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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: April 2019

2 - Colonial Constructs and Post-colonial Politics: 1849–2018


A good place to start a story is at the beginning. In the case of land inequality and the power of landed groups in the politics of rural Punjab, this beginning is the annexation of Punjab by the British colonial state in 1849, which, according to Gazdar, ‘can be seen as the point of departure for any historical analysis of land’ (2009, 6). The institutional and administrative reforms that followed this annexation took Punjab from being ‘a land of small peasant proprietors’ to a province where by the end of colonial rule in 1947 ‘less than 4 per cent of the agricultural population owned more than 50 per cent of the land while poor peasants, landless sharecroppers and agricultural labourers accounted for 80 per cent of the population’ (Hamid 1982, 52). In this chapter, I argue that in meeting the main goals of Empire in Punjab – the maintenance of law and order, and the creation and expansion of a revenue base – the colonial state changed the nature of Punjabi villages and created economic and social hierarchies that continue to determine the pattern of politics in these villages to this day. The colonial reforms and events I describe here shaped most of the factors whose influence on rural politics I analyse in later chapters. The colonial creation of a powerful, rural landed elite also affected the nature of post-colonial national politics, which I recount in later parts of the chapter.

Creating a ‘traditional’ landed elite under colonial rule: 1849–1947

Soon after its annexation of Punjab in 1849 the British colonial state set about implementing some key reforms. The basic aim of these was not different from what Young described as the objective of colonialism in Africa – to construct ‘institutions of domination with improvised resources … [and] simultaneously to create agencies of rule and to invent extractive devices imposing on the subordinated societies the cost of the unsolicited governance proposed for them’ (1994, 78). In Punjab the colonial state had three main aims: (a) establish a revenue base and extract resources to fund the administrative apparatus of the state, including the army, (b) maintain local law and order and create ‘agencies of rule’, and (c) expand the revenue base over time.