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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2677

Pakistan's garrison state legacy

By *Prof Ishtiaq Ahmed - Syndicate Features

In his seminal work, The Garrison State: The Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947 (New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 2005) Tan Tai Yong, a prominent historian of the colonial Punjab era, at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore advances the thesis that Pakistan, not India, is the heir to the garrison state legacy of British colonial rule. A garrison state is one which relies heavily on its fortification and military prowess to ward off internal and external threats.

The author asserts that when the British conquered the Punjab in 1949, the policy adopted was to excluding Punjabis, especially Sikhs, from military duty because it was feared that they could be a threat to their interests. However, the 1857 uprising led by north Indian purbiyas forced a change of policy, and the Sikhs as well as Muslims from the western districts were mobilised to crush that rebellion.

The 1857 trauma made the British fully aware of the fact that they ruled India by the force of arms and could hold on to it also by the same token. Therefore they must build a strong and formidable military apparatus. However, given the harsh climate and other difficulties a large fighting force comprising European troops could not be maintained permanently. The British Indian Army had to be recruited locally.

Moreover, from the second half of the 19th century the fear of a Russian advance into India began to haunt British strategic planning. Because of its geographical location, Punjab became the natural frontline province from where the British took part in the Great Game against perceived Russian and later German threats.

A theory of ‘martial races’ was devised to raise a strong, but dependent army. The groups chosen were: The Khalsa Sikh Jats, especially those of the Manjha region around Amritsar, Muslims tribes such as the Ghakkars, Janjuas, Awans and Tiwanas of the Salt Range tract including Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Shahpur districts, smaller numbers of Hindu Jats of Rothak and Hissar in south-eastern Punjab (present-day Haryana), and some Dogras from Kangra.

The three major groups faced acute economic hardship in their districts—overpopulation and land fragmentation in the Manjha, scarce and poor quality land in the rain-fed broken hills of the Salt Range, and recurring famines in the south-eastern districts where the Hindu Jats were located. Moreover, historical enmity existed between the Sikhs and the Muslims of the Salt Range because Maharaja Ranjit Singh had inflicted defeat on their elders and curtailed their power. These three groups did not share strong fraternal bonds and were recruited in different companies and regiments but with the overall unified command of British officers.

Besides such careful selection of ‘class’ and ‘military districts’ the British evolved a sophisticated system of rewarding those connected to the army. Regular pay and allowances, land grants, especially in the canal colonies of western Punjab, pensions and other economic benefits were available to the soldiers as well as those who helped recruit them.

These included the tribal and clan leaders, village headmen, zaildars, sufedposhs and other men of influence in the rural areas. Titles such as khan bahadur, nawab and even sir were conferred on them. During World War I Punjab supplied some 60 per cent of the total soldiers raised from India and during War II one-third.

Through the Land Alienation Act of 1900, the British made sure that its rural support base in the Punjab was safeguarded against moneylenders and rising urban entrepreneurs. In political terms too a rural bias was present in the electoral reforms of 1919 and 1935. The constituencies were formed in a manner that members from the rural areas constituted the majority. The right to vote was limited by property and land tax qualifications.

Simultaneously the government maintained the threat of cancellation and confiscation of titles and land grants if their bearers did not cooperate in supplying soldiers to the Indian Army and in containing trouble in their areas. A conflict with the Sikhs broke out in the 1920s over the control of gurdwaras. It resulted in some casualties but was resolved with the orthodox Sikhs being given the charge of their holy places.

The political linchpin of British rule in the Punjab was the Unionist Party founded by Sir Fazl-e-Hussain (died 1936) and later led by Sir Sikander Hayat Khan (died 1942) and supported by Sir Chhottu Ram (died 1945), the leader of Hindu Jats. The Punjab Unionist Party enlisted the support of the Sikh Khalsa Nationalist Party representing loyalist Sikh landlords. This coalition ruled the Punjab. Nationalist and revolutionary forces found little support in the Punjab. Therefore despite many efforts the Congress Party failed to develop a mass base.

However, the Unionist model began to crumble and the garrison state cracked when the Muslim League entered Punjab politics in the 1940s with its slogan of Pakistan. Hitherto the Punjab Muslim League was a minor player. It enjoyed the support mainly of the Muslim intelligentsia and some urban professionals. From 1943 onwards it began loudly to blame the successor of Sir Sikander, Sir Khizr Tiwana, of betraying Muslim interests by opposing the demand for Pakistan.

More importantly, it joined hands with the British in the war effort, offering to use its influence to help recruit soldiers from the towns and cities of Punjab and from a social base that included castes hitherto not included among the martial races. Supply of soldiers from the rural areas, the stronghold of the Unionists, had been declining as World War II dragged on. The British increasingly began to recognise the Muslim League as the main representative of Muslims of India.

Moreover, challenges to Khizr from disgruntled colleagues resulted in splits and desertions in the Unionist Party. By the election of 1946 the former Punjab Unionist Party had virtually become the Punjab Muslim League as almost all the Muslim landlords had joined the latter.

Thus when Pakistan came into being in August 1947, the Muslim League was no longer the party of the erstwhile Muslim intelligentsia or progressive reformers who wanted to create an egalitarian Islamic utopia; it had become a party of conservative landlords. Moreover, the Pakistani Punjab emerged as the most powerful province and the sword arm of the new state. The Pakistani army was essentially a Punjabi army.

Both such factors combined to pass on the legacy of the garrison state to Pakistan, argues Tan Tai Yong. The book is a painstaking and meticulous research undertaking based on extensive use of government documents. Such works deserve to be translated into Urdu and Hindi and made available to the wider public.

*Prof Ishtiaq Ahmed is a visiting senior research fellow Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

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