Understanding heritage

October 24, 2021

Sargana, in his recent work, documents the events that took place in the Punjab in 1857 and 1858

Understanding heritage

Why did the Indian War of Independence not gain the same traction with the locals in the Punjab as it did in other parts of India? As per popular accounts, the fight against the British was led by the freedom fighters in the east (Meerut, Lucknow, Delhi, etc) who stood up to the mighty British empire at its prime. Far from joining hands with their Indian brethren the Punjabis and their northern compatriots were part of the British forces that quashed this ‘rebellion’. Is this assertion correct and, if so, what were the reasons for this? A fascinating study by Turab Ul Hassan Sargana provides a unique insight into this oft-forgotten aspect of history in his book Punjab and The War of Independence 1857-1858: From Collaboration to Resistance.

In a short but extremely well-researched work, Sargana has meticulously documented the events that took place in the region in 1857 and 1858. He has analysed events region by region in the Punjab highlighting the response of the populace and the role of the feudal aristocracy as the events unfolded. As Sargana digs deeper some interesting facts emerge.

The Punjab at that time included what is now the Punjab province and what is now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The region was referred to as the Punjab until the NWFP was separated by the British in 1901. It formed the heart of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire that fell very late to the British (after several battles in 1846), only ten years before the ‘mutiny’. This was in stark contrast to their compatriots to the east who had been colonised over a hundred years earlier. Perhaps the shorter period of subjugation was a factor in their relative lack of enthusiasm to rise against the British.

The communal issue also played its part in the Punjab. The Muslims and the Sikhs eyed each other with suspicion. Sikhs targetted Muslims (especially the Mughals in Delhi) as the killers of their revered Gurus whilst the Muslims were still smarting from the ignominy they had suffered under the Sikh rule. So collaboration between them was unlikely. It is not surprising that 90 years later the prejudice erupted in bloody riots.

At the same time, the Punjabis (Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs) saw Indians from the east as tools of the British that had helped deliver the Punjab into colonial hands. Where were these poorabiyas (the eastside folk) when they were fighting the British?

Understanding heritage

It is also true that many in the Punjab at the time favoured the British. They saw the tax levy and improved law and order a welcome change. On top of that, large irrigation projects were helping irrigate more lands resulting in greater prosperity for the masses. The best part of Sargana’s research is bringing out the role of the feudal aristocracy during this period.

The irony is that most of the prominent feudal lords supported the colonisers. For this, they were awarded more lands. And the irony of ironies is that many of these families are still dominating the political discourse in Pakistan. What is their view of their ancestors’ actions? I will not mention these families here and urge the readers to go out and read the book in its entirety.

Thus the Punjab, which came under the British yoke ten years earlier, did not feel enough association with the rest of rebelling India to participate with the same zeal.

That said, there are some poignant stories of heroism. It is not well known but there were recorded cases of mutiny and resistance in towns including Lahore, Murree, Peshawar and Jhelum. People like Ahmad Khan Kharral and Murad Fatiana, bear mention as those who took on the colonialists with bravado. They had to contend with a well-equipped, well trained British army. The army was also aided by a network of local spies and some deft administration to quash this insurgency.

Following the failure of the insurrection, the brutal put down by the British is also worth highlighting. The barbaric mass slaughter that followed is recounted from (watered down) British sources and makes a sorrowful read. I found the stories of mass executions in Mian Mir (Lahore) and Sahuka to be particularly poignant.

That the history is written by the pen of the victor, we all know. The accounts that we read of the seminal events in 1857-58 are severely distorted as we see them through the British lens. Some data has been sourced from traditional oral sources such as folk songs to piece together the events. Despite the limitations, it is clear that the Punjab too rose up against the British and faced a horrific aftermath.

One thing is clear: more studies are needed on the subject so that we understand our heritage and acknowledge our forgotten heroes. Our youths need to understand the price of freedom and the cost of slavery. We all do.

The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets   @travelutionary1

Understanding heritage