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Land of Five Rivers, Canal Colonies and Oceanic Flows to Southeast Asia - page 4 / 11





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administration in bringing benefits to the region, albeit through acts of ‘epistemic violence’, as Thorburn would himself grant a little later:

Within the last twenty years it [Indus]has ruined many of the once thriving villages of Isakhel and Mianwali, by converting their lands into sand wastes or engulfing them altogether; whilst others it has enriched with a fertilizing deposit, and raised their inhabitants from the position of wretched cattle graziers, struggling for existence, to that of prosperous peasant proprietors. Its last freak in this district was to shift its chief channel eight miles eastwards, a feat it accomplished between 1856 and 1864. In doing so it submerged between seventy and eighty square miles of cultivated land and seventeen villages. From this we may judge how it may have fared within the same period with the hundreds of villages within its influence farther south. (Thorburn 1876)

Talbot considers the transformation of 6 million acres of desert into one of the richest agricultural regions in Asia as a “stupendous engineering feat” that was seen as the colonial state’s greatest achievement but was also an attempt to remake both the national environment and its people.(2007) By calling attention to the commercialization of agriculture and the replacement of arid subsistence production with commercial production of huge amounts of wheat, cotton and sugar, he links the establishment of canal colonies to the introduction of capitalist production in Punjab through British imperial policies.  Pervaiz Vandal corroborates his argument by citing an item in The Illustrated London News of 28th March, 1846, which exposes the economic gains of the annexation of Punjab with a specific reference to the irrigation potential:

…if the Punjaub (sic) were placed under the immediate dominion of the British Crown… it might become a most valuable acquisition. It possess great mineral wealth; its agricultural produce might be almost indefinitely multiplied [emphasis added] by a judicious system of irrigation…’2(Vandal  1846 )

Vandal argues that the twin objectives of the settlement process were “to change as little as possible the existing social relations, structures and hierarchies” and “to make clear to all that the British rulers were the true Mai-Baap who could make or break jagirdars and sardars”.(1846)  It sealed the establishment of colonial control over the independent feudal lords under the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh while guaranteeing the loyalty of Punjabis to the British through the complex system of rewards and punishments.  Bannu returns in Vandal’s anecdote illustrating the plenipotentiary powers accorded to young officers who, in turn, created the image of the incorruptible gora sahib.

Like John Nicholson, the Deputy Commissioner of Jammu from 1852-61 mentioned by Vandal, who tied himself to a tree to get Alladad Khan, a wealthy Bannuchi villager, to confess to his crime,  his successor,  Thorburn,  turns to his job with a truly civilizing zeal.  But Thorburn is also a collector of strange customs as well as an assiduous student of history who provides a comprehensive overview of Bannu under native rule and the old revenue system before outlining the new settlement system.  The glimpse he provides into the revenue collection system followed by successive Hindu and Muslim dynasties for centuries with the state as “the supreme landlord of the country” taking a share of every crop according to “its enlightenment and capacity for enforcement” and generally abstaining from “interfering with any agricultural community” so long as it demands were punctually satisfied.(Thorburn 1876)   With the proprietary rights in land vested in the state, the

2 Quoted in Officers of the Punjab Commission compiled and edited by Ch. Mohammad Ashraf, NEDA

Publishers, Lahore, 1995, p16.

Third Critical Studies Conference, CRG, Kolkata

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