Comparative Study of the Party Politics in theBritish Punjab: A Discourse of the Major Political Parties (1885-1937).

Byline: Maqbool Ahmad Awan

The geo-political, socio-economic, cultural and religious conditions of India played an important role in the formation, identity and the growth of the political parties in the Punjab. The process of the gradual constitutional development in India also registered the political movements in the British Punjab. This research paper traces the initial political growth and the role of the revolutionary politics especially focusing on their mutual interests and inner-conflicts, preceding the factional politics based on split behavior and alliances in the Punjab province. The ever-growing communal conflicts in the region, reinforced by rural-urban division, caused an upsurge of many political, social and religious movements in the Punjab. The present study deals with the comparative analysis of the major political organizations and their role in the future political developments in the province.

The Punjab politics holds an immense significance with respect to its capable leadership in organizing their separate identities and platforms in order to procure their vested interests using the powerful tools of their influential political ideologies. This research article also provides a deep political insight on the nature and quality invested in the leadership of the Punjab political parties. It further unveils the socio-political and socio-religious atmosphere laced with deeds and misdeeds that hampered the emergence of democratic values and growth of strong political system in this region.

However, it is not the study of a single party but a retrospective discourse on the major political parties of the Punjab such as the Punjab Congress, the Punjab Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Unionist Party, the Majlis-i-Aahrar-i-Islam, the Majlis-i-Ittehad-i-Millat, the Khaksar Party, the Khalsa Nationalist Party and the Akali Dal etc., along with their intra-party politics influencing the masses in the Punjab under the British Government.

Conceptual Milieu

The British Punjab was the most important center among all the other major centers of the Muslims because of its geo-strategic location, huge Muslim majority population, martial races and the agrarian society.1 The Punjab Province like Bengal and other provinces was equally important that played a crucial role for the demand of Pakistan. Having different political dimensions from the other parts of India, the British Punjab was a Muslim majority province that possessed strong landed aristocratic culture and agrarian pastoral society.2 After the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, the Punjab remained a center of attraction and focal point for the British Government, because of its geo-strategic position and its emergence by the 1880s as the major recruiting area of the Indian Army which motivated the British to make strenuous efforts to win the political support of the major stake holders and landowners of the region.3

It is generally believed that the political parties are an essential institution of a democratic polity and from the Indian point of view, the creation of a political party was inevitable for self-government.4A political party takes shape according to the prevailing conditions, while under alien subordination; it was totally a different in character and nature. Party system is, however, a necessary requirement of parliamentary form of the government.5 The quality of political leadership and the mechanism that the political parties apply counts a lot in shaping the nature and direction of the political systems.6 In developed countries, the political organizations emerged as a result of grouping of persons on the basis of similarity of convections and interests. But in India the parties developed as an outcome of fundamental cleavages in social structures, difference in religion, culture and classes.7

Max Weber, a prominent sociologist laid down three stages of party development: from aristocratic cliques to parties of notables and finally to Athenian (plebiscitary) democracy.8 According to K.K. Aziz, "In Indian political culture, the party system and its evolution was in its intermediate stage during the British rule in India".9 The general pattern of politics in India has been an attempt to establish the personal ascendancy of individual leaders while those who were left out of office or became disappointed with their share of the power and prestige merge together in a temporary alliance to dislodge the ministry. Thus, no basis for a lasting consolidation of any political group has emerged or seems likely to emerge.10 Simultaneously, the politicians begin gaining grounds for their personal interests than to the national interests.11 For instance, in the Punjab Politics, the Ahrars, who were with the Hindus before partition, no party could trace its origin to the pre-independence period.12

The split in the parties is not a new phenomenon; it has long historic traditions since the beginning of the party system. Similarly, the rural and urban sections of population are also not a new dichotomy.13The party system was mainly urban in pastimes, but the power politics was mostly controlled by the landed aristocracy. Unlike their masters, the villagers were in deep political slumber as they were not interested in money making and political profit.14 Moreover, the personalized approach to politics, the fanning of rural versus urban prejudices, the ultimate suzerainty of the landed aristocracy and the strong centralist set-up that continued to haunt the destiny of people of this region.15 To study their frame of mind and political training in proper perspective, it is essential to evaluate the nature of feudal dominance and the pivotal role of the major political parties in the shape of comparative study of the Punjab Politics.

Thus party lines turned tenuous and clash of personalities became superficially significant.16It, therefore, requires a deeper look into the events and developments in the light of the inter-religious and inter-cultural relationships. The political system given by the British to the sub-continent in 1858 was the culmination of a century-old colonial rule over India. The British, in their own homeland, had a political system based on parliamentary democracy with a well-established tradition of party system and during the process of their political dealings with the people of India; they decided to transplant the same system here in India gradually. The introduction of legislative councils under the Indian Councils Acts of 1861 and 1892, and the expansion of literacy and mobility in India, which heralded political awareness, spearheaded the moment for representative government and party system.

However, the Indian political consciousness was formed under the influence of colonial outlook. This led to the emergence of multiple political parties17 in India and the Indian National Congress18 (INC) was the first political organization which provided the platform to the people of India for their representation. Hence, the Indian National Congress since its inception in 1885, planned to perform the functions which her Majesty's opposition did in England. The INC was supposed to act as a safety-valve against the discontent apart from being a barometer of public opinion. However, after the creation of INC, many other political, social and religious parties came into being and their branches and franchises were also established at regional and provincial levels.

Punjab Congress

The branch of the Indian National Congress, "The Punjab Congress"19 was also established in 1885 in Punjab. In the preliminarily stages, the party spread the network of its multiple branches all over the province in an organized way.20 But unfortunately, the presence of a number of other factors including many socio-religious movements, communal conflicts and rural-urban divisionsdid not allow the Punjab Congress to flourish its network in this region.21 Another death-blow to the Punjab Congress was the 56 percent of the Muslim population in the province which obstructed its popular expansion.22 Though, INC claimed itself to be a non-communal political party but in reality it was dominated by the urban Hindu commercial groups in the Punjab. The claim of the Congress of being a non-communal party was slapped by the fact that the Muslims and the Sikhs were kept aloof from it.

Despite its superior organization and non-communal claims, it failed to win the majority support of the Muslims and the Sikhs populace in the Punjab. Another important factor which proved to be problematic and a major obstacle for the Punjab Congress was the Land Alienation Act23 which was to be passed in 1900 to restrict the land purchase by the urban commercial classes. Before the Act was passed, they proposed to pass a resolution condemning this Act severely in the Congress session, held at Lucknow in 1899. Simultaneously, Maulvi Muharram Ali Chishti, a Muslim member of the Congress held a meeting in Lahore in favor of this legislation. This situation entangled the Congress position between the devil and deep sea as the Congress had to choose one way or the other. One way was to win the support of the rural population by opposing the resolution and the other was to disappoint its urban supporters by passing the Act.

At this critical juncture, the INC decided to accept the legislation by passing the Land Alienation Act which earned it great opposition from the urban Hindus. Resultantly, INC splintered into many splits and later on these factions emerged in the form of Hindu Mahasabha in 1915 which led the Urban Hindu class against the Land Alienation Act.

Hindu Mahasabha

The Hindu Mahasabha24 (HM), as a political organization, rose in the reaction to the Congress participation in the Lucknow Pact of 1916. Its aims and objectives included promotion of political, social, racial and cultural interests of the Hindus.25 The Party was Hindu-oriented in its nature and a...

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