A people’s history of the Punjab: Rise of the middle class

Dr Manzur Ejaz says the arrival of the British Raj and their establishment of institutions of education unleashed the province’s creative potential

Government college Lahore, founded in 1888: the foremost institution to educate the Punjabi middle class

Sardar Dayal Singh Majithia – a proud son of Lahore

The British crushed protests ruthlessly

The Forman Christian College University, Lahore, remains a training ground for the middle classes

In the Punjab, the Khatris were the dominant caste unlike in the rest of India where Brahmans dominated. Centuries of Muslim rule had weakened the caste system in the Punjab, therefore the Khatris with their education and hard work began to dominate civic life. With the exception of communities of Kashmiri Pandits, in the Indus Valley, the area that now constitutes Pakistan, non-Brahman Hindus enjoyed a more egalitarian existence than elsewhere in India

Enterprising and robust by nature, urban Punjabis flocked to schools, colleges and universities and many intellectuals from Delhi sought refuge in Lahore after the Mutiny of 1857. By the 1870s, Lahore was way ahead in education and Urdu and Persian literary activity than any other urban centre in North India

After hundreds of years of invasions from the north, the Punjab became stable and at peace with itself under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, notwithstanding the ten year anarchy after his death from 1839-1849. However, when the British conquered the Punjab and made Lahore their capital, the province prospered with huge opportunities opening up for the rising middle class. In a mere fifty years, Lahore’s middle classes entered all sorts of modern professions as well as the government bureaucracy. Many who became lawyers, barristers, doctors, scientists, academics and businessmen came from humble backgrounds and climbed the ladder through their integrity and industry, attributes which were prized by the British.A

Most of the new opportunities were availed of by the Hindu Khatris, and amongst them by the subcastes of Banias and the Aroras. In the Punjab, the Khatris were the dominant caste unlike in the rest of India where Brahmans dominated. Centuries of Muslim rule had weakened the caste system in the Punjab, therefore the Khatris with their education and hard work began to dominate civic life. With the exception of communities of Kashmiri Pandits, in the Indus Valley, the area that now constitutes Pakistan, non-Brahman Hindus enjoyed a more egalitarian existence than elsewhere in India. Writing about the Khatris, a British observer of the time maintained: “besides monopolizing the trades … they are in the Punjab civil service, and have all the literary work of the province on their hands”. At the end of the First World War, 45,000 individuals out of a total population of 280,000 were dependent on business and the civil services whilst other professions employed about 42,000 of which around 5,000 were in medicine and education. These figures show how forward looking Lahore had become.

The socio-religious background of the individuals in these professions is revealing. Although 149,044 (53%) of Lahore’s total population of 280,000 in were Muslim, they were almost absent from business, the civil services or other modern professions. The majority of Muslims were either artisans or workers employed in the craft and manufacturing industries. The backwardness of Muslims was a stark phenomenon in the business savvy city of Lahore.

Some historians maintain that since Punjab’s Sikh rulers were reluctant to hire Muslims in government services, they lagged behind in the acquisition of skills. This does not seem to be valid because the Sikh Raj was too short, about fifty years in total, and many Muslims like the Faqir family occupied the highest offices in Ranjit Singh’s darbar. Similarly, Jarnail Ilahi Bakhsh was the chief of Ranjit Singh’s topkhana (artillery).

Other than the Persian speaking foreign elite, locally converted Muslims were not given jobs in the Mughal administration in preference to better qualified Hindus. Low caste converts to Islam were referred to generically as “Julaha” (weavers) and were looked down upon by the Persian-speaking Mughal elite. A Mughal era historian, Zia-ud-din advised Muslim rulers not to educate the “lowly converts to Islam” because, in his view, it would “bring more evil than good to the empire”. The Mughals much preferred to hire upper caste Hindu converts to Islam and therefore, the backwardness of the Muslim masses had its roots in the system established by the Mughals.

Opportunity presented itself with the opening up of the educational system by the British. Being enterprising and robust by nature, urban Punjabis flocked to schools, colleges and universities and many intellectuals from Delhi sought refuge in the Punjab after the Mutiny of 1857. By the 1870s, Lahore was way ahead in education and Urdu and Persian literary activity than any other urban centre in North India. The Punjab’s first medical college was established in 1860 and the first law college in 1870. Other than these professional institutions, Government College was founded in 1888, Forman Christian College in 1866, Dyanand Anglo-Vedic College in 1888, Islamia College by the Anjmun-i-Himayat-i-Islam in 1892 and Dayal Singh College was established in the same period by the Brahmo Samaj. Besides these, Kinnaird College for Women came into being in 1932 and Aitchison Chiefs’ College was established in 1888 to educate the feudal aristocracy of the Punjab.

This rapidly educating middle class also gave a new boost to industry, commerce and finance. The Land Alienation Act of 1900 that prohibited non-agrarians from owning land – a measure meant to save farmers from moneylenders – also diverted capital towards industry and finance. Industries in Lahore increased from 50 in 1901 to 155 in 1913. The capital invested in such companies increased from Rs. 15,681,000 to Rs. 63,566,941 in a mere decade.

Punjabi entrepreneurship was exemplified by tycoons like Lala Harkishan Lal who was born into a poor family of Khatris from a far flung place called Layyah. He was educated in Lahore and then at Cambridge University. Lal returned to India after finishing his studies and taught at Government College Lahore for a while, but he was an entrepreneur at heart and he floated several financial companies to provide capital to indigenous industries. However, till the Land alienation Act was promulgated none of his ventures prospered. It was a different story after the Land Alienation Act. Between 1901 and 1906 Lal’s financial empire grew to include banks, insurance companies, real estate, soap-making, brick kilns, saw mills and ice factories. And, by no means was he the only entrepreneur: the rapid increase in the number of Punjabi companies indicates the emergence of a large pool of people like him.

The appointment of Sir Michael O’Dwyer as Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab induced an industrial crisis and political complications for the urban middle classes of Lahore. O’Dwyer had served as a district officer and had developed an authoritarian attitude. He believed that the British Raj was benevolent and owed a special obligation to the peasantry which, in his view, was being skinned by urban moneylenders and lawyers. In his view most urban classes were parasites and therefore he never made any effort to appease them. He was immensely popular amongst the peasantry but he outraged the urban elites from the first speech he made after taking over the Governor’s House in 1913.

O’Dwyer was not only hostile to the urban classes but he also got involved in an intrigue to ruin Lala Harkishen Lal’s industrial and financial empire. Besides being a financial wizard, Lal actively participated in politics as President of the Indian Association of Lahore and was a delegate to the Indian National Congress. He also controlled the only English paper in Lahore till 1904. Therefore, Lal became the target of O’Dwyer’s wrath and that of British financial institutions.

Unfortunately for the British, Lala Harkishen Lala was revered position in the city of Lahore but this popularity had also earned him enemies, of whom the Arya Samaj and British sponsored banks were the most prominent. He had launched his first financial venture, Punjab National Bank in 1895 with the help of Dayal Singh Majithia, a member of the old elite of Lahore. After Majithia’s death in 1896, Lal’s position was weakened. Arya Samaj hatched a conspiracy with the British and ousted him from the Punjab National Bank’s governing body. But Lal was not one to give up easily. He floated the People’s Bank of Lahore which accumulated deposits of Rs 15,000,000 in no time on account of his sterling reputation. British sponsored banks like National Bank of India, Chartered Bank and Alliance Bank felt threatened by indigenous financiers like Lala Harkishen Lal. While Lal believed that India could prosper only if the country’s capital was invested in indigenous industries, British banks raised capital for traders who imported goods from the United Kingdom. By various machinations, O’Dwyer made sure to bring down Lala Harkishen Lal and this caused distress to many sections of Lahore’s middle class.

In turn, O’Dwyer precipitated a crisis of confidence in urban areas which came on the heels of inflationary pressures that emerged around 1914. These circumstances adversely affected the poor, who were mostly Muslims. These were the reasons that led to every section of society rising up against the British in 1920 at Mahatma Gandhi’s call against the draconian Rowlatt Act. Lala Harkishen Lal had his own scores to settle against the British while he was participating in and leading the Satyagraha movement in the Punjab. Muslim artisans and workers joined the movement because of their impoverishment due to the rising cost of living.

Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia

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2 responses to “A people’s history of the Punjab: Rise of the middle class

  1. The Sikhism – Beyond Eternity

  2. Asif Wahab Khan

    You havn’t written anything else on history of punjabi people that where does they come from, who are they in actual with respect to their ancestors. I just want to say that please trace back for us their ancestors, the remote ones, in hierarchal way and also their identity!

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