The ‘new land’ in Punjab

Of total land allotted for new colonies, 80 per cent went to Muslims, mostly from Multan, Lahore & Amritsar Districts.

Ajmal Kamal July 20, 2012

Dr Indu Agnihotri of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, in her paper published in the Indian Economic Social History Review (1996) under the title “Ecology, land use and colonisation: The canal colonies of Punjab”, summarises the huge project as follows: “The over 13 million acres irrigated by the new schemes covered all or parts of the districts of Shahpur, Jhang, Gujranwala, Multan, Montgomery and Lahore, Lyallpur and Sheikhupura, in all of which lay the Colony tehsils, as they were known. Of these, the last two districts were carved out of previously existing districts in 1904 and 1920 respectively, in view of the tremendous influx of population into these districts.”

Dr Imran Ali, in his paper referred to in my last column, describes the “new schemes” in more detail. Here I summarise and quote from his paper so that we could familiarise ourselves with the contours of a complex story of human planning, endeavour and manipulation.

In the earliest project, Sidhnai Colony in Multan District, it was some Sikh Badechah Juts from Amritsar District who in 1886, tried out the soils. When cultivation was found to succeed, the future of the colony was ensured, and there was no shortage of applications for grants … Of the total land allotted, 80 per cent went to Muslims, mostly from Multan, Lahore and Amritsar Districts. The remaining area of 20 per cent was allotted to Hindus and Sikhs … numbering around 300 with an area of 57,000 bighas, coming predominantly from Lahore and Multan Districts.

Sohag Para Colony, with an allotted area of around 90,000 acres, was situated in Montgomery District and was settled in 1886-88. Jat Sikhs obtained 38 per cent of allotted area, or around 29,000 acres.

Lower Chenab Colony in the Rechna Doab, with an allotted area of over two million acres, was colonised between 1892 and 1905, with further extensions in the late 1910s and 1930s, and entirely took up the newly created Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) District, carved out of Gujranwala, Jhang and Lahore Districts. Jat Sikhs obtained 38 per cent of allotted area, or around 29,000 acres. There were 484 such grantees. Thirty-seven Khatri Sikhs from Rawalpindi District were allotted 3,500 acres, or 45 per cent of colony land. Their average size of holding was 95 acres, indicating landlord origins. These grants were linked to a very major land grant of 7,800 acres, or 10 per cent of colony land, allotted to Baba Sir Khem Singh Bedi, who was also from Rawalpindi. Bedi belonged to a family of Khatri Sikhs claiming descent from Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. The British believed that the family’s holy status gave it political influence in the Sikh community; and it had also supported them during the struggle of 1857. Two-thirds of the land went to immigrant allottees. These were Muslim and Sikh Jats, Muslim Arains apart from other Hindu and Sikh castes. A very sizeable intake of Sikh settlers from central Punjab occurred in the Rechna Doab. Since the major portion of soldiers in the army came from Punjab, military considerations continued to be an important underlying influence on land utilisation in the canal colonies.

Chunian Colony, with an allotted area of 103,000 acres, was situated in the southern part of Lahore District. It was settled in two stages, between 1896-98 and 1904-06. Grantees were predominantly from within Lahore District, among them Jat Sikhs were the best represented. In the area colonised in 1896-98, they comprised around 35 per cent of grantees. Around 12,000 acres were sold by auction, 5,000 acres were allotted in ‘civil’ grants to retired government officials. And 2,000 acres were allotted to military pensioners, whose share was to increase significantly in later colonies.

In the Lower Jhelum Colony, the military presence was far more pervasive. Larger holdings, known as Yeoman Horse-breeding (ghori-pal) grants, were allotted to members of elite rural families. They were required to maintain several mares (ghoris), at the rate of 40 acres per mare. Developed between 1902 and 1906, the colony was situated in the Shahpur District, with its headquarters in the newly founded town of Sargodha. Like its predecessors, the colony was originally intended to be settled with civilian colonists, to be drawn from north-western Punjab, a predominantly Muslim region. The feeling had grown that too much land had passed to central Punjab and to non-Muslims … Agitations demanding the termination of horse-breeding, or at least relief from primogeniture, periodically shook the colony. The growing discontent against horse-breeding was often centred around Sikh villages, where Akali and Congress sentiments found sympathy. But the military prerogative was such that the British held on to horse-breeding, till it was finally abolished in 1940.

Nili Bar Colony was situated in the Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and Multan Districts. The scheme covered approximately 800,000 acres of land with perennial irrigation, and 260,000 acres with non-perennial irrigation. The unique feature of Nili Bar Colony was that over 360,000 acres, or 45 per cent of perennially-irrigated land, was reserved for sale by auction. Thus for their numbers Sikhs, as well as Hindus, did obtain a disproportionate amount of land, an indication of their stronger economic standing.

The above facts may not be able to present anything resembling a complete picture; they are still useful as they indicate the kind of pressures under which a rapid change was being forced into the society in western Punjab. In Dr Agnihotri’s words, “the extension of canal irrigation meant throwing the weight of the Imperial Regime behind pushing settled agriculture. This marked the extension of the long arm of the state into the very nature and rhythm of life as well as changes in their actual and perceived status”.

Like all such huge interventions, the process had its beneficiaries and victims. The direct victims were the original inhabitants, derogatively called ‘janglis’, who were dispossessed in most senses. Another victim was the environment itself, the degradation of which affected many communities. There were political fallouts, too, which will be discussed in this space later.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2012.

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