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Research Article
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History of Punjabi Speaking Jatts

Irfan Habib. New Delhi. 2000.
Pic Ram Rahman

This essay proposes to present a certain amount of speculation about the history of a large section of the Punjabi speaking population, during the millennium ending with the seventeenth century. This speculation raises certain other historical questions, besides, of course, the question of its own validity. Some of these questions are spelt out here. The further task of answering them definitively – a task requiring knowledge I do not possess – I shall leave to scholars better equipped than I am.

The argument that is to follow would be simplified if I were first to clarify certain geographical matters. Since I am at the moment mainly interested in the Punjabi speaking population, the ‘Punjab’ that I have in mind approximates to the British province of Punjab, as it existed before 1947, together with the present states of Haryana and Himachal Pardesh.

It is easy to follow Spate in dividing this region into two unequal pats. The first and larger portion, comprising, indeed, the bulk of the region, consists of the alluvial plains with rivers draining into, or (in the case of Saraswati and Ghaggar) towards, the Indus. The second is the Potwar plateau containing the historic site of Taxila and the fort of Rohtas. This is fringed in the south and southeast by the Salt Range and in the west by the Indus, and in the north by the Himalayan foothills. While it is of course true that there are no correspondingly clear physiographic features to enable one to make a further division of the first and larger alluvial portion, there do exist certain reasons for believing that it might not always has been geographically a homogenous unit. When the Punjab rivers leave the Himalayas and enter the plains, they tend to flow in deep channels, with very marked high banks. These high banks raise the larger parts of the Doaba into a quasi-plateau, where the water table reaches more than 100 feet below ground surface. As a result, before the modern canal system was laid out, irrigation, whether directly form the river or from wells, remained largely confined to the sub-montane plains, served by a number of tributary streams of the major rivers, and to the banks of the main, and seasonally active, abandoned channels of these rivers. This means that there should have been two distinct blocks of cultivated territory in the alluvium: the first lying roughly above the 200 meter contour, from Jhelum to Ludhiana, including the towns of Sialkot and Lahore; the other, created in the south-east by the numerous channels thrown out by the major rivers as they draw towards one another, and containing the towns of Multan, Uch and Pakpattan. These two blocks, joined to each other at two or three points by the narrow margins of cultivation along the main rivers, were elsewhere separated by the desert of the Sind-Sagar Doab, the steppes or bars of the Rechna Doab, and the Lakhi Jungle created by the maze of the Beas –Satluj river channels around Dipalpur.

This geographical division has been reflected quite distinctly in medieval political boundaries. In the seventh century Hiuen Tsang founded a kingdom called Tsek-kia – the Takia of the Arabs, and, probably, Takka in its original form – which contained both Shakala (Sialkot) and Mulasthanpura (Multan), and which extended from the Beas to the Indus. This kingdom was subsequently wholly absorbed by Sind, and, when the Arabs conquered the latter kingdom early in the next century, their commander not only occupied Multan, but marched to beyond Shakalha (Shakala). But as the Arab power declined and Multan alone remained under Arab control, Lahawur, or Lahore, developed into a separate center. Henceforth, upto the decline of Mughal empire a state or provincial boundary nearly always intervened between the two cities. The Mughal province of the Punjab or Lahore included the Potwar plateau, but the whole of the southern Punjab lay within the Multan province, which also included northern Sind and the Shibi territory.

The remarkable fact is that philology also authorized the division o the plains that we have suggested on geographical grounds, for Grierson took 74º Long. E. to be an approximate line dividing the area where Lahnda dialects are prominent, from the area where Punjabi proper is spoken. In the former the traces of Sindhi and Dardic are very noticeable, whereas Punjabi is more closely linked with Midland Hindi. Grierson believes that this phenomenon is to be explained by an excursion into the Punjab of the “inhabitants of the Midland (who), through pressure of population or for some other reason, gradually took possession of the Punjab and partly imposed their own language on the inhabitants” (G.A. Grierson, Linguistic Survey of India). Grierson’s authority always carry weight; but surely the “linguistic condition” he describes can plausibly be explained by an emigration of population from the south-west, which then imposed its vocabulary upon an existent language based on Dardic and Midland Hindi. Given this assumption, the intruders would have imposed their ‘outer’ language more heavily in the Multan area, while outside of it, beyond Long. 74º, in the Salt Range I the north the influences of their language would weaken.

I should also like to suggest that this possible interpretation of the linguistic condition might also be considered. I say this especially because of the peculiar nature of the evidence that I am going to present about the history of the Jatts, which appears to me to suggest a migration in the direction opposite to the one postulated by Grierson.

No description of the Jatts is available before the seventh century, though scholarly ingenuity may find solitary reference in Sanskrit texts to tribes bearing similar names. In the seventh century, Hiuen Tsang found in Sin-tu or Sind a people whom he described as follows: “…By the side of the river Sindh, along the flat marshy lowlands for some thousand li, there are several hundreds of thousands (a very great many) families settled….They give themselves to tending cattle and from this derive their livelihood … They have no masters, and whether men or women, have neither rich nor poor.” They claimed to be Buddhists, but they were “of an unfeeling temper” and “hasty disposition”(S. Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World’; T. Watters, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India). This large pastoral population, left unnamed by Hiuen Tsang, is described in practically identical terms by the Chachnama, the celebrated account of the Arab conquest of Sind, A.D. 710-14. The important addition is that their people are given the name of Jatt. They are said to have lived on both banks of the Indus, which divided them into western and eastern Jatts. They were especially concentrated in central Sind, in the territory of Brahamanabad. Their settlements extended in the south to the port of Debal, and in the north to Siwistan (Sehwan) and the region of Bodhiya immediately to the north. There were no small of great among them. They were supposed to lack marital laws. The only tribute they could was in the form of firewood. They owed allegiance to the Buddhist shramanas; and under the Brahmana dynasty of Chach there had been harsh constraints imposed upon them, which the Arab conquerors confirmed. Besides pastoralism, the only occupations they pursued were those of soldiers and boatmen.

The Jatts are also noticed in Sind proper during the next century. In A.D. 836 an Arab governor summoned them to appear and pay jiziya , each to be accompanied by a dog, a mark of humiliation, prescribed also under the previous Brahmana regime.

Till then the Jatts were not mentioned in connection with the Punjab anywhere at all. When Mohammed Bin Qasim occupied Bhatiya on the Beas and then Multan and marched further northward, the Jatts were no longer encountered. But early in the eleventh century, we suddenly have the appearance in strength of “the Jatts of Multan and Bhatiya (by) the banks of the Sihun (Indus),” who with their 4,000 or 8,000 boats engaged the forces of Mahmud of Ghaznin. The Jatts presence in the Punjab is also attested by the statement of another Ghaznavid historian that these “seditious Hindus” had supported Sultan Masud’s officers against the rebel Yanaltigin. Alberuni (c. 1030), whose direct experience in India was confined to the Lahore area, took the Jatts to be “cattle owners, low shudra people.”

The trend of this evidence appears to me to be unmistakable. A northward migration of the Jatts into the southern Punjab from Sind must have taken place by the eleventh century. Once can see now how this fits in with the philosophical evidence, which attests to the considerable influence of a language akin to Sindhi in the Multan area, a situation one would naturally expect to have followed the migration of the Jatts into the region. It is not without significance that one of the recognized names of Lahnda is Jatki, the language of the Jatts who, as Grierson says, are “numerous in the central part of the Lahnda tract.”

The postulation of connection between the Jatts of the Punjab and the Jatts of Sind of the seventh and eighth centuries would be a mere exercise in anthropological speculation, were it not this might offer us some insight into the kind of economic and social changes that were taking place in the Punjab in medieval times. We have seen that in Sind the Jatts had been a large primitive community, based on a pastoral economy and with an egalitarian or semi-egalitarian social structure. They had “neither rich nor poor,” nor small nor great,” in the words of two quite independent accounts. How long did this state of affairs continue?

Unfortunately, the curtain descends on the Jatts for the next four hundred years. I have not been able to locate any reference to them in the chronicle of the Delhi sultanate, though this may be only because I have not looked carefully enough. I should certainly urge that there should be an earnest search for such references.

The curtain, so far as I know, lifts only with the Ain-i Akbari and its record of zamindar castes, compiled about 1595. The Ain lists zamindar caste against each pargana. These lists show that Jatts were now concentrated in a region extending from the Jech and Upper Rechna Doab, across the upper and central Bari Doab, to the cis-Sutlej territories of Sirhind and Hisar Firoza. There were two other blocks, one consisting of settlements in the Upper Jamuna-Ganga Doab, penetrating into Rohilakhand; and the other consisting of scatted settlements west of the Jamuna from south of Delhi to south of Chambal. This by and large accords with the present settlements of the Jatt (and Jāt) castes, except that towards the southeast a modern map would show a more extensive area, thanks to the expansion o Jat zamindari during the eighteenth century Jat kingdom of Suraj Mal.

We can immediately see that Ain-i-Akbari’s evidence corroborates the oral Jāt traditions of their migrations into the present Uttar Pardesh from Haryana and further west. Unrecorded by chronicles, the Jatts must have expanded during the four centuries previous to the Ain-i-Akbari, from the geographical region of Multan into that of Lahore and beyond, and also towards the east. A feature of this expansion seems to have been that the Jatts no longer carried with them a strong ‘Outer Language-wave’ and this possibly indicates that they remained in the Multan region for a considerable time before they broke out of the weak geographical barriers around it.

The four centuries between the eleventh and the sixteenth not only saw great expansion  of the Jatt population; these also apparently witness a great transformation in their economic basis, there being a remarkable conversion form pastoralism to agriculture.

In Sind, where the Jatts first appear in historical record, their name is now borne only by a small caste of camel breeder-77,920 in all by the 1901 census-clearly mere survivals of what was once a large pastoral population. But in the Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pardesh, the name Jatt or Jāt is borne by the most vigorous peasant castes. This was almost certainly already the case in these regions at the time of the Ain-i-Akbari was compiled.

So close has become the connection of the Jatts with peasant-agriculture in the Punjab that, besides being caste-name, the word Jāt can mean an agriculturist and jataki similarly can mean agriculture. Ibbetson even expressed the opinion that there was a continuous influx into the ranks of the Jatts, as men of other castes took to agriculture and, in course of time, designated themselves Jatts by virtue of their profession. This duality in the use of the name of Jatt had already come about before the middle of the seventeenth century. While the author of the Daibstan-i-Mazahib (c.1655) in his account of Sikhism describes the Jatts as “the lowest caste of the Vaishyas,” he also states that “Jatt in the language of the Punjab means a villager, a rustic.” Clearly, the Jatts had already come t represent the typical peasants in the Punjab of that time.

It seems that the second phase of the expansion of the Jatts in which they stepped out of the Lahnda-speaking region and penetrated into the region of Midland Hindi and their conversion into an essentially peasant population were not only simultaneous, but also linked processes. I would even argue that this phase of their expansion was probably successful only because the Jatts had turned or were turning into peasants, and could, therefore, take advantage of conditions making for extension of cultivation in the region during the twelfth-sixteenth centuries.

That such conditions at all existed is of course a point to be established, or at any rate checked against the historical evidence. At the moment, I have only two rather slender leads to follow. The first is the tradition, preserved by Sujan rai Bhandari,of revival of the Punjab from the desolation caused by the Mongol raids and a widespread extension of cultivation in the fifteenth century.

The second is the sudden appearance of the wooden Persian wheel proper, complete with its chain of buckets (or, rather rope carrying pots) and gearing mechanism, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when it had already been diffused all over the Punjab (Lahore, Dipalpur and Sirhind). I have already argued that the device, particularly when accompanied by the gearing mechanism, could not have come more than two centuries earlier than babur’s time; and, as already suggested by Needham, the araghatta of the earlier times was a noria, or a wheel carrying pots on its circumference, and thus much more limited in its capacity to function over wells, or to utilize animal power, than the Persian wheel. In this belief I have been fortified by the photograph of a sculptured panel from Mandor (Rajasthan), ascribed to the eleventh century.  This contrary to the commentary accompanying it, plainly shows a noria. There is no ‘chain,’ and no gearing mechanism. The animal shown is not pulling the wheel but is actually drinking the water pouring out from it, while the wheel is being worked by a man standing by its side.

I have already suggested elsewhere that the coming of the Persian wheel, a device which could lift water from depths not accessible to other Indian systems of waterlift, and which could also be worked by animal power, might well have brought about a critical change in the agricultural situation of Punjab, where irrigation, before the modern canal system, depended mainly on wells. Its introduction and diffusion in the Punjab was, therefore, bound to result in a substantial increase in cultivation. For me, at least, the temptation is very great to suggest that the Persian wheel lay behind at least part of the Jatt’s conversion to agriculture and their expanding settlements. It is certainly singular that the area of the Persian wheel, as defined by Babur, should so closely coincide with the main region of the Jatts mapped by the Ain’s list of zamindar castes.

I have no hesitation in admitting again that what I have pursued up till now is really a series of speculations based on a variety of evidence. This by itself should not, I submit, be held against what I have attempted to do. In case the evidence adds to something more than mere coincidences, my hypotheses may in the end prove justified.

It seems to me that, if what has been postulated above turns out largely to be in conformity with fact, we may have here interesting material fo analysing sixteenth and seventeenth century developments in the Punjab. It is now almost a cliché that the Jatts form the backbone of the Sikh community. If one is permitted to oversimplify, for the convenience of a concise statement, one may say that the shift from Khatri to Jatt leadership within the Sikh movement had already taken place by the middle of seventeenth century. At that time the author of the Dabistan-i-Mazahib noted that, although the Gurus had been Khatris, “they have made the Khatris subservient to the Jatts, who are the lowest caste among the Vaishyas. Thus most of the great Masands of the Gurus are Jatts.”

It has always seemed to me a question worth asking why, when other movements similar to Guru Nanak’s, movements so similar that the verses of their preachers were included in the Guru Granth Sahib, failed to take strong roots among the peasantry, in their own regions, Sikhism should so greatly have succeeded in this. It is quite clear that what Guru Nanak and his successors preached was a universal faith, and not a narrow or sectional doctrine. But, like all great religions, Sikhism made progress differently in different areas and different classes. It is always incredibly difficult to analyse the teachings of a religion in historical terms, to work out what aspects of it made particular appeal to what strata, and what aspects were stressed by whom. Individuals naturally tend to interpret every universal message in terms they can themselves understand; and thus a distinction is bound to arise in the case of every religion between the substance of the message and its actual comprehension, however lively and sincere might be the attempts that are made to attain an absolutely loyal comprehensions of the original doctrine.

Can it, therefore, have happened that the Jatts received Sikhism at a time when by historical circumstances they were in need of it most, and so saw it as a message of particular import to themselves? We have seen that the Jatts, as an originally pastoral community, had been condemned to a humiliating position; they had then expanded and transformed themselves into large agricultural communities. It is almost certain that, in spite of this transformation, the older caste stigma persisted. The other castes do not still allow the Jatts the status of Kshatriyas to which they lay claim, and the traditional view, recorded by Skinner at Hansi in 1825, was that they arose out of the wedlock between a Kshatriya and a Vaishya woman (James Skinner, Tashrihul Aqwam). The Dabistan-i- Mazahib, about the middle of the seventeenth century, described them, as we have seen, as the lowest caste among the Vaishyas, though this was still an advance over the Shudra classification of Alberuni in the eleventh century, were not only entirely peasants but, in so many localities of the Punjab, also zamindars would assert themselves against a social status which no longer corresponded to their economic position.

For such cases Indian society has usually had the mechanism which modern sociologists tend to term Sanskritisation. In most such cases, the top strata of the lower caste would ‘Sanskritise’ and merge into the higher castes in due course of the time. Why this could not easily happen with the Jatts – although the process is not entirely lacking there – is perhaps mainly because the had inherited  from their earlier stage an egalitarian or semi-egalitarian social structure, to which both Hiuen Tsang and the Chachnama bear testimony. In such circumstances, Sikhism which rejected in theory the entire system of caste and whose Gurus in practice raised Jatts to the highest positions without hesitation, could not but fail to win over and command the loyalty of large sections from amongst the Jatts. To them Sikh Scripture’s stirring words, written in the name of Dhanna J recently Jatt, might have had a significance beyond the purely spiritual one that the Guru had in mind:

Having heard all this, I, a Jatt, applied myself to devotion:
I have met the Lord in person; such is the great fortune of Dhanna.

But I would go further; I do not think it is adequate to see in the Jatt espousal of Sikhism a mere alternative to Sanskritisation. The Jatts were peasants, and the one outstanding problem of the peasants in the seventeenth century was that they had to bear a very heavy burden of land revenue and great degree of oppression of the ruling classes of the Mughal empire. I have elsewhere argued that this situation was bound to provoke peasant revolts. On this I have not anything new to add, but it does seem to me that the militant development of the Sikh community during the seventeenth century can have one major explanation in the resort to armed violence by the Jatt peasantry, when the economic pressure became increasingly intolerable. This further cemented the historical association between the Jatt peasantry and Sikhism, though the association itself certainly antedates the agrarian crisis of the Mughal empire.