Despite its importance as a large province, Punjab and its history remain neglected areas. Therefore an attempt is being made here to scrutinise its administrative structure in the 19th century with the hope that investigating its administrative past will provide insights into its present.
Of all the provinces of India, Punjab held a peculiar, somewhat romantic, interest for the British officers. The traditional invasion route lay across its plains but, as a maritime power, the British were the first invaders to have annexed the Punjab in 1849 at the end of their Indian conquests. Despite ten years since Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s demise (in 1839), the efficiency and valour of the Khalsa army made Punjab’s annexation the costliest among the British successes.
Immediately after the annexation, Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, established a Board of Administration to oversee the governance of the province. But in 1853 the powers of the Board were transferred to a Chief Commissioner and in 1859 to a Lieutenant-Governor which some see as a reward for Punjab’s role in the suppression of the 1857 uprising.
During the first ten years of the British administration, Dalhousie assembled an efficient group of officers subsequently — the Officers of the Punjab Commission — led by Henry and John Lawrence. The Punjab Government became known for its paternalism: “a strong administration suited to a manly and headstrong people”.
In a major part of the Punjab, land rights were determined and recorded, and the principle of a moderate assessment of land revenue was laid down and partially carried out. The policy of canal and railway development was started and a simple criminal and civil code was enacted and enforced. John Lawrence, the only Chief Commissioner (1853-59) and then the first Lieutenant-Governor, was the main architect of that ‘paternalism’ which underpinned the zamindari system which exists here in perpetuity.
The lieutenant-governor headed the provincial government for his five-year tenure of office. His direct administrative functions were performed through the medium of a secretariat, comprising a chief secretary and two under-secretaries, all members of the Indian Civil Service. The government was organised into three branches: executive, judicial and revenue, comprising, with the rapid development of the province, an ever-increasing number of departments.
By the 1890s, the main department heads were the Financial Commissioner, the Director of Public Works, the Inspector General of Police, the Director of Public Instruction, the Inspector General of Prisons, the Inspector General of Civil Hospitals, the Sanitary Commissioner and the Conservator of Forests. The Accountant General and the Postmaster-General represented Imperial departments under the Government of India. The Public Works Department consisted of two branches: Irrigation, and Roads and Buildings, the heads of which acted as additional ex-officio secretaries to government. The Financial Commissioner was, next to the Lieutenant Governor, the most important man in the government, controlling the Settlement Commissioner, the Commissioner of Excise, the Director of Agriculture, the Director of Land Records and, after 1903, constituted the Court of Wards for the Punjab.
The Officer of the Punjab Commission was assisted by the provincial civil service, recruited entirely from the Punjab by nomination and examination. The members of the provincial civil service, graded as Assistant or Extra-Assistant Commissioners, performed the functions of District Judges, Magistrates, and revenue officials. Minor administrative posts were held by subordinate services, recruited from the local populace.
As in the rest of India, local government in Punjab was of two kinds: the government of the village, an indigenous institution dating from remotest antiquity, and the government of the district and town, which generally betrayed British influence. Each village had one or two chaukidars. In most districts, the villages were grouped into circles or zails, each under a non-official zaildar whose duty it was to render general assistance to all government officials.
The district (average population of 700,000, area about 2,500 square miles) was the main administrative unit in the province for the purposes of criminal, civil, and revenue jurisdiction. In total, the Punjab had 29 districts in 5 Divisions. Incharge of each district was the Deputy Commissioner, reporting to the Divisional Commissioner. The powers of Deputy Commissioner were so vast that he was like a tiny autocrat. He was not only the Collector, with judicial powers in revenue suits, but also District Magistrate with power to try all offences not punishable by death. The district staff included a District Judge, whose work was almost entirely civil, and several Assistant or Extra-Assistant Commissioners with criminal, civil and revenue powers. Each district was sub-divided into 3 to 7 tehsils.
Local self-government had existed since 1871 in some of the districts of the Punjab. In 1883 with Lord Ripon as Viceroy, each district had a District Committee, which had a merely advisory capacity. The same year the elective principle was extended to district boards and created local boards for tehsils too. By 1897, 26 out of 29 districts had district boards, which comprised 1,077 members: 207 of them ex-officio, the Deputy Commissioner being ex-officio president, 495 were nominated and 375 elected.
The Municipal administration was deemed a British triumph. The first municipal law was enacted in 1850 and it was renewed and modified several times during the last half of the 19th century. By 1891, when the last 19th century Municipal Act was passed, 187 towns had Municipal Committees with 1,503 members, of whom 229 were ex-officio, 495 nominated and 779 elected.
In the late 19th century Punjab, the supreme civil and criminal court was the Chief Court at Lahore, consisting of five permanent judges. The permanent judges were always members of the Indian Civil Service. Subordinate to the Chief Court were like today, Divisional and Session Courts. Punjab could get its High Court only after the First World War. Punjab was granted its legislative council in 1897: before that the legislation was solely in the hands of the Governor-General’s Legislative Council. Punjab Legislative Council and its business and the members will be taken up some other time.