Imagining lahore, p.15

Imagining Lahore, page 15


Imagining Lahore

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  Nicholson, who had become one of Lawrence’s men in 1847, was serving as the deputy commissioner of Bannu when the rebellion broke out. In his long years of service, he had earned quite a reputation for himself as a ruthless tyrant, known for his insolence towards the locals. He had become a legend by the time he died during the battle for Delhi.

  Telegraph wires were down between Delhi and Calcutta in the days following the outbreak of the rebellion, with Governor General Lord Canning, seated in Calcutta, virtually cut off from the rest of the Indian Empire. In the absence of the highest authority, John Lawrence, still in Rawalpindi, assumed an increasingly important role. Even as he sat with his advisers in the early days, discussing ways to secure Punjab, he was also planning to launch an attack on Delhi to take it back from the rebels. With further uprisings in Oudh, the British forces became increasingly occupied, thus leaving the fate of Delhi to John Lawrence’s Punjab regiments.

  In the days to come, John was to emerge as the de facto leader of the British counter-attack. For all practical purposes, he was to serve as the governor general during the War of 1857.16 In a meeting in Rawalpindi, presided over by him, it was decided that a movable column would be sent towards Delhi from Punjab which would not only assist the British forces camped outside the city but also put down rebellion in different parts of Punjab. The process of disarming native regiments had already begun in cantonments across the province soon after Montgomery acted pre-emptively in Lahore.

  Nicholson, who had by now been promoted to the rank of brigadier, was given the task of commanding this column. Fresh reinforcements were on their way from Britain, but would take some time, while other British regiments were busy fighting ‘rebels’ in Lucknow and Kanpur. Even before Nicholson reached Delhi with his column, stories of his bravery and brutality reached the ears of the dispirited soldiers stationed outside the city. On their way they had disarmed numerous units and crushed several rebellions.17 Recruiting as they went along, the column was 4200-strong when it reached Delhi, with a majority of Sikh soldiers.18 Reinvigorated by the movable column and heavy guns and ammunition from Punjab, the British were finally able to attack Delhi on 14 September, with Nicholson leading one of the four columns that entered the city from different points. He was hit by a bullet during the assault, which claimed his life a few days later.

  The entire British establishment understood that it was due to John Lawrence’s single-mindedness and quick thinking that Delhi was back in the British fold. Only a decade earlier, the British were on the verge of being defeated in Punjab. Despite ruling the province directly after the Second Anglo-Sikh War, there was a deep sense of fear in some segments of the administration of another ferocious uprising. The War of 1857, however, completely turned the tide for the British in Punjab. After the fall of Delhi, John’s Punjab reinforcement went to help British forces regain parts of Oudh and the Rohilla areas.19 Lord Canning, the governor general, was quick to point out that Punjab was no longer a weakness but a source of strength for the British Empire, thanks to John Lawrence.20

  In February 1859, Delhi was made one of the districts of Punjab after it was ceded to it. Punjab had emerged as the military backbone of the Empire, a colonial police-state. The position of the chief commissioner was raised to the coveted post of lieutenant governor. Key officers who had managed the turn of events were generously rewarded. Montgomery was appointed the lieutenant governor of the province while John Lawrence returned to England to a hero’s welcome. He was to come back a few years later, in 1864, as the viceroy of India.

  The golden dome of the smadh of Guru Arjan looks pale in comparison to the regal white smadh of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Protected by a boundary wall, both these structures are in a compound facing Lahore Fort. This area is strictly off limits for Muslim tourists. Only Sikhs and tourists from other parts of the world are welcome.

  In the seventeenth century, the river used to flow right at the base of this fort located on top of a mound. It was to this river that Guru Arjan Singh had decided to give his life, instead of his executioner. In his diary, Emperor Jahangir claimed that he had got Guru Arjan, leader of the growing Sikh community, assassinated for his alleged support to the rebel prince Khusrau who was leading a rebellion against his father. About seventy years later, on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb, grandson of Emperor Jahangir, Guru Tegh Bahadur, grandson of Guru Arjan, was executed in Delhi.

  These two events symbolize the tumultuous relationship between the Sikh Gurus and the Mughals. Many battles were fought between these two unequal parties in the years between these two Gurus and after. In Sikh iconography, Mughal authorities became a symbol of atrocity, bent upon curbing the message of the Gurus.

  John Lawrence and other colonial officers, caught unexpectedly in the whirlpool of 1857, were aware of these historic events and their sentimental impact on the Sikh community. Desperate to cling on to Punjab and use its forces to ‘rescue’ Delhi, they were willing to exploit this historic animosity.

  Thousands of Sikh soldiers were recruited from Punjab to fight on behalf of the colonial state with the promise of avenging the honour of their Gurus by attacking the Mughal capital and its king, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Deliberately, a prophecy was spread throughout the Sikh community in Punjab that the time had come for the Sikhs to attack Delhi and avenge the insult with the help of the white man.21 They were given a free rein by British officers after the conquest of the city. With the intention of ingratiating himself to the Sikh soldiers, Captain Hodson, a British officer responsible for the arrest of Bahadur Shah Zafar and other Mughal princes, shot and killed two Mughal princes after he had assured them of safety.22 He then ordered their bodies to be taken to Delhi and placed at the same spot in Chandni Chowk where, in 1675, on the orders of Aurangzeb, the decapitated head of Guru Tegh Bahadur had been placed. Henceforth, he came to be regarded by the Sikh soldiers as an ‘avenger of the martyred Guru’.23

  In many ways, the War of 1857 laid the foundation of the British policy of ‘divide and rule’. John Lawrence’s model for the Punjab regiment was to serve as the basis for new recruitment policies across the Empire in India. His experience with the Sikh soldiers highlighted how historical, religious, cultural, social and geographical biases could be accentuated between India’s diverse communities to play them against each other for the benefit of the Empire. The Sikh–Mughal conflict was hyped up in 1857 to rile Sikh soldiers against a ‘Mughal-led’ rebellion. Similarly, prejudices between Punjabis and ‘Hindustanis’ of eastern India were played up so as to reinforce the differences between these communities.24

  The first sign of these policies manifested in the army recruitment procedures following 1857. While the earlier recruitment was from one particular group from one region, immediately after 1857, the need for recruiting diverse groups within a regiment was felt so that a sense of kinship between individuals was more difficult to establish.25

  However, in the 1880s, a new theory for recruitment was taking root, one that continues to cast its shadow upon military recruitment in India and Pakistan. This was the myth of the ‘martial races’. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, and captured the imagination of British society. The pseudo-science of eugenics came into being, premised upon a hierarchal classification of human races with the Europeans on top. In Indian society, those who looked more European—fair-skinned with sharp noses—were higher on this scale than those who were darker complexioned with flatter noses.26 This concept was further reinforced by the Indo-European languages spoken in the north-western part of India, much of which is part of Pakistan today. These communities were believed to be superior to the Dravidian-speaking people of southern India.27

  It was believed that due to their superior racial nature, the martial races understood concepts of honour and duty better than other races. This was seemingly borne out by their loyalty to the British during the War of 1857, while the high-caste Brahmins who had been part of the British army and had rebelled in 1
857 had done so because of their ‘devious’ and ‘treacherous’ mentality.28 Punjabis, by virtue of being categorized as a martial race, composed more than half the British Indian army by the end of the nineteenth century,29 whereas in 1857, their numbers had been negligible.

  It is due to this disproportionate representation of Punjabis that Pakistan inherited one-third of the British Indian army in 1947, thus sowing the seeds of a civil–military imbalance right at its inception.30 Punjab still constitutes the largest recruiting ground for the army in Pakistan, with the organization covertly continuing to believe in the myth of the martial races inherited from the colonial masters. This overwhelming representation in the army, and a sense of racial superiority, is the primary reason why other provinces resent Punjab.

  With the institutionalization of the concept of martial races, the policy of intermingling soldiers from various areas within a regiment eventually gave way to ‘class company’, which meant a company was composed of ethnically homogenous groups.31 The martial races were encouraged to retain their religious, cultural and ethnic purity.32 These attitudes were internalized by these ethnic groups, who started viewing themselves through the lens of their colonial masters.

  The policy of dividing people along religious, ethnic and caste lines was further institutionalized by the introduction of separate religious electorates as well as through census reports, which categorized people into different ethnic groups. The colonial education system promoted a communal interpretation of history that exploited historic grievances. It is these ‘historical injustices’ that were ‘avenged’ during the riots of Partition and continue to be evoked during incidents of communal violence in both India and Pakistan.

  The fundamental shift that the British colonial state underwent after the War of 1857 was of power being transferred from the East India Company to the British government, thus making India a direct colony of Britain.

  There was another paradigm shift, once again initiated by John Lawrence, and later adopted by the colonial state, to continue on to the political life of contemporary Pakistan.

  The condition of the haveli bears testimony to its lost glory. It used to be a three-storey structure with a basement, but all the rooms have been lost. Only the ruins of the haveli survive, with the courtyard occupied by a handful of buffaloes. When I visited the village of Padhana in 2010 to see the condition of the haveli of the legendary Jawala Singh, the family was living in an adjacent compound. It was still a comfortable dwelling, but a far cry from the multi-million-rupee jagir the family once owned under Sardar Mith Singh in the early years of the nineteenth century. Sardar Mith Singh had joined Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s camp and helped him with the occupation of Lahore in 1799, and later during expeditions to Kasur and Kashmir, among others. He accrued great wealth during his time with the maharaja.33

  He was succeeded by his son, Sardar Jawala Singh, who, like his father, distinguished himself in Ranjit Singh’s army, particularly in the campaigns of Malwa, Multan and Mankera. His bravery and loyalty to the maharaja led to an increase in his estate. He was married to the elder sister of Maharani Jind Kaur, the Maharaja’s youngest wife.34 The haveli I was visiting had been constructed by him.

  Located on the outskirts of Lahore, the village of Padhana skirts the international boundary between India and Pakistan. Standing at the entrance to the village, I could see Nowshera Dhala across the fields in Indian territory. Farmers worked in their fields in the middle of the two countries. A little boy sat on a milestone that marked the international border, and which looked out of place in this lush green landscape. The fence meant to protect cross-border activity is deeper within the Indian side. The boy sat mockingly on the milestone in no-man’s land. It was hard to tell if he was Indian or Pakistani.

  In the middle of the village rose a whitewashed gurdwara with multiple domes. From behind these domes the long pole of Nishan Sahib bore witness to the presence of a Sikh community. There was a gurdwara behind me as well, in the village of Padhana, in complete contrast to the gurdwara in front. It was a triple-storey building with a single white dome at the top, blackened from weathering. There was a boundary wall around the gurdwara, its gate locked. There was no Nishan Sahib within the premises but behind it was a black pole with a palm on top, signifying the presence of the Shia community.

  The gurdwara was constructed in the seventeenth century to commemorate the visit of the sixth Sikh Guru, the warrior saint, Guru Hargobind. It was initially a modest structure but was later renovated by the Sikh rulers of Padhana, the family of Jawala Singh. The gurdwara was taken over by refugees from the other side of the border following Partition. Not far from the gurdwara is the smadh of Jawala Singh, who died in 1835. This too was taken over by refugees.

  I sat in the guest room of the family with Sardar Amanullah Khan sitting across from me. He was a tall, bulky man in his eighties, sitting on a chair, clutching his walking stick with both hands. He had a long, white beard and a trimmed moustache. This is what distinguishes the style of the Sikh beard from the Muslim one. While Sikhs allow their moustache to grow along with their beard, Muslims tend to keep their moustache trimmed even when they let their beard grow long. There was a skullcap on his head. His grandson, a young boy of about twelve, sat on the sofa next to me, playing with my camera.

  ‘My father, Sardar Harcharan Singh, converted to Islam a few years before Partition,’ said Sardar Amanullah Khan. ‘He changed his name to Nasarullah Khan, while I became Amanullah Khan. My Sikh name was Hardhayan Singh.’ I wanted to confront him, ask him if his father had converted to Islam at the time of Partition to retain his ancestral property.

  ‘Did he convert at the time of Partition?’ I asked him, pretending to have missed his last comment.

  ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘He converted a couple of years before Partition. My father’s other brothers did not and left for India. I still have Sikh cousins there, all of whom rose to prominent positions. One of them, Sardar Gurdial Singh, even became a lieutenant general in the Indian Army. I am still in touch with some of my family members in India.’

  While Henry Lawrence was sympathetic to the aristocracy after the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849, his brother John was particularly resentful of them. Numerous former aristocrats were stripped of their lands during his tenure. John earnestly believed that he was empowering the ordinary people by removing the landlords, which would result in people realizing the benevolence of the colonial state. He hoped this would eventually make the people staunch supporters of the Empire, as opposed to supporting their former rulers who he believed did nothing but live off the toil of the ordinary folk.

  This was an attitude shared by many other colonial administrators such as Governor General Lord Dalhousie. This illusion was soon shattered by the events of 1857. The colonial state realized that by disempowering landed aristocrats, they had made powerful enemies who still commanded respect amongst the common people. The colonial state quickly calculated that it could strengthen its control over India if it won former aristocrats over to its side. Immediately after the recapture of Delhi, John Lawrence’s strategy of recruiting the Sikh gentry against the ‘rebel’ soldiers became the blueprint of colonial state policy, followed rigorously right up to Partition.

  In the early days of the rebellion in 1857, heeding the advice of his Sikh aide, Nihal Singh Chachi, John Lawrence wrote directly to several Sikh chiefs urging them to join hands with the British to redeem their situation.35 The sardars were asked to raise horsemen and fight for the British, and in return the state promised to return their lands. The Sikh sardars responded favourably, eager to improve their economic and political condition. Even those landlords who had fought against the British in 1849 were now fighting on their side.

  The policy of pampering the local aristocracy became an important feature of the colonial state after 1857. Montgomery, after becoming the lieutenant governor of Punjab, described the aristocracy as ‘a great bulwark for the state’.36 Besides r
einstating their estates, there was a realization that the aristocrats should be given respect. While earlier, junior colonial officers were dismissive of them, in the years following 1857 they treated aristocrats with ‘consideration and courtesy’.37 They were included in the local administration and given magistrate powers with judicial control over people of a defined jurisdiction.38 Furthermore, they were given titles such Rai, Rai Bahadur, Sardar, Sardar Bahadur and Khan Bahadur.39 Oftentimes there was much competition amongst the nobles for these honorary titles.

  The history of the Padhana chiefs in this context is no different from many of the Sikh aristocrats during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Their property and wealth too declined with the ascendance of the British. Sardar Hardit Singh, who became the head of the family in 1849, lost large portions of his jagir.40 The situation began to improve following the change in British policy after 1857. Sardar Hardit Singh’s grandson, Sardar Atma Singh, who became the head of the family in 1868, was made an honorary magistrate with jurisdiction over fifty-two villages. He was also given the title ‘Sardar’.41 His son, Sardar Bahadur Sardar Jiwan Singh, who became the head of the family in 1897, was a civil judge and honorary magistrate with jurisdiction over the entire district of Lahore. He was awarded the title ‘Sardar Bahadur’ in 1915.42 His son, Sardar Sardul Singh, became the head of the family in 1933 and was also an honorary magistrate.43

  For the Muslim chiefs in Punjab, the situation did not change much following 1947. Many quickly aligned with the new state and retained their jagirs and honorary judicial powers. While the half-hearted land reforms of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in the 1970s stripped a few such landlords of their property, in southern Punjab and Sindh a majority of the families empowered by the British continue to exert political influence. Several joined the Parliament and formed the ruling class. Their influence on the state of Pakistan, whether civilian or military, continues till today.

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