ĀZĀD PUNJAB scheme, signifying a major shift in the kinds of political strategies to be pursued by Sikh political leadership in their efforts to enhance the political influence of their community, was a crucial turning point in the development of modern Sikh politics.
With the introduction of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919, politics became pre-eminently focussed on the legislature. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims all saw the legislative council as the principal political arena for gaining and maintaining communal advantages; and the communal allocation of seats in the council was the dominant political issue in the Punjab during the 1920's and much of the 1930's. Under the Reforms, Sikhs who comprised 13 per cent of the total population of the Punjab, were allocated 181/2 per cent of the seats; and Muslims, who comprised a majority of the population (55 per cent), 50 per cent of the seats. The allocations satisfied no one in the province; Muslims attacked the Reforms as understating their majority; Hindus and Sikhs argued that the Reforms gave Muslims an absolute majority and left the other communities ineffectual. Disenchantment with the Reforms was particularly felt among the Sikh leadership. Although Sikh legislative council members sometimes supported pro-agriculturalist legislation initiated by the Muslim led Unionist Party, Sikh organizations and representations to various government commissions repeatedly called for greater representation in the council for the Sikh community. The Akālī Dal, by mid-1920's an increasingly powerful force in the community, was particularly outspoken on the issue. Concern for the 'representational' issue in the Sikh community accelerated after the British Government, in the Communal Award of 1932, 'froze' Sikh representation in the Punjab council at 19 per cent and further enhanced the Muslim majority in that legislature.
Ironically, the Communal Award seemed to initiate a process which saw a decreasing emphasis on council representation as a means of community defence. Muslims, for example, saw little benefit from their majority in the Punjab. They still were a minority in India as a whole. Sikhs simply refused to accept their consignment to permanent political subordination. Increasingly, adjustment of territorial boundaries to enhance a community's political influence was stressed. In the 1930's the notion of a separate territorial entity for their community began to gain ground among Muslims. In 1940, at its Lahore session, the Muslim League pushed forward a separatist territorial claim for the Indian Muslim community and demanded Pakistan as a separate sovereign State for Muslims.
Sikhs, too, began to echo this concern for territory as protection. As early as the Round Table Conference in 1931, Sikhs had raised possibility of boundary redistribution being used as a means of resolving Punjab's communal problem. In a memorandum to the Round Table Conference, Sikh delegate, Ujjal Siṅgh, had stated that continued Muslim intransigence would force Sikhs to press for a territorial rearrangement of the province to consolidate the Sikh population and to create a province in which no single community would constitute a majority. Although this proposal had little initial following, the notion of territorial rearrangement acquired credibility as both the British Government and the Congress Party seemed to accept the idea in its general form. In 1942, the proposals of the Cripps Mission granted the principle of territorial sovereignty as a means of communal protection in so far as they gave provinces the right of non-accession to the proposed Indian Federation to be created at the end of World War II. At the same time, the Congress seemed to concede the principle in a Working Committee resolution which stated that it would be unthinkable to compel "the people of any territorial unit to remain in the Indian Union against their declared and established will”.
The demand for a territorial rearrangement to enhance Sikh political influence was revived in 1943 by the Akālī Dal in the form of the Āzād Punjab scheme, which was the brain-child of Giānī Kartār Siṅgh. Like the earlier formulation, the scheme called for the detachment of Muslim majority districts from Punjab to create a new province, Āzād Punjab, in which the Sikh population was maximized and in which no single community, constituted a majority. The Akālī Dal president, Master Tārā Siṅgh, said that Āzād Punjab "shall comprise Ambala, Jullundur, Lahore divisions, and out of the Multan division, Lyallpur District, some portion of Montgomery and Multan districts. " In this way, Sikhs, it was argued, would achieve the balance of power in the province and would gain the maximum benefit from their numbers. Territory became the key to preservation of the Sikh community. Hindus and Muslims, Master Tārā Siṅgh pointed out, could look to their co-religionists in other provinces where they constituted majorities, but Sikhs had no such alternative and required this form of protection until something better was proposed. As radical as the Āzād Punjab scheme was and despite its popularity in the Sikh community, it was quickly shuttled aside by events. As the possibility of the partition of the Punjab grew, the scheme became less and less meaningful. The spectre of Muslim domination was replaced by the fear that the Sikh community would be split between India and Pakistan. Territorial rearrangement took a still more radical twist as increasing numbers of Sikhs began to demand an independent Sikh State, a demand ultimately lost in the politics surrounding Partition. The quick demise of the Āzād Punjab scheme is not a true measure of its significance. As the first popular formulation of territorial rearrangement as a means of protection for the community, it set a pattern that continued to persist in Sikh politics for a long time.
Gerald A. Heeger