Harking Back: Henry’s seven knights and ‘Punjab tradition’

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 20, 2015

The Sikh Khalsa Raj effectively ended with the signing of the Lahore Treaty of March, 1846. The British refused to officially occupy Punjab out of fear of the Army and the few remaining loyal commanders. Punjab was never defeated. It was betrayed. It imploded.

On March 29, 1849, at the Lahore Fort an infant maharajah handed over the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the throne to the British. It does not take long for rot to show. It was as a Sikh warrior remarked after the betrayal at Chillianwala: “Aj Ranjit Singh mar gaya”. Do we ever learn from the past? Probably not. The new occupier of this most ancient land took over with a zeal that had seldom been seen. The example set by the very first Punjab Administrator, Henry Lawrence, is there for us to learn on how to extract the finest theories of administration from real practice. His style can well be judged by his remark: “If you sit on your backsides you will also be doomed. Sit on your horses and go out. Let the people feel the warm glow of justice, and spare no one, especially the rich tyrants”.

And so he sent out his seven knights as they came to be known. They were his ‘trusted and known’ officers and he allowed them a rare freedom to act as they found fit. “Do not let rules and regulations bind you down. Just be honest, fair and, most importantly, swift in your judgment and orders, and even more important, strictly follow up and see your orders have been carried out,” he told them. So it was that these ‘seven knights’ of Punjab went out and lived in their appointed places all over the country.

These seven knights were John Lawrence, George Lawrence, John Nicholson, Herbert Edwardes, William Lake, Harry Lumsden and William Hodson. All these seven officers distinguished themselves, and a few years later all of them played a major part in the 1857 War of Independence in which John Lawrence was to lead the forces, mainly from Punjab, to break the siege of Delhi and restore British rule against a ‘leaderless’ sepoy uprising. Their performance is even today quoted in ‘administrative studies’ all over the world as an example by which the very destiny of a defeated country was changed. Their way and style is known as ‘The Punjab Tradition’, and it is not possible to today venture to claim that their tradition still lives on.

But just how did these seven go about restoring order to a destroyed Punjab? Their first objective was to demilitarise the country by confiscating all weapons, and to strengthen the police and the intelligence services. Once order had been restored they opened up jobs in the new administration to Punjabis. For clerical jobs the British preferred Hindus because they were better educated, and for the police they preferred Muslims because they had very ‘inquisitive minds’ and could be brutal when called on. After 1857 the Sikhs were recruited in the army along with Muslims from the Potohar Plateau. Finally the new rulers were comfortable and set about putting Punjab in their scheme of things in British India.

But the most important aspect of the work of the ‘seven knights’ as well as the events of 1857, was that the British decided that if Punjab was modernised and the people reasonably educated, they would be able to manage to finance their Indian enterprise. Thus started a programme of public works and roads, railways, schools and hospitals were built within the first ten years. But the most important project was the digging of one of the world’s largest canal networks. Punjabis returned to their ancient farming trade and the country became the ‘granary of India’. For food and for fighting, the British could not find better partners.

In this piece let us concentrate on just how was peace restored? Immediately on taking control, Henry Lawrence recruited ten regiments, mostly from Muslim soldiers of the old Khalsa Army, of which half were cavalry and the other half infantry. In addition he hired 8,000 military police, mostly Muslims, to guard treasuries and jails. The mounted police guarded the roads. But the setting up of the civil secret service, known as the ‘Khufia’, and an entire set of informers and detectives (‘jasus’) were attached to every police station and post. To further assist them almost every known specialist tracker (‘khoji’, ‘kuri pat’ and ‘pagi’) was made to register with the police and to assist them when needed.

Once the ‘seven knights’ worked away on their daily six hours ‘on their horses’, and six hours seeing through all pending files, it became known that no work was ever left over. The people knew that decisions would be swift and fair. To smooth out the system the British began to understand just how villages functioned, and the result was that the old ‘panchayat’ and ‘chowkidari’ system was restored. The decisions were relayed the same day to the British who immediately issued appropriate orders, and also followed them up.

For this massive system within two years a mammoth organisation of 50,000 persons out of a total population of ten million was set up. This meant that for every 200 Punjabis, there was a policeman of one type or another watching over them. By this standard the Pakistani Punjab today should have a force of 550,000 policeman. The reality is approximately 40 per cent of the required numbers, and to top it their salaries have grown by just an ‘annual average’ of 1.76 per cent since 1945. But let us stick to history.

One of the first things that the ‘seven knights’ focussed on was to make sure that people could safely use the Grand Trunk Road. This added to mobility that assisted the new impetus the economy was experiencing. Alongside this all villages along the road had to plant a thousand trees and contribute to helping travellers. In the fields new crop varieties were introduced and yields grew. But the greatest contribution was that the British simplified and lowered land revenue rates. This amazingly led to collection rising by 25 per cent in the first year. Such was the trust the people responded with.

It is clear that the ten years of utter strife and confusion that followed the death of Maharajah Ranjit Singh was followed by a new set of rulers who were not corrupt, and who had introduced a system that was fair and friendly to the people. The foundations set by Henry Lawrence, his ‘seven knights’ and their ‘Punjabi Tradition’ is today studied all over the world. One wonders if we today learn and think about this administrative experience, or is it not a paying pastime?


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