The struggle for freedom in the Punjab had taken the form of a vigorous agitation against the severely repressive Rowlatt Acts which had culminated in the Jallianvala Bagh massacre (13 April 1919), followed by the Gurdwara Reform movement for the liberation of the Sikh shrines from the control of the corrupt priests supported by the British government, and the violent activities of the Babar Akalis. The people in the neighbouring Indian states were by comparison wholly voiceless under the arbitrary and despotic reign of the princely rulers. The subjects of the states enjoyed no freedom of speech or expression and there were no popular institutions such as legislative councils and assemblies.
The rulers squandered the revenue on personal luxury. To remedy the situation a public platform emerged with the formation of the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal. An year earlier, on 17 September 1927, All India States People`s Conference had been founded to fight for the rights of the people of the 600odd states in the country. The initiative for the establishment of the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal came from the Akali workers belonging to the Punjab states. They had been freshly affranchised by their participation in the long drawn struggle for the reformation of the management of Sikh places of worship in which they had suffered imprisonment and bodily injury.
The formation of the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal was formally announced at a public conference called by such workers at Mansa, in Patiala state, one of the larger princely enclaves, on 17 July 1928. Scva Singh Thikrivala, of Patiala state, an Akali leader still in jail, was elected president, and Bhagvan Singh Laungovalia, also an Akali, general secretary. In the constitution adopted soon afterwards the Praja Mandal membership was thrown open to all adult inhabitants of the Punjab states without distinctions of caste, class or religion. A general council of 200 members was to be elected every two years by its members.
The council was to elect an executive committee of 15 members.The scope of the Praja Mandal`s activities was extended to include all princely states in the Punjab, Kashmir and Shimlahill regions. The central organization, the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal, itself affiliated to the AllIndia States People`s Conference, was to coordinate and direct the activities of the local units. The main objectives of the Praja Mandal were the protection of the rights and liberties of the people, the setting up of representative institutions in the states and the amelioration of the condition of the peasants.
The rulers of the princely states were intolerant of any criticism of or opposition to their administration. Moreover, they enjoyed the full protection and support of the British government.The launching of a popular movement against them was thus not an easy task. At first the activities of the Praja Mandal remained confined to four of the Sikh states of Patiala, Nabha, Jind and Faridkot, in particular against Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. The Shiromani Akali Dal resolved to hold a series of meetings in the Patiala state to secure the release of Seva Singh Thikrivala.
Kharak Singh, the charismatic Akali leader, undertook a tour of the state. He strongly denounced the administration of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. The state authority adopted stern measures to counteract the agitation and arrested a large number of Akali workers. At this time Master Tara Singh, another Akali leader of note, opened a relentless campaign against the Patiala ruler. The Praja Mandal intensified its own agitation.Faced with this twofold challenge, the Maharaja relented and made a conciliatory gesture, ordering the release of Seva Singh Thikrivala along with other Akali prisoners.
After his release, Seva Singh threw himself zealously into the Praja Mandal movement. On 27 December 1929, the first regular session of the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal was convened at Lahore. It adopted a resolution strongly condemning the maladministration of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. So far Patiala had been the main focus; the activities of the Praja Mandal now extended to other states as well. It started a morcha in Jind state to protest against the enhancement of land revenue and against begdr (forced free labour).
In Malerkotia a document entitled Malerkotia Indictment was prepared faulting the ruler as well as the state administration. In Kapurthala state, the Praja Mandal demanded the abolition of oppressive taxes and the establishment of responsible government. In the spring of 1929, a memorandum. Indictment of Patiala, was addressed to the Viceroy of India enumerating instances of misrule in Patiala and of the misconduct of its ruler. The AllIndia States People`s Conference conducted an enquiry and found the Maharaja guilty of most of the charges.
In November 1930, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, as chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, was nominated as the sole representative of the princes of India at the first Round Table Conference in London.The Praja Mandal stepped up its campaign against him and, at a conference held at Ludhiana on 11 October 1930, Seva Singh Thikrivala castigated him for his mi> rule and demanded his deposition. Seva Singh was arrested and sentenced to ten years` rigorous imprisonment, but was released after a few months. In July 1931, the third annual conference of the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal took place at Shimla.
Its main demand was the deposition of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. During 1932-33, the Praja Mandal brought out a second memorandum against Patiala and staged demonstrations in its support at Amritsar and Delhi. Meanwhile, to counteract the Praja Mandal the Patiala government issued the Hidayat (instruction) of 1988 Bk (1931), which banned all political activity in the state.Under the provisions of the Hidayat, Seva Singh was rearrested in January 1933, and sentenced to six years` imprisonment. He resorted to hunger strike in protest against the harsh treatment meted out to him.
In solitary confinement in the Patiala jail, he died on 20 January 1935. The death of Seva Singh Thikrivala marked the end of an important phase in the history of the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal. After him the movement against the princely states lost much of its thrust. Early in 1936, the Patiala government signed an agreement with the Akali leader, Master Tara Singh, resulting in the release of all Akali prisoners. The withdrawal of the Akalis considerably weakened the Praja Mandal.
Several of its leaders, including Bhagvan Singh Laurigovalia and Jagir Singh Joga, came under Marxian influence. With the Akali Dal playing a minimal role in the Sikh states and dissensions erupting between the ruralite Communists and the urbanite Congress group within the Praja Mandal itself, the movement further waned. However, in 1945, the Communists having been expelled from the Indian National Congress, the all India State People`s Conference instituted a regional council for the Punjab states, with Brish Bhan as chairman and Harbaris Lal as general secretary. The leadership of the Praja Mandal in the Punjab states thus passed into the hands of the urban Hindus.
The struggle for constitutional and administrative reforms in the princely states continued. Several of the states witnessed popular agitations, Faridkot the severest of them in 1946. Jawaharlal Nehru`s visit on 27 May 1946 marked the culmination of the agitation. A local leader who spearheaded the movement was Giani Zail Singh, India`s future President. With the formation soon after Independence of PEPSU, a union of Patiala, Nabha, Jind, Malerkotia, Faridkot, Kapurthala, Nalagarh and Kalsia states on 15 July 1948, the princely regimes ended and the Punjab Riyasti Praja Mandal lapsed. It was replaced by the PEPSU Pradesh Congress.
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