GENERAL perception about Punjab’s role in 1857 war of freedom is not so positive. It is perceived that not only did the people of Punjab not put any resistance against the British, but Punjab rather cooperated with the colonialists.
This misconception about Punjab’s ‘negative’ role in 1857 freedom war got greater acceptance perhaps because of a lack of research in this area. There has been a vacuum in historiographical research on the topic and any books written on the issue, if at all, presumed that Punjab as a whole had collaborated and cooperated with the British.
Turabul Hasan Sargana dug up historical records to find the truth and his research work was awarded a doctoral degree. Published in English in 2020, it has now been published in Urdu, titled Punjab Aur Jang-i-Azadi 1857-58: Ishtiraak Se Muzahamat Tak (Punjab and 1857-58 Freedom War: From Collaboration to Resistance).
Sargana is of the view that history is, up to some extent, silent on the issue and whatever little is written on it is from an elitist point of view. Since most of the feudal lords, nawabs, big landowners and heads of princely states had cooperated with the British, some historians indirectly suggested that the entire populace of the province of Punjab had sided with the British. This approach needed a reappraisal and with this view Sargana began his research.
The author stresses that during the 1857 war of freedom, the reaction from different parts of the subcontinent varied according to the circumstances and interests of the people. The freedom war lacked a centralised command and control mechanism so some areas revolted against the British, but many remained calm as their interests were not at stake. British policies, too, varied and for different parts of the country different strategies were designed. For instance, in Northern India, British had confiscated the lands granted to feudal lords, but in Punjab this policy was not adopted. The British, therefore, were able to command support from the sardars (leaders of the clans), feudal lords and local rulers in Punjab. Secondly, adds Sargana, Punjab was annexed relatively late, in 1849, and the people of Punjab who had been reeling from the upheaval of Sikh rule in Punjab, had breathed a sigh of relief, being comparatively content because of improved law and order situation under the British rule.
In a chapter the author has explained certain causes that resulted in support for the British from certain quarters in Punjab. Firstly, writes Sargana, landed property, prizes and pensions were offered to Muslim feudal lords in Punjab and some of them already wanted their lands back that had been taken over during Sikh reign in Punjab. British were quick to exploit strong hostility between Muslims and Sikhs. They allowed generous favours to those who had supported them during Anglo-Sikh wars and beneficiaries included both Sikh and Muslim sardars (chieftains).
There is no denying the fact that Punjab was not the centre of resistance against the British rule while other parts, such as central and northern India, had put up a brave and much wider resistance, yet Punjab was not altogether indifferent to the freedom struggle. Another chapter describes how some areas in Punjab, such as Gogira, Murree, Jhajjar, Haryana and Ludhiana had offered a staunch resistance. Other areas from where minor resistance was reported included district of Jhelum, Peshawar valley and adjoining areas (since administratively they were part of Punjab back then), district of Sialkot and district of Lahore. Sargana has also analysed what caused Punjab’s resistance to fail.
The premise that has been proved with evidence says that colonial-era historiographers did not properly take into account the resistance that Punjab had offered during the 1857 war of freedom, neither did they highlight the role of the people of Punjab during this struggle. The research work under review has taken into account the roles played by both the elite class and the people of Punjab. This also helps understand the role our feudal lords and representatives of elite class play in today’s political arena of Pakistan since the feudal families that had cooperated with the British in Punjab and KP (former NWFP) are still playing all-important role in today’s Pakistani politics.
Published by Oxford University Press Pakistan, the book is a well-researched and well-documented study, sifting through historical evidences, gazetteers, British-era government reports, administrative reports, censuses, proceedings and correspondence about the so-called ‘mutiny’ (read: struggle to fend off a foreign occupying force), not to mention books, research papers and some unpublished research works.
Turabul Hasan Sargana has a PhD from Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University and has taught at different colleges in Punjab. Currently, he is associated with the department of history at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University.
Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2023