of a common currency and postal system. John Lawrence championed improvements to local infrastructure and raising money for public works, including an extension of the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to Peshawar and the construction of a highway from Lahore to Multan. Punjab witnessed a fifty percent increase in revenue with the state delivering a surplus of over one million pounds sterling within three years of the Board being instituted.

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Henry Montgomery Lawrence, engraving after unknown photographer. Source: Wikipedia

In December 1852, having overseen a highly productive period of governance in Punjab, the Lawrence brothers offered their resignations. Lord Dalhousie, also feeling the necessity of a Board of Administration had ceased, sought to replace it with the new role of Chief Commissioner. Dalhousie rejected John Lawrence‘s resignation, instead of making him the first Chief Commissioner of Punjab. Along with this, the Board was abolished by Lord Dalhousie in 1853, after having managed the Punjab province for almost 7 years. John Lawrence, who also later went to become Viceroy of India from 1864-69 earned the sobriquet of “the Saviour of Punjab”, for his efforts to transform the province of Punjab. 

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John Lawrence, the first Chief Commissioner of Punjab. Credits: National Portrait Gallery, London

Punjab during the 1857 Mutiny

The year 1857 was a turning point in Indian History. The Indian Mutiny or Rebellion of 1857 was a major, but ultimately unsuccessful uprising against the rule of the East India Company. The majority of historians believe that Punjab aided the British in this mutiny. When the revolt broke out, the British colonial officers stationed in Punjab acted swiftly. Just as news of the rebellion reached officers in Lahore, the indigenous regiments across the province were disarmed. All posts coming in from North India for these soldiers were monitored, which meant that a lot of the letters written by the leaders of the rebellion fell in the hands of the British.

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The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut from the Illustrated London News, 1857. Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, aware of the disgruntled aristocrats and soldiers, the colonial officers were quick to employ them on their side, promising them a chance to redeem their fortunes. Thus, soldiers and aristocrats who could have posed a threat to the stability of the British state in Punjab, after this change of British policy, became saviors of the colonial state. Recognizing this pivotal role of Punjab during the war of 1857, then Governor-General Lord Canning remarked that Punjab, from being a weakness, had become a source of strength for the British empire.

Punjab under the British Raj

In the aftermath of the Rebellion, under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1858, the British Government nationalized the East India Company. The British government took over its Indian possessions, its administrative powers and machinery, and its armed forces. Hence, Punjab came under the direct rule of the British Crown. Consequently, in 1858, Punjab was made a Lieutenant Governorship which resulted in an increase in staff and other privileges among other measures.

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Coat of Arms of Punjab. Source: Wikipedia

Later in February 1859, John Lawrence handed over the power of Punjab to Robert Montgomery, a British administrator and civil servant who then served as Lieutenant Governor of Punjab from 1859-65. Under his administration in 1862, the first section of the Punjab Railway, connecting Lahore with Amritsar was opened. Several universities and colleges were founded in Punjab during this time such as the  Lawrence College, Murree, King Edward Medical University, Government College University, Lahore, Glancy Medical College, and Forman Christian College. Before 1978, Sahiwal district, Punjab (currently in Pakistan) was known as the Montgomery District in honor of Robert Montgomery. Sir Montgomery was succeeded by his son-in-law Donald Friell McLeod, followed by Henry Marion Durand, Robert Henry Davies, Robert Eyles Egerton, and  Charles Umpherston Aitchison. 

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Montgomery District, Punjab. Now Sahiwal, Pakistan. Source: FIBIwiki

The governorship of Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison from 1882-87 was quite impacting in Punjab, establishing several institutions which we even stand tall today such as the establishment of Aitchison College, University of Punjab, creation of the Lahore Bar Association, and opening of the Punjab Public Library. It was under Aitchison, that in the year 1885, Punjab witnessed an ambitious plan to transform over six million acres of barren wasteland in central and western Punjab into irrigable agricultural land. The result was the creation of the Punjab Canal colonies, the name given to parts of western Punjab that were brought under cultivation through the construction of canals and agricultural colonization during the British Raj.

In all between 1885 and 1940, nine canal colonies namely Sidhnai, Sohag Para, Chunian, Chenab, Jhelum, Lower Bari Doab, Upper Chenab, Upper Jhelum, and Nili Bar colony were created in the inter-fluvial tracts east of the Beas and Sutlej and west of the Jhelum rivers. With this Punjab underwent an agricultural revolution as arid subsistence production was replaced by the commercialized production of huge amounts of wheat, cotton, and sugar. In total, over one million Punjabis settled in these new colonies, relieving demographic pressures in central Punjab. 

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Marala Shutters at the head of the Upper Chenab Canal. Source: Wikipedia

Under the administration of successive governors, Punjab continued to develop and live. Education did remain at the forefront during these times, as new institutions kept establishing such as Khalsa College, Amritsar, Christian College of Medicine, Ludhiana, and the Punjab Agricultural College among others. The situation in Punjab was peaceful overall until the year 1907. The Colonisation Bill passed in 1906 altered the atmosphere in the state. The Punjab Land Alienation Act, 1900 had already caused a feeling of discontent among the elite urban classes, and this Colonisation Bill provided for the transfer of property of a person after his death to the government if he had no heirs. The Government could sell the property to any public or private developer. This was completely against the social conditions prevailing in the region and hence it was rejected by all sides.

This period of 1907 Punjab unrest, has often been called the beginning of the freedom movement in Punjab. There were riots in Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, and Lahore. The result of this agitation was that all three bills were ultimately canceled. The following years in Punjab were eventful relative to the earlier years of the British rule in the state. Punjab witnessed the formation of the Punjab Muslim League in 1907-08, Delhi was excluded from Punjab and made the official capital of British India, an influenza epidemic broke out in the province which resulted in the death of an estimated 962,937 people i.e. nearly  4.77 percent of the total estimated population, the Jallianwalan Bagh Massacre in 1919, the Akali Movement among others.

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Gory Passage: The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was perhaps the worst assault on civilians in nearly two centuries of colonial rule. Source: India Today

The office of Lieutenant-Governors in Punjab lasted until it was replaced by the office of governor in the aftermath of the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms, which were introduced by the colonial government to initiate self-governing institutions gradually in British India. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms enacted through the Government of India Act 1919 expanded the Punjab Legislative Council and introduced the principle of dyarchy, whereby certain responsibilities such as agriculture, health, education, and local government, were transferred to elected ministers. The first Punjab Legislative Council under the 1919 Act was constituted in 1921, comprising 93 members, seventy percent to be elected and the rest to be nominated. Some of the British Indian ministers under the dyarchy scheme were Sir Sheikh Abdul Qadir, Sir Shahab-ud-Din Virk, and Lala Hari Kishen Lal.

The Government of India Act 1935 introduced provincial autonomy to Punjab replacing the system of dyarchy. It provided for the constitution of the Punjab Legislative Assembly of 175 members presided by a Speaker and an executive government responsible to the Assembly. The Unionist Party under Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan formed the government in 1937. Sir Sikandar was succeeded by Malik Khizar Hayat Tiwana in 1942 who remained the Premier till partition in 1947. Although the term of the Assembly was five years, the Assembly continued for about eight years and its last sitting was held on 19 March 1945

The Independence Struggle

Since the 1940s, the country and its people were aware that soon India later or sooner would get its independence. The long-initiated Indian struggle for independence ultimately bore fruit in the year 1947. This struggle for Indian independence witnessed competing and conflicting interests in Punjab. The landed elites of the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities had loyally collaborated with the British since annexation, supported the Unionist Party, and were hostile to the Congress party-led the independence movement. Amongst the peasantry and urban middle classes, the Hindus were the most active National Congress supporters, the Sikhs flocked to the Akali movement whilst the Muslims eventually supported the Muslim League.

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The Independence resulted in the greatest migration, the world ever witnessed, 1947. Source: One India

Since the partition of the sub-continent had been decided, special meetings of the Western and Eastern Section of the Legislative Assembly were held on 23 June 1947 to decide whether or not the Province of Punjab be partitioned. After voting on both sides, partition was decided and the existing Punjab Legislative Assembly was also divided into West Punjab Legislative Assembly and the East Punjab Legislative Assembly. This last Assembly before independence held its last sitting on 4 July 1947.

Overall Impact

Overall, Colonial rule had a profound impact on all areas of Punjab. Economically it transformed Punjab into the richest farming area of India, socially it sustained the power of large landowners and politically it encouraged cross-communal cooperation amongst land-owning groups. Punjab also became the major center of recruitment into the Indian Army. By patronizing influential local allies and focusing administrative, economic, and constitutional policies on the rural population, the British ensured the loyalty of its large rural population. Administratively, a colonial rule instituted a system of bureaucracy and measure of the law. The ‘paternal’ system of the ruling elite was replaced by ‘machine rule’ with a system of laws, codes, and procedures. For purposes of control, the British established new forms of communication and transportation, including post systems, railways, roads, and telegraphs. Despite these developments, colonial rule was marked by the exploitation of resources. For the purpose of exports, the majority of external trade was controlled by British export banks. The Imperial government exercised control over the finances of Punjab and took the majority of the income for itself. 

The Partition, 1947

In August 1947, when, after three hundred years in India, the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation-states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.

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A map showing partition boundary in Punjab, Credits IOR Maps.

The year 1947 saw not just the partition of a country into two, but also the parting of a great state. Punjab, once the home to multiple glorious empires, the Aryans, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Mongols, the Turks, the Mughals, the Afghans, and its own Sikh empire was finally fragmented into 2 portions on the grounds of religious politics and power. 

References/Further readings: 

https://scroll.in/article/851481/the-1857-fire-of-revolt-failed-to-singe-punjab-save-for-ahmad-khan-kharrals-short-lived-rebellion

https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-recalling-pagri-sambhal-jatta-movement-and-what-connects-two-farmer-movements-in-punjab-separated-by-over-a-100-years-7094916/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punjab_Province_(British_India)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Punjab#Colonial_period

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/the-great-divide-books-dalrymple

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