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Holden Furber prize winner 2024

A Province Divided: Land, Labor, and Water during the 1947 Partition of Punjab, India

This thesis critically examines memoranda and presentations made to the Punjab Boundary Commission, seeking to highlight claims over material and natural resources as means of reinterpreting the conditions underlying the catastrophic partition of British India in 1947. Partition historiography almost universally centers narratives on the apparent animosity between Hindus and Muslims or the movements of the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League. This thesis, however, turns its attention toward actors neglected by the scholarship. It examines the Punjab Unionist Party, as well as the representatives of minority ethno-religious organizations that presented before the Punjab Boundary Commission. This thesis seeks to illuminate concerns about land, labor, and water expressed during the proceedings of the Commission, as well as interpret the conspicuous absence of the Unionist Party from these proceedings. Furthermore, it will interrogate the institutional role of the Boundary Commission in fomenting the violence that followed Partition taking effect. Commission archival records form a critical base of sources, wherein submitted memoranda and hearing transcripts outline the arguments of various representative organizations over the division of Punjab. This thesis concludes that the Unionists found themselves deliberately excluded from appearing before the Commission. This exclusion appears to be motivated by the Unionists’ cross-communal political mobilization, which failed to fit within Partition’s stated aim of creating a physical ethno-religious division of India. Additionally, the arguments of organizations that did manage to reach the Commission persistently return to concerns over handling of land, labor, and water—a political paradigm the Unionists embodied—but these concerns were necessarily buried beneath the rhetoric of ethno-religious division. Ultimately, Punjabis found themselves subject to the machinations of wider nationalist organizations and a colonial state whose socio-political framework ran fundamentally counter to the province’s own predominant social structures. While the late colonial administration coated the Boundary Commission in the veneer of an attentive judicial body, the proceedings’ eventual outcomes for Punjabis proved to be exclusion and disempowerment.