A Protest, a Veto and a Committee: The Story of a Farmers' Protest

Today, as peasants gather in Delhi to mark six months of one of the most popular protests in contemporary times, what lessons does a 1907 incident have?

On May 26, 1907, Lord Minto, Viceroy and Governor General of India, put an end to one of the most intense popular peasant agitations in the Punjab Province by the exercise of a veto on the Colonisation Bill introduced in the Punjab Legislative Council in October 1906. 

The veto effectively put the break on rural discontent which had spread across several districts of Punjab. The peasant agitation in colonial Punjab during the previous months had challenged the claim that paternalistic rule had succeeded in keeping the peasantry of the Province happy and contented. At the back of the veto was the realisation that the colonial regime alienating the Punjab peasantry – the primary recruiting ground for the British Indian Army – had serious implications, even as it brought back haunting memories of the 1857 revolt.  

Lord Minto. Photo: Public domain/Wikipedia

The immediate provocation for the agitation was the passage of the Colonisation Bill in 1906, which amended the 1893 Punjab Colonisation of Land Act. This Act had governed the regime of land distribution and allotments in the Canal Colonies, whereby vast tracts in the western districts, were brought under cultivation through allotments to peasants who migrated from the central districts of the Province.

Setting aside earlier procedures of wider consultation, rushing it through a Select Committee, the Financial Commissioner’s office rushed the 1906 legislation and concomitant measures hurriedly, over-riding apprehensions, including those expressed by Maclagan, the then Chief Secretary of Punjab.

The Bill was pushed through with support from the official majority, despite it being known that specific clauses had generated widespread concern. Disregarding disagreements expressed by the three Punjab members present in the Council, the paternalist Punjab officers’ lobby – led by Ibbetson and Wilson – pushed for quick passage of the Bill in London. 

What sparked this unprecedented anger amidst the Punjab peasantry? 

The 1906 Bill revised the conditions on which land allotments had been made to settle peasants from Central Punjab since the 1890s, after the spread of perennial irrigation in vast, previously dry and scantily populated tracts of the Province. The introduction of a clause of primogeniture in succession, by which land could firstly be transferred to the elder son, or a widow and was likely to be resumed by the government in the absence of a legal heir, was an unacceptable proposition to those who had spent a lifetime making the land both cultivable and habitable.

The Bill, further, restricted the jurisdiction of the Courts with regard to the Colony lands and barred them from stalling executive orders. Conditions with regard to tree planting, sanitation and residence were to be strictly implemented, with violations being punishable. This included the possibility of the revocation of grants. The oppressive system of fines imposed by an obnoxious canal bureaucracy, put in place since the setting up of the Colonies, including a system of bribes for petty offences, was thus legalised.

Also watch | ‘Farmers’ Protest Needs A Logical Conclusion, We Cannot Just Retreat’

The unilateral manner in which government proposed to change the conditions on which grants had been made over the previous decade and more through this Bill, introducing new conditions regarding succession which included retroactive provisions, raised an alarm amidst the peasantry.

The passage of the Bill coincided with the announcement of revised rates for water, spreading anger amidst the peasantry on the lands irrigated by the Bari Doab Canal which ran through several of the central districts. This, further, coincided with distress due to the plague, and disaffection due to specific factors affecting recent harvests. The pushing through of legislation abrogating grant conditions in the Western districts, converging with the specific grievances of the peasants in the Central Punjab, made for an explosive situation. 

The lower Bari Doab Canal in the present day. Photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Contradicting the claims made by officers who sought to undermine the threat the agitation posed by attributing it to urban politicians, N.G. Barrier, who researched the 1907 disturbances, spoke of the protests being led by former government servants and educated Punjabis living in rural Punjab.

Barrier also highlighted the spread of the protests among the Indian army and also illiterate peasants, of all religious groups.

Undoubtedly, the peasantry in Punjab was a highly differentiated class, with increasing integration with international markets for agricultural commodities and prices having turned the fortunes of many. Nevertheless, the possibility of losing land, their primary asset, united all.

The agitation saw a flood of pamphlets, news reports, cartoons, petitions to the government with vast publicity through the local press. Large public protests were held in Sangla, Gojra, Amritsar and several other towns. Bar associations organised meetings with mobilisations of several thousands and a spate of memorials were submitted. Amritsar, Lahore and Rawalpindi saw riots. 

In March 1907 in Lyallpur, Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh addressed a nearly 10,000 strong meeting, where editor Prabh Dayal, recited the poem Pagri Sambhal O Jatta. 

What was the colonial government’s response to this peasant assertion?

The entry of Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh gave the government a chance to assert that it was a handful of educated politicians engineering the agitation, which was politically motivated. When temporary measures such as the postponement of enhanced rates yielded no positive results, the colonial government brought out its key weapon of charges of treason and sedition, on the basis of which Ajit Singh and Lajpat Rai were deported. Disregarding the grounds for widespread rural discontent in Punjab, an ordinance was promulgated, placing restrictions on meetings in select districts of the Province. The signal sent out was that the colonial administration would brook no opposition.

Despite this assertion of power, in May 1907, Minto vetoed the Bill passed more than six months prior to these developments in 1906, admitting that it was a ‘faulty’ legislation. Appearing to ‘surrender’ to the agitation was less dangerous, he stated, than ‘insisting upon enforcing the unfortunate legislation.’ The GOI announced the setting up of a Committee to enquire into the administration of the Canal Colonies in the Punjab, to examine the issues that had been raised in the course of the agitation and to consider the basis of a new legislation. A smaller committee was constituted to examine the issue of water rates to be charged.  

Also read: Farm Laws: ‘No Question of Returning, Ready to Resume Talks,’ Rakesh Tikait Tells Centre

The Canal Colonies Committee in its report subsequently acknowledged that the colony regime in the Western districts had ‘meant a good deal of interference.’ On the issue of succession it recommended that proprietary rights should be granted to all ‘good’ colonists and that the ordinary law of succession should apply. It observed that, the feeling against primogeniture was so strong that it would be ‘unwise to maintain the condition of primogeniture for any grantee against his will’ and, that the allottees should have the right to alienate as per the Land Alienation Act, which included a provision on permission required from the Government.

The Committee, pushed for ‘perfection’ in the system of providing water for irrigation and doing away with remissions for failed crops due to faulty distribution, asserting that the ‘strength which the weakest derive from the knowledge that they will have to pay whether they get their share of water or not is akin to the courage which necessity gives to the most helpless.’ It admitted that in the years immediately preceding the agitation fines were imposed ‘too freely,’ that these were ‘unduly heavy’ and collected with ‘too great rigidity.’ Nevertheless, it chose to recommend retaining the provision that ‘pecuniary penalties may be imposed.’

A reading of the Committee’s Report points to two different standpoints and schools of thought in dealing with the issues thrown up by the agitation. One asking that no laxity be shown to those for whom ‘almost everything has been done.’ The other wanting to address the image of the government as a rapacious landlord, ‘modifying laws and regulations to suit his own pocket and his own fancies.’ The colonial establishment, based on intelligence reports, admitted that ‘the mood of the people is apparently such that they distort the most innocent act of the government into a deliberate design to cause them injury,’  which had led to a situation where, ‘… men of various castes and tribes in the Canal colony sank their mutual differences and dissensions and united in a common cause…’ 

The imperial establishment was, undoubtedly, forced to bend in the face of the massive peasant uprising. It also set about reconstituting the terms of negotiation with the Punjab peasantry, by a marked shift in allotment policy for land in the newly colonised tracts, factoring in religious alignments and specific concern for a condition of loyalty with respect to those seeking grants, including as reward for services rendered. 

People attend a Maha Panchayat or grand village council meeting as part of a farmers’ protest against farm laws at Bhainswal in Shamli district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, February 5, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

This May 26, as peasants gather in Delhi to mark six months of a popular protest in contemporary times, with opposition parties and leaders urging the Government to accept the peasants’ demand to repeal the laws, to not be obdurate and resume talks with the farmers’ organisations and leaders, several questions resonate in the mind.

Has the government assessed the likely impact of the havoc that markets and merchants wreak on peasants? What are the long-term social ramifications of discontent amidst the peasantry in an agrarian society like India? How should the state and government respond to issues and concerns raised by popular movements and rural masses?

What may have been the nature of concerns as also the differences in views held by those involved in the making of the present law? There are of course deeper questions involved, such as what lessons may this narrative of a veto exercised by the supreme representative of an imperial regime possibly hold out for democratically elected governments and governance in contemporary India? 

There could be several different answers to these questions. But, as Lord Minto realised at a crucial juncture during his tenure, finding a solution to the problem was of greater importance than holding on to a piece of legislation that raised more fears than could be handled by the colonial state. 

Professor Indu Agnihotri retired as director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.