He changed the face of rural Punjab, by enacting revolutionary reforms.

 

On 9 October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 64-feet tall statue of Chaudhary Sir Chhotu Ram in Rohtak. The statue was constructed under the instruction of his grandson, Chaudhary Birender Singh, Minister for Steel in the Narendra Modi government.

Chaudhary Chhotu Ram was born in village Sampla in Jhajjar district of Haryana on 24 November 1881, in a well known Jat family, which owned 10 acres of land near the village. Rohtak in the 1880s was a one-horse town far away from the capital of Punjab, Lahore. Punjab Province at the time extended from Rawalpindi in the north of India to the borders of Rajasthan, a distance of over 500 miles.

He joined the local primary school in 1891, passing out four years later. He was married at the age of 11 to Giano Devi. He passed the intermediate examination in 1903 from the Christian Mission School in Delhi. The same year he joined St Stephen’s College, graduating in 1905. He chose Sanskrit as one of his subjects. He obtained his LLB degree from Agra College in 1910, becoming an advocate in 1912, the year Jawaharlal Nehru returned to India after spending seven years in England.

Chaudhary Sahib Chhotu Ram was one of the first Jats to become a successful lawyer. Many Jats from the Punjab joined the British Indian Army or sought service in the Jat princely states of Bharatpur and Dholpur. Most kept away from politics. Not Chaudhary Chhotu Ram. He joined the Congress party in 1916. He was president of the Rohtak District Congress Committee till 1920. In 1915 he launched his newspaper, Jat Gazette.

Chaudhary Chhotu Ram left the Congress because he came to the conclusion that Mahatma Gandhi’s non-co-operation movement neglected the farmers.

Along with Sir Fazle-Hussein and Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, he launched the Zamindaran Party, which later became the Unionist Party, which had the support of Hindu and Muslim Jats, Sikh Jats and a vast majority of zamindars of all communities.

In the 1937 provincial elections in Punjab, out of 175 seats, the Unionist Party won 99 seats, the Congress and the Muslim League between them managed 19, the Khalsa Nationalists 13 and the Hindu Mahasabha 12.

The new ministry was sworn in on 1.4.1937, with Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan as Premier, Chhotu Ram was appointed Revenue Minister. He held the post till his death on 9 January 1945, aged 63.

Sikandar Hayata Khan died in 1942. He was succeeded by Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana. Sir Chhotu Ram opted out of the succession race. He was virtually the deputy premier in whom Khizr had total confidence, seeking his advice and guidance. Between 1937 and January 1945, Sir Chhotu Ram changed the face of rural Punjab, by enacting revolutionary reforms.

Nor even one per cent of Indians know that it was Chhotu Ram who conceived the idea of building the Bhakra Dam. He had the Punjab government sign an agreement with the Raja of Bilaspur, who had the right to the waters of the river Sutlej. The agreement was signed a few months before he died.

The Sahukar Registration Act was passed in the Assembly in September 1938. This curbed the exploitation of the farmers by the moneylenders. The Free Rent Mortgage Land Act, the Loan Forgiveness Acts were all passed during his seven years as Revenue Minister. He was knighted in 1937. The Muslim Jats called him Rehbar-i-Azam—a protector of the poor.

M.A. Jinnah asked Premier Khizer Hayat to alter the name of the Unionist Government of the Punjab to the Muslim League Government. This was vigorously opposed by Sir Chhotu Ram. He had his way.

The two Hayats, Chhotu Ram and other leaders of the Unionist Party ensured that the party remained secular and no community took precedence over the others.

Many educational institutions are named after him in Haryana, including the Deen Bandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology in Murthal.

A commutative stamp was issued on 9 January 1995 to honour his memory.

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Pran Nevile died on Friday the 11th, two weeks short of his 96th birthday. He had come to see me on 29.9.2018 to present me a copy of his magnificent book, Nautch Girls of India: Dancers, Singers and Playmates. We agreed to have lunch at the IIC “soon”. It was not to be.

He began his career in Lahore in 1944 as a journalist, in Press Information Bureau. He served in the IFS and IFS (B) from 1948 to 1982. He also had a stint in Geneva in UNIDO.

His work was in India. His heart in Lahore. He used to tell me, “I am better known in Lahore than in New Delhi.” He wrote almost a dozen books. My favourite is his biography of the immortal K.L. Saigal.