HARKING BACK: The sole ‘desi’ DC of Lahore in 98 years of British rule

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Nov 27, 2016

In its 98-year rule over Punjab (1849-1947), the British rulers appointed only one local deputy commissioner of Lahore. This amazing man helped to avoid a second Jallianwala Bagh-like massacre in Lahore by enforcing the Lahore High Court order in the Masjid-Shaheedganj Gurdwara case. Very few of us have ever heard of Ram Parsad Singh Grewal, popularly known among British bureaucrats as ‘Pertab’. This amazing man belonged to Ludhiana and was born in June 1896. His father Col. Heera Singh was commander of the State forces of Rewa. After graduating from Khalsa College, Amritsar, he joined the British Army and served in the First World War in Europe from 1914 to 1916. After the war this brilliant man went to Oxford, graduated with honours and qualified for the Indian Railway Service. As he had stood first he had the option of appearing for the Indian Civil Service and in 1921 he again excelled in that examination.

After joining that ‘superior’ service he was promoted and in 1928 became the first Indian deputy commissioner of Rothak. From there he had the distinction of becoming the first Indian DC of Delhi. By this time the revolutionary spirit for freedom had become a major headache for the British in Punjab. The Viceroy asked ‘Pertab’ to move to Ferozepur to understand what was going on. ‘Pertab’s advice was: “Stick to the law, be fair, be firm, and leave the tactics to me.” Within a few months he had managed to make the ‘troublemakers’ give up their revolutionary ways.

This success made the Viceroy request that ‘Pertab’ be moved to Lahore, as this was a city with the most educational institutions, and ‘revolutionary’ students were posing major problems. But more than that ‘Pertab’ faced the unique communal problem. The Gurdwara Shaheedganj, that exists between Lahore’s railway station and Delhi Gate just off Landa Bazaar, had a mosque which the Muslims claimed was knocked down by the Sikhs to build a gurdwara there. The Sikhs claimed it was the other way round. So the Muslims of Lahore went to court and lost their case. But let us examine, very briefly, the legal side first, and then move to the Sikh and the Muslim side of the argument.

A full bench of the Lahore High Court had ruled in favour of the ‘gurdwara’, the premise being that they had a legally acceptable document which showed the land belonged to them. The Muslims based their case on (a) historic ‘hearsay’, and (b) a document passing on possession rights to the family of the caretaker. The court ordered demolition of the mosque. Various Muslim organisations immediately called strikes all over Punjab bringing life to a virtual standstill. For a whole week Lahore was paralysed. A Muslim leader of Lahore had announced that the British would forget the fallout of the Jallianwala Bagh incident.


Let us take a brief look at when the Shaheedganj mosque was built. The Muslim claim to the court was that a small mosque had been built by Abdullah Khan, a cook of Dara Shikoh, the elder brother of Emperor Aurangzeb. The claim was that this person had risen to become the ‘kotwal’ of Lahore after the death of Aurangzeb and the date given in documents submitted in court is 1753 A.D. However, they argued that the mosque was built in 1722. We know that Aurangzeb died in 1707. Also that Dara Shikoh was killed by his brother Aurangzeb on 30th of August, 1659 A.D., which means if Abdullah was chef at the age of 21 years, he was a ‘kotwal’ at the age of 121 years. The Anjuman-e-Islamia were in appeal.

The Sikh side of the case is interesting to say the least. In the year 1752 the ‘subedar’ of Lahore, Mir Munnoo, after being defeated by the Sikhs set off to avenge himself. He arrested thousands of Sikhs from the countryside, brought them to Lahore and started beheading them outside Delhi Gate. One important Sikh leader, Bhai Taru Singh, was beheaded at the place where the Shaheedganj Gurdwara was built. During the Sikh era, the piece of land where all these killing took place was taken over by deed title by the Sikh ‘mahants’ and dedicated to the ‘shaheeds’ (martyrs).

So it was that a legal deed was issued by the Lahore Darbar, an authority accepted by subsequent law, that the gurdwara was built. The Sikh lawyers argued that even the Muslim legal application named the mosque ‘Shaheedganj mosque’ and not Abdullah Khan mosque. Hence a full bench of the Lahore High Court dismissed the Muslim case, using as a basis the Indian Limitation Act (Article 120) and the principle of ‘res judicata’ the Sikhs became legal possessors of the gurdwara and its land on which the mosque was built. It was proven in court that the ‘mutawalis’ had hired out the land for ‘bhoos’ (fodder) storage and that the mosque, then in dilapidated condition without its roof, was not functional. Hence the five judges also ordered its demolition.

The Muslims of Lahore announced a massive protest, and the then Governor of the Punjab, Sir Herbert Emerson, was under orders from the Viceroy that British Indian Army be deployed to avert another Jallianwala Bagh-like situation. But the DC ‘Pertab’ diplomatically ordered the senior superintendent of police (SSP) of Lahore, Mr Denys Killburn, to “only follow the orders of the District Magistrate, not the Viceroy or/and the Governor”. He refused to let troops enter Lahore and threatened that he would have to be ‘relieved of his duties’ if his tactics were not followed. The British agreed and so he had his day.

The first step Ram Parsad Singh Grewal undertook was to call all the Muslim leaders and informed them that he was going to fire at them directly. “It are the womenfolk who will ultimately suffer if they lead the procession and men hide behind them, because no matter what happens, the writ of the court was to be enforced.” But this did not stop the Muslims who came out in force, led by Syed Jamaat Ali Shah, to prevent the mosque demolition.

Sadly the men allegedly hid behind the women. The police were ordered to fire at their feet so that no one was killed. In the three-day battles that followed, only one man was killed in a stampede. Hundreds of ‘agitators’ were hit on their legs. The over 50,000 mob ran in every direction trying to save their legs. So it was that the Gurdwara Shaheedganj was handed over to Lahore’s Siromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. Till this day they maintain its possession, though during the Ziaul Haq era a new mosque was built in violation of a court order.

Lahore’s DC ‘Pertab’ was promoted and posted first to Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and then Simla. There he suffered from leukemia and died in June 1939. Amazingly, his death resulted in a few in Lahore celebrating by declaring that ‘Allah’s wrath had hit him’. There are many experts who believe that the British made matters worse for themselves, for example the manner in which Jallianwala Bagh was handled, or the way in which Lala Lajpat Rai was killed and even the way Bhagat Singh rose to be ultimately hanged. What they needed was a guile of a ‘Pertab’. But to discuss the ‘ifs’ of history is silly. All one can say is that had it not been for ‘Pertab’, or men like him, Lahore would have seen so much more agitation in those turbulent times. This sole Indian DC of Lahore during the 98 years of British rule proved himself as the finest analyst of how to handle the people of this city.


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