The war of 1857 had caught the colonial officers in Punjab by surprise. John Lawrence, the chief commissioner of Punjab, had heard about the sepoys’ disgruntlement in North India and Bengal but without giving it much thought, he left for Rawalpindi from Lahore, on his way to the hill station of Murree. He believed that Punjab was far away from Bengal and would not be impacted by the war. Like several other British officers, he had severely miscalculated the situation. A couple of days later, news of the sepoys reaching Delhi and setting European homes on fire reached him in Rawalpindi, spurring him into action.

There was deep concern in colonial circles that Punjab was precariously positioned. The British had annexed the province only eight years ago after some fierce battles with Sikh soldiers. Soon after the annexation, the proud Khalsa soldiers had been rendered unemployed. Many of them had reportedly been reduced to beggars in the outskirts of Lahore. Thus, there was a sizable body of disempowered Sikh soldiers who would have liked to see the overthrow of a new state.

The aristocrats of the Lahore Durbar had not fared much better under the new regime. Even though many of them had gone out of their way to express their loyalty to the British, they were nonetheless stripped of their privileges and sources of revenue. Motivated by an evangelist zeal, what can also be referred to as “white man’s burden”, Lawrence earnestly believed that these “feudals” who held vast tracts of property and controlled the lives of thousands of peasants living on these lands were like parasites, and the responsibility of a new, modern state was to remove them and redistribute this land among the peasants. In the years following the annexation, the majority of these former aristocrats, once powerful members of the Lahore Durbar, were denuded as not only their political positions but also their land was taken away.

In the wake of the war of 1857, the British, therefore, had powerful enemies in Punjab and Lawrence was quick to realise that a minor spark could result in a massive upheaval in the province. With the rest of North India up in arms against the British, a rebellion in Punjab would have most likely heralded the end of the “Glorious Empire”.

Institution of feudalism

It is in this context the British laid the foundation of two new policies that would in the years to come define British rule in India. On the advice of his aide, Nihal Singh Chachi, Lawrence decided to reach out to the former Sikh aristocrats. Through their experience in Oudh – where, like Punjab, the aristocrats had been stripped of their privileges – the British had learned that despite their diminished political and economic condition, many of these aristocrats still held sway over the local population. After the breaking of the war, many of these aristocrats, who had nothing to lose, threw their weight behind the “rebels”. The populace followed the aristocrats in rising against the British.

For their support against the “rebel soldiers”, Lawrence promised the aristocrats an opportunity to get back their economic and political positions. The aristocrats readily responded. Many joined the British to curb the rebellion in Delhi and other parts of North India. For their loyalty, they were given land, titles and other honours.

A new colonial state that emerged after the war understood the significance of these aristocrats. They realised that despite their exploitative relationship with the peasants, they commanded much respect and, hence, could serve as an effective conduit between the state and the populace. Thus, in the aftermath of 1857, the British propped up the institution of feudalism to help them tighten their grip over the country. It remains a powerful institution in Pakistan to this day with a strong hold over the Pakistani state.

Capture of the last Mughal

The war of 1857 also laid the foundation of the “divide and rule” policy of the British. The eclectic nature of the rebellion, in which soldiers from not only different geographical regions but also diverse religious backgrounds came together, had made the colonial state realise that it must prop up differences between religious groups to circumvent a similar situation in the future.

As soldiers in Delhi gravitated towards Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal king, the colonial officers in Punjab, who were now readily employing the former soldiers of the Khalsa Empire, began exploiting complicated Mughal-Sikh relations. In 1606, Mughal Emperor Jahangir had executed Guru Arjan in Lahore. In 1675, Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi. The Sikh gurus and Mughal forces are also said to have fought numerous battles.

While these executions represent the bitter ties between the Sikh gurus and the Mughals, there is another aspect to the Mughal-Sikh relationship represented by cordial relations between Guru Amar Das and Emperor Akbar, Guru Har Rai and Prince Dara Shikoh. There is also historical evidence to suggest that a rapprochement had occurred between Guru Hargobind and Emperor Jahangir.

Deliberately underplaying the latter and playing up the former, the British sought to inspire the Sikh soldiers in the newly raised regiments to ransack Delhi, the symbol of Mughal authority. The fact that Bahadur Shah Zafar had been raised as the head of the rebellion was also used to incite the soldiers.

A prophecy was spread through the ranks of the soldiers that the Sikhs would be able to avenge the executions of their gurus by attacking Delhi with the help of the “white man”. After the capture of Delhi, Captain William Hodson, even after having promised safe conduct to the Mughal princes, shot and killed two of them in front of his Sikh soldiers. He then ordered their bodies to be displayed at the same spot in Delhi where Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed. After the incident, Hodson came to be known as “avenger of the martyred guru”.

The war of 1857 and the colonial state’s success in creating differences between religious groups allowed the British to institutionalise these policies in the years to come. In the Army, soldiers were encouraged to maintain their religious purity. Similarly, through education, historical differences and antagonisms were reframed to heighten a sense of communal identity. In this context, it comes as no surprise that communalism first reared its head in the urban centres of British India, among the educated circles. In many ways, it remains predominant in urban areas. While the colonial state has been replaced, the institutions it created to perpetuate its existence are very much in place both in India and in Pakistan.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail