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
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
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. This was a considerable amount considering the
value of the rupee in those days. The burden was soon to multiply manifold during the ensuing
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."
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
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. 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 Josh 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. 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. 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" 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)
movements 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.
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. 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. 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), 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.
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.Read more...
The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan