The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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THE INDIAN ARMY AND THE MAKING OF PUNJAB By Rajit K. Mazumdar, Permanent Black, Rs 595

In 1988, Clive Dewey had written an article about the positive economic impact of British military expenditure on colonial Punjab. The British-Indian army had a large number of Punjabis in it. The government not only gave them land, but also made massive investments in roads, railways and canals, with the result that there was a spurt in agricultural development then.

Rajit Mazumdar repeats Dewey’s argument but in a far more elaborate form. Both have concentrated on the period between 1880 and 1920. Dewey had done a micro study of the Sind Sagar district while Mazumdar focuses on the district of Amritsar. Most of the Punjabi-Muslim recruits of the sepoy army came from the Sind Sagar area, while Amritsar supplied the Sikh soldiers to the raj. The British built railways in Punjab because of strategic considerations. And this helped the peasants to sell wheat to the numerous cantonments in colonial Punjab at high prices. The peasants’ sons went on to join the army. Both Dewey and Mazumdar assert that the savings from pay and pension enabled the soldiers’ families to increase their holdings and make further investments in agriculture. This had a multiplier effect on Punjab’s economy.

In conclusion, Mazumdar observes that the economic gains which the British rule brought were a key factor behind the reluctance of the Punjab peasantry to join the Congress. On the other hand, the crucial question of retaining the loyalty of the “martial” Punjabis prevented the state from taking any action against the peasants. This was evident in the manner in which the Akali agitation for control over the holy shrines was handled by the British. There is nothing new in Mazumdar’s monograph except that it offers data on Amritsar which was missing in Dewey’s article. But Mazumdar’s argument is weaker than Dewey’s as some generalizations have been made.

Making a secondary argument, Mazumdar says that before World War I there was the probability of a revolt among the Sikh regiments over the British proposal of raising the taxes in the canal colonies. Mazumdar assumes that since this had angered the peasants, the sepoys would have been angry too. Behind his argument lies the assumption that the sepoys were merely peasants in uniform. A host of military sociologists (Jacqueous van Doorn, Morris Janowitz to name a few) have shown that though the military is influenced by the host society owing to the way the military bureaucracy functions and army culture, the military mind cannot be equated either with the peasant mentality (in case of an agrarian society) or with the workers’ ethos (in case of an industrialized society).

In fact, a close study of the court martial records and unpublished regimental history shows that the Punjabis remained loyal to their white masters. The Punjabi soldiers were more concerned with their professional grievances (for example, the quality of rations) than with agrarian issues or rural unrest. If the raj ordered the sepoys to shoot their own countrymen, then they would have clicked their heels and carried out the order. And this is what happened in Jalianwala Bagh and later in 1942 during the Quit India movement.

Mazumdar’s book is a case of lost opportunities. He could have mentioned the inter-war period and World War II during which the Punjabis’ loyalty to the British took a reverse turn. He could have also analyzed the links between military services and the militarization of the society. This would have opened new avenues in the study of Punjabi society in a colonial state.

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