One would do well not to ignore another unique experience that Punjab underwent between 1890s and 1940s: the construction of a huge canal network. The hard task of preparing the land, and occupying it by forcing the original inhabitants – the Jangli tribes – was given to middle castes among Muslims and Sikhs
Since 1849, when the East India Company’s army conquered and annexed Punjab, it has seen several partitions. The first of these came about in 1901 when the area falling North of the Indus up to the 1893 Durand Line, was separated from it to be made into the North West Frontier Province of the British Indian Empire. Forty-six years later, in 1947, a new, international border divided Punjab into a West Pakistani province and one of the states in the Indian Union, both calling themselves Punjab, though the Pakistani side preferred to call the area falling on the other side of the border ‘East Punjab’. In 1966, the Indian state of Punjab was trifurcated (on the decade-long Sikh demand for a ‘Punjabi’ province) into the present-day states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. If the recent pronouncements of the federal government in Islamabad and the provincial assembly of the Pakistani Punjab are to be believed, another division of the Pakistani Punjab – into two or three parts – seems around the corner.
Given this background, one fact stands out: when Punjab’s partition is mentioned, one usually means the 1947 division of the British province of Punjab as it stood at that point. This is not surprising at all because that particular division was accompanied by a long series of human cruelty and suffering – massacre, rape, abduction, forced conversion, forced marriage, individual and mass suicide, honour killing, forced migration, arson, looting, dispossession and so on – packed into a short period spanning a few months. The unspeakably traumatic nature of this division continues to haunt a very large number of individuals, families, groups and communities to this day.
However, a few other facts stand out as well that concern the interesting and various ways in which the ‘Punjabi’ identity has been defined by different groups at different times from their own angles which makes it a complex affair. If we consider the two competing points of view regarding the proposed division of the present Punjab on our side of the border, both seem to stress the ‘linguistic’ aspect of their identity. One group considers Punjabi language as an umbrella covering several ‘dialects’ such as Saraiki, Potohari, Hindko etc. under it, and therefore opposes the division. The other group, including at least two major political parties of the province, considers Punjab a multi-lingual – or at least bi-lingual – province and is willing to accept its division. A part of the latter group favours what it calls an ‘administrative’ division that would keep the disquieting question of linguistic identity safely tucked away under the rug of national denial.
However politically respectable the idea of administrative division may be, the fact is that there is no such thing as a purely administrative division. In a sense all the partitions of Punjab listed above have been ‘administrative’, but the deeper question of defining group identities has always been active under the surface. Take the first one that took place in 1901. It is difficult to deny that it was an acknowledgement of the multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of Punjab as it stood at that time. The division of the Indian state of Punjab, again, was the acknowledgement of the same fact. It is interesting to note that the Punjabi Suba movement was initiated by the Sikhs – many of them settled in the districts now constituting the Indian state of Punjab when they were forced out of the western part – within a decade of the 1947 partition. The Sikh party put forward this demand in linguistic terms although it was difficult to hide that the Sikh-Hindu religious difference was at work there.
In the traumatic days of the 1947 partition, however, religion had become the ultimate marker of group identity. All other aspects – language and caste, to name the two most important ones – were temporarily relegated, at least partly, to the background. The religious part of a clan’s identity became the single basis of its fate: in which part of Punjab it would be allowed to settle, that is, in case it survived the destructive communal riots at all. This total ethnic cleansing was something that was suffered by Punjab alone, and no other part of the subcontinent.
The stress on religious identity had increased manifold throughout North India as a result of the campaign by the All India Muslim League between the limited-franchise legislative elections of 1937 and 1946. This blatant use of religion in politics of identity and representation raised the heat of the already simmering communal conflict in all parts of North India, but in each part the mercury showed a different height depending on the particular conditions prevailing in a specific part. This fact has been blurred in the present day Pakistan by the exclusive promotion of the official national myth which is based not on facts but their denial. The myth says, in short, two things: (i) the partition riots happened with equal intensity throughout the subcontinent, and (ii) Muslims, everywhere, were victims of these riots. As with all national myths, this too is the result of the exigencies of the post-partition domestic politics rather than a realistic appraisal of the politics that led to the events of 1947.
Those committed, for their own reasons, to this officially-sanctioned version of the partition events usually feel uncomfortable if a researcher, historian, social scientist or a common citizens displays an urge to look at that part of our recent history from an unconventional angle and tries to put them in a different perspective in order for us to understand our present condition. The lovers of the national mythology express their displeasure at such attempts and would rather that period of the past be treated as a closed transaction. However, it is obviously not, as it continues to inform and shape our worldview, attitudes, politics and even state policies.
In order to understand why in 1947 Punjab uniquely suffered – ‘bloodied, partitioned and cleansed’ in the words of Ishtiaq Ahmed – one would do well not to ignore another unique experience that Punjab underwent between 1890s and 1940s: the construction of a huge canal network and the leveling, deforesting and settlement of six canal colonies in the doabs or bars resulting in (according to Indu Agnihotri) over 13 million acres of hitherto uncultivable land under perennial or semi-perennial irrigation. The physical engineering project was accompanied by an equally huge experiment in social engineering, leading to a large influx of population into the districts of Shahpur, Jhang, Gujranwala, Multan, Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and Lahore, Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and Sheikhupura. The hard task of preparing the land, and occupying it by forcing the original inhabitants – the Jangli tribes – was given to middle castes among Muslims and Sikhs in exchange for small landholdings of 50-100 acres. This led to the empowerment, prosperity and upward mobility of these castes with a speed unmatched in other areas. This fact can partly explain the relative vitality of culture in Punjab in the first half of the twentieth century compared, for instance, to the neighbouring areas of UP and Sindh where the pace of social change was much slower, at least among Muslims.
Most of the ‘new’ land in western Punjab was, however, allotted to the traditional big landlords, army personnel (by 1930, the strength of recruits from Punjab and Kashmir had grown to 60% of the total colonial army, from a meager 10% recorded in 1856), and civil servants. A part of the land was sold to traders, mostly Hindu, who had prospered as a result of the agricultural boom. This led, on the one hand, to the entrenchment of the existing feudal order and, on the other, strengthening of a new, powerful class of land-owning army officers, civil servants and businessmen. The overall prosperity of big and small landowners ensured a general feeling of loyalty to the British among the population. The dynamics of distribution of the new land also resulted in the strengthening of old rivalries and beginning of a number of new ones within and among the four broad classes mentioned above. It was also to result in a much exaggerated role of the army’s officer class in the affairs of the Muslim state of Pakistan after it came into being in 1947.
By adopting Urdu, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as a replacement of Persian at the lower levels of administration, judiciary and for the newly-introduced modern education, the Punjab Muslim elite, monopolizing the representation of the majority interest, had already aligned itself with the UP feudal minority Muslim elite in the local Urdu-Hindi conflict. This meant the adoption of the casteist narrative of lost glory, decline and need for a revival, promoted by the UP Shurafa, for purposes that were mainly local. The religious aspect of communal identity in the multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural land of Punjab was stressed and promoted, at the cost of other aspects, by the same classes that may have planned and executed the forced and bloody evacuation of Sikhs and Hindus from the new and old rural areas as well as the urban centres that were experiencing new prosperity. As a result of the cleansing of this part, the entire ‘new’ land and business – not to mention a monopoly on the army and civil bureaucracy – came into the hands of ‘Pakistani Muslims’ – how they distributed it among themselves is something that needs to be explored separately.
On their part, the Sikhs at first resisted the idea of a divided Punjab but later, realizing its inevitability, decided to cleanse the districts of the present Indian state of Punjab of Muslim population, resulting in a Sikh majority in those districts – which was to make them raise a demand for a ‘Punjabi Suba’ as early after the partition as 1955.