The Unionist Party sought to protect the interests of the landed gentry of Punjab, cutting across communal divisions to safeguard the agro-based social structure of Punjab.
Last Updated: 04 Nov. 2013
The Nationalist Unionist Party dominated Punjab politics in the last two decades of the British Raj. Founded in 1923 by the big landowners and influential politicians of the predominantly rural based Punjab, the Unionist Party sought to protect the interests of the landed gentry of Punjab, cutting across communal divisions to safeguard the agro-based social structure of Punjab. It drew its support from the Hindu Jat peasant landowners of east Punjab and Muslim tribal landowners of West Cross. The basis of the Unionist Party’s policies were support to British rule – to which end Unionist landowners backed Britain in World War II – and safeguarding farmers’ rights from the commercial money lending class.
Protection of the Alienation of Land Act of 1900 was paramount to the Unionists, as it prevented those of non-agriculturalist backgrounds from acquiring land permanently as a result of the indebtedness of traditional landowners. By doing so, the Act enforced rural stability in the province, and this social rigidity divided politics in the Punjab along rural-urban lines, more so than along communal lines.
The dominance of agriculturists in elections was abetted by British policies, and under the leadership of Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, a Muslim zamindar from northern Punjab, the Unionists had a landslide victory in the 1937 provincial elections, not only winning 95 seats in a legislature of 175, but also garnering 74 of the 88 allocated seats for Muslims. The Muslim League managed to secure only one of these, and the Unionists formed Punjab’s first government with Sir Sikandar as its first prime minister. However, the 1937 Sikandar-Jinnah pact inducted Sir Sikandar as a Muslim League member, allying the Unionists with the Muslim League. Yet ambivalence toward the Muslim League vision for the subcontinent lingered amongst the Unionists, who were concerned strictly with keeping the Punjab and their lands intact.
Sir Sikandar’s death in 1942 brought in his successor, Khizar Hayat Tiwana, and Jinnah intensified pressure on the Unionist Party. Despite his efforts however, relations with Tiwana deteriorated and the Unionists became more vocal of their opposition to the Pakistan demand, forming a coalition government with Congress and the Akali Dal party instead. The British announced their scheduled departure from India in March 1947, and the Muslim League’s campaign for Pakistan and civil disobedience campaign began to see an unprecedented popularity with Punjab’s Muslims. In these last few months of the British Raj, as the power of the Unionists waned, the province collapsed in a frenzy of religious conflict, mass rioting and hysteria.
Punjab Alienation of Land Act (1900): Full text of act reproduced on Punjab Laws website.