By Ishtiaq Ahmed

Pakistan Monthly Review :  7, July 2019


Punjab consists essentially of plains through which migrants, fugitives and invaders down the centuries entered the Indian subcontinent after crossing the mountain passes in the northwest connecting Afghanistan to central and west Asia. The description Punjab was introduced to the region by the Turco-Persian conquerors of India, and more formally popularised during the Mughal Empire for their territories in and around the riverbeds west of Delhi. The British retained the name after they annexed the Sikh kingdom in 1849. To that Punjab were added territories extending to the predominantly Hindi-speaking areas touching the banks of River Yamuna in the east, including Delhi. In 1901, several Pashto-speaking districts were separated from Punjab to create the North-West Frontier Province (now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), while Delhi was separated from it and made a federal territory in 1911.

Ethnic composition of Punjab

The aboriginal proto-Australoids and later the Dravidians are believed to have been present at the time of the influx of the Indo-Europeans into the Subcontinent from around 1500 to 1000 BC. The Hindu four-fold Varna comprising Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras took shape after the intruding Indo-Aryans defeated those ancient tribes and peoples who were already settled in Punjab. Most of them were placed in the category of ‘Untouchables’, a stigma that reduced them to sub-human status in the Hindu hierarchy. However, the caste system accommodated later arrivals such as the Greeks, Scythians, Huns, Shakas, Kushanas and many other minor groups in different caste positions, but they retained their tribal and clannish identities. Apart from the castes and the caste system, caste-like biradaris based on putative shared blood and lineages also were formed.

In the 11th century, Turco-Afghans starting from the northwestern mountain passes began entering the Subcontinent in waves of invasions. Arabs had been settled in Multan in the south and adjoining areas since the early 8th century. A convenient point, therefore, to begin with the cultural diversity and syncretic tradition of Punjab would be the conquest of Lahore by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1021 AD. From that time onwards, a Muslim presence in this region became permanent.

Conversions to Islam in Punjab were gradual and gained impetus from the 16th century onwards, although some tribes began to convert even earlier. The usual pattern was that first Muslim rule was established and consolidated and then the Sufis began to preach Islam and convert people. The concept of the equality of all human beings was introduced in the Subcontinent through the Islamic contact but the Muslim rulers and administrators who were invariably foreign-born, or their progeny, claimed superior status to the local converts.

Thus, while the ethnic pool of the Punjabis was mixed and varied, given the social hierarchy deriving from the caste system, which applied to Muslims as well though in a modified form, in both communities a tendency to claim purity of blood and race was also a part of Punjabi ethnicity.

Popular ideas of community

The predominant religion of ancient Punjab was Hinduism, which was eclipsed by Buddhism for some time, but a Hindu revival took place later. While the upper strata of society subscribed to high culture hinged around religious dogmas, social movements towards synthesis between Hinduism and Buddhism were underway in Punjab when Islam arrived in the region. Gorakhnatha, who was probably born in this region sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries AD, was able to form a bridge between Muslims and Hindus because of his monotheism and opposition to caste distinctions and ritual purity. Another Hindu reform process that gained a foothold in Punjab was the Bhakti movement, which originated in south India among Hindus, mainly of artisan caste origin. The Bhaktis gained followers from among Muslims as well. Among them the name of Kabir was the most important. Their philosophy was that there was one God and His creation was inseparable from Him. In Punjab the movement had a profound impact on the evolution of Sikhism, as we shall examine presently.


Sufism and a composite culture

The Sufi brotherhoods that arrived in South Asia from either the Middle East or Central Asia had already been influenced by the pantheistic traditions of South Asia, and in some cases the result was theist fusions or Unitarian views of God. Among some of them proto-humanistic ideas associated with the doctrine of Wahdat-ul-Wajud (Unity of Creation) gained acceptance in contrast to conformist and dogmatic versions of Islam represented by Wahdat-ul-Shahud (Unity of Faith).

It was during the rule of Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), who shifted his capital to Lahore and stayed continuously in that city for 13 years (1584-1598), that Punjab attained great social, political and historical significance. Himself liberal and non-conformist, Akbar resisted pressure from his nobles to punish the poet Shah Hussain who would drink and dance in the streets of Lahore and additionally openly had a liaison with a Hindu Brahmin boy, Madho Lal. Simultaneously, Akbar exercised the full brunt of state might to crush the rebellion by Dulla Bhatti, a Rajput chieftain of Punjab who resisted the taxes and land revenue the state imposed on them. Dulla’s rebellion menaced the Mughal armies for a long time. He was ultimately defeated and executed but his deeds became part of Punjabi folklore and are remembered in poetry and songs.


The Punjabi language

It is not clear when Punjabi evolved as a distinct language, but it belongs to the family of Indo-Aryan languages and has incorporated words and sounds from the earlier Munda and Dravidian languages spoken in this region. It was in usage before the arrival of the Turco-Afghans from the 11th century onwards. It began to be used for literary and religious composition from the time of Shaikh Fariduddin Ganjshakar of the Chistia Sufi Order. Later, Shah Hussain, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, and in the nineteenth century Mian Muhammad and Khawaja Ghulam Farid wrote in Punjabi in its various dialects. Equally romantic and heroic epics such as Heer Ranjha, Puran Bhagat, Sohni Mahiwal were recited with great devotion. The two most famous works on Heer are by Damodar, a Hindu, and by the Muslim Sufi, Waris Shah.

In the late 15th century Nanak Chand (1469-1539), by caste a Khatri Hindu, born in Talwandi (now Nankana Sahib in Pakistani Punjab), initiated a reform movement that came to be known as Sikhism. Guru Nanak, as he came to be known, expressed his thought in Lahori Punjabi. This tradition continued and flourished in the writings of his spiritual successors. The second Guru, Angad, devised the Gurmukhi script, which is an adaptation of the Devanagri script. Sufis and other Muslim writers wrote Punjabi in the Persian script, while the Devanagri script continued to be used by Hindus.

Sikhism made headway largely among the agricultural and artisan castes of Punjab – castes otherwise assigned a lowly station in the Hindu hierarchy. After Nanak’s death, his disciple Angad became the second guru. He was succeeded by a line of gurus who were from the Khatri caste. The Sikhs remained a peaceful reformist sect during the time of the first four Gurus, almost indistinguishable from other reformist brotherhoods. Some permanent centres of Sikh faith and influence were established early in its history. The most important is the Golden Temple, established at Amritsar by the fourth Guru, Ramdas. Among those who laid its foundations was the leading Muslim Sufi, Mian Mir of Lahore.

Akbar conferred land grants on the fifth Guru, Arjan Das. Gradually Sikh power based on peasant and petty-trader support began to emerge in north-western India. It was viewed with concern by the later Mughal emperors. The ninth Guru, Teg Bahadur, took up the cudgels on behalf of the Pandits of Kashmir who alleged that they were being forced to embrace Islam. This step resulted in his and some of his followers arriving at the Mughal court and entering into a religious debate with Emperor Aurangzeb. When ordered to perform a miracle to prove his spiritual claims, he failed. Teg Bahadur and some of his followers were publicly executed.

His son, the tenth and last Guru of the Sikhs, Gobind Rai (1666-1708), maintained a well-trained and disciplined regular army. Most of his soldiers came from the poorer sections of the peasantry and artisan castes. He fought many battles against both Muslim and Hindu chiefs. Many Muslim notables opposed to Mughal supremacy sided with him, and both Muslim and Hindu soldiers were to be found in substantial numbers in the Sikh armies. In 1699 Guru Gobind Rai summoned his followers to collect at Anandpur in northern Punjab. At this gathering he decided to organise the Sikhs along distinctive lines and instituted the system of baptism. They were given one family name – Singh – meaning ‘Lion’. Baptism signified that they had given up their previous castes and become soldiers of the Khalsa. They also adopted distinctive emblems such as unshorn hair and beards and the sword or kirpan, which was always to be carried.

The Mughals persecuted Gobind Singh to the end of his life and ordered two of his sons be put to death. In 1708 he died from stab wounds inflicted by Muslim assassins. In Sikh communal memory, Muslim rule, personified by the Turks (as the Mughals were also known), came to be particularly associated with persecution of their gurus. After the death of Aurangzeb when Mughal power declined rapidly, the temptation to seek revenge drove a disciple of Gobind Singh, Banda Beraagi or Banda Bahadur, to mass killings of Muslims. His atrocities became part of the Muslim historical psychology as recalled by their spokespersons.

As regards the relationship between Sikhism and Hinduism, historically the lines between them were never drawn distinctly and many people continued to combine Hindu and Sikh tenets. Also, among some Punjabi Hindus of the western and central districts belonging to the Khatri and Arora castes, raising one son as a Sikh, often the eldest, was an established tradition. Intermarriage between Hindus and Sikhs of the same caste was quite common.


Adina Beg (1710-1758)

With the decline of Mughal power, Punjab became the arena for a power tussle between Delhi, Kabul and the Marathas who had established a strong presence in the region. The first one to try was Din Muhammad (died 1758), an Arain caste member who started as an ordinary soldier in the Mughal Army but rose to commanding positions by a combination of courage, ruthlessness and deftness at political manoeuvring. He was briefly governor of Punjab. Contrary to the view that he was a mastermind in playing one side against another, serious scholarship shows that he provided competent governance, thus contributing to the security and prosperity of people under his administration. He ruled with the help of competent Hindu advisers.

However, ironically, Muslim chieftains of Punjab were reluctant to extend him support for an eventual independent Punjabi state. They adhered to the age-old habit of allying themselves either with the rulers of Delhi or Kabul who represented the historical continuity of Muslim rule in northwestern and north India.

It was at about that time that northern India was ravaged seven times (1748-1767) by the marauding armies of Ahmed Shah Abdali. He spared no one and looted at will. His notoriety was expressed in a popular saying among Punjabis: ‘Khada pita lahe da, te baki Ahmed Shahe da!’ (Bare food is yours, the rest Ahmed Shah will take away).


The rise of Sikh power and Ranjit Singh as Maharaja of Punjab

Banda Bahadur had left behind the legacy of militant Sikh armies known as misls, which during the Afghan incursions had taken to the forests where they formed mobile units that ambushed Afghan troops returning to their bases in the northwest. After the death of Abdali, Afghan power declined and a power vacuum emerged in Punjab. A Sikh trio of warlords filled the void. They went on a rampage and another round of loot and pillage followed. Their raids included vandalising Mughal monuments for precious stones and other valuables. They also imposed crushing taxes on the populace. Their 30-year misrule was particularly oppressive of the Muslims of Lahore and its surrounding areas.

The Sikh misls represented different tribes and castes. It was from among the Jats that Ranjit Singh, the young chief of the Sukerchakia misl, emerged as a powerful military general. His military expeditions met with great success and consummated with the entry into Lahore in 1799. From there he embarked on further expansion and in 1801 he proclaimed himself Maharaja (supreme king) of Lahore. His armies went on to annex Multan in the south and Kashmir and Pashtun territories up to the Khyber Pass. Ranjit Singh then embarked upon a long reign of expansion and consolidation. Having achieved that, he adopted a policy of reconciliation and inclusion of the major communities into his civil and military institutions. Apart from the Sikhs, Muslim and Hindu Punjabis were included in his council of ministers and advisers. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were to be found at all levels within the army, including in positions of command. He also recruited European soldiers and generals in his army and built up a formidable fighting force.

Over the years, Ranjit Sindh earned the reputation of being a just and wise ruler. Many reforms were introduced, including free medicine and separate courts for the three main communities of Punjab. Apparently his reign was one in which literacy in Punjab was higher than in any other part of India. Punjabi was the main medium of instruction, but the pupils also learnt Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Sanskrit. A reputed qaida or textbook of Punjabi was widely used to create literacy. The script used was Gurmukhi. It is not clear if the Persian script was also used in the schools. However, notwithstanding an emphasis on the Punjabi cultural identity, Ranjit Singh retained Persian as the official language of state. This was in consonance with the praxis of those times because Persian was the established language of state throughout northern India and neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran.

Ranjit Singh died in 1839. He left behind several children from wives and concubines around whom warring factions were formed and a gory war of succession broke out, plunging Punjab once again into lawlessness, chaos and anarchy.


The British and Punjab

The British had been waiting in the wings for a long time for an opportunity to annex Punjab but so long as Ranjit Singh was in power the Punjab kingdom remained militarily strong and stable. Now they invaded Punjab. Several battles were fought between the British and Sikh armies but ultimately the Sikhs were vanquished. On March 29, 1849, the Treaty of Lahore was signed between Dalip Singh, Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s teenage son, and the British, whereby the kingdom passed into the possession of the British East India Company. The British annexation evoked resistance from the Sandal Bar region south of Lahore where several pastoral tribes rose under the leadership of a chieftain Ahmed Khan Kharal but were defeated. Ahmed Khan fell fighting in 1857. Songs celebrating his fearlessness and bravery became part of Punjabi folklore. Such literature about native heroes such as Dulla Bhatti and Ahmed Khan Kharal came to be known as dholas and vaars.

Punjab had been conquered and the British consolidated their hold by rewarding compliant chiefs with land grants and titles. The Company administration in Punjab ruled through a board of directors, which was initially represented by those who wanted to retain the old order by co-opting the Punjab chieftains into the power hierarchy under their patronage. It was succeeded by those who wanted to modernise Punjab into a more egalitarian province of yeoman farmers. While Henry Lawrence represented the conservative school, his brother John Lawrence was in favour of change and modernisation. In 1858, the rule of the Company was abolished but Punjab continued to be ruled by a special autonomous board till it was integrated in the overall framework of Empire and a Lieutenant-Governor was appointed in 1859.

The Great Game, a tussle for power between the British and Russian Czarist Empires had begun already in the 1830s for creating spheres of influence in Central Asia when northern and northwestern India were not yet conquered and annexed by the British. Once Punjab was conquered it became the key province in the defence of British interests in the Subcontinent.

The Sikh rulers of princely states in eastern Punjab had resisted incorporation into Ranjit Singh’s empire and supported the British in the annexation of the Lahore kingdom. Later, they, and many Muslim chiefs, helped the British crush the 1857 uprising. After the rebellion the British Indian Army was reconstituted. Bengalis, Biharis and other northern Indian ethnic groups who had participated in the rebellion were banned from enrolment in the fighting units of the army. Preference began to be given instead to Punjabis, who subsequently became the largest nationality employed in the British Indian Army.


The language issue

An issue that was debated keenly by the British administrators regarding Punjab was the language of employment in the state services. The opinion prevailed that Punjabi was a kin language to Urdu, and since the British had already been using Urdu in northern India in schools and as the official language at the lower levels, it should be extended to Punjab. Thus all Punjabis who wanted to join government service in either the civil or military branches had to be conversant with written Urdu.

Among Punjabi nationalists a view is prevalent that under Ranjit Singh literacy had been promoted vigorously and Punjab was the most literate province of the Subcontinent before the British conquest. Such a claim was based on an article written by Dr Leitner, a Hungarian scholar who served as the principal of the prestigious Government College Lahore. He had presented very impressive figures of the literacy rate. A theory exists suggesting that a strong revolutionary idiom and consciousness had developed in Punjabi, which the British wanted to stifle. Therefore, they brought Urdu from UP to replace Punjabi. As noted already, the problem of the script existed from before the British annexation of Punjab and one can wonder if that did not in itself remain a problem for literary communication among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Punjabis.

Other scholars have cast doubt on the reliability of Leitner’s data. Much of Ranjit Singh’s reign was devoted to warfare, but what he certainly achieved was to end the peril of invasions from the northwestern mountain passes that had wreaked havoc in the preceding 800 years before him. In such circumstances to have devoted scare resources to the propagation of Punjabi sounds doubtful, but proper systematic research on this subject is still awaited.

One can also argue that the employment of Urdu in government schools served to bring together the Punjabis of different communities. Educating them in Punjabi instead of Urdu would have posed serious problems pertaining to the question of an authentic script. Among the Sikhs a view had evolved that only the Gurmukhi script devised by their Gurus was authentic. Among some Sikh extremists Punjabi written in Gurmukhi was a sacred language exclusively of the Sikhs. Bhai Veer Singh famously held such a point of view.

Under these circumstances, making Punjabi Hindus and Muslims learn the Gurmukhi script at school could not have posed a lesser problem and it is possible that the decision to use Urdu instead of Punjabi was taken to circumvent the problem of contesting scripts in Punjab. Moreover, what is more plausible is that since the Indian Army was to include several nationalities, it was a matter of expedience and efficiency to standardise the language for their troops.

It is interesting to note that after the 1857 uprising against the East India Company that originated among native soldiers and was joined by many disgruntled rulers and religious figures, the British had decided not to pursue a rapid transformation of Indian society according to Western values, and in 1858 a declaration by Queen Victoria gave a pledge to respect native beliefs, traditions and customs. Consequently, propagating Christianity was left to the missions who invariably employed Punjabi in their missionary work. The missionaries composed the first Punjabi dictionary with a view to reaching Punjabis as widely as possible.


Transformation of Punjab

Ranjit Singh had already put an end to invasions from the northwestern passes; under the British that threat terminated conclusively. The British acquired a strong grip on Punjab, introducing the paraphernalia of a modern bureaucratic state structure. That greatly enhanced the prestige of the Empire. They directly administered large parts of Punjab but also took princely states under their suzerainty through treaties with local rulers. From the second half of the 19th century onwards, the western part of Punjab was rapidly transformed under British planning and patronage. A vast network of canals and waterworks was established. It resulted in the biggest irrigation system in the world. Because of the American civil war, Britain’s supply of cotton from the southern states had been disrupted. This benefited Punjab as farmers were encouraged to grow cotton. People from the overpopulated East Punjab were settled in the canal colonies. Thousands of Sikhs and Muslims were among the new settlers. However, the change in the western districts took place within a framework that, while promoting the privatisation of landownership and commercialisation of the economy, restrained independent industrial enterprise. Despite these new economic opportunities, northern and eastern Punjab continued to suffer from overpopulation, a scarcity of good agricultural land and fragmentation of landholdings.

In the past such pressing circumstances had forced Punjabis from these regions to seek employment in the armies of both native rulers and invaders. British policy supported that trend. An ingenious ‘martial races’ theory that identified specific Hindu, Muslim and Sikh castes and regions of Punjab as warrior stock were encouraged to seek employment in the British Indian Army. Part of the framework to sustain that policy was to deliberately prevent economic development in northern and eastern Punjab so that a continuous supply of soldiers could be ensured.

At the beginning of the 20th century the religious composition of Punjab, including the princely states, showed that the Muslim percentage of the population in the 1911 census was 51.1 percent; Hindus, including the scheduled castes, were 35.8 percent and Sikhs 12.1 percent. By 1941 the Muslim percentage had increased to 53.2 percent, the Hindu all castes had declined to 29.1 percent and the Sikhs increased to 14.9 percent. For the directly administered British districts, in 1941 it was Muslims 57 percent, Hindus, all castes, 26.5 percent and Sikhs 13.2 percent.

As elsewhere, the British introduced a capitalist economy, emphasising the production of cash crops. The Muslims were averse to taking part in an interest-based economy and were generally sceptical of taking to western education. An institution that developed rather quickly and became an important appendage of the growing commercialisation of agriculture was that of the moneylender, the Baniya, who almost invariably was a Hindu or Sikh. Roughly, the division of functions within the colonial economy was such that trade, retail as well as large-scale, and modern firms and companies were in the hands of Hindu and Sikh trading castes. Thus, shops all over the Punjab in the rural and urban areas belonged to members of these castes. Most of the peasantry, including agriculturalists and pastoral tribes, were either Muslims or Sikhs except in eastern Punjab where the Hindu Jat peasantry predominated. Most big landowners were Muslims or Sikhs. All sections of society were indebted to the moneylender.

Regarding other sectors of the economy, the Hindu and Sikh trading castes of Khatris made the most of the new opportunities that the capitalist economy offered during the colonial period. They were also the first to take to modern education and establish modern businesses. From the beginning of the 20th century, urban Hindus and Sikhs established a firm hold over the economy. Hindu-Sikh partnerships and joint business ventures were noteworthy. Muslims were almost invariably excluded. In government services too, the Hindus and Sikhs were more advanced than Muslims. Thus, Muslims held only 20 per cent of civil government jobs in 1931 whereas they made up more than half the total population of Punjab. The exception was the British Indian Army whose biggest component was from Punjab, and from among the religious communities Punjabi Muslims constituted the biggest group, though the Sikhs were represented in even greater numbers than their proportion of the Punjab population.


The Punjab Unionist Party, Punjabiyat and peace


A peculiar combination of loyalism to the British and inter-communal harmony premised on shared Punjabi culture emerged in the early 20th century, largely through the efforts of Sir Fazl-i-Hussain (died July 1936), under whose leadership the Punjab Unionist Party was formed, largely with the support of the rural landowning classes, predominantly Muslim but with the support of Hindu Jats of eastern Punjab whose leader Sir Chhotu Ram became the right hand man of Sir Fazl-i-Hussain. As education minister of Punjab, Sir Fazl-i-Hussain introduced reservations for Muslims in Lahore’s leading educational institutions such as the Government College, King Edward Medical College and the Engineering College. His successor Sir Sikandar Hayat greatly increased Muslim representation in the police. Although Muslims were only 57.1 per cent of the total population of British-administered districts, their employment in the police force went up to 73 per cent. As already noted, Muslims were overly represented in the Indian Army as well. Such measures elicited strong opposition from urban Hindu and Sikh elites who insisted that merit should be the sole criterion for employment and other rewards.

Sir Fazl-i-Hussain had successfully kept at bay the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League in Punjab politics, but Sir Sikander, fearful of India being ruled by a Congress Government committed to the abolition of big landownership, entered a compact with the leaders of the Muslim League (ML), especially Mohammad Ali Jinnah who had started spearheading a separatist movement among Muslims. In 1937 Sikander entered a pact with Jinnah that stipulated that the Muslim members of his party would join the ML and at the national level the ML would represent all Muslims. On the other hand, in Punjab the Unionist Party would continue to rule through its inter-communal arrangements.

After Sir Sikandar died in December 1942, a power tussle took place. Sir Khizr Hayat Tiwana emerged as the new leader of the Unionist Party. However, that did not end the leadership conflict and resulted in several competitors decamping and joining the ML. In 1944 Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared that since the Muslim members of the Unionist Party had joined the ML, they were obliged to follow its policies even in Punjab. This was rejected by Tiwana. Jinnah reacted by expelling him from the ML.


Revolutionary movements

While Punjab had become a special region for British favours and Muslim, Hindu and Sikh elites became the most trustworthy supporters of the Empire, several radical movements also emerged to challenge their rule. The earliest was the Ghadar movement, which originated in North America among mainly Sikh émigrés, but other communities were also part of it. At that time Canada, a British colony, practised blatantly racist policies towards Indians trying to enter it for work and settling down. A chartered Japanese ship full of Punjabis was in 1913 refused entry into Vancouver and sent back. That resulted in the Ghadar movement and the Ghadar Party was formed, which decided to stir up rebellion in India. However, because of police infiltration and other intelligence, most returning revolutionaries were arrested but some did reach Punjab and were able to animate trouble for the authorities. However, they failed to win the support of the people, and were easily defeated and many of their leaders and cadres were hanged or banished to the Andaman Islands. By and large the dominant Punjabi elites remained steadfast linchpins of the Empire.

However, in the aftermath of World War I Punjab was once again radicalized. On April 13, 1919, one of the most shameful acts of state terrorism took place at the Jallianwala Bagh, near the Golden Temple, Amritsar. That day a large crowd of several thousand had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh. Most of them were innocent villagers who were in town to take part in the Baisakhi festival completely unaware of the disturbances that were taking place in the city because of protests at British highhanded policies. On that day Colonel (provisionally promoted to Brigadier-General) Reginald Dyer ordered his 90 Indian troops – Nepali Gurkhas, the Baluch Regiment (no Baluch served in it: it was Punjabi Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs), the 54th Sikhs and the 59th Sind Rifles soldiers – to open fire on the crowd inside the Jallianwala Bagh. The hail of bullets that followed killed several hundred. Among the dead were Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

The background to that massacre was that Indians had contributed handsomely during World War I to the war effort. More than a million Indians had volunteered to join the British Indian Army. Of these, 450,000 were from Punjab alone. The Indian people had donated £ 100,000,000 to the war fund. Moreover, the princes and other people had contributed £ 2,100,000 to various charities and war funds. Being a Crown Colony, India additionally had to bear a debt of £ 127,800,000. As a result, prices of essential commodities rose sharply, employment opportunities shrank drastically. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were demobilized and sent home. They were treated with apathy by British officials who did nothing to find them employment or other economic opportunities.

More importantly, a general impression was prevalent in India that the Empire would reward Indians with greater self-government. The British response was diametrically opposite. The Rowlatt Bill was moved in the Imperial Legislative Council, which severely curtailed civil liberties. The Rowlatt Act granted special powers to the government to suppress dissent, curtailing the right of appeal and enabling a committee to set aside the application of the rules of evidence to establish if individuals were guilty of inciting offences against the state.

It was in these circumstances that the Indian National Congress launched the anti-Rowlatt Act agitation. By April 6, 1919, the agitation was at its peak in Punjab. The agitations in Lahore were the largest. Mahatma Gandhi, who was on the way to Punjab, was arrested. On April 10, two key Punjab Congress leaders, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and his colleague Dr Satyapal, were arrested in Amritsar and deported to Kangra Valley. Over 15,000 people gathered and demanded to know the whereabouts of Kitchlew and Satyapal. Lawyers Gurdial Salaria and Maqbool Mohammad tried to keep the crowd calm, but police resorted to firing. About 20-25 people were killed or injured. Armed with lathis, the enraged crowd turned on the British. Four British residents were killed and two were seriously injured; one, missionary Marcella Sherwood, was left for dead. Government property was also looted.

Dyer was ordered by Punjab Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer to leave Jalandhar and take charge of Amritsar with orders to crush any rebellion. On the morning of April 13 Dyer announced that all assemblies would be “dispersed by force of arms if necessary”. Shortly afterwards, two people walked through the city banging tin cans to announce a rally at 4:30 pm at Jallianwala Bagh. In the afternoon some 20,000 people were in the Jallianwala Bagh. A succession of speeches followed, condemning the Rowlatt Act and the recent incidents of arrests and firings. Dyer marched in with his troops through the narrow exit that connects Jallianwala Bagh to the Golden Temple. A few minutes before sunset, the first of 1,650 rounds were fired into the crowd. Official figures recorded 379 dead and 1200 wounded, but the real numbers were much higher.

News of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre spread like wildfire all over Punjab and the rest of India. Lahore, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Sialkot, Gujrat, Sangla Hill and Chuharkhana were rocked by popular demonstrations. Hindu and Muslim speakers addressed angry crowds from the pulpit of Badshahi Mosque. All distinctions of religion were forgotten during those days. A military aircraft dropped three bombs on protesting crowds in Gujranwala on April 14 and 15, following up with machine-gun fire.

Between April 19-24, Dyer enforced the notorious “crawling order” in Amritsar, forcing all those using the street where Marcella Sherwood was assaulted to pass on all fours, their noses to the ground. In Lahore, college students were ordered to walk up to 20 kilometres in the sun four times a day for roll call before military administrators. At a school in Kasur, the six largest school students were whipped simply for their size. In all 1,229 people, largely urban artisans and youth, were convicted of involvement in the uprising. Eighteen people were sentenced to death, 23 were transported for life and 58 were flogged on the orders of the Martial Law Commission.

The Hunter Commission, which was established to investigate that incident, criticized Dyer for using excessive force. A dissenting members’ report that included the Indian members of the Hunter Commission pointed out that no conspiracy to overthrow the government was taking place and therefore Dyer had abused his authority. However, no penal or disciplinary action was imposed on him because the military was opposed to any such action.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Khilafat Movement, which under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership the Congress Party supported, was a turning point in the Indian freedom struggle. Although Hindu-Muslim unity foundered soon afterwards because of communal tensions, the reputation and prestige of the British Empire as the provider of stability, security and peace for more than 50 years after 1857 received a jolt even though the colonial government succeeded in retaining its control over India for the next 28 years.


Bhagat Singh and his comrades


The third significant challenge to British rule emerged in the late 1920s. A number of youths were radicalized during a demonstration in October 1928 at the Lahore Railway Station against the Simon Commission when it arrived to talk to Punjabi leaders about constitutional reforms for India. The protesters blocked the roads and demanded that the delegation go back. It resulted in a police baton charge in which Lala Lajpat Rai was injured. Lalaji died a few weeks later in hospital. Bhagat Singh and some other young men who had been influenced by socialist revolutionary ideas vowed to avenge his death. In a case of mistaken identity, they killed Assistant Superintendent of Police J. P. Saunders in December 1928 when their actual target was Superintendent of Police James Scott. Police constable Chanan Singh, who followed them, was also shot dead. They escaped without being identified and went underground. The police began a hunt for the assassins. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and his associates threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi. Nobody was killed but some minor injuries did occur. Bhagat Singh, Sukh Dev and Raj Guru were arrested on the spot. On March 23, 1931 they were hanged in Lahore Jail for the murder of Saunders and Chanan Singh.

A legend around Bhagat Singh began to evolve over time but revolutionary terrorism faded away and the mainstream freedom movement continued to be expressed through the non-violent mass civil disobedience agitations. In Punjab, however, Gandhian civil disobedience never acquired a mass character until in January 1947 when the ML launched Direct Action against the coalition government of Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana, which was supported by the Congress Party and the Sikh Panthic Parties.


Communal conflicts before the partition riots

The religious revivals in Punjab were a reaction to the activities of Christian missions to propagate and win over Punjabis to their faith. Invariably, while Hindu, Muslim and Sikh revivalists sought to retain their flocks, they simultaneously drew sharp boundaries against one another based on puritanical versions of their faiths. Such developments resulted in angry and bitter polemics in the print media. An extreme case of this trend was the incident of the publication of the booklet Rangeela Rasul (The Pleasure Loving Messenger of God) by an Arya Samajist, Rajpal, which culminated in his assassination in April 1929 for which a Muslim youth, Ilam Din, was found guilty, sentenced to death and hanged in October 1929. As a result, relations between Hindus and Muslims in Lahore and elsewhere in Punjab became strained.

Similarly, in 1935 the Masjid-Gurdwara Shaheedganj controversy between Muslims and Sikhs over the ownership of a religious shrine turned violent. The Muslims claimed it was originally a mosque but a gurdwara had been built next to it during Ranjit Singh’s time. An agitation broke out in which extremists on both sides resorted to violence and several deaths and injuries occurred. The Lahore High Court, however, gave a ruling in favour of the Sikhs, which the Muslims accepted reluctantly; an uneasy peace was thus established again in Punjab.

Partition, Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiyat

Insofar as the relationship between the Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiyat is concerned, its brittle nature was exposed by the way positions were taken on the future of Punjab. Ideas of partitioning Punjab had existed for a long time. The Arya Samaj leader Lala Lajpat Rai had after riots in Kohat in 1924 in which Hindus and Sikhs were attacked by Muslims, published several articles in the Tribune of Lahore in which he had proposed the partition of India, of Punjab into eastern and western Punjab and Muslim provinces in NWFP and Bengal. Some prominent Punjabi Muslims were in favour of the predominantly Hindu-majority and Hindi-speaking Ambala division of Punjab in the east being separated from the rest of the province (there were five administrative divisions in the British-administered Punjab: Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan, Jalandhar and Ambala).  Allama Iqbal had supported such an idea. Other notable Muslims who supported this idea in different forms included Nawab Sir Mohammad Shahnawaz Khan and Choudhary Rahmat Ali who favoured a Sikh province to be created by amalgamating the Sikh princely states. The British too were thinking of solving the problem of communal tension by separating Ambala division from Punjab, thus making the Muslim community predominant in Punjab. However, opposition from Hindus and Sikhs prevented that from happening because without a complete transfer of populations, minorities would still be left on the other side. In practice the Hindus and Sikhs of western and central Punjab, although they constituted a minority, dominated business and commerce and were overly represented in government services.


The Lahore resolution of March 23, 1940

At the national level, the stalemate between competing and mutually exclusive nationalist theories of the Indian National Congress and the All-India ML – of an Indian nation comprising all Indians entitled to a united India of the former and its opposite, of a Muslim nation entitled to a separate state in the north-western and north-eastern zones of the Subcontinent where Muslims were concentrated and constituted a majority – had taken hold over high politics. It was in these circumstances that on March 23, 1940, the All-India ML moved a resolution at its annual session in Lahore. It stated:

“Resolved that it is the considered view of this session of the All-India Muslim League that no constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to Muslims unless it is designed on the following principle, viz., that geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions which should be grouped to constitute ‘independent states’ in which the constituted units shall be autonomous and sovereign” (Allana: 1977: 226-7).

The Lahore resolution created panic among Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. Almost as a knee-jerk reaction, the Sikh leaders, within a few days of the adoption of the Lahore resolution, demanded that if India was divided on a religious basis, the same principle should apply to the non-Muslim majority districts of Punjab, which should be separated from it and given to a Sikh state or India. In the years that followed, polarization of the Punjabis took place essentially between Muslims on the one hand and Hindus and Sikhs on the other.

An interesting but ironic aspect of the communal polarization was that when the Communist Party of India (CPI) decided to support the demand for self-determination of nationalities, which included Sikhs and Muslims, it became objectively an ally of the two-nation theory of the ML. Its Muslim activists and cadres were advised to join the ML with a view to making its campaign for Pakistan conform to a class-based agenda instead of the mainstream communal agenda that the ML launched in the 1945-46 election campaign. The Punjab Communist Party had only a handful of Muslims; most of its members were Hindus and its mass cadres were predominantly Sikhs. For those non-Muslim Communists to start campaigning for a communal Pakistan made no sense but the CPI High Command had taken such a decision and no right to oppose such ‘democratic centralism’ existed in Communist circles.

Although the British won in World War II, the British economy was in tatters. Holding on to India became increasingly untenable as the US exerted intense pressure on Britain to grant India independence. The Labour Party that came to power in summer 1945 announced elections for India to ascertain the wishes of the people. The elections were contested by Indians on the assumption that the British were going to transfer power to them. The Congress won a clear majority of general seats: it won 905 out of a total of 1,585, including 324 without a contest. The ML won 440 out of 495 reserved Muslim seats. Thus, the Congress’ stand in favour of a united India and the contrasting stand of the ML for a separate Pakistan were both vindicated by the electorate.

In Punjab the result returned a strictly communalized Punjab Legislative Assembly. The Communist Party, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Ahrar, though small, were influential players in Punjab politics but were wiped out. The inter-communal Punjab Unionist Party that had ruled the province since 1936 was reduced to a rump of 18. The ML won 73 out of 86 Muslim reserved seats; Hindu voters flocked to the Congress. It secured 50 general seats while the alliance of Sikh parties known as the Panthic Parties won all reserved 23 Sikh seats. A handful of reserved seats were won by the Scheduled Castes, Indian Christians and Anglo-Indians.


Violence that sealed the future of a united Punjab

Negotiations brokered by the British to find a constitutional formula acceptable to the two major parties for a power-sharing deal within a decentralized but united India proved a failure. Jinnah’s call for direct action on August 16, 1946 resulted in unprecedented communal violence in Calcutta. It sealed all chances of a peaceful, constitutional arrangement of power sharing within a united India. Communal violence spread to Bihar, Noakhali, Bombay, Hazara district in NWFP and finally to Punjab where from January 1947 the law and order situation deteriorated and in March 1947 communal violence claimed several thousand lives. Governor Sir Evan Jenkins succeeded in establishing a modicum of law and order by mid-March but again from April communal attacks revived in the two major cities of Lahore and Amritsar. By May the violence began to escalate rapidly. Jenkins warned of a bloodbath in Punjab unless the three communities agreed to keep Punjab united or a partition took place that was agreed to by the three communities and the transfer of power took place peacefully under the supervision of British troops.

However, his warnings failed to impress the government in Delhi where Viceroy Mountbatten after protracted negotiations concluded that India could not remain united and had to be partitioned into India and Pakistan. Meanwhile the Sikhs lobbied for the creation of a Sikh state while Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana who, in the wake of the ML direct action in Punjab during January 24-February 26, 1947 and especially after Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced on February 20 that Britain will transfer power to Indians by June 1948, realized that his role in politics was over and resigned on March 2, 1947. In May 1947 he proposed that Punjab should remain united and become the third dominion besides India and Pakistan. Both proposals were ignored by the British establishment.

 On June 3, 1947, the partition plan formulated by Mountbatten was announced. It required that the Punjab and Bengal Assemblies, divided into Muslim and non-Muslim blocs, were to vote on whether they wanted the provinces to be partitioned or joined as a whole to either India or Pakistan. If either bloc of the two provinces voted for partition they would be partitioned. The non-Muslim blocs voted for partition.

Once that was announced, the Punjab rapidly degenerated into spiralling violence and the writ of the Punjab government began to be flouted virtually with impunity. Following the transfer of power on the night of August 14, 1947 to the succeeding administrations in the Pakistani West Punjab and Indian East Punjab and especially after August 17 when the Radcliffe Award was announced and the international border between the two Punjabs became public, two partisan administrations came to power on either side. Then all hell broke loose on the minorities. While the six million Muslims were hunted out of East Punjab, the same fate was meted out to the 4.5 million Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab. Some 10 million Punjabis out of a total population of 34 million crossed the border in search of safe havens. At least 800,000 of them perished, mostly because of organized attacks on them in which the two administrations were complicit – either through direct involvement or through non-action which let local gangs target fleeing minorities.

The veteran Indian journalist Rajinder Puri deplores the Punjab partition in the following words:

“After partition the Punjabis disappeared. In West Punjab they became Pakistanis. In East Punjab they became Hindus and Sikhs. They also became Akalis and Congressmen, Arya Samajists and Jan Sanghis. Never Punjabis.” (132)


Post-partition Punjab

In the Pakistani Punjab, Muslim identity fissured on a sectarian basis. The idea of a Muslim nation rather than a Pakistani nation began to dominate the debate on national identity. Such debate inevitably resulted in a consideration of who is a Muslim. The first manifestation of sectarianizing of identity was the riots directed mainly against the heterodox Ahmadiyya community in 1953. A Court of Inquiry established the complicity of the ML government in Punjab under Mumtaz Daultana (who was originally a sympathizer of the Communist Party!). Later, during the 1980s, Sunni and Shia militias began to fight each other and that trend continues. However, such tensions apart, Pakistani Punjabis have shown no proclivity to develop a strong sense of nationality. Punjab is the numerically biggest province of Pakistan since East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh in 1971. It also dominates the army and civil service. However, the Punjabi elite has not sought to patronize a distinctive linguistic identity. Thus, teaching of Punjabi in schools has always been prohibited.

In the 1980s some Punjabi intellectuals tried to bring out a daily newspaper in Punjabi, Sajjan. It was published for a while but went out of print because neither the government nor the private sector helped it through advertisements and public notices. Until the early 1990s, members of the Punjab Assembly were forbidden to address the House in Punjabi. This ban was removed by the writer Hanif Ramay who at that time was the speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Some valiant champions continue to propagate the cause of the Punjabi language, but this is confined to small intellectual circles. They have been demanding that Punjabi be taught in school at the primary level, but no government has accepted this idea. The Punjabi language therefore is relegated to informal day-to-day communication. Therefore, we have to look at the power implications of identity. Identity for identity’s sake makes no sense.

In East Punjab, a bitter conflict emerged between the Sikhs and Hindus over linguistic identity. Although in 1956 the former princely states of Patiala, Faridkot, Kapurthala and others were amalgamated into East Punjab, the Sikh leaders of the Akali Dal were not satisfied by that. They began to campaign for a compact Punjabi-speaking province in which Punjabi written in the Gurmukhi script would be the official language and the medium of instruction in schools and higher seats of learning. In reaction, Punjabi Hindus, under the influence of various communal parties as well as the Congress Party, declared Hindi and not Punjabi as their mother tongue. It resulted in the Punjabi Suba (province) agitation launched by Master Tara Singh and later Sardar Fateh Singh.

In 1966 Mrs Indira Gandhi conceded the demand of the Sikhs. Accordingly, only Punjabi-speaking areas remained in East Punjab while those areas in which Hindi was the main language were awarded to Haryana and some to Himachal Pradesh. Such redrawing of borders did not satisfy some Sikh nationalists who launched the Khalistan movement in the hope of establishing an independent Sikh state. The Indian state reacted with all the might at its disposal and between June 1984 and the early 1990s, the Khalistanis and the Indian police and security forces were embroiled in a violent confrontation. They also terrorized ordinary people. The deaths caused during the Khalistan insurgency have been counted as more than 60,000. At present the Indian government seems to have the situation under firm control.


Occasion interaction between the Indian and Pakistani Punjabis

Despite the gory and traumatizing violence of the partition, it is doubtful if the communal frenzy that was displayed then was deeply rooted among the people. A few times when both the governments of both countries have allowed Punjabis to meet, their interaction has shown greater amiability and warmth. Thus when in 1955 the Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, allowed East Punjabis to freely visit West Punjab during an India-Pakistan cricket match at Lahore, the people offered the visitors such moving hospitality and generosity that the bloody riots of only a few years earlier seemed to be an unreal nightmare. Grown up men of all religions were seen embracing each other and crying and asking for forgiveness. In the various interviews done with people who have visited their place of birth on the other side of the border, it comes out very clearly that they have been received with a lot of warmth and affection. Therefore, on the individual and personal levels relations have been mostly friendly and helpful. Also, despite a bloody conflict over Khalistan between Sikh militants and government forces, Hindus and Sikhs continued to live peacefully side by side in East Punjab.

When the two states tried again in 2003 to normalize their relations and contacts between West and East Punjab were revived, the response of the people was most positive. Thus, at the ninth annual conference of the World Punjabi Congress held in the last week of January 2004 in Lahore, the chief ministers of East and West Punjab addressed an international gathering of Punjabis from the same podium. They spoke about a common Punjabi culture and origin and the need to permit Punjabis from both sides to meet freely.

East Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amrinder Singh went so far as to call the international borders dividing Punjab into an eastern and a western part and placing them into two separate states, artificial. On the other hand, West Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi stressed the importance of recognizing and accepting that Punjabis were now divided into two separate and independent states, although their cultural bonds were unbreakable.


The Punjabi diaspora

Punjabis had begun to migrate during British rule. They went to serve the British Empire in distant wars and to build railways and to perform other subordinate services. Consequently, they began to settle in East and South Africa, Southeast Asia, some ventured into north America, especially Canada. Another wave of migration took place after 1947 and in large numbers they sought work in the UK. Others tried to settle in western Europe. The more educated headed to the US and Canada and later Australia and New Zealand. A figure of 10 million has been given of the Punjabi diaspora. Evidence shows that they continue to build communities around their religious identities and inter-communal interaction or solidarity is not strongly rooted in them though the fact of a shared language and culture is always at hand and they socialize on an occasional basis.


Can a strong sense of Punjabiyat be cultivated?

Punjabi nationalists and intellectuals continue to argue that a strong sense of Punjabiyat existed among the various communities of the province, which the British intervention subverted by replacing Punjabi as the medium of instruction with Urdu. The presumption is that had that not happened, the Punjabis would have become the vanguard of a revolutionary movement. I have not found evidence corroborating that. One can argue that in replacing Punjabi with Urdu the British may have been thinking strictly in terms of administrative efficiency, which is always important for a modern state to conduct its routine affairs. That such policy served imperial interests does not imply it was adopted to crush potential revolution. Such a tall claim is more romantic than substantial. There is no evidence that suggests that great resistance was put up to the introduction of Urdu in Punjab. On the contrary, for the first time, regular employment and stable government were introduced and Punjabis from all communities took to learning Urdu.

One can argue that by introducing Urdu or rather Hindustani, which was closer to the spoken language of the mass of people in much of northern and north-western India and as far south as Hyderabad state instead of the elite form of chaste Urdu cultivated in the closed circles of the Lucknow and Delhi literati, the British may have inadvertently provided a medium of communication to anti-colonial nationalism to connect people on a much grander scale.

Considered in this light one needs to take with a pinch of salt theories that suggest the British policy subverted the evolution of revolutionary Punjabi consciousness through the introduction of Urdu. The Ghadar Party published their revolutionary literature in Urdu and Bhagat Singh was fluent in Urdu as well as Gurmukhi. Heroic as their efforts to challenge were, their failure to set in motion a revolution had nothing to do with what medium of written expression they used.

Having said that, it is important to underline that since Punjabi literature continues to be produced in either the Persian or Gurmukhi script, it hinders the practitioners of the two scripts to learn from one another. Punjabi intellectuals committed to creating a strong Punjabi identity – Punjabiyat – need to look for a common script. Efforts to develop the Persian script to capture the typical sounds that exist in the language but are not possible to express in the traditional Persian script are underway. It will still mean that it will be restricted to the Pakistani Punjabis. There is another possibility. The Latin or Roman script can transcend the barriers that the Persian and Gurmukhi scripts pose to communication across communities and provinces. Already on Facebook it is widely in use. It needs to be considered seriously as a way forward to construct a Punjabi identity that caters to the needs of the 21st century.



This paper demonstrates that a strong sense of Punjabiyat or Punjabi nationalism never existed in the undivided Punjab at any point in history. Religious community and caste configurations were important as identity markers. However, spoken Punjabi, the suffering imposed on them by foreign invasions, interaction in the market and economic sphere and the presence of popular movements transcending the orthodoxies of religion and caste provided scope for them to connect with one another on a recurring basis. Another crucial factor was that except for a brief 40 years or so under Ranjit Singh, Punjab was for more than a thousand years ruled by non-Punjabis. While spoken Punjabi connected the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, written Punjabi in different scripts remained inaccessible to the three communities.

In the 20th century, while religious revivals began to sharpen differences between religious communities, the Punjab Unionist Party, representing a conservative type of inter-communal harmony, provided stability. However, after the ML gained influence in the province in the 1940s, that harmony quickly gave way to communal tensions and conflict that culminated in the infamous riots and massacres during the partition of Punjab in 1947 resulting in ethnic or rather religious cleansing in the divided Punjab.

The two Punjabs after the partition have gone through communal conflict in the Indian East Punjab, which resulted in its further division on the basis of language but actually to create a smaller Sikh majority Punjab, and in West Punjab sectarian terrorism rocked it during the 1990s; that trend continued into the 21st century. While in East Punjab the Punjabi language acquired the status of an official script, in West Pakistan Urdu continued to be the official language of education.

The Punjabi diaspora has continued to display the fact of Punjabis congregating around religion and sects. Punjabi identity and solidarity remains a dream of intellectuals. However, their cultural peculiarities do reflect a common heritage and identity of sorts.



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The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (Karachi, Oxford University Press, 2012), won the Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at the 2013 Karachi Literature Festival and the 2013 UBL-Jang Group’s Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at Lahore and the Best Book on Punjab Award from Punjabi Parchar at the Vaisakhi Mela in Lahore, 2016; And, Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011) (Oxford, 2013). He can be reached at: