Rajmohan Gandhi’s pedigree is impressive. Mahatma Gandhi, his paternal grandfather, is probably the most famous Indian since Buddha; his maternal grandfather, C.R. Rajagopalachari, was a front rank Congress leader and statesman who served, from 1948-50 as India’s last Governor General, having replaced Lord Mountbatten, before the post was abolished. Rajmohan Gandhi himself is a prolific and prodigious writer. Apart from a number of books on history, he has penned four biographies – two on his illustrious grandfathers and the other two on Sardar Patel and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. In Pakistan, Rajmohan is remembered for his first book Understanding the Muslim Mind, a collection of pen-portraits of eight prominent Indian Muslims including Sir Syed, Iqbal, Jinnah and Azad.
Rajmohan has now turned his attention to Punjab and though a non-Punjabi, he states that Punjab became a precious part of his life in 1948 when his assassinated grandfather joined the ‘numberless victims of Punjab’s and the subcontinent’s anger’. His Punjab – A History from Aurangzebto Mountbatten is a sweeping and scholarly account of nearly 250 years of Punjab’s history – from 1707 (marking the death of Aurangzeb) to the partition of Punjab in 1947, tracing the story of Punjab from the Mughals to the Sikh down to the end of the British period. Although Sikh historians have written extensively on the Sikh period in Punjab’s history, there are very few works on Punjab as an entity. Rajmohan mentions two books on the subject- S.M. Lateef’s ‘A History of the Punjab’, written in 1889 by an employee of the British Raj, and Ikram Ali Malik’s ‘History of the Punjab’, published in 1970, which covers the period 1799-1947 and does not focus on the eighteenth century which is also discussed in Rajmohan’s book.
For centuries, Punjab, due to its wealth and cultural richness, has faced number of invasions from its western frontier. As an exception, about two centuries of Mughal rule from Babur to Aurangzeb represented an extended period of peace and prosperity as well as stability and serenity. However, after Aurangzeb’s death, Punjab again descended into anarchy and instability which lasted for nine decades – weakened and worsened by the invasion of Persian king Nadir Shah in 1839 and Afghan king Abdali’s repeated episodes of loot and plunder from 1748-1767. Apart from a brief period under Adina Khan Beg, a Muslim ruler, Punjab did not witness any semblance of local leadership in the eighteenth century.
By 1799 Punjab was ready for its saviour and man of destiny- Maharaja Ranjit Singh – the most remarkable figure in Punjab’s history. He reversed the tide of history by invading and conquering this land of invaders. His empire lasted for 50 years (1739-1849) and represented the first instance of Punjab being ruled by a native in centuries. Ranjit Singh conquered Peshawar, Kashmir and Multan and also eyed Afghanistan and Sind but was thwarted in his expansion plans by the British. A secular ruler, Ranjit Singh was tolerant towards Muslims whom he appointed to high offices and gave generous financial assistance to their waqf trusts. At the time of his death in 1839, he left behind a strong army, trained by European officers, but no clear cut system of political succession.
Impelled by ambition and avarice but impaired by lack of foresight, palace intrigues, and absence of courage and competence, Ranjit Singh’s weak and wicked successors lost their empire to the British within ten years after his death. Punjab’s army fought ferociously during the Anglo Sikh wars but without competent leadership at the top was defeated by the British in 1849 after fierce battles.
In 1857 both Muslims and Sikhs distrusted each other in the War of Independence which was – confined mostly to Delhi, UP and the eastern provinces – crushed by the British by raising an irregular force from Punjab and the Frontier region. Punjab was transformed by the British during 1860-1910 through introduction of various reforms such as canal colonies which involved settling people from eastern Punjab in western Punjab. It threw up a new class of aristocracy, loyal to the British rulers and led to the establishment of the Unionist Party in Punjab in the 1920s – a non-communal party of landlords but led by Muslim feudals, which dominated Punjab’s political scene till 1946. Neither Congress nor Muslim League had any substantial support in Punjab during two decades leading to partition; both main parties opposed the Unionist Party whose members were derided as British toadies.
Ironically, it was Punjab where schemes of separation were discussed first in the 1920s and 1930s; Lala Lajput Rai, a prominent Congress leader in Punjab, presented the idea of partition of Punjab into Muslim and non-Muslim Punjab in 1924 and proposed the same idea for Bengal; in the 1930s Allama Iqbal and Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, among Punjab’s Muslims, and Bhai Parmanand, among Hindus, further amplified these separatist voices and this process led to the passage of the Lahore Resolution in 1940.
Rajmohan blames Punjab’s leadership for the Partition in 1947; he also criticizes the Congress’s attitude of non-cooperation with the Unionist Party, a feudal but non-communal party opposed to the Partition. However, he credits Jinnah with playing his cards wisely in Punjab and thus being able to wean away not only the Unionist Party’s key members by the 1946 elections but also winning over Mian Iftikharuddin, head of the Congress in Punjab, to his side.
Rajmohan also points out that the Congress accepted the partition of India plan in June 1947 but agreed to Punjab’s partition – a position opposed by Jinnah and the Unionist Party – much earlier, by March 1947 when violence broke out in the major cities of Punjab. The pain and pathos of Partition is discussed in meticulous detail in the book.
As Rajmohan shows Punjab has endured many divisions; Ranjit Singh’s Punjab was first divided in 1846 when Kashmir became an independent princely state; in 1901 NWFP achieved the status of a separate province; in 1947 Punjab was divided into two at the time of partition; after 1947 Indian Punjab was further parceled out into three provinces – Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pardesh. Today Indian Punjab is one-seventh of the Punjab during the British period. However, as Rajmohan observes, Punjab in Pakistan, with its population of 90 million and almost wholly Muslim, has a “population larger than that of Egypt, Iran or Turkey, a fact which makes Pakistani Punjab by itself one of the most important regions in the world”.
As for the flaws of the book: Maharaja Duleep Singh deserved a full chapter or at least a section but has been mentioned only a couple of times. There are some minor mistakes when it comes to tribes’ classification: Daultanas, a sub-tribe of Jats, have been described as Rajput.
The last chapter titled ‘Insaniyat (Humanity) and Insanity’ is based on oral histories that Rajmohan and his wife Usha collected during their stay in Lahore in 2005. It narrates stories of mutual cooperation between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs across Punjab even amidst the mayhem and madness of violence during partition in 1947.
Rajmohan has done a wonderful job of presenting the story of the land which produced Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahoo, Ranjit Singh, Waris Shah, Iqbal, Faiz, Manto, Amrita Pritam, Sir Ganga Ram, Bhagat Singh, Dr Salam, Dr Har Gobind Khorana and numerous other remarkable figures.