Punjab was the last sovereign state to fall to the East India Company. It was annexed on March 29, 1849, a decade after the death of Maha Raja Ranjit Singh who ruled supreme for 40 years. He was the first local resident since the capture of Punjab by Mahmud of Ghazna in the early 11th century to ascend the throne in the aftermath of Ahmed Shah Abdali’s invasions which left Punjab and Northern India in a state of utter ruin.
A folk saying ‘khada peeta lahe da, baqi Ahmed shahe da (what you can consume may be of some benefit to you, the rest is taken away by Ahmed Shah) very aptly describes how people suffered during that period of anarchy as a result of weakened Mughal rule. The great bard of Punjab, Waris Shah, too explicitly hinted at the threat the Afghan marauder posed: ‘Chadia gazab da katak Kandhar vichon (a terrible army started its march from Kandhar) / Ahmed Shah az gab thin aan pausi (Ahmed Shah will descend from nowhere and strike)’.
The weakened Mughal rule attracted the Afghan invasions which further weakened its tenuous grip on power and thus enabling the persecuted Sikh peasantry lead by warlords to make a successful bid for power in Punjab. Ranjit Singh was like Emperor Akbar -- illiterate but wise, supporter of religious diversity but secular. Ranjit Singh was a modern mind -- flexible and open to new ideas. The evidence is amply provided by all the Europeans who had the chance to meet him and also by the fact that he employed the Italian, French and American free lance military wizards in order to modernise his army to meet the challenge posed by East India Company that had already captured large swathes of the subcontinent. His rule was a spectacular success but like all Eastern monarchs he failed on one count; he could not evolve a mechanism of transfer of power that ensured the peaceful succession.
The uninterrupted evolution of modern European society is underpinned by a specific concept of transfer of power which distinguishes it from all other hitherto known civilizations. Such a mechanism ensures on the hand the regime change in a peaceful manner and on the other confers legitimacy on those who succeed. That is one of the reasons why the western society has been unstoppable in its march on the path of growth and development; material and intellectual.
After the annexation, Punjab underwent an irreversible transformation like rest of the subcontinent that ushered in a new world, gradually destroying economic and social edifice that rested on what is called self-sufficient village unit. The introduction of machine-based production accompanied by other institutions like modern schools, hospitals, telecommunication infrastructure, asphalt roads, railways and Anglo Saxon politico-legal system changed the face of Punjab forever. The unique fiat that the British accomplished in Punjab was the establishment of a huge irrigation system based on an intricate canal network fed by five rivers. The rivers have been there since immemorial times but no one, including Ashoka, Akbar and Ranjit Singh, thought of channeling the rivers and irrigating the vast wild plains of Punjab.
It were the British who with the newly dug canals brought the large areas of ‘Sandal Bar’ ‘Gangi Bar’, 'Nili Bar’ and erstwhile princely state of Bahawalpur under cultivation in the west Punjab, exponentially boosting the agrarian production. The increased agrarian production helped expand the old cities and create new towns and markets. Despite the exploitation of peasantry and other working classes in the shape of appropriation of economic surplus by the British, the quality of life improved. But what had a stunning impact was the new legal/judicial system that introduced the concept of rule of law.
It was inconceivable in a caste ridden and hierarchy driven society that a Brahman and an untouchable and a Muslim lord and a ‘Kammi’ (traditional menial worker) could be equal before the law. Talk to any elder who is in his late 70s about the ‘good old times’. He without batting his eyelid would heap praises on the ‘Gora Raj’ (rule of the white) with mention of its judicial system that did not discriminate on the basis of caste, creed and colour. He would spend hours reminiscing about the times when colonial authorities dispensed justice to ordinary people and the mighty were brought low. ‘Insaaf Gore da’ (white man knew how to do justice) is a common phrase among the Punjab’s elders which encapsulates their experience of colonial rule that exposes the hollowness of national narratives of Pakistan and India flaunted by their ruling elites.
The ‘abhorrent’ concept of ‘equal before the law’ was never accepted except under coercion by the predatory ruling segments of the subcontinent. Even long after the national independence the law, though there on the paper, is invariably circumvented and used as a stick to do selective justice to the disadvantage of the people. It is because of the ‘hollow men’ and ‘stuffed men’ at the helms of affairs who are unwilling to uphold the rule of law and dispense justice in a fair manner that the elders find them more devious and authoritarian than the British colonialists. They in fact proved Winston Churchill, a great exponent of colonialism, right who in his speech on the Indian independence in March 1947 in the British Parliament declared ‘the Indian political parties and political classes do not represent the Indian masses’. It is the dismal functioning of the post colonial state/states and the shenanigans of the ruling cliques that imparts to the remembrance of things past the dream like quality among our elders.
At the risk of offending the patriots both on the right and the left it may be asserted with empirical evidence that Punjab under the colonial rule made huge progress, materially and socially. Nobody is pushed to know what Punjab actually lost under the colonial rule which is a symptom of collective dementia. Punjab lost its soul i.e. its language. With the loss of language we lost not only a glorious literary tradition spread over a thousand years but also imperceptibly drifted away from our culture, history and collective subconscious which were inexorably linked with it. We have to revisit the colonial era and re-asses our loss and gain objectively shedding our ill-driven ideological imperatives if we want to salvage what is left of our cultural and spiritual life. — email@example.com