Legitimacy of the Raj was British concern
Kamlesh Mohan

A battle scene of 1857
A battle scene of 1857

Remembering 1857 is not a mere ritual for me. It has provoked fresh questions regarding the relationship between the colonial state and the peasantry, as well as social, economic and religious elites in this region. How far did its “paternal utilitarianism” and “stick-and-carrot policy” influence the development of the people’s attitudes and mental orientation towards the colonial connection as well as the form of politics and socio-religious movements in this region as elsewhere in India?

The 1857 uprising, dubbed as “sepoy mutiny” by the British, showed variations in its intensity and motivations. When compared with civil uprisings, disturbances, and “mutinies” during 1857-58 particularly in Meerut, Lucknow, Kanpur, Jhansi, and in a few towns of South-east Punjab (now called Haryana), the Punjab including Princely States seemed quiet, nay passive, and loyal.

Passivity of Punjabis, especially Sikhs, continues to intrigue us in view of their tradition of militant protest and resistance against injustice, authoritarianism and political oppression. In 20th century, the Central Punjab became the nerve-centre for anti-imperialist movements such as Ghadr, youth and peasant movements. The stirring patriotic song “Rang de Basanti Chola” and the slogan of “Inquilab Zindabad” have caught the imagination of young and old alike.

Why were Punjabis passive in 1857? It has many explanations. The unique character of the British Punjab as a non-regulation province and John Lawrence’s paternal rule played a crucial role in the pacification of the Sikh Jat peasantry, known for its martial qualities. The early British conquerors-cum-administrators were faced with a three-fold task after the absorption of Lahore Kingdom in 1849: (a) to convert the sullen and bitter resignation of the vanquished into honest contented and hearty loyalty; (b) infusion of elements of civilised, administration (c) and to convert the Punjab into not only a secure but also a profitable possession.

Underlying the policy of pacification was the British awareness of potential threat from a high-spirited and martial local population and the border tribes. Besides, Punjab became the cynosure of the British rulers owing to its strategic location, its eminent suitability as an inexhaustible recruiting-ground for soldiers and for its hard-working peasantry whose labour could create lush canal colonies out of jungles and feed industrial revolution in England through constant supply of agricultural raw-materials.

In other words, legitimacy of their rule in Punjab was the major concern of the British, who secured it through various strategies such as the cultivation of goodwill and support of those institutions, social groups, religious elites, landed-aristocracy, jagirdars, prominent families and war-like tribes, especially Pathans, whose alliance and help was regarded as vital for social and political control.

It may be mentioned that the long-term British policy of maintaining a close, almost managerial, connection with the great Sikh temples and their functionaries contributed to the passivity of Sikh religious elites in 1857 as well as throughout the entire span of Indian freedom struggle. This major compulsion was highlighted in a document entitled “Social and political intercourse with Punjabis” distributed among young officers.

As Sikhs were (are) not a homogenous community, the British policy developed a bifocal thrust towards peasantry and the landed-aristocracy and Sikh Chiefs. Between 1849-1857, the Punjab Government’s policy of light taxation and the occasional projection of its sympathy and goodwill for the volatile Sikh Jat peasantry such as relief measures, remission or suspension of land revenue during short-term crisis of famines, drought and epidemics won the active support of peasants-turned-soldiers in saving the empire from the catalysm of 1857. Its pre-Mutiny policy of weakening the aristocracy was reversed after 1857.

Other factors also contributed to the passivity of the Sikhs. They, especially the ex-soldiers of the Khalsa, had not forgotten the hard-fought defeats in Anglo-Sikh wars in 1840s and they were unwilling to risk a third go. They had no rallying points and leaders of stature to inspire them. Besides, the British pursued a calculated policy of stirring Sikh animosity toward Muslims and the rebellious non-Punjabi sepoys called Poorbeas. In his narrative “The Punjab and Delhi in 1857” (1861, 1970,) J. Cave Browne has honestly summoned the British strategy in his observation, “In their jealous rivalry, lay our security”. The aim of F.Cooper, the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, was to keep Sikh-Muslim animosity simmering without letting it explode. The British also made a show of strength by brutally suppressing actual insurrections in the Punjab. Coupled with the disarming of 11 Native Regiments in MianMir, Govindgarh, Phillaur and Ferozepur through intimidation by armed European soldiers and officers was the feigned British concern for protecting ‘noble’ and ‘loyal’ native regiments from contamination by the rebels. The cumulative impact of these strategies was the passivity of Punjabis.

Lastly, the passivity of Sikhs was further highlighted by their aloofness in the early stages of uprising. Those who joined the British played a crucial role in keeping the Punjab quiet and besieging Delhi. They were the independent chiefs who still retained their lands, though shorn of former power. Among them were included maharajahs, rajahs and sirdars of every grade. Maharajah Gulab Singh of Kashmir sent several lakhs of rupees to the government treasury. Nearer the “vulnerable’ parts of Punjab lay the less powerful and less wealthy chiefs who offered their services to the British.

It may be concluded that passivity of Punjabis did not last long. Their patriotism and revolutionary fervour surfaced in 1907 and flowed unsubdued in the course of Indian freedom struggle.

The writer is Professor, Modern Indian History, Panjab University, Chandigarh