The Unionist Party
Mian Fazl-i-Hussain and Chhotu Ram laid the foundation of the Punjab National Unionist Party in 1923. It was originated by a group of rural members of the Punjab Legislative Council. These members were elected on personal prestigious position and were the big landlords and influential politicians of the Punjab. The fundamental theme of their politics was to defend the provincial interest as well as the interest of the British Raj. The group consisted of 24 Muslim landlords and 6 Hindu Jats under the leadership of Rao Bahadur Lal and the party was based on non-communal basis. The prominent Muslim landed elites were Nawab Muzafar Ali Qazilbash, Nawab Shah Nawaz Mamdot, Malik Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana, Malik Atta Muhammad Khan Nawab of Kalabagh, Mian Ahmad Yar Khan Daultana and right hand man of Fazl-i-Hussain Sir Mohammad Zafarullah Khan. The membership was open to every community member irrespective of caste, creed, religion or color. Basically it was the fusion of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs landed gentry of the rural Punjab.
The Punjab being an agriculturists’ province, where the majority of Muslims was marginal, not more than 54%, it was difficult for any political party to form a government purely on communal basis as it was not prone to get a sufficient majority. So it had to coalesce with other members so as to form the government. As Sir Fazl-i-Husain thought a coalition would always be a weak Government, he started the Unionist Party in 1936. This was to safeguard the interests of Muslims and particularly the agriculturists’ class, which was largely Muslim. Most of the agriculturists in the Punjab were Muslim, although there were also very large landowners [who were Muslim], but barring four or five Muslim landowners, they were all indebted as well.
He started it [the Unionist Party] in 1936. Unfortunately his health had been very delicate from 1934 onwards, and when he launched it in 1936, he was a sick man. He also wanted to ensure that the party would continue and have a leader who was capable of taking this party to the polls and making it a success. At that time Sir Sikander Hayat had been Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, which had started a year earlier. Sir Fazl-i-Husain called Sir Sikander and urged him to lead the Unionists’s Party. So Sir Sikander who had decided to come back to the Punjab at the end of 1936 came even earlier and took over the leadership. The deputy leader was Sir Chhotu Ram, who was a Hindu Jat from Rohtak district in eastern Punjab.
The Unionists Party’s main aim was to protect the agriculturist community of the Punjab, whether they were Muslims, Hindus or Sikhs. Sir Chhotu Ram played a pivotal role in bringing agrarian reforms to help the farmers. For instance, the Indebtedness Bill was introduced which setup debt conciliation boards in each district. The debt conciliation board function was for the petty zamindars, small landholders, who were not rich, so that instead of going to the courts of law, the debt conciliation board would meet and decide on their debts. This greatly helped the indebtedness of the agriculturists that was one. Sir Chhotu Ram was the person who initially approved the Bhakhra Dam scheme and laid the foundation of the ‘Green Revolution’ as he saw the peasant as the agent as well as the beneficiary of the change.
The Unionists concentrated on the rural section of the Punjab as urban middle class was already under the influence of either Congress or the Muslim League and other minor organizations. The only ground left was the rural population, which was exploited by these Unionist leaders for their own interests. The party dominated the political scene of Punjab for a decade, representing the interests of landlords and peasant proprietors but as the same time symbolizing a cross-communal organization.
The pioneer of the party Fazl-i-Hussain died on July 09, 1936 but the popularity of the organization is evident from the results of Provincial elections held in March 1937. In those elections the Unionist Party captured 98 seats in the house of 175, emerging as the leading party, while Muslim League got 2 seats. Later one of its members Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan also left the league and came in Unionist camp. The party did not believe in the notion of the promotion of one-community interests, so it not only guarded the Muslim interest but also at the same time did not ignore the interests of other minorities.
The great achievement of the Unionist party was their agricultural legislation, which became famous as ‘Golden Bills’, which were introduced to protect the poor peasants from the moneylenders. The next important milestone was the increase of Muslim quota in the Government Services. In 1927 the percentage for Government Services was 40% Muslims, 40% Hindus and 20% Sikhs, while under new laws, which were passed in 1938, the percentage was increased for Muslims to 50%, for Hindus to 30% while for Sikhs remained 20%.
This party played a dynamic role in the Punjab politics in the 3rd and 4th decades but later it was replaced by the Muslim League that aimed to gain independence for the Muslim minority and achieve the goal of a separate homeland for the Muslims.
This article was last updated on Monday, Jan 01, 2007