Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten

Author: Rajmohan Gandhi
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Aleph Publishers

Oct 19, 2013

A review by Irfan Habib

In 1690, a Muslim soldier from a village in the Punjab (Jalandhar Doab), serving with the Mughal army in Rajasthan, went to his commanding officer to complain of a raid on the property of the Hindu moneylenders (mahajans) of his village and solicited leave to go and protect them, because, “except in religion and faith, they are one with us, being like relatives and brothers.” This incident, drawn from a dry official report of Aurangzeb’s time, is not mentioned in the book reviewed, but it might well have been. For if there is one single thread in Rajmohan Gandhi’s narrative of the history of the Punjab of some 250 years, it is the way the religious co-existence of the past (never, of course, perfect) weakened and then broke down so brutally in 1947.

A biographer of four of India’s great national figures (Gandhiji, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Sardar Patel and C Rajagopalachari), Rajmohan Gandhi brings to this history of a region, his usually competent scholarship and writing skill, as well as fairmindedness of a high order. He combines very wide reading with the capacity to use all kinds of minor but interesting details to draw the big picture, and by this device, keeps the reader’s attention constantly engaged.

Understandably, his earlier three chapters have less sureness of touch than his middle and later chapters, especially where he deals with the history of the British Raj in the Punjab. The few statements that one may disagree with in his earlier portion are generally derived from the secondary texts that he uses. The incident with whose mention this review begins should modify the statement that local Punjabi Muslims were not recruited into Mughal armies (p 36). The disappearance of the Ghaggar could have had nothing to do with Multan’s commercial position (p 42). Narnaul pargana is not in the “Delhi Doab” (sic) (p 53). That Bahadur Shah I granted to Guru Gobind Singh the service-rank (mansab) of 5000 and he accepted it (p 62), a statement also found in some modern writings, is not supported by either Persian sources or authentic Sikh tradition. Gandhi’s picture of Ranjit Singh and his kingdom is admirably realistic, but one wonders about some questions remaining unasked: why was there such an absolute disinterest in the printing press at Lahore, now that lithography had arrived, and its use was so well established in even contemporary Nawabi Lucknow; and why was there such indifference to modern education, despite the existence of the Delhi College not far away?

Gandhi’s character sketches of the representatives of the British Raj after the annexation of the Punjab are obviously products of massive information well digested. Even the repulsive John Nicholson comes to life (pp 224-31, etc.). The Punjabi vs Hindustani hostility which the author considers to be so crucial a factor in 1857 was no doubt a reality, but perhaps, only partly. No hostility against Punjabis appears in the Delhi rebels’ organ, the Dehli Urdu Akhbar. In their reply to Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858, the rebels still raised the grievance of “the Chief of Lahore” (Dulip Singh) having been carried off to London. On the other hand, the National Archives preserves records of a contingent of Sikh soldiers fighting on the rebel side at Delhi that proclaim their unfailing loyalty to the rebel cause. These too should surely have found mention alongside the main story.

Gandhi tells, in a most convincing fashion, the story of how under the aegis of the Raj, three separate communal camps, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, began to form in the Punjab in the late 19th century, and how this seemed to overwhelm or at least restrain the urge for freedom from foreign rule at so many crucial moments down to the denouement of 1947. How one wishes it would have been otherwise! Strangely, Gandhi omits any reference to the Singapore Mutiny of 1915. This mutiny, practically entirely by Punjabi Muslim soldiers of the 5th Light Infantry, was believed officially to have been caused by Ghadarite propaganda. In the end, 47 of the soldiers were sentenced to death, tied to pillar posts and shot: “whatever their crime, their calm and dignity at the end was impressive,” remarked an observer. They too were sons of the Punjab — and not just those landlords, money-lenders and barristers who jostled for favours from the Raj.

However impartial in its treatment of the 1940s, as Gandhi’s narrative undoubtedly is, it is difficult not to sympathise with the Indian national leadership for the rebuffs it suffered in its dealings with the Muslim League. The utmost political concessions were offered from the Gandhi-Jinnah talks of 1944 onwards, but all were rebuffed until the “truncated” Pakistan, purely of British design, could be obtained.

Gandhi describes with impeccable honesty what so rapidly led to the holocaust of 1947 on both sides of the divided Punjab, including the deeds of that “cultural” organisation, the RSS. Everyone should read the latter part of Chapter 9 to understand what inhumanity means. But we have also to read the subsequent chapter on Insaniyat, Urdu for ‘humanity’ where we read of acts by ordinary individuals performed to save others. The actions of one man are, however, not there. Since the author has written a biography of Gandhiji, he probably felt he should not be repetitive. There is just one short paragraph on him in this context (p 378). But Gandhi’s valiant struggle to save Muslims in Delhi and Panipat and his fast of January 1948, are epic events in the history of India and the Punjab, and would have easily borne retelling.

Two small slips may be corrected in the next edition. On p 271, read ‘Nawab of Rampur’ instead of “Raja of Rampur”; and on p 302, instead of “a Congress Committee” which Motilal Nehru headed, read ‘an All-Parties Committee.’

For a hard-cover volume, excellently printed, the price is a moderate one. We would, perhaps, be a wiser nation, if more and more of us could read this book.

(Irfan Habib is a Marxist historian)

The Indian Express, 19 October 19 2013


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