The Insecurity State

Subhash Parihar

The history of Punjab – the triangular region in-between the rivers Indus and Sutlej, extending up to the Shiwalik hills in the north – has so far attracted a few scholars outside Punjab. Its written histories of the period up to 1849, when the British East India Company conquered it after two bloody wars with the Sikh army of the Lahore Durbar, are just a mixture of fact and fiction. Serious scholars like W. H. McLeod and some of his students tried to sift authentic history from this mixture but unfortunately they had to face vehement opposition from the orthodox Sikhs who consider the popular accounts to be the bona fide history.

The history of the region after 1849 as hitherto written by the most Indian scholars, too, leaves much to be desired. But fortunately some scholars in Oceania and Europe have tried to analyze the period with dispassionate eyes. Some examples of their work are – The Punjab under Imperialism, 1885-1947 by Imran Ali (Princeton University Press, 1988), The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition by Harjot Oberoi (University of Chicago Press, 1994), The Indian Army and the Making of Punjab by Rajit K. Majumder (Orient Blackswan, 2003), and The Garrison State: The Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947  by Tan Tai Yong (Sage, 2005). The latest addition to the corpse on the subject is The Insecurity State: Punjab and the Making of Colonial Power in British India  by Mark Condos (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

In The Insecurity State, the author has attempted to trace at length, the origins of the atrocious dealing of some events by its colonial administrators, between the years 1849 and 1920, i.e. from its subjugation by the British East India Company up to a year after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar. The study was originally undertaken for doctoral thesis (awarded in 2013) under the supervision of the renowned British historian (late) Sir Christopher Alan Bayly (1945–2015), specializing  in British Imperial, Indian and global history, and the author of half a score of books, including the seminal work Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870 (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

The work under review opens with a detailed introduction, subtitled ‘Fear, panic, and the violence of  empire’ beginning with a brief account of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, followed by its various explanations and interpretations, and a description of the specific conditions of anxiety and fright in which the colonial administrators, always feeling insecure, took extreme decisions.

The first chapter ‘Colonial insecurity in Early British India, 1757-1857’ tracks down the British experience during the first century of its gradual expansion in the Indian sub-continent and explains how this experience shaped the violent and despotic tendencies in some colonial officers. In fact, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which left 800,000 people dead on both sides, was a watershed in policy forming of the colonialists. Its horrors, and the panic of its possible reoccurrence always rankled in their memory. Hence, sometimes, even not-so-big happenings were dealt with unduly harsh punishments.

The Punjab School of governance as the British style of administration in Punjab was called, was very much aware of the harmful outcomes of disbanding the Khalsa armies of Lahore Durbar, after 1849, which rendered thousands of Punjabis jobless. The second chapter of the book, entitled ‘Re-assessing the “Garrison State”: Pacification and colonial disquiet in Punjab’ takes stock of the British efforts to appease the discontented Punjabis in numerous ways. It re-employed some of them in the British army. But it was not enough. Then, more and more land was made cultivatable by digging canals in the region so that the ex-soldiers could earn bread for their families. These efforts did show positive results. When the Indian Mutiny broke out in most parts of the North India in 1857, the Punjabi soldiers fully supported the government in suppressing it.

About this time, a reformatory sect of Sikhism – Namdhari/Kuka movement – was taking roots in Punjab. Under the leadership of Baba Ram Singh (1862-1885), a former soldier in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the headquarters of the movement shifted from Hazro (east of Attock, now in Pakistan) to Bhaini, a village, about 25 kilometres of the city of Ludhiana. The British authorities were quite apprehensive of the activities of the Namdharis/Kukas. Just after one and a half decade of the Indian Mutiny, a group of Kukas turned fanatic and began killing Muslim butchers in Punjab, on the pretext that they slaughtered cows which were considered sacred by Kukas. In 1871, some Kukas murdered four Muslim butchers in Amritsar, and three at Raikot. On 14 January 1872, a group of more than a hundred Kukas attacked the nearby Muslim princely state of Malerkotla, and killed several of the palace guards and townsmen. The British administration led by Lambert Cowan, the Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana, came into action. After capturing the miscreants, he cannonaded 49 of them on 17th January and 16 more the next day. The action was not appreciated by the British Government which removed Cowan from his position. The third chapter of the book ‘Law, the Punjab School, and the “Kooka Outbreak” of 1872’ considers the circumstances of the Kuka outbreak, and its strict tackling by Cowan. The chapter explains that the British officials actually considered Punjabis, a backward and tribal society, which respected only strength and power. And that is why Cowan decided to give exemplary punishment to the wrongdoers.

In 1867, the British Government of India enacted the Murderous Outrages Act (MOA) which imbued colonial officers immense powers to prosecute any ‘fanatic’ in Punjab, and later the regions of Baluchistan and North–West Frontier Province were also brought under this the MOA. This topic has been dealt with in the fourth chapter. This chapter picks up two events for narration. The first incident occurred on 7 December 1919, in which a Muslim fanatic attacked the family of Mr. Frederick Emmett, the station master of the Peshawar Cantonment railway, killing his wife and son, and injuring him. The culprit was tried, sentenced, and executed. In the second incident, on 17 February 1931, Assistant Commissioner of Charsadda (29 kilometres from Peshawar) Captain Barnes was shot at by a man named Habib Nur. Although Nur had come well prepared with a fully loaded revolver, and 12 additional cartridges in his pocket, his shots somehow misfired. On his arrest, he justified his act by claiming that ‘he had been seeking to avenge the deaths of his father and uncle at the hands of the British government nearly twenty years earlier’. The major section of the chapter delves at length on the exact definition of the word ‘fanatic’ which appears just hair-splitting which is quite easy to do for the one who himself is sitting safe outside the fire. Then, MOA or no MOA, if any other government (British or Indian) would have acted otherwise in these cases. It was no wonder that the resolute constitutionalist Muhammad Ali Jinnah conceded that MOA was no threat to the security and liberties of ordinary law-abiding Indians.

The fifth chapter of the book, examines the problems of ‘Imperial Recruiting’ and the resultant ‘Imperial Anxieties’ during the half century between 1870 and 1920. The expanding British empire did need army men and police to conquer, defend, and control their non-Indian colonies. A major source of manpower was Punjab, and specifically its Sikh people, designated a ‘martial race’ (although mainly on the basis of ‘romanticized notions of martial masculinity’). So much so that the police forces in the Straits settlements (MalaccaDindingPenang, and Singapore), Hong Kong, and Shanghai were composed almost entirely of Sikhs. The myth of martial race was taken up at its face value by the rival European powers too who began to offer the Sikhs better employment opportunities. It worried the British, and more so in China, where there was increasing imperial competition from the Russians, French, Germans, and even Americans.

The same chapter also deals with the Ghadar movement which aimed at setting off a pan-Indian mutiny in the British Indian Army in February 1915. The prominent members of the group were the Sikh migrants to Canada and the United States, who moved to Punjab for action. But contrary to the anticipations of the Ghadarites, the Sikh army was not in the mood of rebellion. Although the plan was eventually frustrated through intelligence, and police action, the Punjab administration remained nervous for years. The fear of a second Ghadarite uprising resulted in the Rowlatt Act of 1919, and ultimately to the Jallianwala Bagh Carnage.

In the Epilogue entitled ‘The insecurity state today’, the author shows how the present Indian as well as Pakistan governments, even after seven decades of the transfer of power in the indigenous hands, follow the same colonial pattern of administration.

In this study, Mark Condos arrives at the conclusion that the British Colonial rule in India was ‘actually a fundamentally anxious and insecure endeavour, and that brute displays of power [like cannonading the Kukas, and the Jallianwala Bagh Butchery] ... were actually manifestations of colonial weakness and vulnerability, rather than strength’, and that Punjab was actually ‘a laboratory for a number of practices and ideas that were later exported to the wider empire’.

The text is illustrated with two maps showing undivided Punjab, and the North–West Frontier, circa 1901, and nine monochromatic pictures. To conclude, the book The Insecurity State is a valuable addition to the scant literature on the history of Colonial Punjab.