Peasant leader Sir Chhotu Ram passed away 77 years ago but he still enjoys great respect among farmers in India.
During the nationwide agitation against the three controversial farm laws in 2020-21, his photos were printed even on marriage invitation cards.
However, Kudrat Brijendra Singh, 21, was surprised when she randomly ran into someone who talked about Sir Chhotu Ram with much interest at a British university. Kudrat is a great-great-granddaughter of Sir Chhotu Ram and granddaughter of former Union Minister Chaudhary Birender Singh. Her father Brijendra Singh is currently the BJP’s Lok Sabha MP in Haryana’s Hisar.
Kudrat’s chance meeting with British national Majid Sheikh – a researcher at the university’s Wolfson College who is originally from Pakistan’s Punjab – happened at the library of the Centre of South Asian Studies. “Majid sir asked if I was from Pakistan’s Punjab, as he assumed by my way of conversing with another student from Ludhiana. I told him that I belong to Haryana, and we talked briefly about how familiar people from the pre-Partition Punjab region still seem to each other, a mix of Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi language being our strongest link,” she says.
Currently pursuing MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge, Kudrat had earlier studied at Chandigarh’s Carmel Convent School before moving to Delhi’s St Stephen’s College in 2019.
“Majid then shared a little about his work. He had written numerous books on the history of Lahore, and the city was also the inspiration for his weekly columns in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Upon hearing of Lahore, I instantly mentioned my family’s connection to the city — my grandparents often talked about when my great-great-grandfather Sir Chhotu Ram used to live in Lahore, at his residence called ‘Shakti Bhawan’ in New Garden Town. I also shared that my mother’s side of the family was originally from Sialkot, also in present-day Pakistan,” she mentions.
“Majid was most pleased to hear this, he smiled and said ‘Arey! Haath milao’ and shook my hand. He had previously written about the Unionist Party and so was aware of Sir Chhotu Ram’s life and work. He told me he had recently met someone from the family of legendary civil engineer Sir Ganga Ram – who is described as the father of modern Lahore – as well, and would want to write a piece on our chance meeting,” Kudrat says.
“When Majid sir shared the article — which had appeared in Dawn – with me a few days ago, I was delighted to read the respectful tribute to Sir Chhotu Ram. Whenever I read it, it reminded me of his legacy,” she adds.
In his article in Dawn, Majid Sheikh wrote about his meeting with Kudrat: “After the highly emotive visit last week of Sir Ganga Ram’s great great granddaughter Kesha Ram, a US Senator, the other day I met an Indian student in Cambridge who in a highly excited state informed me that she was the (great) great granddaughter of Sir Chhotu Ram, the famous Punjab Revenue Minister who changed the very face of our rural areas. She informed that their family house was in New Garden Town.”
Sir Chhotu Ram had in 1923 formed the National Unionist Party in alliance with Fazl-e-Hussain and Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan.
Majid recalled: “One of the political parties that opposed the solution to the problems of the people on communal lines was the National Unionist Party. Never before in the 98-year British rule of the Punjab (undivided then) had the State progressed more rapidly. Most importantly though the leaders of the Unionist Party primarily represented the feudal classes, the rich-poor divide narrowed like never before, or even after. All of this reform was down to one man, and he was Sir Chhotu Ram, the Punjab revenue minister from 1937 to 1945.” Majid also described how the Punjab Relief Indebtedness Act 1934, introduced by Sir Chhotu Ram, saved indebted farmers from ruthless moneylenders. Chhotu Ram was knighted in 1937 in recognition of his contributions towards championing the rights of oppressed communities.
“For me, it was fascinating to meet someone who knew about him (Sir Chhotu Ram) so far away from home,” Kudrat says.
“At the Centre of South Asian Studies, I have met students and scholars from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and we are all amazed by how much we have in common and how deeply we are able to relate with each other.”