Legacy of resistance

Has Punjab welcomed every invader?

There is a popular belief that the Punjab has never resisted foreign invaders and internal usurpers. Such stigmatising of the Punjab is unjust and evidence of either bias or ignorance of history. The fact of the matter is that the Punjab resisted the invaders and the usurpers regardless of the outcome.

Had the people living in the north, south and east been able to stop the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols and eventually the British in their respective regions, these invaders would not have reached the Punjab in the first place.

Punjab has a long history of resistance against both foreign invaders and internal usurpers. When Alexander of Macedonia led the Greek invasion of India in 326 BC he had already subdued many kingdoms, nations and tribes. He met stiff resistance from two sovereigns: the Persian Emperor Darius III and King Porus of Paurava, as recorded by Greek historians. The former had to flee from the battlefield after sensing his defeat at the Battle of Issus in 331 BC; the latter checked Alexander’s advance in the ferocious Battle of Hydaspes (River Jhelum) in 326 BC.

Alexander had sent his envoy to Porus to convince him to pay tribute. However, Porus refused and told the invader: “We will meet in the battlefield.” And they did meet in the battlefield. Though Alexander won this battle, it proved to be the last battle of his life. He had to stop his campaign and give up his dream of reaching the ‘other end of the world’. Plutarch recounts that the Greeks defeated King Porus with “great difficulty”.

From the 10th Century onwards, the north-west region of the subcontinent was subjugated by Central Asian Turks. These invaders were strongly resisted by the Pal clan of the Hindushahis — Jayapala (964 – 1002), Anandapala (1002 – 10) and Trilocanpala (1010 – 21) — the then ruling dynasty of the Punjab. Between 977 and 1021, Mahmood of Ghazna and his father had to invade the region for a number of times to defeat the robust resistance of the Hindu Shahis of the Punjab. Some historians suggest that this resistance came to an end in 1021 when Trilocanpala was killed by some Hindu troops.

Abdullah Bhatti alias Dulla Bhatti, his father, Farid, and grandfather, Sandal alias Bijli challenged the Mughal rule in the Punjab. Overburdened by agricultural levies, the three generations of Bhattis saw an opportunity to resist the regime in the economic conditions. By rejecting the highly regressive tax policies of the Mughal Empire, Bhattis launched themselves as revolutionary leaders of the working class. They became popular amongst the local community on account of their bravery and promotion of social justice. The fear of a revolt twice forced Akbar to shift his capital from Delhi/Agra to Lahore. All of them sacrificed their lives in this struggle against the mighty Mughal Empire ruled by Akbar the great. Dulla was forced to surrender to the Mughal army on account of arrest of his wife.

Until the 19th Century, the East India Company had not conquered the Punjab although it had subjugated Indian territories in the eastern regions. The Punjab was robustly defended by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Despite the political chaos that followed the Maharaja’s demise in 1839, the company had to fight two wars (known as Anglo-Sikh Wars) to conquer the bPunjab. The final battle at Chailianwali in the Mandi Bahauddin district is recorded as one of the toughest fought by the company in the Indian subcontinent.

After establishing its rule in the Indian subcontinent, the Company had to face the War of Independence in 1857 in various parts of India including the Punjab. The Punjabi resistance, mainly in Gogera district, was led by Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal of Jhamra. He and his supporters from Wattoo, Kharal and Fatiana tribes fought valiantly and won a few victories against the British army.

Sardar Ajit Singh (1881–1947) is credited with mobilising Punjabi peasants to agitate against the Land Alienation Act of 1900, the Punjab Limitation Act 1904, the Transfer of Property Act 1904, the Punjab Pre-Emption Act of 1905 and the Punjab Colonisation Act (Amendment) 1906 – and ordinances increasing land revenue and water taxes. Responding to these acts and ordinances, he founded and led Pagri Sanbhal O Jatta Movement. The British arrested and exiled him and Lala Lajpat Rai to Mandalay in Burma in May 1907.

However, orders for their arrest and exile were withdrawn in November 1907; so were the ordinances raising the water rate and land revenue. This was done on account of mounting public pressure and apprehension of unrest in the army. After a life long struggle against the British colonisation of India, Singh breathed his last on August 15, 1947, the day of India’s independence. While breathing his last, he uttered “Thank God, my mission is fulfilled”.

The Punjabis rebelled and resisted on a number of other occasions as well: the Jat peasants of Haryana revolted against the East India Company in 1809; the peasants of Bhiwani (now a part of Haryana state in India) resisted the British East India Company in 1824; and Bhagat Singh led a resistance movement against the British, for which he was executed at the age of 23. This inspired Indians in general and Punjabis in particular.

The tradition of resistance continued in the post-colonial West (Pakistani) Punjab. Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad and Shaikh Muhammad Rashid became long-standing leaders for the rights of peasants and workers. They led the Punjab Kisan Tehreek and workers’ struggle for almost six decades. They had to pay for it dearly. Chaudhary Fateh spent eighteen years of his life in jail. Shaikh Rashid faced imprisonment, house-arrest and persecution throughout his life.

The peasants of the Canal Colony districts of Okara, Khanewal, Pakpattan, Sahiwal and Vehari started a movement around the year 2000. The movement started with a rejection of the contract proposal (arguing that army was neither the legal owner nor the lessee of the land) and turned into a struggle for the ownership rights to the land. The Pakistan Democratic Movement rally in Gujranwala is yet another example of Punjab’s resistance.

In the East Punjab protests demonstrations and strikes have been led by farmers against the agrarian ordinances issued by the Modi-led government.


The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87

Legacy of resistance