Imagining Lahore, page 14
John Lawrence had replaced his brother Henry, who had earned much respect in Punjab, particularly with the Sikh aristocrats who always had his sympathy, especially in the aftermath of the annexation of Punjab in 1849. John, on the other hand, ruled the province with an iron grip. Much of the groundwork had already been done prior to his appointment.
Before the formal annexation of the province, while Henry Lawrence served as the resident of the East India Company in Lahore between the two Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1846 and 1849, he had already established himself as a de facto ruler of the province, the last major empire left in India to be gulped down by the Company. Young British officers, officially known as ‘assistant to the resident’, had spread out all over the province, which included Peshawar at that time, and taken up key administrative roles sidelining the governors appointed by the Lahore Durbar being run in the name of the child king Duleep Singh, the youngest surviving son of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
These assistants to the resident, who came to be known as ‘Lawrence’s men’, included some of the most extraordinary officers of the time, including James Abbott and John Nicholson, who not only ensured the establishment of the Company’s writ over Punjab, but also made Punjab its symbolic fort. Many of these men were still in place when John took up the newly created post in 1853.
It had also helped that John had been one of the three members of the board that had governed Punjab from 1849 to 1853. The board was presided over by Henry, who had been assigned the duty of raising new regiments, disarming the population and improving relations between the Company and the deposed but still-powerful members of the abolished Durbar; John had been assigned revenue and finance. A third member, Charles Mansel, was responsible for police and justice.1 He was soon replaced by Robert Montgomery who, under John, emerged as the second most powerful man in the province.
The board in fact had been created after the annexation of Punjab by Governor General Lord Dalhousie, to weaken Henry and empower his younger brother, John. Henry had been close to Dalhousie’s predecessor, Hardinge. The resident of Punjab had expressed his reservations about the annexation and had exhibited sympathy to the ruling elite of the Durbar, exhorting the governor general to maintain some of their privileges in exchange for their loyalty to the Company. Dalhousie was an expansionist. He also saw himself as a modernizer of India, which had no room for landed gentry. His view of the aristocrats was shared by John, who too thought of them as parasites and believed that their era was about to end.
Upon the annexation of Punjab, it was widely believed that Henry would run the province, given his track record; however his political differences with Dalhousie became an impediment and led to the creation of the board.
In his years on the board, John took some popular steps that earned him much fame in the province. Land tax was reduced by half and even more in some places. Transit and town duties that had been introduced during the reign of the Durbar were abolished.2 Despite these reductions, the inflow of revenue increased because improved security and the bureaucratic outreach of the colonial state meant that revenue from several regions like Multan, far away from the political capital, began reaching the Lahore treasury regularly. Instead of crop, tax was now collected in the form of money. The British were laying down the perfect bureaucratic machine, setting up a vertical pyramid, with Lahore at its apex. While Lahore was politically significant even prior to the British, under the colonial state, due to better tax collection and infrastructure that connected it with other parts of the province, it was to emerge as the undisputed centre.
In a city that is increasingly vying for space, extending in all directions, ghettoizing historic villages and towns as it takes over their agricultural land, Governor House located on Mall Road, spread over 90 acres, is a rarity.3 Its white boundary wall, interspersed with bastions, manned by armed guards and security cameras, forms a circumference of several kilometres. Guarded by about a dozen policemen standing behind a picket, the main gate of the house faces Mall Road.
The site of Governor House once contained an abandoned kiln and the tomb of Muhammad Kasim Khan, a cousin of Emperor Akbar. It was appropriated by Jamadar Khushal Singh, the chamberlain of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and used as the site of a house.4 The house was taken over by the British, destroyed and reconstructed in its latest incarnation. A white bungalow in the middle of a sprawling garden with all kinds of trees from India and beyond, this house was initially used by Deputy Commissioner Major MacGregor. In 1859, it was converted into Governor House for the residence of Robert Montgomery upon his appointment as the lieutenant governor of Punjab after John Lawrence left for Britain. Home to the lieutenant governor, it became the seat of power of the colonial state in the province.
Facing Governor House is Lawrence Garden. At the centre of this garden are two colonial structures, now serving as the Quaid-i-Azam library. The Montgomery and Lawrence halls were constructed in the latter half of the nineteenth century to serve as a focal point for social gatherings of the British establishment in the city. They also served as the Lahore Gymkhana before it was eventually moved to its present location a few kilometres away, in 1972, while these halls were converted into a public library.5
Though its official name is Bagh-i-Jinnah, the park is still popularly referred to as Lawrence Garden, named after John Lawrence. One of the most popular gardens in Lahore, it was the first public park in the city open to its residents. In a distinct departure from the Mughal garden tradition, with its focus on symmetry and fountains and the garden serving as a symbolic representation of heaven on earth, Lawrence Garden was designed to be a horticultural experiment.6 The plants that were grown here were also sold. After the establishment of Government College and Punjab University, and the introduction of botany as an academic course, this garden also became a botanical garden. In 1912, a part of the garden was taken over by Government College for academic purposes.
At a little distance, next to Lahore High Court, was a statue of John Lawrence holding a sword in one hand and a pen in the other. Inaugurated in 1887, the base of the statue read, ‘Will you be governed by the pen or sword?’ It was removed in the 1920s at the peak of the nationalist movement.
The early colonial administrators of Punjab, as in other parts of the country, sincerely believed in the benevolent nature of their government. They were convinced that it was their duty, as more ‘civilized’ and ‘developed’ people, to ‘modernize’ India, for which it was essential to rid it of its evils. For John Lawrence, one of the biggest impediments to India’s progress was feudalism. Already disempowered after the annexation of the province, the former aristocrats, members of the Durbar and the feudal lords continued to suffer when John took over the reins of the province in 1853 after his brother resigned upon developing differences with him, resulting in the dissolution of the board.
Within six months of the annexation, jagirs worth Rs 12,57,000 were confiscated by the state, while only Rs 58,300 was paid in compensation. While land belonging to the ‘rebel’ chiefs who did not side with the British during the Second Anglo-Sikh War was immediately seized, even those who supported the British did not fare much better. Their incomes were reduced and assured only during their lifetimes, not to be automatically passed on to their descendants. In addition, they were stripped of administrative and magisterial authority.7 The aim was to strengthen the peasants, the direct tax payers.
With improved security, an increased amount of land had been brought under cultivation. Even at the peak of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, the rural areas were frequently subjected to bandit raids. The situation improved drastically with the arrival of the British. The Muslims particularly felt a sense of relief, since under the Lahore Durbar, some religious practices, for example, the calling of the azan from minarets, had been banned. The colonial state projected itself as a neutral protector of all religions.
The province was divided into six divisions, each headed by a British commissioner. These were further divided into districts
John Lawrence, the man who was certain he had brought law and order to a wild society, had every reason to believe that Punjab had agreed to be governed by the pen. And so, without giving much thought to rumours of unrest, he left along with his family for the hill station of Murree in early May of 1857. He handed over the reins in Lahore to his trusted aide Robert Montgomery, who was appointed the judicial commissioner after the disbanding of the board. However a telegram received in Rawalpindi on 12 May jolted him out of his complacency.
It is a small structure in the middle of an open courtyard. There is a wide mosque on one side of the shrine and a few trees on the other. On a warm afternoon, several devotees laze around on the cool marble under the shade of the trees. At the centre of the shrine is the grave of Mian Mir, a sixteenth-century Sufi saint, who rose to prominence after Dara Shikoh, the Mughal crown prince, became his follower. The support of the prince made it one of the most popular Sufi shrines in the city.
There is a vast residential settlement behind the shrine which gets its name from the occupant of the tomb. Bordering this settlement on one side is the Mian Mir Cantonment. Manned by an army check post, the cantonment was established in 1852 after the annexation of Punjab. At a distance of about 7 kilometres from the walled city, the cantonment was deliberately established away from the city to avoid the intermingling of soldiers with civilians. Today, as the city expands, it has engulfed the cantonment and a large section within it has been converted into a residential area, open to civilians.
On the morning of 13 May 1857, the ‘native’ regiments at Mian Mir Cantonment stood in formation. ‘Pile arms!’ they were ordered. The soldiers were confused. Their hesitation quickly changed to alarm as a long line of artillery composed of British soldiers appeared before them, with ramrods in their hands.9 One by one, all weapons were laid down in a pile.
Robert Montgomery oversaw the proceedings. He could not afford to take any chances. The day before, a telegram had found its way to Montgomery’s table. Indian sepoys who had rebelled against their British officers and gathered in Delhi were burning down houses and killing Britishers in the city. The same telegram also reached Lawrence in Rawalpindi.
The telegraph line between Lahore and Rawalpindi was down. Montgomery was still in the process of consultation with his fellow officers when Richard Lawrence, younger brother of the chief commissioner and commander of military police, was informed by a Brahmin clerk that the native regiments stationed in Mian Mir Cantonment were on the verge of revolt.10 The information was enough for Montgomery to make up his mind. Some reservations were expressed by British officers posted at the cantonment, but Montgomery was adamant.
Discretion was required lest the sepoys became aware of the imminent disarmament and acted pre-emptively. The fall of Lahore, after Delhi, would have been a huge victory for the ‘rebels’. A scheduled ball was organized as planned to give the impression that everything was normal. In the morning the sepoys were caught off guard by the order to surrender their weapons. The plan had worked.
Immediately after, Lawrence from Rawalpindi and Montgomery from Lahore sent telegrams and messages to all British officers to transfer the contents of their treasuries to the nearest military station, escorted by the Punjab police. They were instructed to distrust ‘Hindustani’ guards and were ordered to read all sepoys’ letters.11
Sitting in Rawalpindi, a journey of four days from the provincial capital at the time, John Lawrence was aware of the significance Delhi held for the rebels. He understood that the Mughal king, even though a figurehead, had the potential to bring together diverse groups. Similarly, he also understood the importance of Lahore and Punjab. Less than a decade ago, the British had fought some of the most ferocious battles they had ever engaged in, with the Sikhs in Punjab. The capture of Lahore by Punjabi sepoys could have reignited a flame of revenge within the members of the Lahore Durbar, recently disempowered and stripped of their financial resources. With the fall of Punjab, Lawrence understood, it would be impossible to salvage the Empire in India.
The ‘rebels’ too understood the importance of winning over Punjab. Several letters were written to sepoys in different regiments and to deposed aristocrats and rajas of independent kingdoms by Bahadur Shah Zafar, Nana Sahib and Azeemullah Khan, who had emerged as the prominent leaders of the rebellion. Montgomery reported that the Muslims of Patna were in correspondence with a regiment in Peshawar, urging them to revolt. The Mughal king sent several messages to the raja of Patiala in vain, asking him to join their cause. When the raja failed to respond, he wrote directly to his subjects. All these letters were intercepted by the raja.12
There were some crucial successes in the province to the chagrin of the chief commissioner. An infantry regiment stationed at Ferozepur rebelled and joined the ‘mutineers’ in Delhi. Three native regiments in Jalandhar rebelled and headed to Delhi. There were further acts of defiance in Sialkot, Jhelum and Rawalpindi.
The most potent opposition came from a place south of Lahore, led by Ahmad Khan Kharal. It seemed as if emissaries from Delhi had reached him, inspiring him to bring together other chiefs and initiate a rebellion. An extra assistant commissioner was killed. The towns of Jhamra, Harappa and Kamalia were ‘burnt’ and ‘plundered’, claimed British sources.13 British troops led by Major Chamberlain marched in from Multan but were besieged at Chichawatni. It was not until reinforcements arrived from Lahore, followed by Multan, Jhang and Gurdaspur, that the tide began to turn in favour of the British. Kharal was killed along with his sons, but the rebellion continued, led in turn by other prominent chiefs. It was finally quelled in November, six months after it had begun.
The chiefs who had supported the British in Punjab during the revolt were rewarded with vast tracts of lands and honours, even as the memories of Kharal slowly faded away. Songs of his bravery and sacrifice remained limited to the Sahiwal district, where the rebellion had taken place. There was obviously no official sanctification of his memory. On the other hand, the memory of colonial administrators who had helped put an end to the rebellion of 1857 was enshrined and preserved through the names of roads and institutes. The area where the ‘rebellion’ broke out was renamed Montgomery, after Robert Montgomery. While it made sense for the colonial state to do so, ironically, a lot of these names continue to live on in Lahore, even as Kharal, the leader behind the only major rebellion against the British in 1857 in Punjab, has almost been erased from popular memory.
Only the facade of the building survives. ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ is written in elegant calligraphy on the top of the building to ensure that no confusion is caused by its name—Laxmi Building. Even as the rest of this pre-Partition edifice crumbled, somehow its beautiful facade survived. Not so long ago the local government realized its historical and architectural significance and decided to renovate it. A pale yellow with a blue border replaced the iconic white paint. The building lends it name to this junction, Laxmi Chowk, one of the most important connectors in the city of Lahore. Even though officially the name of the chowk has been changed, no one seems to remember what it was changed to.
Hand-painted hoardings of movies inhabit the tops of all the buildings around the chowk. Flaring nostrils, the stare of death, a raised finger, oiled moustaches, voluptuous seductresses in shiny kurta-dhotis thrusting their hips. Even as Punjabi cinema, loud, violent, lascivious, lay on its deathbed, struggling for a final breath of air, somehow these repositories of tradition have survived. Laxmi Chowk, from before Partition, when Lahore was a major centre of the film industry along with Bombay and Calcutta, till a few years ago, was the hub of the Pakistani film industry, which is also called Lollywood, its ‘L’ coming from Lahore.
The abandoned buildings of numerous cinemas, taken over by the land mafia or drug addicts, are some of the las
On the ground floors of these buildings are some of the most iconic restaurants of Lahore, dispensing haleem, biryani, payee, nihari, chanay, halwa puri. No other locality in the city offered a wider range of traditional food items before the introduction of Food Street next to Badshahi Masjid. Even today, those looking for authentic Lahori cuisine flock to Laxmi Chowk.
A few years ago, a member of the city’s Hindu community told me that the largest gathering for Diwali and Holi in Lahore used to take place at Laxmi Chowk. ‘On the occasion of Diwali, Laxmi Building was lit with lamps,’ he reminisced. It was Laxmi Chowk that people had in mind when they repeated the famous Lahori proverb, ‘If you haven’t seen Lahore you haven’t been born.’
All the four roads that converge at this junction retain memories of colonial rule. It is here that Abbott Road—named after James Abbott, one of Henry Lawrence’s men stationed in the region of Hazara between 1846 and 1849, who effectively ‘subdued’ the ‘wild’ population of this region14—merges into McLeod Road—‘Maclore’ in the vernacular, named after Donald McLeod, commissioner for revenue under John Lawrence. Dissecting Abbot Road is Montgomery Road, a reminder of the man responsible for disarming the regiments in Lahore.
McLeod Road, as it heads towards the railway station, gives birth to a short road, only a few kilometres long, named after the most crucial colonial administrator of 1857. It is widely believed that it was John Nicholson’s timely support to the British forces in Delhi that allowed them to recapture the city. While the capture of Delhi by the rebels in May inspired sepoys in other parts of India to pour in with their support, its fall in the month of September changed the momentum in favour of the British. Just before the capture of Delhi, John Lawrence is believed to have warned that if Delhi was not retaken by 20 September, he might not be able to maintain peace in Punjab.15 But Delhi was secured and the man whose role had been pivotal to this was Nicholson.