Pre-partition Punjab witnessed many peasant struggles, which bequeathed a rich legacy for later generations of farmers. With agriculture being the mainstay of the majority of its populace, and given the unregulated and oppressive system of local moneylending accompanied by heavy land revenues and water taxes, peasant struggles became a routine occurrence during pre-Partition Punjab (for details see: Darling 1977 ; Barrier 1966: Chps 1-3; Barrier 1967). After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the British government put its entire land in the state under meticulously devised legal control (Barrier 1967: 355-358). Another major project undertaken by the British Raj was the canalisation of large tracts of barren land, leading to the advent of irrigation and sudden prosperity among the otherwise pauperised peasant communities of the state (Barrier, 1967: 455-357). This canal-based system of arid land irrigation had not only propelled the high-yielding varieties of crops but also gave rise to residential colonies of farmers around the newly-dug canals (Barrier 1967: 356-58). Many farmers also joined the British army, which brought rich opportunities for Sikh soldiers to visit Europe and North America, but also forced them to face their ignoble social status as subjects of the British Empire (Chandan 2014; Rahi 2018; Waraich 1967; Waraich, 1991). This had led to a social and political awakening among the inhabitants of the newly established canal colonies in Western Punjab –many of them ex-soldiers in the British army – that eventually played a catalytic role in the emergence of peasant movements in the state against agriculture Acts, which offended their izzat (honour, prestige, self-respect).
However, preceding salutary contributions by the peasantry during the massive British Canal projects, there were much earlier inflexion points such as the introduction of the Persian water wheel in this region in the 16th century and the establishment of the Sikh Kingdom by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1799. The peasants of Punjab fought for freedom and their land, first under the command of Five Pyare and 25 Singhs sent by Guru Gobind Singh – along with Baba Banda Bahadur (Alam 1982: 95-107) – to help establish just rule in Punjab, and later launch guerrilla warfare through various Sikh Misls (confederacies). During this long period of a chequered history, the valourous peasantry of Members of Bharat Mata Society (L to R) Shri Parshad, Sufi Amba Pershad, Ajit Singh, Lal Chand Falak, Amar Nath Prashar. 34 Pagrhi Sambhal Lehar to Samyukt Kisan Morcha Punjab was engaged primarily in fighting for the restoration and protection of their land. It was also the peasants who bore the brunt of brutal persecution at the hands of both alien forces, and of the partition of the vast province of Punjab when circumstances conspired against them and they had had to forsake their well-groomed canal irrigated agriculture fields in West Punjab, now in Pakistan.
In addition, the sterling contribution made by the farmers of Punjab in the organisation and functioning of the historic Ghadar movement-1913-1948 (Puri 1983; Sainsara 1969), Gurdwara Reform movement-1920-25 (Singh 1978), Babbar Akali movement-1921-25 (Waraich and Kangniwal 2015, Babbar 2006), Guru ka Bagh morcha-1922, and Jaito da morcha-1924- 25 (Walia 1972: 26-27 & 52) add further lustre to the rich heritage of farmers’ relentless struggle for the safeguard of their land rights, and restoration of their civic and religious liberties (Singh 1978; Fox, 1985). Guru ka Bagh and Jaito morchas are well-known for their exemplary non-violent struggle. The genesis of the current agitation, which has galvanised farmers across India, can be traced to these pre-independence agrarian agitations in Punjab.
Farmers Struggle of 1907
The Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta lehar (movement) of 1907 is the pioneer peasant movement of Punjab, which provides clues to understanding what sustains the vigour of the ongoing farmers’ Banke Dyal the author of the iconic song Pagrhi Sambhal O Jatta. Contextualising Farmers’ Protests: Pre-partition Punjab 35 protests at the borders of Delhi. This movement was launched primarily to force the British administration to withdraw the Punjab Land Colonisation Act 1906 (introduced in the Punjab Legislative Council on October 25, 1906, and passed in February 1907), which aimed at depriving landowners of their land. This was not the only agriculture law passed by the Punjab Legislative Assembly since the establishment of the canal colonies by the British government in the late nineteenth century after the annexation of Punjab in 1849. A good number of agriculture-related Acts – the Land Alienation Act of 1900, the Punjab Limitation Act 1904, the Transfer of Property Act 1904, the Punjab Pre-Emption Act of 1905, the Court of Wards Act of 1905, and the Punjab Land Alienation Act Amendment Bill 1906 – had already been passed by the provincial government without facing any resistance from the land-owners. Instead, all these Acts were presented by the British government as what N. Gerald Barrier called ‘paternal protection of the cultivating land-owners’ (Barrier 1967: 354).
However, what prompted the landowners to rise against the Punjab Land Colonisation Act 1906 was its various stringent clauses that ‘forbade the transfer of property by will’, introduced ‘strict primogeniture as interpreted by the Canal Officer’; imposed fresh conditions like planting of trees as well as prior permission for their cutting, sanitary rules and higher occupancy fee; legalised fines and debarred the courts from ‘interfering with executive orders’ (Barrier 1967: 359-360). It was also included in the Act that ‘if a new settler died without gaining occupancy rights (generally before five years), the land lapsed to the government’ (Barrier 1967: 359). Though before the enactment of this Act, landowners in the Chanab canal colony were subjected to various hardships by the local administration in the form of corruption and arbitrary fines, but they did not raise the banner of revolt against the British government, which they used to consider benevolent. But as soon as their land was targeted, landowners turned hostile. The increase in the abiana (water rate) under the Doab Bari Act of 1907 further aggravated the crisis that forced them to unite first under the “yeoman grantees” of the Bar Zamindar Association and then the revolutionary leadership of Ajit Singh, uncle of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who with the support of the Bharat Mata Sabha, an underground organisation, fought the Punjab Land Colonisation Act 1906 tooth and nail (Barrier 1967; Mahajan 1981, Mukherjee 2004: 26- 29). The threat of losing land was articulated as a threat to the very existence of the landowners, and this sentiment was captured in the movement’s slogan: Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta (take care of thy turban O, Jat). Eventually, the movement itself came to be known by the name of this very slogan (Sidhu December 27, 2020).
The often-repeated epitaph of the question of hoNd – the existence of farmers – in the ongoing farmers’ protests reminds the above-mentioned slogan of the 1907 movement. The current farmers struggle against the three farm laws, like that of the 1907 peasant movement, is being fought to safeguard the hoNd of farmers. Both of these historic farmers’ movements (1907 and the present one) were launched after thoroughly debating each and every clause (Barrier 1967:364- 68; Pal 2009-2010:453-55). Another striking parallel between the Punjab Land Colonisation Act1906 and the current three farm laws, is that both were rushed through the legislative process sans proper discussions (Barrier 1967: 361& 366). Finally, the Punjab Land Colonisation Act 1906 was withdrawn after the Secretary of State vetoed it on May 26, 1907.
This excerpt from ‘Pagrhi Sambhal Lehar to Samyukt Kisan Morcha’ by Ronki Ram has been published with permission from Unistar Books.