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The Sons of the Indus fight

The dead - Punjab, 1947


At their end, the British were pursuing a twin, but divergent, policy aimed at once at the pacification and coercion of this largely bourgeois unrest. They had sensed it early, and begun to counter it at the turn of the century.

On the one hand it had already taken the first steps to "Indianise" the civil services, another class the British had found to have been exceptionally loyal to the foreign masters during the highpoint of the nationalistic uprising of 1857. The Indian Council Acts of 1892 and 1909 (the latter also called the Minto-Morley Reforms), had been their concessions to the more educated natives.

On the other hand it had become to succumb to the pressure of the bourgeois movements for more economic freedoms. The Partition of Bengal (1905) was done to appease the Muslims. (The Bengal Lancers had remained an important, and largely Muslim, regiment though now drawn from all over the old Oudh state and even the Punjab). It was undone under the pressure of the Hindu agitation hitting, through the call for "Suadeshi", (boycott of imperial manufactures), where it hurt most.

Then there was the romantically effective, terrorist movement. The Poona Society for Hindu Religion became active, and the Savarkar brothers were attributed, somehow, the shooting of the magistrate who had committed one of them for trial. The British had lost their nerve when the Partition of Bengal was annulled (1911). They lost their nerve again at Jalianwala Bagh in April, 1919. The coercion and official violence was often far more traumatic than the insubstantial concessions held out by such measures as the Government of India, (the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms) of 1919.


There were, indeed, substantial reasons for the growth of the underground resistance movement in the Indus region. Although little is written about them by official historians, this movement played a major role in breaking the will of the imperialists to continue their direct rule in the Sub-continent.

Large parts of the Indus were at once the most prosperous in the Sub-continent, and yet under the greatest burden of debt. In Punjab, for instance, money-lending was the most important business after agriculture. According to one estimate of the early 1920's, there was an average burden of Rs. 463 per indebted proprietor.M.L.Darling: 'The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt' (1925), p.9 This was a considerable amount considering the value of the rupee in those days. The burden was soon to multiply manifold during the ensuing Depression.

The Raj had, indeed, opened up at least one other source of income to the impoverished Punjab peasant. This had been devised in the preceding century. Thus Michael O-Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab at the time of the fateful Jallianwala Bagh massacre, had recounted that the argument "of those great military authorities, Lord Robert and Lord Kitchener was, however, irrefutable that if India could only afford a small army of seventy five thousand British (now reduced to under 60,000) and one hundred and sixty thousand Indian troops for the protection of a sub-continent of over 300 millions of people, it would be unwise to take any by the best Indian material and this was to be found mainly in the Punjab."O'Dwyer, M: 'India as I Know It: 1885-1922' (1926) p. 213, quoted Bhagwan Josh: 'Communist Movement in the Punjab'. Book Traders, PO Box 1854, Lahore

Indian troops at Portsmouth in 1882

There was thus a "Punjabisation" of the Indian Army. Punjab began to be referred to as the "sword arm of India". This progress was tangible and undeniable. While in 1862 the Punjab contributed only 28 out of the 131 units of infantry in the Indian Army, before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 this figure had risen to 57 out of 121. During the War the ration increased appreciably.

The British tried to rescue the Punjab peasant-soldier from the grave consequences of debt. In 1900 the Land Alienation Act was passed impeding the acquisition of lands of debtors by trigger-happy, non-agricultural caste moneylenders. The purpose was also to slow-down the process of disintegration of landholdings Other relief measures were contirived. But these measures were not enough. And other revenue-oriented measures nullified the effect of these social reforms. When water rate (abiana) was increased in 1907, there was an uprising in the Punjab. The bill was withdrawn.

At the outbreak of the First World War the imperial government undertook a widespread recruitment drive in the Punjab and adjoining regions. The indebted peasant enlisted in the Army in greater numbers. This would be a crucial turning-point in his outlook. During the War he travelled to several parts of the world. He saw lands and technological advances that he had never conceived of. He thus came out of his shell. His vision was broadened. And he was also exposed, in the outside world beyond his cloistered village, to the winds blowing in a new social order in Tsarist Russia. He was completely immersed in new thoughts and concepts when he returned to his bullock cart, plough and indebtedness after the War was over. And his income was enhanced somewhat by his regular pension. The much-travelled "cosmopolitan" rose to a new social status. He had acquired an influence upon his peers and contemporaries. They had never thought of the stories and tales he had to tell. It is in these times that the folk verse was coined to reflect his social status and importance: "Vasna fauji de naal, panvey boot sane lat mare" (I will live with a soldier even if he kicks me with a boot.).

Many who had gone to fight did not, however, come back. Some were so overcome with the romance of the October Revolution that they deserted their units and took to active opposition of imperialism. There were other immigrants too who were exposed to these new ideas. Some such groups had already joined to form the Ghadar Party in 1913 in the United States.The name of the Party was obviously influenced by the War of 1857 that the British called 'The
Mutiny', and the patriots called 'The Ghaddar', or the Great Tragedy, on account of its failure Almost all the members of the Party were emigres from Punjab. Most of them were Sikhs. Upon the initiation of hostilities of the First World War the Ghadarites issued a call to all emigres to return home to fight the British. According to Bhagwan Joshibid., p.53 8,000 responded to the call. 400 were arrested. 2,500 were interned in their villages. The purported uprising was squashed resulting in what is known as the first Lahore Conspiracy Case. Out of the 400 arrested 291 were put on trial. 42 were sentenced to death and sent to the gallows. 114 were transported to inaccessible islands in the Indian Ocean for life. 93 were sentenced to lesser terms of imprisonment. 42 were acquitted.ibid., p.54 At the same time the British Government coaxed the Americans to take action in the United States against the Ghadarites who had remained there. The San Francisco Conspiracy Trial thereupon resulted in several convictions.

Despite these effective measures the nerves of the imperial government broke down towards the end of the War. Although the Defence of India Act, drastically curtailing civic rights, had been passed exclusively as a wartime measure in 1915, its scope and area of operation was extended on the proposal of a committee headed by Rowlatt. The Rowlatt Acts were speeded through the Imperial Legislative Council in March 1919. There was widespread dismay and reaction. One of the men who resigned his seat in the council was the Barrister, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.The resignation was addressed to the Viceroy and stated: 'The fundamental principles of justice
have been uprooted and the constitutional rights of the people have been violated at a time when
there is nor real danger to the State by an overfretful and incompetent bureaucracy which is neither
responsible to the people nor in touch with real public opinion.' Jinnah to Viceroy Chelmsford,
March 28, 1919 reprinted in M.H.Saiyid 'Mohammad Ali Jinnah' (1945): Sheikh Mohammad
Ashraf, pp. 238-39 But there was also unrest in the streets of the Punjab were public gatherings had been banned. On April 13, a crowd of "some ten thousand men women and children, mostly peasants from neighboring villages"Stanley Wolpert: 'A New History of India': Oxford University Press, 2nd Ed. (1982), p. 298 were trapped by General Dyer in the Jalllianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The general blocked the only and narrow entrance to the garden with his Gurkha and Baluch rifles. Without a warning 1650 shots were pumped straight into the gathering. Such was the effectiveness of the fire that about 400 were killed while twelve hundred were wounded. Very few rounds managed to miss a human being. And to prevent further reaction, martial law was imposed throughout Punjab by the decree of the Punjab Governor, Sir Michael O'Dwyer.

But despite such repressive measures the anti-imperialist sentiment only spread further in the Sub-continent. And the Indus region remained a focal area for this aversion to all that was British. While a section of the Muslim masses were attracted towards the Khilafat and Hijrat (migration) movementsThe former was an obscurantist reaction to the threat of abolition of the Khilafat system in
Turkey, while the latter was a movement inspired, again by obscurantist sentiment, exhorting
Muslim masses to migrate out of the Sub-continent styled as a land outside the pale of Islam
(Dar-ul-Harb as distinct from Dar-ul-Islam. These groups, starting with the fifteen Lahore
students that Maulana Obeidullah Sindhi led to Kabul in February 1915,, continued to leave for
Kabul and Tashkent from time to time, and included such later-day trade union activists as Fazaz
Ilahi Qurban and Ferozuddin Mansoor other sections began to hit where the imperialist power was most vulnerable: commerce. In September 1921 a large public gathering in Lahore lighted a bonfire of foreign cloth. The number of items of clothing estimated to have been burnt was said to have been 50,000.The Tribune, September 16, 1921, quoted by Bhagwan Josh, ibid. Many members of the groups that initially migrated were arrested and tried on their return in four successive Peshawar Conspiracy Trials held between 1921 and 1924. All were convicted to varying terms of imprisonment.

This crucial decade saw the formation of several groups and cadres that were influenced by the October Revolution in Russia. Under the influence of M.N. Roy, Ghulam Hussain, a teacher at the Mission College Peshawar moved to Lahore and establsihed a communist newspaper, the Inquilab.Means: Revolution Soon the Inquilab Group was formed. It was in touch with all the communist groups in India. But their correspondence and letters were intercepted and all of them were tried in the Kanpur Conspiracy Case. Ghulam Hussain, who was suspected of turning state's witness, was himself interned under Regulation III of 1818. While the Ghaddar Party had been suppressed its journal the "Kirti" gave inspiration to the Kirti-Kissan Party. It was instrumental in organising conferences at Lyallpur and Rohtak in 1928. The conferences that called upon the peasants and labour to get organised to seek reduction in the rates of imperial taxes and land revenue. The Congress gave these socialist and communist trends such importance that the latter conference was attended by no less a person than Jawarlal Nehru himself.

And then there was the Naujawan Bharat Sabha founded by the young activist Bhagat Singh in 1926.Bhagwan Josh, ibid. p 82 It drew to it students of the various colleges of Lahore. the objects of the Sabha included the establishment of a completely independent Republic of labourers and the peasants of the whole of India, and the inculcation of the spirit of patriotism in the hearts of the youth of the country. Many prominent members of the Congress and the Khilafat Movement became members of the Sabha. Here, down under, the two communities were united in action.

But Bhagat Singh and his friends were tiring of the politics of the mainstream Indian parties and political organisation. They were infused with dreams of the revolution. And they wanted high profile action. The Khilafat Movement had effectively, and embarrassingly, died down upon the abolition of the Khilafat by the Turkish National hero Kamal Ataturk himself. The Congress had given up mass mobilisation, at least for the time being. Britain seemed to be aggressively exploring slow-acting constitutional changes and, perhaps, compromises with the Indian leadership although the Simon Commission had been thwarted by country-wide reaction and strikes. The young lads met often and feverishly planned dramatic action. The government wanted an opportunity to curb their activities.

The Simon Commission came to Lahore on October 30, 1928. There was a demonstration. The protesters shouting "Simon go home" moved towards the railway station from the Delhi Gate through the Landa Bazaar. A few hundred yards from the station, the police confronted the crowd. In a brutal baton-charge, Lala Lajpat Rai (then styled as the Sher-e-Punjab, or the lion of the Punjab)Syed Nur Ahmed: 'From Martial Law to Martial Law: Politics in the Punjab, 1919-1958', Ed:
Craig Baxter,(1985), Vanguard, Lahore, p.75, was fatally injured. He died the next month. There was extreme reaction against the police. Some more militant activists of the Sabha vowed revenge. On December 17, 1928, an Assistant Superintendent of the Police, Saunders, was shot dead. The murder of a police officer, Saunders in Lahore in December 1928 provided the government the required pretext. Nineteen Sabha activists were arrested and tried for the murder. Bhagat Singh was one of them. He, however, was acquitted because the only police officer, an Englishman who was present on the spot at the time of the killing, could not identify him before the court.'Bhagat Singh Aur Us Ke Sathi' (Bhagat Singh and His Companions) Ed. Sibt-e-Hassan,
(1985) Maktaba-e-Daniyal, Karachi, p.32

On April 10, 1929 the Central Legislative Assembly was debating the Public Safety Bill in Delhi. Mr. Vallabhi Patel was presiding. Sir John Simon sat in the distinguished visitors'gallery.Suddenly first one and then a second bomb fell on the floor of the House. Both exploded. Then there were two ineffective pistol fires. Some pamphlets also dropped from the galleries in which the "Indian Socialist Republican Army" directed the British to quit India. There was smoke all around. And there was a stampede. Some members received minor injuries. No one was seriously hurt.

Bhagat Singh and his associate, Dutt, gave themselves up to the police that charged into the galleries. They were charged with attempted murder and the possession of bombs and explosive material. Both pleaded not guilty. They had no doubt intended to create a sensation, but that is about all, they claimed. Had they so desired they could have killed many of those present. But they only wanted the voice of India to be heard. They warned of the makings of a revolution.Both were sentenced to life imprisonment. Neither, however, was to live long thereafter.

The imperial government threw the net wide and indiscriminately. It was unnerved. Hundreds of activists were arrested and tried. Correspondence was intercepted. A conspiracy trial a Meeruth was already proceeding. Another began at Lahore. And yet the Viceroy's own special train was bombed at Nizamabad railway station near Delhi in December 1929. Chandar Shekhar Azad, an activist colleauge of Bhagat Singh, was suspected. Both were tried, along with others, in the Lahore Conspiracy Case under a special Ordinace promulgated for the purpose. Both were sentenced to death in October 1930. Bhagat Singh at once became a national figure and his cause was espoused by a wide cross-section of the people all across the Sub-continent, but not by the mainstream parties. In April 1931 Bhagat Singh and Azad were hanged.

It was during this period of resistance that one of Bhagat Singh's co-prisoners, Jeetan Das, created and shaped history in his own way. Protesting jail conditions he starved himself to death in prolonged hunger-strike that stretched over 63 excruciating days. His sacrifice was to change the attitude of the establishment towards successive generations of political prisoners.

But even though young men from three communities, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, were all joined in militant action against the imperial government, they could not reach out to the masses and convert them to their own way of thinking. The two great communities were already drifting apart when a Lahore Hindu publisher printed an offensive book "Rangeela Rasool" extremely derogatroy of the Prophet of Islam. On April 9, 1929, a muslim youth, Ilam Din, stabbed the publisher to death. A trial led to the pronouncement of the death sentence upon Ilam Din who was proclaimed a martyr by the Muslims upon his execution.

With this essential 'aside' into the activities of groups and individuals that together had immense influence upon phsyche of the government and the two communities, we can revert to the narration of the mainstream politics in the Sub-continent in the next decade.


The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan
Aitzaz Ahsan


United Kingdom

In fact, politically Gandhi now carried little weight, but it was of the utmost importance that Mountbatten should have a close understanding and friendship with India's beloved prophet, and this, he succeeded in achieving. The other major politicians and statesmen, in turn, warmed to the aura of affection and goodwill and at the same time recognised Mountbatten's genuine love for their people. But the one man who could drive home the bolt and secure the lock of united India was Jinnah. 'Jinnah was the Muslim League' said Mountbatten. 'He held the future of India in his hands. I tried the same technique with him but it was almost impossible to warm him. He had only one dream and that was a separate Muslim state.

The Hindu leaders, trained by Gandhi, dropped him as of no use when the decisive moment arrived. The Quaid could not be budged - He wanted Pakistan, and he won it !

Mountbatten, Hero of Our Time, Weidenfels & Nicholson, London, 1980, p. 218
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