A History of the Left in Pakistan – 15

By Ahmed Kamran

Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan

The areas now forming today’s Pakistan i.e. the western wing of the country at the time of its establishment in 1947 had a long and chequered history. For a long time, this region remained the centre stage and cradle of the ancient Indian society. It’s the home of the most ancient known civilization in the world. Well until Shahjahan’s reign of Mughal dynasty, this northwestern region of India remained one of the most important theaters of military expeditions and station for Maharajas, kings and emperors continued royal presence for long periods. Despite Delhi being the nominal capital of the empire, most of Mughal emperors spent more time in Lahore or on other military expeditions than in Delhi itself. Western Punjab always occupied an important strategic position as the only gateway of foreign invasion into fertile Indian plains. During its twilight days when Mughal Empire was undergoing rapid decay after Aurangzeb, successive ineffective rulers in Delhi lost their capacity to hold this region firmly in their grip and the western regions slowly turned into a periphery of shrinking Mughal Empire. For an understanding of the evolution of the communist and larger left movement in Pakistan and to correctly asses its role in the country’s politics it is important to understand the political backdrop of Pakistani politics and the cross currents in its society together with its class composition and conflicts of key interest groups shortly before and after founding of Pakistan. Briefly revisiting and reviewing the historical context of the political issues and class positions in different areas forming Pakistan will the help reader to correctly position the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and its policy responses and actions in practice in the given wider political spectrum that had evolved in recent past. In the process, it is important to have a brief look at the classes formation and their alignments and political developments leading to the formation of Pakistan. The regions comprising Pakistan didn’t have uniform economic and social evolution. Each area had a different path for its political development.

Changing Dynamics during British Rule

Marx’s incisive articles on Indian society, written in a series for the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, are one of the most seminal, albeit lesser known, of all his writings. There are numerous references to India in his most celebrated work Capital and several more are found in his copious and equally brilliant correspondence with Frederic Engels. “Those small and extremely ancient Indian communities,” Marx observed in Capital, “some of which have continued down to this day, are based on possession in common of the land, on the blending of agriculture and handicrafts, and on an unalterable division of labour, which serves, whenever a new community is started, as a plan and scheme ready cut and dried…Hence, production here is independent of that division of labour brought about, in Indian society as a whole, by means of the exchange of commodities. It is the surplus alone that becomes a commodity, and a portion of even that, not until it has reached the hands of the State, into whose hands from time immemorial a certain quantity of these products has found its way in the shape of rent in kind” (1). Engels wrote to Marx on 6 June 1853, “…the absence of property in land is indeed key to the whole of the East. Herein lies its political and religious history” (2). Describing the self-sufficient and self-contained social structure of Indian village, Marx remarked, “The simplicity of the organization for production in these self-sufficing communities that constantly reproduce themselves in the same form, and when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name—this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies, an unchangeableness in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic States, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the economic elements of society remains unchanged by the storm-clouds of the political sky” (3). Marx’s references to the ‘Asiatic Society’ here were mostly related to the Indian society.

In ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’, the concluding part of his series of articles on India, published in New York Daily Tribune on 8 August 1853, Marx remarked, “the village isolation produced the absence of roads in India, and the absence of roads perpetuated the village isolation. On this plan a community existed with a given scale of low conveniences, almost without intercourse with other villages, without the desires and efforts indispensable to social advance.” He also observed, “it is notorious that the productive powers of India are paralyzed by the utter want of means for conveying and exchanging its various produce. Nowhere, more than in India, do we meet with social destitution in the midst of natural plenty, for want of the means of exchange… when grain was selling from 6s. to 8s. a quarter in Khandesh (4), it was sold at 64s. to 70s. at Poona, where the people were dying in the streets of famine, without the possibility of gaining supplies from Khandesh, because the clay roads were impracticable” (5).

The unchangeable nature of this almost frozen in time rural village life of India was not going to remain intact forever. The British colonial rule was about to change it in a big way. Marx said, “The British having broken up this self-sufficient inertia of the villages, railways will provide the new want of communication and intercourse.” He further observed, “The [political] unity [of India], imposed by the British sword, will now be strengthened and perpetuated by the electric telegraph.” Finally, with an amazing foresight Marx concluded, “The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India… But now tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication. They intend now drawing a net of railways over India. And they will do it. The results must be inappreciable” (6). The resulting effects on Indian society, particularly on those areas where massive irrigation projects were undertaken and railway lines were laid to connect the rural hinterlands with market and port cities were indeed what we call today a ‘sea change’. Thus, India got the distinction of being the first country in Asia to have railways and unprecedented canal irrigation system.

Punjab – Massive Social Engineering

Ranjeet Singh’s Kingdom of Punjab was one of the last areas of India to fall under British control in 1849. At that time, Punjab included vast territories of present day Punjab and KPK (former NWFP) provinces up to Jamrud in Pakistan as well as the present day Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and parts of Uttarkhand. Today’s KPK of Pakistan was detached from Punjab as a new North West Frontier Province (NWFP) only in 1901. The province of Punjab was essentially rural. Of 24.4 million of its population in 1901, close to 90% people lived in rural areas in, as Marx had put it, ‘unchanging self-sufficient’ village communities.

The British Punjab could be roughly divided for ease of reference into three regions: Eastern Punjab, from Kangra hills to Ambala, with Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, and Ludhiana as its big towns, was the most prosperous but densely populated part. With 55 percent Muslims, 32 per cent Hindus and 13 per cent Sikhs, it mostly had small landholdings. In terms of traditional social structures of India, the population was predominantly Rajput and Jat communities closely knit around their sub-castes and kins, cutting across all three major religions. Apart from Rajputs and Jats, Muslims also had Syeds, Sheiks, and Aarains. The central Punjab with Lahore and Amritsar as its major towns had dominant Hindu moneylenders and traders. Amritsar also had significant share of Muslim trading community. Although, Amritsar was the centre of Sikh religion and culture but they had only 15 per cent share of its population in the district. The western Punjab stretched from NWFP borders in north-west along river Indus and Balochistan in the west to the Cholistan desert region in the east to the border of Rajasthan. It had vast tracts of infertile and dry lands and, for a change, it mostly had large landholdings. Muslims had 80 per cent share of its population but its towns had large numbers of Hindu moneylenders and trading community. Soon after Punjab’s annexation in 1849, the British administrators astutely sensed the special strategic importance of Punjab for the British Empire in India. For them, Punjab acquired special position because of following primary reasons: (i) Due to its vast swathes of fertile lands and natural river system its enormous potential to meet the Empire’s growing need for agricultural produce, (ii) as a bulwark against the threat of Russian Czar’s expanding empire in the Central Asia, and (iii) as a source of recruiting and maintaining a ‘less expensive’ sturdy and loyal army to take care of Empire’s military needs on Indian borders and other colonial possessions in Asia and Africa, without the need of putting the lives of a large number of youth recruited from England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland at stake. The last dimension of their peculiar view of Punjab, the British political and military administration had quickly learnt to their delight during successful recruitment of soldiers for putting out mutiny erupting in the northern India in 1857.

To exploit the unique agricultural and economic potential of the Punjab’s virgin plains, the British carried out an unparalleled massive physical and social engineering feat. The waters of the Himalayan system of five rivers flowing through Punjab were harnessed in an ambitious irrigation development comprising a massive network of canals and canal-colonies. The first modern canal was built in Multan to bring water and cultivation to infertile dry lands in 1859 only ten years after Punjab’s occupation and immediately after the mutiny of 1857 was subdued. Subsequently, more canals were built in the central Punjab clearing the woods. The Upper Jhelum canal alone brought over 350,000 acres of infertile land under cultivation. The Lower Chenab canals brought 2.5 million acres of unproductive land to cultivation. In all, it transformed about six million acres of uncultivated barren lands into one of the richest agricultural regions in Asia. It was a stupendous attempt to create from scratch a whole new world of neatly cut Murraba’s (squares) of land in canal colonies with a newly crafted legal and administrative system by bringing in thousands of enterprising sturdy farmers from central and eastern Punjab and implanting them in the newly fashioned colonies with land-lease grants. The new market towns were laid out with engineering precision. Though, immensely crowded and dirty today the eight straight-lane bazaars radiating out from a central clock tower in the image of a Union Jack in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) is a testimony to this social engineering experiment in Punjab over a century ago. It was the first of its kind of social revolution in the history of rural India. The project was completed after 40 years of labour, fundamentally changing the demography and topography of the central and parts of western Punjab. The massive migration of enterprising sturdy farmers, technical workers, and labour to take part in the engineering endeavor and cultivate newly developed lands dramatically increased population of new cleared lands. The population of Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) rose from 416,669 and 60,306 respectively in 1891 to 1,814,000 and 2,157,000 in 1951. As it is commonly observed, however, the patterns of cultural and social relations die hard and the peasant farmers in the new canal colonies in Punjab tried to recreate their social relationships in the image of old village communities but the underlying land-ownership pattern had been fundamentally altered. In the plains of Punjab there emerged a new class of peasants and enterprising farmers freed from ancient and traditional ‘relations of production’. The contrast was particularly visible in comparison with the land-ownership patterns still well-entrenched in some north- and south-western parts of the west Punjab where the canal network was not built due to mountainous terrain rising from the Punjab plains towards north-west and Afghanistan.

The British over-enthusiasm for precision in crafting everything of these colonies afresh in their own image was, perhaps, reflected most in the drafting of Land Colonization Bill of 1906. In drafting this bill, the English mind sought to regulate every aspect of community and lay down procedures of reward and punishment for every colonization activity in European fashion; the eligibility criteria for lease grant and development of government lands in the colonies, including compliance of defined parameters for living, maintenance, sanitation, and cancellation of land leases in the event of failure of compliance of the lease contracts. Also, because new settlements, the government sharply increased the land revenue taxes in Rawalpindi and water user charges from Bari Doab Canal, irrigating the Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Lahore districts. Perhaps, it was too strong a prescription for essentially rural and traditions-bound peasants coming from semi-feudal social background with decidedly tribal and ‘caste’ outlook. The harsh provisions of the proposed bill sparked protests and agitations that was led by Lala Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh who were arrested and banished in exile. The colonial administrators initially tried to suppress the opposition and agitation with characteristic colonial brute force. But with the painful sword of possible cancellation of land grants in the event of non-compliance of strict regimen of alien procedures threateningly hanging on their heads, the unrest and agitation among farmers was not going to die down easily. Eventually, the proposed bill was passed after significant amendments and removal of irritants as the Colonization of Government Lands (Punjab) Act of 1912 that replaced the Government Tenants (Punjab) Act of 1893. The new British legal system enforced in the country had two faces: its ‘public’ face enforced English Common Law and British criminal law in ‘modern commercial transactions’, while its other ‘private’ face defended and reinforced the primordial traditional and tribal laws. It is to be noted that these ‘personal laws’, however, were not rooted either in Muslim Sharia and or in Hindu religion. These were essentially the tribal and traditional community customs.

From the 1860’s onwards, agricultural prices and land values soared in Punjab. New cash crops such as wheat, tobacco, sugar cane and cotton were introduced following improved communications and new extensive canals. By 1920s, Punjab produced one tenth of India’s total cotton crop and one third of its wheat. The wheat, which had previously rotted whenever a bumper crop had occurred was now exported in vast quantities via the new railway network. Per capita output of Punjab’s crops had increased by nearly 45 percent between 1891 and 1921. The British investment in Punjab’s canal system proved highly profitable. The revenue earned by only those Punjab canals that were specifically built with profitable investment perspective (7) increased from Rs.1.46 million per annum during 1860-69 to Rs.8.0 million during 1937-1946, and by the year 1945-46 the net profit earned from canals exceeded the total capital investment by more than 200% (8). The rapid socioeconomic transformation, however, greatly disturbed the traditional class and economic structure—the old ‘relations of production’. While increased imports of British manufactured goods at the expense of Indian cottage industry cruelly destroyed its workers and craftsmen in urban towns, its interventions in the agriculture of the country, mainly in Punjab, threatened its rural order as it was accompanied by mounting indebtedness and social and political rise of the moneylenders and urban petty bourgeoisie. In a rapidly expanding economy spurred by new canal colonies, rising agricultural produce and far reaching commodity trade immensely expanded the cash economy and farmers’ propensity to pile up debt to finance consumption. Newly introduced alien and complex British legal system to foreclose debts of mortgaged land caused havoc with the traditional rural society. Land parcels began to pass into moneylenders’ hands at alarming rates, particularly in less developed and agriculturally backward areas. The malaise had pervaded into the vast rural areas of India and was threatening not only the traditional social class structure but also its unique and extremely conservative and regressive caste system. Karl Marx had foreseen the social ruin that the new economic forces were to bring to India while destroying its traditional, and, so far, mostly ‘undisturbed’ society. He had remarked, “now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive as they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism… England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution” (9).

Nevertheless, the British colonial administration in India was not an agent of a ‘social change’ with some lofty purpose. They were solely driven by their economic and administrative interests. The British administration quickly sensed the possibility of other harmful dimensions of this ‘social revolution’. The ground was slipping under the feet of traditional landowners as lands started to pass into the hands of absentee moneylenders. The unrest among this bulwark of despotism was palpable. A Revenue Department Note on Land Transfers observed in October 1885, “It is essential on the one hand that the management of the villages should be in the hands of men who possess the confidence of the villagers, and it is equally essential on the other hand that if the executive is to be obeyed and its objects rightly understood, there should be a class of men intermediate between the Government and the mass of the people who, while trusted by government, should have influence over their neighbours. In this respect moneylender can never take the place of the large ancestral landlord or the substantial yeomen who he dispossesses” (10).

Sir Denzil Ibbetson, author of the magisterial 1881 Punjab Census Report, writes in his confidential report on land transfers in 1895, “To secure the contentment of the masses is our first duty in India; in it lies our safety. As long as they are loyal to and contented with their rulers, the internal peace of the country is secure, and the professional agitator powerless. And most of all the loyalty and contentment of the sturdy yeomanry from whose ranks we draw our native soldiers, the safe foundation upon which our rule can rest secure” (11).

The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1901 was a watershed legislation that prevented the urban commercial classes—the moneylenders and non-agricultural ‘professional’ petty bourgeoisie from permanently acquiring lands held by the ‘statutory agriculturalist’ tribes. For the purpose of this Act, even the lower castes of the villages traditionally engaged in menial support services for the villagers (the so-called Kammis, Mussalis, and the ‘Shudras’ of Indian society) were excluded from the ‘statutory agricultural’ classes exclusively entitled to own and hold agrarian land thus depriving them ever to come out of the straitjacket of the traditional caste system. Among the British districts (excluding semi-autonomous princely states), the population was roughly cut into half between agricultural castes and non-agricultural castes. Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab during 1912-1919 had remarked, “As a result of the [1901] Act the Punjab landowner, the finest body of peasantry in the East, who but for it would now be largely a landless proletariat, … which have been staunchly loyal to the British Government. The best proof of this is that we were able to raise from them three hundred sixty thousand fighting men … in the four years of the Great War” (12). The organic growth of disruptive modern capitalist forces in Indian society was forcibly blocked to protect and preserve traditional land-owning relationships in both feudal and non-feudal regions and their associated social, economic and caste structures in rural society. Naturally, the bourgeoisie, moneylending interests and urban petty bourgeois elements of Indian society were furious at their abrupt exclusion from playing full force. The Indian National Congress, mainly representing the urban middle classes and the moneylenders strongly protested this imperialist intervention on behalf of the ‘decadent’ land-owning classes of society who mostly remained loyal to the colonial rulers. The Unionist Party was founded after 1920 to defend the agriculturist interests against the urban ‘outsiders’. It was a divide between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ and between agriculturist ‘landowning’ classes and non-agriculturist ‘bourgeois’ money lenders and trading classes. Unfortunately, there were some other thorny twists in Indian social fabric that later played their role in political developments in regions comprising Pakistan.

The troublesome requirement of political stability and agricultural development in Punjab lies at the foundation of the core Imperialist contradiction between order and transformation. As Ian Talbot observes, “The closing decades of the nineteenth century saw the colonial strategic imperative of rural stability and order in Punjab threatened by the transformation arising from the commercialization of the region’s agriculture” (13). By 1875, the British Indian Army drew a third of its recruits from the Punjab. By 1914, the proportion was an astounding 60%, though the Punjab then accounted for only 10% of the India’s population. The ‘imperative to secure order in its rural recruiting areas understandably exerted a profound impact on British policy in the province’ (14) and had its lasting effects on the development of a ‘praetorian’ garrison state in Pakistan.

In the British mind, Punjab was seen as a buffer between British India and the expanding Russian Empire. This rivalry acquired a new ideological dimension after the successful Bolshevik revolution in 1917. These imperial imperatives necessitated development of unique methods of iron clad administration in Punjab compared to other parts of India. This ‘Punjab School’ of British administration relied heavily on securing loyalty of Punjab’s rural hinterland with a heavy hand on urban towns. Punjab was allowed to have its first political council 36 years after the Council Act of 1861 was implemented to establish legislative assemblies in other parts of British India. ‘As late as 1909, the government of the Punjab continued to nominate all nine Indian members in the fledgling council in Lahore… So every non-official representative in the Punjab Council was nominated by the administration, which to a man, stuck to its rule that the Punjab needed its traditional native leaders to keep the ‘classes below them in order’ (15). The Government of India Act, 1919 restricted urban seats to a mere ten of ninety-one seats in the council; five additional seats were given specifically to the landlords; urban politicians were strictly restricted to contest from rural seats. Interestingly, the same prescription was effectively used after independence of Pakistan in Sindh due to development of its unique ethnic dimension of urban-rural divide.


1. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Vol. I, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974, p. 337.
2. ‘On Colonialism’: Articles & Correspondence of Marx & Engels, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 312.
3. Karl Marx, op cited, pp. 338-339.
4 Khandesh, in the northwestern part of Maharashtra state, is about 400 Km from modern Pune (Poona) using modern network of roads. Pune is about 148 Km southeast of Mumbai. 5. Marx & Engels, ‘On Colonialism’, pp. 82-84.
6. Marx & Engels, ‘On Colonialism’, pp. 40-41.
7. The British planners had divided all development works in India into two categories: ‘protective’ and ‘productive’. Protective works were those that were required for carrying out necessary governance and usually included facilities for official use whereas the ‘productive’ works were carried out with investment purpose with a view to earn financial profit in the form of interest on loans provided by the government for the work and resulting enhanced tax revenues.
8. Timothy Daniel Haines, Building the Empire, Building the Nation: Water, land, and the politics of river development in Sind, 1898-1969, PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway College, University of London, 2011, Pg. 53.
9. Marx & Engels, p. ?
10. Quoted by Ian Talbot in ‘The Punjab under Colonialism: Order and Transformation in British India’.
11. Ian Talbot, op cited.
12. Michael O’Dwyer, India as I Knew it (London: Constable, 1925), p. 39 as quoted in Shalini Sharma, Radical Politics in Colonial Punjab: Governance and Sedition, Routledge, London, 2010, pp. 17-18.
13. Ian Talbot, op cited.
14. Ian Talbot, op cited.
15. Shalini Sharma, p. 16.

Chapter 4… To be Continued

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