The province of Punjab, land of five rivers, is one that, somewhat ironically, depends heavily on irrigation from canals to allow agriculture. In the history of the region, control over water resources has been a major part of effective social and political power- including the power wielded by the British colonial state. The British Raj used their irrigation system not only to make the Punjab a more productive colony, but to entrench their political goals through 'settling' nomadic people reinforcing existing systems, rewarding servants, and cultivating dependency and good will among the elite. Despite some controversies and protests, they were largely successful in doing so, making Punjab one of the most loyal regions of colonial India.
The Punjab derives its boast of five rivers from the Jehlam, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej, which flow across it from the Himalayas in the North-East into the Indus flowing south in the west (Buck 1906). The wet season, from July to September (Thompson 2) feeds the kharif, or summer harvest, which in British times consisted of indigo, rice, cotton, and millet (Bellasis 7). The dry winter is the time when Punjabi farmers grow the rabi, if irrigation so allows (Douie 143). This winter crop was dominated in British times by wheat and barley (Bellasis 7). Of course, not all the people of Punjab Prior to the British period harvested both crops- much of the population of Punjab lived a semi-nomadic existence, abandoning the river banks where the summer crop was grown for the 'ranha', where they would take up pastoralism for the dry season (Muhammad 2011). In such dry regions of the Punjab, the advent of irrigation would be a force of both social change, and, in the hands of successive states, elite entrenchment.
PRE-BRITISH WATER SYSTEMS
The project of seeking irrigation in the Punjab has been a long one. Wells in the north of India were using the Persian wheel, a device that operated as a series of pitchers on a loop rotated by a bull at least as far back as the fourteenth century (Siddiqi 1986), though some accounts could place it as early as the eleventh century (Rosin 1993) It would still be widely used in 1908 (Fanshawe 88). Government-funded step-wells, called 'bain' or 'baoli', were also present even in Pre-Mughal times. The first large irrigation canals in India were built in the late 13th century under the reign of Sultan Ala U'ddin Khalji. One prodigious canal builder was Sultan Firuz Shah, who ruled in the 14th century, and who promoted irrigation in areas with little canal infrastructure by constructing large reservoirs in addition to his canal works. He would build extensive canals in Punjab with a hub at Hisar Firuza, modern Hisar. These canals and others reportedly increased the production of the regions significantly, allowing the winter rabi and the cultivation and export of wheat, sugar cane, and gram where once there had been only been a kharif of beans and til oil seed (Siddiqi 1986).
The Mughals did take efforts to maintain the canals; Douie describes one of Firoz Shah's canals being 'made perennial by Akbar' and extended by Shahjahan to Delhi. Shahjahan's engineer Ali Mardan Shah is also mentioned as having built a canal from the Ravi to Lahore in 1633, including a branch to supply the sacred tanks of the Sikhs in Amritsar (Thompson 2). It would appear, however, that the breakup of the Mughal Empire lead to some degree of neglect. The great canal to Delhi left by Firoz Shah, Akbar, and Shahjahan, for example, was not functional at the time of British annexation due to the ravages of silt (Douie 132), leading the British to repair it themselves and remodel it in 1873 (Thompson 2).
After the fall of the Mughals, the successor states in the Indus Basin, such as the Nawabs and Amirs, continued to fund canals, using them, as the British would, as a base of control with the local elite (Gilmartin 1994). What canals did exist, however, were not the advanced perennial canals of British times- instead, the most important canals up to the time of annexation were the inundiation canals (Thompson 1), which flowed only in the wet season (10)
The Punjab was conquered in the 1830s and 1840s (Gilmartin 1994), ushering in a new era of colonial rule and agricultural development that would, while changing the physical face of the region, both entrench and transform existing power relations as the British maintained a policy of courting the local elite through the favorable allocation of rights to the land and water opened up by canal development. The British had extensive new land and water to do this with; introducing perrenial irrigation, especially throughout the dry west of the Punjab, the British increased the canal-irrigated area of the region, sans princely states, from 3 million to 14 million acres during their rule (Ali 10). Much of this was done through extending, restoring or improving older works, though the British also created significant new infrastructure (Fanshawe 88). The tremendous gains in productive land lead to an agricultural powerhouse in Punjab, connected to markets in India and abroad and producing a tenth of the country's cotton and a third of its wheat (Muhammad 2011)
The greatest transformation of the British was the canal colonies of western Punjab. Built from 1885 on (Cassan 2011) on dry pastoral lands designated crown waste (Ali 10), effectively transformed this desert region, previously inhabited by pastoralists, into 'one of the major centers of commercialized agriculture in South Asia' (Muhammad 2011). Throughout the whole process, the building of the canals presented the British colonial establishment with ample opportunity for social engineering- engineering which they used to curry favor with the elites and to promote British rule.
The first political aspect of the canal colonies came from the designation of the lands of western Punjab as waste owned by the crown, thus taking away the claims of the semi-nomadic 'Janglis' who already lived there, who, lacking property rights, had no legal recourse under British law to protect their grazing lands (Ali 1994). Indeed, the dispossession was deliberate in an attempt to 'civilize' the 'roving predatory Baluch tribes' and get them to take up agriculture- such a transformation was important because the British system of law and administration was couched in terms of landed property and the idea of an agrarian society. The 'rude races' could not become proper subjects of the Empire until they became propertied or bound to property (Gilmartin 1994).
The Janglis, it need hardly be said, were not in favor of such a transformation of their society, and resisted with agitation and protest, as well as resorting to crime, especially cattle theft, to continue their existence. In response, the British turned to a strategy that would be their default in settling dissent in the Punjab- they appeased the elite of the aggrieved group, granting land to those pastoralists who had paid the grazing tax before the building of the colonies. This meant that the owners of the livestock could transition into land-owners in the new irrigated lands, while the rest of the Jangli were dispossessed and made to become landless laborers, preserving the hierarchy of the nomads while settling them into British colonial society (Ali 52).
The nomads were not the only group present in the Punjab, of course; near rivers and other sources of water there did exist more permanent land lords, and here, too, the British sought to win over these elite. The building of the canals proved problematic to many of the existing planters, as they faced waterlogging in some places, reduced water in others, and general disruption of their existing water systems. To compensate for these disturbances, the local landowners were granted additional lands in the new colonies, quelling their discontent (Ali 1987)
THE AGRICULTURAL CASTES
Of course, the indigenous population was not adequate for the running of the canal colonies, which could support many more people in Punjab than had lived there before British irrigation (Ali 1994). New settlers would be needed, and the choice of settlers would largely be in the hands of the state, who adopted a goals of relieving the burden of high population from already-agrarian lands, inducing efficient agriculturalists to the colonies, and courting the existing privileged social classes so that they would aid the British in rule (Cassan 2011). In service of these goals, they favored the 'agrarian castes' of landowners, especially those from the crowded districts of central Punjab. (Ali 1994). Not only did these castes dominate the small land grants, but the larger grants for 'capitalists' and 'landed gentry' went primarily to people from landed backgrounds, often from the British list of those they identified as the 'elite families' of Punjab- with special privilege given to those who had served the colonial state well, especially in war (Ali 1987). In their goal to preserve the hierarchies and social structures already in place, the British even went so far as to try to get elites of the same caste and district to settle together, so as to maintain their cohesian and solidarity (Ali 1994).
Along with the social elite of the land-owners came the economic underclass, the menials, for whom the planners of the colonies set aside huts at the margins of the settlement (Buck 1906). These workers often followed their masters to the colonies, continuing the old relationships of worker and owner (Ali 44), and denying them the opportunity for upwards mobility (Ali 1987)
While at first the favoring of the landed castes was something of a de facto policy, the Alienation of Lands Act would further entrench the caste monopoly on lands by creating a list of agricultural castes who would be eligible for land grants (Ali 1994) as well as forbidding the transfer of ownership over land from members of agricultural castes to those of other castes (Cassan 2011). The law was partially in response to the increasing indebtedness of agricultural caste farmers and the foreclosures upon them by moneylenders of the emergent bourgeois- a trend that the British feared could lead to discontent among their chosen elite (Ali 1987). As a result, non-agricultural castes petitioned to be considered agricultural, with some success- the number of agricultural castes did slowly increase. Other wealthy members of non-agricultural castes used poorer members of the agricultural castes as middle-men to legally buy or mortgage land (Cassan 2010). Still others, an estimated 618,000 or more, pretended to be members of an agricultural caste (Cassan 2011).
In addition to the direct enfranchisement of land-owning elites in the Punjab, the British administration made it a policy to grant the military both special privileges and duties in relation to the canal and the lands dependent upon it. Both driving and being driven by this pattern was the fact that the Punjab provided over half the recruits to the colonial army in India. The landholding castes being considered a 'martial race' in British policy, and the policy of setting aside colony land for military recuites of those castes provided a powerful incentive to enlist unmatched elsewhere in the Empire (Ali 1987). The British, in addition to agricultural castes, targeted the Muslims in the northwest and the Sikhs in central Punjab. (Ali 1994). In some cases, land would be set aside for soldiers who were not even of agricultural castes, such as the land for the Mazhbi Sikhs at the Lower Chenab Colony (Ali 1994), or the availability of land grants in the Lower Bari Doab to combat veterans of the First World War regardless of their caste (Ali 56).
Perhaps the earliest example of the connection between the military and canal privileges was the construction of the Upper Bari Doab, which in 1849 was considered a 'matter of political necessity' in order to provide employment for demobilized Sikh soldiers (Gilmartin 1994). Another example could be made of the Nun-Tiwana clan in Shahpur, who were allowed to continue operating their private canals 'at the cost of state canals', due to their clan's support during the Mutiny of 1857, their long military service through multiple wars, and their provision of pro-British politicians (Ali 1987). Most soldier plots ranged from 25-55 acres, with larger plots for officers, and the practice was widespread enough that a recruit from Punjab could generally expect to receive land for their service, with the share of land grants to the military increasing throughout the era of colonialism (Ali 114)
The canal grants were used not only as an incentive to recruitment, but as a source of military resources. Spurred in part by the 1901 report of the Horse and Mule-Breeding Commission, the government began to offer some grants with the stipulation that the grantee must maintain and breed horses and mules, for military use. Yeoman grants were granted specifically to elite rural families and the minimum size of peasant grants was kept high to accommodate this need for horses. (Ali 1994). Such livestock programs had some precedence- for example, indigenous camel owners in Chenab had been granted land specifically under the stipulation that they provide camels to the military (Ali 1987)- according to Captain CH Buck in 1906, three camel corps were maintained in this way (Buck 1906). While the camel program ended in 1921, horse breeding programs would continue into the 1940s (Ali 1987). Taken together, these grants for veterans and requirements of military animal contributions demonstrated a distinct military aspect of the canals, and allowed the British to further elevate an elite group, and one very important the maintenance of the state, to loyalty-inducing dependency on the British as benefactors.
The British did not neglect the spiritual leadership of the Punjab either; leaders of various sects were granted privileges. 3,500 acres, some 45% of the colony land in Sohag Para, was set aside for just 37 Khatri Sikhs from Rawalpindi, on the basis not only of their support for the British in 1857, but of their claimed descent from Guru Nanak, who founded the Sikh religion (Ali 1994). Muslim shrine keepers and holy caste members were also granted lands- a move that would prove very successful for the British, as it prevented the Muslim leadership in the Punjab from turning on the British as they would elsewhere in India (Ali 1987).
The Punjabi bourgeois, the final elite group catered to by the British administration, found opportunity in the canal colonies, not only being granted land, but also finding new opportunities in employment and entrepreneurship. Professionals found places within the British administration as well as a private demand for doctors, lawyers and other professionals unrivaled elsewhere in rural India, while capitalists enjoyed the benefits of emerging market towns, the need for credit by settlers, both of which allowed ample opportunity for investment (Ali 1987).
The actual extent to which these capitalists brought industrial development with them is somewhat hazy; Ali states that industrialization was 'virtually non-existent' and that the bourgeois underwent 'ruralization' and became more involved in the landlord class (Ali 1987). Captain CH Buck of Punjab, on the other hand, said in 1906 that 'Factories are now quite numerous' in the canal colonies (Buck 1906 pg 67). Regardless, clear benefits to this class can be shown in relation to British rule, furthering the winning over of the elite.
CONFLICT AND DISSENT
While the British by and large were able to maintain the loyalty of the Punjabi elite, the rule of colonialism was not without strain; indeed, some of the discontent and conflict in the Punjab was caused by disputes over the canals themselves. While the British administrators were generally content to maintain old power structures and customs, the demands of irrigation development at times put a strain on this goal.
It was for this reason that the policy of chakbandi, which sought to integrate the canal systems and reduce the number of outlets, making the system more efficient, met with the complications it did. The policy expanded control of the irrigation system by the state and regrouped farmers into new irrigation groups they had not previously belonged to (Gilmartin 1994) There was also a controversy over the idea of 'haq', the amount of land the Irrigation Department would provide water to at a given outlet. These 'haq' rights would have to be changed, however, according to the demands of the irrigation system as a whole, which was opposed as it seemed to the farmers to be a violation of a guaranteed right. In 1901 'Haq Rules' were established for governing the remodeling and attempting to balance the needs of the engineers, local leaders, and the state, but these rules proved insufficient, and conflict and argument over haq would continue (Gilmartin 1994). In 1906, the government attempted to pass the Colonization bill, which cemented the role of the state as proprietor of canal land (Ali 1987). This bill would have given the government more rights over the lands held by grantees, restricted inheritance rights, and imposed certain fines, was roundly opposed in the colonies (Cassan 2011). In 1907, a period of agitation broke out, with a number of public assemblies and extensive pamphleting (Ali 1987). These protests were in part also influenced by discontent with chakbandi, an irritation felt also in the longer-settled areas, where it was the primary grievance of petitions (Gilmartin 1994)
As a result of this agitation, the governor-general of Punjab would veto the bill, and the British administration took measures to placate their subjects (Ali 1987). Forming a group to review the grievances of the peasants, the government would introduce the Colonization of Government Lands Act in 1912, which gave the peasants proprietary rights after a period of tenancy, allowed the owners to divide their land in inheritance, and permitted absentee ownership (Ali 1987). In short, it moved away from traditional methods of state administration and into more capitalistic relationships. This move was supported by the grantees, but disliked by the engineers and other technocrats of the colonial state, as new legal rights made their job more difficult by restricting them from making unilateral developmental demands on settlers (Ali 1987). Nonetheless, the British were able to handle the agitation in 1907 in such a way that, while the state had to relinquish some of its own powers that the administrators had found necessary to implement in their development plans, the privilege and loyalty of the elite classes was maintained and dissent placated.
Despite the occasional tensions, which were brought under control by changes in policy, the British strategy of courting the elite in Punjab was a success. Nationalist movements would not gain significant power or support in the Punjab until independence was inevitable thanks to the agitation in the rest of India. The landowning castes, viewing the British as a 'benevolent despotism', had little incentive to support a change in power, instead supporting the Punjab National Unionist Party, which held the provincial legislature until 1946, the year before independence (Ali 1987).
Through the distribution of privileges and resources opened up by the irrigation projects to elite power groups, the British successfully maintained the support of these classes and strengthened their rule in the Punjab.
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