The rise of middle classes
Sucha Singh Gill

The Making of Middle Classes in the Punjab (1849-1947)
by Sukhdev Singh Sohal. ABS Publications, Jalandhar.
Pages 333+X. Rs 800.

The Making of Middle Classes in the Punjab (1849-1947)The book analyses the emergence and growth of middle classes in Punjab under colonial rule. Punjab was annexed in 1849 and remained under the East India Company till 1857 and was placed under British Crown after people’s uprising, popularly known as India’s First War of Independence.

By this time, the British had gained enough feel and experience of problems related to the legitimacy of rule in the country. They had decided to take several steps for the spread of Western education and organisation of administration involving local people. The outcome was the establishment of three universities—Calcutta University, Bombay University and Madras University in 1857.

The proposal to establish a university at Lahore was made by the Punjab Government in 1868 but the Governor-General did not sanction it. The Punjab University College was inaugurated in 1870 and ultimately Panjab University was constituted in 1882. Modern education was limited to the upper and middle classes of society. The purpose initially was to create a class of people who were Indian in blood and colour to become interpreters between the English rulers and the Indian people.

The political, administrative and economic interests of the British necessitated to open schools, colleges and universities to provide clerks, lawyers, doctors and teachers. At the same time, it was decided to involve Indians in the civil administration, the police and the Army at lower levels. In the last quarter of the 19th century, employment of Indians was also allowed in judicial and other public services. Indiannisation of the services increased further under the Government of India Act, 1935. The author has provided detailed information of the involvement of local people in various jobs during different phases of the British rule.

The rise of middle classes generated a new dynamism in social, economic and political life of the Punjab province of British India. With careful and meticulous research, the scholar has generated estimates of the number of different category of middle classes and problems faced by them in different phases.

In view of draughts and instability of production, the colonial government expanded irrigation facilities in the last quarter of 19th century and developed canal colonies in Western Punjab in the early 20th century. This increased the area under cultivation, improved yield per hectare and brought some prosperity. However, the rising land revenue and water rates reduced the benefits of an expanding irrigation system to the cultivators.

These two issues also remained at the centre of the agrarian unrest and created a perpetual problem of indebtedness among the cultivators. This made money-lending a lucrative business compared to any other capital investment. The high interest rates charged placed the peasantry, especially the middle and poor category of cultivators, in a vulnerable position and increased the dominance of moneylenders.

Moneylenders generally combined money-lending with shop-keeping and controlled the sale of village crops and purchase of necessities from outside. They became so powerful that in the 1920s, the net income of all moneylenders earning more than Rs 500 annually was Rs 40 crore, whereas net revenue of major irrigation works was Rs 29.4 crore in 1917.

The moneylenders became the "most striking feature of the rural economy", as they also controlled a large chunk of agricultural land and agriculturists. In 1879, it is estimated that 80 per cent of the owner cultivators were under debt and moneylenders began to take over land from them. The Land Alienation Act, 1901, was intended to prevent this phenomenon.

The problem of peasant indebtedness became very serious after the great depression of 1929-33. In 1938, the Unionist Party passed four agrarian Acts—the Punjab Restitution of Mortgaged Lands Act, Punjab Alienation of Land (Amendment) Act, Punjab Alienation of Land (III Amendment) Act and Punjab Registration of Moneylenders Act. The implication of these Acts is relevant even to the contemporary agrarian situation of Punjab.

The book is a welcome addition to the socio-economic and political history of Punjab of 100 years preceding India’s Independence. It makes a significant contribution to understanding Punjab’s agrarian economy, especially the farmers’ debt problem, currently under debate and focus. It enhances our understanding of the role of middle classes in the political situation leading to Partition.

The book also provides valuable insights into the language question debate which has contemporary relevance. It is recommended to all those who are interested in understanding present Punjab in the historical context.