Like any other significant event in history, the War of Independence of 1857 has captivated historians since long, inspiring many pieces of literature devoted to understanding it. Plenty of such works have focused solely on the epicentres of the uprising, namely Delhi and Meerut, without discussing the events that unfolded in Punjab. The few writings that do focus on the Punjab uprising, mostly fail to fully appreciate the resistance staged by the masses, which was overshadowed by, and in stark contrast to, the loyalty of the ruling elite towards the British.
In his book titled Punjab and the War of Independence 1857-1858: From Collaboration to Resistance, Turab Ul Hassan Sargana sheds light on the complex role of Punjab in the Uprising, breaking what he calls “a historiographical silence” on the subject.
Although the main objective of Sargana’s study is incredibly specific, he proffers readers a brief summary of Punjab’s history to get them acquainted with the forthcoming discussions. This includes the gradual decline of the Mughal empire, the ensuing chaos and the eventual annexation of the province by the British empire. Sargana then explores the influential families of Punjab that collaborated with the British, and their motivations for doing so. The focus then shifts to the events of the Uprising itself, with the rebellions being described in great detail. Furthermore, Sargana evaluates the causes of the uprisings and the steps taken by the British to crush them. In the last chapter, he puts forth a variety of factors that helped tip the odds in favour of the British.
The author begins by diving into Punjab’s history, from Greek occupation to the late Mughal era and subsequent Sikh rule, followed by the British annexation. A decisive point in Punjab’s history was the death of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, which plunged the region into turmoil. This was followed by incursions by Nadir Shah of Persia (in 1738-39) and Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan (several times between 1747 and 1769), to gain control of the province. The province was again thrust into anarchy after the death of the all-powerful Ranjit Singh in 1839, and widespread unrest led to the Anglo-Sikh wars being fought from 1845 to 1849. Emerging victorious, the British annexed the province in 1849.
In the second chapter, Sargana outlines the collaborative role of Punjabi clan chiefs in curbing the Uprising. Their desire to aid the British stemmed from the generous rewards the British had bestowed upon them for their help during the Anglo-Sikh wars, around 10 years earlier. In exchange for providing troops, horses, essential supplies and intelligence, the local chiefs received land grants, cash rewards, increased pensions and honorary titles from the British government.
A meticulously researched and compelling book juxtaposes the role of Punjab’s elites with that of the masses during the Uprising of 1857...
In the third chapter, Sargana seeks to uncover the motivations of the elite that spurred their unwavering loyalty to the British. Because of a unique set of circumstances, both Muslim and Sikh chiefs pledged their support. The Muslim chiefs had already been generously rewarded for their commitment during the Anglo-Sikh wars, so it was only natural for them to side with the British again. The Sikh chiefs, on the other hand, were bound by the Treaty of Amritsar — signed in 1809 between Charles Metcalf, representative of the British East India Company, and Ranjit Singh — to stand with the British army in times of war. Other factors include economic benefits during wartime unrest, the prosperity of the agriculturalists and the opportunity to regain confiscated lands.
Having elucidated the motives of the elite, Sargana then walks the reader through the events of the Uprising. The author’s narrative of the ‘rebellions’ that occurred in various districts — the ones in Gogera and Murree being the most significant — is very elaborate. But the salient objective of this chapter is examining the factors that inspired the masses to revolt, key among them being the declining position of the British at Delhi, growing missionary activities and the land ownership policy — under which the British unfairly redistributed lands when their owners couldn’t provide documents of ownership.
In the last chapter, the author lists the numerous elements that contributed to the Uprising’s failure. Prime among them was the lack of organisation among the ‘rebels’ and the lack of unity in general and inter-clan strife in particular, the most notable of which were the clashes between the Wattoo and Bharwana tribes and the Wattoo and Fatiana tribes. Here, Sargana also looks at the role spies played in wrecking the ‘rebellion’.
One primary theme of Sargana’s work is the juxtaposition of the role of Punjab’s elites with that of the masses. The former overshadows the latter, and is incorrectly believed to be the principal stance of the whole of Punjab. This ‘top-down’ approach, favoured by many historians, undermines the struggle of the freedom fighters and their motives behind aspiring for independence.
The British had, over time, become unpopular in the eyes of the working-class demographic, and their stringent policies further fuelled the citizens’ aspirations for independence. When these wistful aspirations turned into open rebellions, the British crushed them with excessive vigour, inflicting brutal punishments on those caught. The plight of these freedom fighters, who numbered in the thousands, was in stark contrast to the advantageous position enjoyed by the elite for their services to the British Raj.
Structurally, Sargana’s work is quite well organised and methodical, with each chapter dedicated to a specific discussion. The chapters are closely linked and work together to make his argument cohesive and wholesome. Moreover, accounts of families and districts, influential personalities and the key events of the Uprising are meticulously detailed. And, while Sargana makes effective use of the more conventional sources of information, a very engaging feature of his book is the use of a very unconventional source to extract data: dholas, or Punjabi folklore songs. Some academics might be prejudiced in their choice of sources, so it is very appreciable that Sargana is cognisant of the fact that valuable data can emerge from anywhere.
On the flip side, although he conducts an in depth analysis in his study, had Sargana included excerpts from the works or opinions of other writers analysing Punjab’s role in the Uprising — especially those writers who adopt the top-down approach mentioned earlier — it would have further augmented his reasoning. Sargana could have then easily contrasted them with his own central argument and pointed out exactly how these writers err in their interpretations.
As it stands, though, Punjab and the War of Independence 1857-1858 is a captivating and insightful read and enhances one’s understanding of Punjab’s complex role in the Uprising. In a broader context, it plays a vital role in emphasising the fact that, contrary to popular belief, the Punjabi masses were not entirely collaborative and peaceful during the Uprising.
The reviewer is a history buff and studies at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Punjab and the War of Independence
1857-1858: From Collaboration to Resistance
By Turab Ul Hassan Sargana
Oxford University Press, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 1st, 2020