In European history, the middle class played an important role as an agent of change to transform society. It was patronised by the rulers to encounter feudal lords who challenged their authority and rebelled against them. To empower the middle class, the rulers granted them charters to trade abroad and to take the responsibility of the administration of cities where they established municipalities.
Gradually, the emerging class or the bourgeois became prominent in the cities and succeeded in changing the prevalent feudal culture by building their own social and cultural setup according to changing times. For the middle class, time and work became important values. Time was considered precious and work was regulated on the basis of time.
Secondly, no work was considered degrading and people who worked earned respect in society. The middle class was keen on the promotion of education hence a trained professional class emerged which included bankers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, artists and scholars. Cities became the hub of trade, commerce and educational activities and the German saying, ‘Stadtluft macht frei or ‘urban air makes you free’ expressed the significance of the new culture.
The middle class played a significant role in making Renaissance successful. The city of Florence was ruled by the rising merchant class and the influential Medici family of Florence and the Borgia family of Rome patronised art, architecture and literature while the aristocracy was expelled from the cities. Architects, sculptors, and artists embellished the cities with new buildings, statues and decoration of churches and palaces.
Works of scholars, writers, poets, sculptors and artists including Dante, Petrach and Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Michael Angelo foreshadowed the dramatic change happening in Italy. The Italian Renaissance began in Tuscany, centered in the cities of Florence and Siena and later had a significant impact on Venice, where the remains of ancient Greek culture provided humanist scholars with new texts.
After reformation, the role of the middle class shifted to central and western Europe. In the 17th century, England, France and Holland chartered their merchant classes for overseas trade. Trading and shipping companies led to the emergence of new professions such as insurance agents, shareholders, clerks, as well as impacting the structure of the market. With profit and professional skills, this class became rich, talented and useful to society although it had no political power which still lay with the ruling feudal lords.
In 1789 began a period of radical, social and political upheaval in France that had a major impact on the political, social, and economic structure. The middle class, with the help of masses was successful in overthrowing the old regime. The wave of revolution continued through 1830 to 1848. Likewise, the English parliament was forced to pass the Great Reform Act in 1832 which changed the British electoral system.
In India, the middle class appeared during the colonial period, when modern education produced new professionals required by new administrative institutions. Besides government officials, there were lawyers, bankers, doctors and teachers who were keen on playing an active role in politics. In 1885, when the Congress party was founded; it consisted mainly of the Indian middle class.
Bengal was divided by the British in 1905 into West Bengal and East Bengal, with East Bengal being more or less coterminous with modern Bangladesh. Since the new province had a majority of Muslim population, the partition was welcomed by Muslims, but it was fiercely resented by Indian nationalist leaders who saw it as an attempt to drive a wedge between Muslims and Hindus. The partition was withdrawn in 1911, but it had pointed the way to the events of 1947, when British India was partitioned into the states of India and Pakistan.
When in 1906 All India Muslim League was founded, its members belonged to feudal as well as the nascent Muslim middle class. When Waqar-ul-Mulk took it to Aligarh, it was under the control of middle class. The Simla Deputation of 1909 did not include any landlords as members. In fact, the Muslim League became a feudal party (1946) after partition when the landlords of Punjab and Sindh became its members.
The middle class in Pakistan became weak when Hindus, Sikhs and other non-Muslim communities migrated from Punjab and Sindh to India. These immigrants had no roots in the local culture and traditions and hence failed to become agents of change.
In Sindh the new middle class emerged in the 1950s. Since its emergence, it became involved in ethnic conflict. In Punjab, the middle class is associated with the army and bureaucracy which have hampered its role in political or social change. In Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the limited middle class survived under tribal leaders.
In Pakistan, the middle class cannot play a role in transforming society as it appears to be under the influence of landlords and tribal leaders who use it for their own vested interests.