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The face of modern Punjab III

The contribution of Lala Rama Saran Das

The face of  modern Punjab III

Lala Ram Saran Das was born in Lahore Nov 26, 1876. He was just 14 when his father passed away and he came under the tutelage of his uncle. At that time he was studying in the Central Model School.

After matriculating in 1897, he came to Government College Lahore and took the subjects of Science, Sanskrit and History. However, shortly afterwards his uncle too passed away forcing Ram Saran Das to shoulder the onerous responsibilities of managing his father’s vast estates, contracts and zamindari. The obvious consequence was that Ram Saran Das had to quit his studies. But the adversity of circumstances could not deter him from taking full charge of his bequest which he managed admirably well. Despite his tender age, he gave a good account of himself by demonstrating maturity and not shirking from the hard work.

The first Spinning and Weaving mill in the entire province was the outcome of Lala Ram Saran Das’s deep insight into business affairs and his skill and industry coupled with vast resources which his father had bequeathed to him. Sir Dennis Fitzpatrick, the then Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab formally inaugurated the mill in 1897. The remarkable aspect was Ram Saran Das’ age; he was merely 21 when such a mega project came to fruition in which more than one thousand people found employment. He took extraordinary interest in all the spheres of its functioning and worked himself as a “Dispatcher, Correspondence-Clerk and Accountant.”

He also gained practical experience as a mechanical and civil engineer which came in quite handy in administering the affairs of the mill in an efficient manner. His zeal as an industrial-business entrepreneur led him to expand his business concerns. He undertook large contracts for the construction of a Division of the Nagda-Mathura Railway where 12,000 people were employed. Various bridges, railway lines and magnificent buildings were built by his firm, Messrs. R. B. Mela Ram & Sons, Lahore.

Read also: The face of modern Punjab

Those were the days when Punjab’s renaissance had reached its pinnacle point and the Khatri caste (Hindus) formed the pivot of the transformation that the province underwent during the last quarter of the 19th Century. Canal colonisation, initiated during the 1860s, had started bearing fruit by the close of the century, with the emergence of the rural bourgeois being an important outcome. The British administration got sensitised to the importance of the rural/agricultural section, which was under distress because of the land alienation at the hands of money lenders who were also Khatris. Kirars, Auroras and Aggarwals were the main moneylenders.

It may be argued that since the British no longer bought cotton from America since the 1860s, they now needed to keep the Indian agricultural classes happy for business purposes.

It might seem inconceivable today that before British colonialism, there was no concept of private ownership of property in Punjab. With the arrival of the British, and with the advent of the capitalist ideas of private possession and a laissez faire economy, the Khatris, who had been businessmen for generations, were cognizant of the fact that an opportunity had presented itself. Since they had access to capital, and realised that the possession of land would entitle them to acquire social standing and influence in the Indian caste-based polity, they started buying agricultural and residential land in large areas.

What makes this process doubly interesting is that the Khatris were also moneylenders. As a result, many landowners would leave their land as collateral with the Khatri banias against the money they borrowed for everyday problems like birth, travel, marriage, and death. Since interest on the original borrowing kept compounding exponentially, eventually the original landowner was forced to forfeit his right to his land, and it would become the possession of the Khatri moneylender.

Read also: The face of modern Punjab — II

This rise of the Khatri businessmen as large landowners in Punjab was noticed by the British administrators, particularly by S. S. Thorburn and Charlez Montgomery Rivaz, who came to the conclusion that the Khatris had become an exploitative class. It is interesting to note that the rise of the rural Khatri bourgeoisie in Punjab was actually a social transformation from their identity as a caste to a class, which was a radical development in the social history of India.

During Lord Curzon’s tenure as Viceroy of India, the Land Alienation Act of 1901 was passed. This was a watershed moment because the British administrators through this Act divided land into agrarian and non-agrarian divisions, with some castes being classified in the former category, and others in the latter.

What this eventually resulted in was that the Khatris could not become landowners due to their political identity as the urban bourgeoisie. Their political interests were reflected in the anti-Imperial policies and identity of the All-India National Congress. It may be argued that since the British no longer bought cotton from America since the 1860s, they now needed to keep the Indian agricultural classes happy for business purposes as well. This collusion of political and business interests resulted in the eventual pressure on the British to arrest the rise of the Khatris. Once the Khatris’ right to acquire rural land was forfeited, this resulted in a fall in their social status.

In these ostensibly adverse circumstances for the Khatris and the urban bourgeoisie, the sagacity of Lala Ram Saran Das was of great help to his survival. His business concerns not only remained intact, but socially and politically his influence kept soaring. At the age of 22, he was nominated as a member of the District Board of Lahore, an office he held for 20 years. For about 18 years, he also remained a municipal commissioner. In 1909, he was conferred with the title of Rai Bahadur. In 1914, he was awarded Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal, and two years later, the CIE was conferred on him.

Under the Montford Reforms, he was elected to the Punjab Legislative Council. In 1930, his election to the Council of State came as a surprise to many. He was equally popular among the British and the Indians, and was respected across the colonial divide. In short, he was a member of numerous committees, did charity and relief work, and was influential in various circles.

The reason for his persistent popularity even in the times of the Khatris not being favoured by the British was that Rai Bahadur Ram Saran Das, despite his rise and wealth, never lost his innate humility, and maintained an educated and pluralistic outlook on life. His close friends were drawn from all social strata, regardless of class, wealth and religious association. His contribution for Punjab and specially Lahore was so immense that it can be said with conviction that upon his death in 1945, the glorious era of the rise of Punjabi bourgeoisie in colonial India lost one of its central figures.


Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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