Four migrations

A look back at Punjab’s four migrations since 1885

The Punjab has been witness to four mass migrations in the 19th and the 20th Centuries, each uprooting a large number of people and resulting in land-related disputes. These migrations occurred: first, as a result of the British policy of Canal Colonies (1885—1940); second, as a result of Partition of the Punjab in 1947; third, through the allotment of land to Punjabi peasants in Sindh; and fourth, due to the export of labour to Gulf countries during the Bhutto era (1972-1977). The cumulative effect of these migrations has been a significant weakening of the Punjabi peasants’ struggle for their rights.

The first large-scale migration and settlement in the Punjab occurred as a result of the British policy regarding the Canal Colonies. Under this policy, the British dug canals and set up nine Canal Colonies — almost all of them in West Punjab — between 1885 and 1940. Through the construction of these canals, more than 4.5 million hectares of desert and pastoral land was opened up for irrigated agriculture.

The settlement and migration began with the opening of the Chenab Colony in the 1890s. During this time, the British selected the most productive peasants from central and eastern Punjabi groups who had the best reputations as strong, natural cultivators. These migrants were called abadkars (settlers/colonisers). Those already living in the areas were called maqami (locals). This migration of peasants from east and central Punjab changed the demography of the Canal Colony districts and marginalised the local pastoral population.

These peasants were tagged for migration to and settlement in West Punjab, a move that was conceptualised by the British as key to expanding agricultural production. The migrating tenants were compelled to cultivate the lands as sharecropper, in an arrangement commonly known as batai. In addition to allotment of lands to these migrants, some lands were reserved for allocation to local pastoralists. Moreover, the British selected people from central and east Punjab for assessing the land revenue in the Canal Colonies, rewarding them with lands in exchange.

The British engineered the relocation of landlords, too. The new lands made arable by perennial irrigation further augmented the already-significant economic power of the landlords. Colonists or migrants (both tenants and landlords) were encouraged to bring their servants (kammis or village artisans) and wage labourers with them. The British knew that this was essential to maintaining the existing hierarchies in central and east Punjab, and in transplanting them to the Canal Colonies. The British assumed that small peasant proprietors would not challenge the established social order. Apathy towards non-agricultural kammis and wage labourers was a basic building block for the durability of this social hierarchy.

The canal colony districts represented a large cross-section of the population of the Punjab. Immigrants or colonists were called abadkar. The tenants were divided into abadkar and maqami (local). The abadkar did not come from similar backgrounds either, varying in terms of the region they were from and their castes. In this way, the first migration divided tenants into state tenants and private landlords’ tenants, tenants-at-will and occupancy tenants, and perpetuated differences along the lines of caste and class.

Millions of people migrated from East Punjab to West Punjab and vice versa as a result of Partition in 1947. Among this group were the bulk of Hindu and Sikh peasant leaders and activists who left West Punjab for East Punjab. This created a huge void in peasant leadership and caused an irreparable loss to the peasants’ movement in West Punjab. It also opened up the possibility for politicisation and exploitation of the refugee rehabilitation, in order to create divisions among the peasantry.

According to the 1948 Census of the Ministry of Refugees and Rehabilitation, an estimated 4.5 million Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, and more than 5.5 million Muslims moved to the Pakistani Punjab alone. This made up 25.6 per cent of the population of West Punjab. More than 3 million of these 5.5 million refugees were rehabilitated in three Canal Colony districts of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and Multan. These refugees accounted for 39, 46, and 31 per cent of the population in these districts, respectively.

The population of the Canal Colony districts which, we have seen, already consisted of a cross-section of Punjabi population, was further fragmented as a result. We can recall that maqami were the indigenous people of the Canal Colony districts while abadkar came from central and east Punjab during the first migration. These groups had already clashed with each other; the clashes only increased when another group — muhajir (refugees) from East Punjab — settled in these districts. The interactions of these three groups with one another were changeable. For example, the abadkar and maqami, who had been fighting with each other for several decades, joined hands against the muhajir in some conflicts. In addition, this resettlement divided the peasantry (mainly tenants and refugee tenants) among claimants and non-claimants, weakening the peasant movement.

Taken together, these migrations (1885-1940 and 1947) changed the demography of West Punjab and impacted the sociology, economics and politics of the region in a substantial way. In fact, many of the Hindu and Sikh migrants who settled in the Canal Colonies eventually had to move as a result of the Partition. The areas vacated were occupied by incoming Muslims who were not ethnically homogenous. In this way, both migrations marginalised the local pastoral population while leaving an immigrant population from different castes and areas to contend with their lack of homogeneity.

The stream of large-scale settlement and migration began with the opening of the Chenab colony in the 1890s. During this time, the British selected the most productive peasants from central and eastern Punjabi groups who had the best reputation as strong, natural cultivators. 

The third forced migration occurred when a large number of Punjabi tenants, army officers and bureaucrats moved to Sindh, where they had been allotted lands. These lands were opened for cultivation as a result of the construction of the Sukkur Barrage by the colonial government. Subsequent Pakistani governments continued the policies. They constructed the Kotri and Guddu barrages to transform huge tracts of wasteland into cultivated land. A major chunk of these newly-irrigated lands was allotted to Punjabi tenants, army officers and bureaucrats. Thus was created a class of largely absentee landlords who brought Punjabi tenants (whom they could better control and rely upon), choosing them over local peasants. As with the other migrations, this movement of Punjabi peasants and tenants to Sindh affected the peasants’ resistance.

We can study this process in more detail. In 1955, as a result of the opening of the Kotri Barrage, hundreds of thousands of acres of state land was transformed from wasteland to cultivable land. To dispose of this newly irrigated land, a Land Utilisation Committee constituted by army officers was set up. 100,000 acres out of 322,680 acres were allotted to army officers, most of whom were Punjabis. Pushtoons were the other significant group. Likewise, enterprising farmers from the Punjab purchased land sold by public auction (in open bidding). This was a desirable buy because land in Sindh was a lot cheaper than in the Punjab.

The story of the land brought under cultivation by the opening of Guddu Barrage in 1965 was no different. Here, almost all of the newly irrigated land (600,000 acres) was allotted to military and civil officers or sold to farmers from the Punjab at ridiculously low prices.

The establishment and government of Sindh, as well as its landed elite, played a part in the changes. They had their own reasons for this — they did not want Sindhi haris (cultivators) to become owners of the land, and preferred to keep them dependent. By diverting the struggle of the haris against Sindhi landlords to Punjabi landlords and peasants, they maintained their control and influence on the haris. This explains the benefits of settling Punjabi farmers in the Sukkur Barrage area in the pre-independence period as well as in the Kotri and Guddu Barrage areas in the post-independence period.

According to the Census Report of Punjab Province of 1981, 849,043 persons from the Punjab were found living in other provinces. Out of these, 74.4 per cent were living in Sindh, 11.7 in the NWFP, 6.6 in Balochistan, and 7.3 in Islamabad. Most of these were out-migrants. 87.6 per cent were from rural areas of the province and 12.4 per cent were from urban areas.

This wave of migrations took place under Bhutto when he created the Manpower Ministry and exported hundreds of thousands of illiterate and poor people (mainly from rural Punjab) to Middle Eastern countries. Those who moved did so mainly to do hard labour in the construction sector. The Manpower Ministry helped them get visas and work permits and remittances from the Middle Eastern countries helped make the families of these immigrants prosperous.

According to the Census Report, 735,285 persons were found to have gone abroad. With people fascinated by the prospect of moving, a leadership and manpower gap was created in the Pakistan Kissan Tehreek. In addition, many in the migrating labour force (artisans, tenants, wage labourers and poor peasants) constituted the base of the PKT. With this, the upsurge created by the Kisan Conference of Toba Tek Singh started diminishing and the Tehreek started losing its influence.

The most active time for these out-migrations was the 1970s. At this time, there was a demand for cheap labour for infrastructure and development projects (mainly as a result of a rise in revenue) in the oil-producing countries in the Gulf. The other reasons for the large-scale out-migration could be the search for employment with better wages and the deliberate efforts of the Government of Pakistan to promote overseas employment to handle the unemployment pressure, reduce poverty and earn foreign exchange.

According to the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, between 1977 and 1983, 131,100 workers per year (on average) emigrated to Gulf countries. In 1981, there were nearly one million registered Pakistani labourers in the Middle East. Almost 41.87 per cent of these migrants were unskilled labourers; the others were drivers, electricians, carpenters, masons, welders, technicians, plumbers, steel fixers, mechanics, painters, sales workers, and so on.

Between 1970 and 2004, almost 45.5 per cent of the total out-going manpower migrated to the Middle East. Out of these, 79 per cent went to Saudi Arabia, 15 percent to the United Arab Emirates, three per cent to Oman, one per cent to Qatar, and one per cent to Bahrain. Most migrants came from the middle and poor peasantry of the rural areas, particularly the Punjab, where land was the only source of income.

Land was mostly tilled by bullocks or other animals and use of chemical fertilisers and improved seeds was low. In addition, non-farm activities were confined to a few shops and artisans, transport facilities were inadequate and mud houses were a common sight.

As a result of this migration and remittances, the socio-economic conditions and standards of living improved considerably. Many peasants purchased tractors for cultivation, cropping patterns changed from subsistence farming to commercial farming, and small-scale agro-industry (poultry farms, pesticides and seed shops, and fruit and vegetable gardens) was developed. This fascinated and motivated many others to sustain this pattern of migration.

If the intended stronghold of the PKT was the peasantry, this same constituency was also a source of weakness. Four migrations at critical times divided this group and fragmented any cohesion or coherence that could have developed. The migration to Canal Colonies, created divisions among maqami and abadkars; the partition of the Punjab created leadership gaps when active members migrated to East Punjab; the migrations to Sindh dispersed the group; the migration to Middle Eastern countries ate away at the PKT’s constituency.


The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87

Four migrations: A look back at Punjab’s four migrations since 1885