Rimmi Kapur/ Impact of Punjab Peasant Movement: A Study of Freedom Struggle in India

Rimmi Kapur

Assistant Professor in History

G.G.D.S.D. College, Hariana,

Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India


British rule brought tremendous changes in Indian economic set-up. Behind these changes the first and foremost motive of white people was only to exploit India ruthlessly and to drain the wealth of India into England. They introduced such land revenue settlements which favored them the most and also could benefit the industries of England. In the process of the fulfillment of their selfish and economic interests the worst sufferers were the farmers. Punjab, a land of five rivers, had always remained a great attraction for them. The fertility of the soil of Punjab and vast agriculture prompted them to annex the kingdom of Punjab. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General, annexed Punjab on 29th March, 1849A.D. Land revenue system established by them led to the impoverishment and rural-indebtedness of peasants of Punjab. The sufferings and hardships faced by the farmers urged them to come out from the grip of foreign yoke as soon as possible. In the meantime several incidents occurred in entire Indian history which mobilized the farmers to take part in the freedom struggle of India. The present paper is an attempt to discuss and highlight the contribution made by the peasants of Punjab in the Independence struggle of India.

Keywords: drain, annexed, impoverishment, rural-indebtedness, independence struggle.


The East India Company which landed as a trader in India, slowly took over and ruled India on behalf of the British Government. The Battle of Plassey and the Battle of Buxar laid down the foundation of British Empire in India. After establishing themselves on a firm footing, they started interfering in every aspect of man’s life: economic, social and religious. For instance, in economic sphere they introduced such land revenue settlements which suited them the most. In entire Indian history, first signs of opposition were faced by them in the regions of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. In these regions Lord Cornwallis, the British Governor-General, introduced the permanent settlement in 1793A.D. thus making the Zamindars the real owners of the land. From the late 18th century the sole aim of the white people was only to extract maximum revenue from the peasants so that by taking the money to England by direct or indirect means they could benefit the industries of England.

Lord Dalhousie annexed Punjab on 29th march, 1849 A.D. Now the whole administration of Punjab fell into their hands. In Punjab also they gave birth to such land revenue policies which led to rural-indebtedness and poverty of peasants. They were sucking the blood through their newly created class i.e. Landlord class. Now the peasants could not tolerate this and desired to come out from the grip of white people as soon as possible. In the meantime several incidents occurred in entire Indian history i.e. Santhal’s rebellion of 1855, Kuka Movement, Indigo Revolt of 1860, Land Alienation Act of 1900, Agrarian Unrest of 1907, Gadar Movement and so on. These incidents mobilized the peasants to have their great contribution in the freedom struggle of India.

Undoubtedly, during the Britisher rule majority of peasants of Punjab were almost gripped under heavy debt. About the indebtedness of peasants of Punjab Malcolm Darling has stated, “The bulk of cultivators of Punjab were born in debt, lived in debt and died in debt.” Actually the thing is that they forced the people to pay their land revenue in cash instead of kind. Now in order to save themselves from their wrath, they had no other alternative rather than to go to money-lenders. Peasants required money not only for the payment of their land revenue but even for the marriage of their daughters, for buying a cattle and even for sinking a new well. Several types of cruelties were imposed on them if they were unable to pay the land revenue in time. Now they had no option left and they made up their minds to take some strict measure against them.

Firstly Kuka or Namdhari movement founded in 1857 was basically a movement started for introducing reforms in social and religious fields but this movement also had a political aim and that was to liberate India from foreign yoke. This movement followed a non- cooperation attitude towards British Government and when they took stringent and brutal actions against the Namdharis, then the peasant section of Punjab could not tolerate their humiliation.Due to this Kuka movement the peasants got the opportunity to raise their voice against the economic exploitation which was going on against them by the White people. The Land Alienation Act in 1900 A.D. which placed 15 years limitation on all kinds of land purchases and mortgages, added to sufferings and indebtedness of peasants. Then on 25th October, 1906 the British government passed the Punjab Land Colonization Bill according to which certain types of limitations were placed before the people residing in canal colonies of Punjab. The Government increased the water rates in Bari Doab Canal which used to irrigate the districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Lahore. Land Revenue of Rawalpindi district also got enhanced. This resulted in agrarian agitation of 1907A.D. N.Gerald Barrier has stated that agrarian agitation of 1907 A.D. can truly be described as the first important struggle of the ryots of Punjab against the colonial state. As rural population were already fed up with the britishers, so they started thinking to organize some meetings where some stand can be taken not to pay heeds to the demands of british government. When later Sardar Ajit Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai joined these meetings, then the peasants of Punjab learnt the new lesson of nationalism from them and got ready to force the British authorities to fulfill their demands. From 1st march to 1st may, 1907 various processions were held in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Amritsar, Sialkot, Batala, Gurdaspur, Gujranwala, Lyallpur and so on. In these processions the activities undertaken by the Britishers were strongly condemned and the main leaders of these processions were Lala Lajpat Rai, Sardar Ajit Singh, Lal Chand Falak, Hans Raj Sahni, Ghulam Kadir, Sayed Haidar Raza, Pindi Dass, Sufi Amba Prasad, Illahi Baksh. Addressing to the farmers of Lyallpur in procession Lala Lajpat Rai said, “O brothers! Government is claiming that it has given them the lands. Further Lala Lajpat Rai said from your side I will ask from government that from whom they got the lands? Our ancestors had shed their so much blood on these lands. These lands either belong to us or either to God.” In the procession of Lyallpur one poem edited by Banke Dyal was read out entitled “Pagri Sambhal o Jatta” . Later this poem became quite popular among the farmers of Punjab. Sardar Ajit Singh rose as a great revolutionary leader in the agrarian agitation of 1907 A.D. He uttered these words, “Land of India is for Indians and English people have no right on it. We Indians who are thirty crore in number could very easily defeat the britishers who are lac in numbers. Police and army also belongs to us.” Due to his efforts ‘Anjuman-Muhiban-i-watan’ got established which was also known by the name of ‘Bharat Mata Society’. This society played a great role in creating awakening among the peasants of Punjab for their rights and preparing them to fight against British rule.

In 19th century due to the harsh economic policies of the Britishers, majority of the peasants of Punjab had migrated to America and Canada in order to earn their livelihood. Facing a number of humiliations and sufferings from abroad they decided to put an end to India’s slavery. On 21st April, 1913 The Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast got established in U.S.A with Sohan Singh Bhakna as its president and Lala Hardayal as its secretary. The main objective of this association was to free India from the rule of the white people through armed revolution and to establish a republic which should be based on the principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood. In November, 1913 this association started weekly newspaper by the name of ‘Gadar’. This newspaper was published in Urdu, Gurmukhi, Marathi and later it was also published in English and Hindi. This movement left no stone unturned in bringing an armed revolution to uproot the Britishers from India. Regarding the significance of Gadar Movement Ex-Chief Minister of Punjab, Partap Singh Kairon has stated, “The Gadar patriots were pioneers in waging a relentless struggle against British imperialism because their’s was practically the first attempt to raise the banner of revolt after the terrible repression of the post-1857 days”.

The Akali Movement(1920-1925) also played a great role in arousing political consciousness among the Peasants of Punjab. In the beginning of 19th century, all the Sikh Shrines were under the control of Mahants. These Mahants were puppets in the hands of Britishers and with the passage of time they became very selfish. They started treating the offerings at the Gurudwaras only for their personal use. The sikh nationalists who were mainly peasants could not tolerate this and their growing anger and hatred against these Mahants got exaggerated when they put a blame on Gadar revolutionaries that they had deserted their faith and when they honoured General Dyer who was responsible for Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy. In these circumstances Akali Movement had its origin to release the Gurudwaras from the control of Mahants. So undoubtedly this movement mobilized the peasants very much and awakened them to have their great contribution in the freedom struggle of India.

Naujawan Bharat Sabha also played a significant role in arousing political consciousness among the peasants of Punjab. It infused patriotic feelings among the youths and this Sabha was organized by Bhagat Singh in March, 1926 at the sayings of Dr. Satyapal to educate young men. On 12th april, 1928 conference of this sabha was set up at Jallianwala Bagh. The main objective of this sabha was to unite the workers and peasants of whole India and to work for their betterment and welfare. This sabha also published many newspapers and the famous newspaper was Naujawan. This newspaper was started in October 1928 and published at Amritsar. Naujawan newspaper played a great role in developing the spirit of patriotism among the hearts of youth. This movement launched an agitation to fulfill all the demands of peasants.

Before the coming of Britishers, the peasants were leading satisfactory life. They used to meet their whole basic needs and requirements from within the village. The economy of village was self-dependent. They grew crops needed only for their survival. Crops were not grown from the commercial point of view. But after the advent of Britishers, the whole traditional economic set-up of villages got destroyed. Their traditional occupations got damaged. Now things manufactured in big industries of Europe started pouring in India in large numbers. This gave a great set back to the handicraft industry of villages. Due to the process of De-industrialization, the workers became un-employed. Now they had no other choice but to shift to agriculture. Now due to the over-crowdedness in agriculture, peasants got disgusted and they started thinking to take some strict action against the Britishers.

In 1920’s and 1930’s, first sign of Indian peasant resistance can be seen through various contemporary writings written at that time. Mridula Mukherjee also focused on the theme of peasant resistance and consciousness in colonial India. Recently historiography has taken a new shape and appeared before the people as a “Subaltern” school, which gives very little importance to old historiography because this Subaltern school of historiography regards the old historiography as the historiography of the powerful and rich class. Mridula tried to examine to what extent this Subaltern school would go to know deeply about the peasant resistance occurred during the colonial rule.

Only the role of Indian National Congress and Muslim League in this context has been heard and talked of. Satya M.Rai wonders why famous historians and authors have not highlighted the importance of various movements of Punjab like Ghadar movement and Kuka Movement. By examining all viewpoints he might came to the conclusion that the writers or historians might be influenced by policy of non-violence instead of all those activities which were based on violence. He wrote, “Jawahar Lal Nehru discovered India, but his discovery did not extend to the great movement of Ghadrites except for minor references at places.”

The peasant struggles in India started right with the onset of colonial rule. A.R.Desai’s work gives a clear picture of chronological peasant uprising that took place in 19th century. He opined that rural population especially peasant class had great connection with the National Movement of India. Whatever movement was launched by Mahatma Gandhi, may be Quit India Movement or civil Disobedience Movement, one can largely see the role played by the peasant community to get Independence from the British rule.

To conclude, the Sons of the Soil had their great contribution in the freedom struggle of India. Indian National Congress and Muslim League had their role in the attainment of Independence, but the contribution made by the bread-makers of India especially peasants of Punjab cannot be ignored, as they left no stone unturned to get India free from foreign rule.


                                                              Works Cited

  • Arora , Avinash Chander. Modern Indian History. 25th Jallandhar: Pradeep publications,2013.Print.
  • Barrier, N. Gerald. “The Punjab disturbance of 1907: The response of British government in India to agrarian unrest.” Modern Asian Studies .1.4.(2008): 353-383. Print.
  • Darling, Malcolm. The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt. 4th New York: Oxford University Press , 1947. Print.
  • Deol, G.S. The Role of the Gadar Party in the National Movement. Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1969. Print.
  • Desai, A.R. Peasant Struggles in India. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.
  • Hamid, Naved. “Dispossession and differentiation of the peasantry in the Punjab during colonial rule.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 10.4. (1982) : 52-57. Print.
  • Mukherjee, Mridula. “Peasant Resistance and Peasant consciousness in Colonial India: ‘ Subalterns’ and Beyond”. Economic and Political Weekly. 23 (1988 ): 2109-2120. Print.
  • Rai, Satya.M. Punjabi Heroic Tradition, 1900-1947. Patiala: Punjabi University,1978. Print.

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