THE LAST SUNSET : A REVIEW ARTICLE ON THE DECLINE OF SIKH EMPIRE

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INTRODUCTORY: THE LAST SUNSET

I recently picked up the book: The Last Sunset, The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar by Amrinder Singh, published by Roli Books earlier in Feb. 2010. Amrinder’s book seems more a chronicle of Anglo-Sikh Wars and the inner palace intrigues and other series of treacheries that led to the fall of the Lahore Durbar – and all this happening within the space of a decade after the death of the architect of the Empire, Ranjit Singh. My purpose is to share some thoughts triggered by the book.

Amarinder joined NDA after School and was commissioned into the 2nd Sikh in June 1963. He resigned in early 1965 but rejoined immediately and served as the ADC to the GOC in C, Western Command during the 1965 War with Pakistan. He resigned his commission again in early 1966. Even though he did only a short stint in the Army, he seems to have an abiding interest in Military affairs. Both his earlier published works – The History of Indian Army from 1947-65 and A Ridge Too Far: War in the Kargil Heights 1999 – eights 1999.affirm to his interest in military history and study of military operations.

Captain Amarinder Singh, is the scion of the erstwhile princely family of Patiala. He has been in politics for a long while and was elected to the Lok Sabha on Congress ticket in 1980. He left Congress and resigned his Parliament seat after Operation Bluestar. He later joined Akali Dal and was a minister in the state government but formed a splinter group that merged with the Congress. He led the Congress [I] Government in Punjab from 2002 to 2007 as the Chief Minister and continues to be a member of the Punjab legislature. His interest in the politics and power struggles in Punjab could therefore also be well placed.

While Amrinder’s credentials for attempting a work of this kind are indeed impressive, I am aware about some lingering ambivalence among lay Sikhs about the role that his ancestors played during the Sikh struggle for power and as contemporaries of Ranjit Singh. We do not see that as a relevant factor and our attempt would be to be not swayed by any such notion in the discussion that follows.

Coincidentally as I was reading Amrinder’s book, I also stumbled upon a news item that another book entitled The First Anglo Sikh War by Amarpal Sidhu was to be released on 7 Sep 2010 in the UK. Amarpal Sidhu is credited to write of treachery, tragedy and incredible bravery on both sides. His narrative of the campaign draws on eyewitness accounts for a detailed analysis of the five battlefield sites and covers their history immediately after the battles and through the years, their current condition and what there is to see and explore for battlefield archeologists, tourists and enthusiasts. The British interest in the story is invoked saying that ‘The fate of the British Empire in India would be decided that day.’

Also when I chanced to visit the small DSGMC book shop in Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, I saw several titles relating to Sikh wars and related topics and in fact picked up three of the books: The First Punjab War – a translation by PK Nijhawan of Shah Mohahmmed’s Jangnamah in shahmukhi [Amritsar, 2001]; Blood Bath After Ranjit Singh by Avtar Singh Gill [Ludhiana, 2006] and Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnamah by Prof. Surinderjit Singh [Amritsar, 2003].

My quick perusal of some bibliographies showed that a sustained interest to document these conflicts by the contemporary British historians, military leaders and others is evident. This is understandable because of the criticality of outcome of these conflicts could have had on the fate of British presence in India. Likewise understandable is the interest of the authors of Sikh histories in giving an account of fighting in the field and even more importantly, the behind the scenes intrigues. I could also relate to the sentiment of disbelief and dismay expressed in Shah Mohammed’s writing within years of the war at the humiliation suffered and felt by the soldiery – it conveys the shared anguish of people at a grievous loss. The chilling details and graphic constructions about intrigues and treacheries by Avtar Singh Gill, Amrinder and other writers like Amarpal Sidhu seemed to be indicative of puzzled and troubled curiosity that continues to haunt the minds of enquiring Sikhs even today to try and understand this inglorious phase of their history. It is in this backdrop that I proceed to get a drift of what Amrinder and others are saying.

THE UNFOLDING OF THE STORY

The book sums up the rapid rise of the Sikh Kingdom under Ranjit Singh narrated in a brief 25 page account that opens with the death of the Maharaja on 27 Jun, 1839 describing the last rites in somber detail. The act of sati by four of the Maharaja’s wives and seven slave girls is chilling but begets admiration for their stoic resolution when the author says ‘not a single lady uttered a word, nor was there any murmur or cry of agony.’ [p.5][1] Ranjit Singh’s harem included ten wives through marriage [5 Sikh, 3 Hindu and 2 Muslim], ten through chadar ceremony [7Sikh, 3 Hindu] and 23 harem ladies. [p. 19] The story of killing of his mother by Ranjit Singh for taking on paramours draws a wry comment from the author ‘Maha Singh [Ranjit’s father] too, had killed his mother in a similar fashion —- to restore his family’s honor.’ [p. 9]

On the strategy used to expand his kingdom, the author says ‘At first he consolidated the territory under his control, then laid siege to territory that he intended to capture. If the defender —- [offered] nazrana — he in turn offered khillat — those who finally accepted his sovereignty — were given back their estates – [he] entered treaties and broke them at will.’ [pp. 13-14] No wonder Phulkian Chiefs and Sirdars of the region considered Ranjit Singh ‘treacherous’ and in a meeting on 4 March, 1808 unanimously decided to make an alliance with the British to secure their territories from him. After the Treaty of 1809 between the Maharaja and the British; a proclamation was issued by the British placing the Chiefs under their protection. [p. 17-8] Khushwant Singh surmises that Malwa chiefs did not gain much because the British proclaimed that they will intervene if the chiefs took law into their own hands and Malwa in a way became part of the sovereign British rather than under their protection.[2]

Ranjit Singh is credited with having transformed ‘the military array of his country [from] a mass of horseman, brave indeed but ignorant of war as an art.’ [p. 46, quoting Cunningham] Sikh army was equal to any in the world at that time. This transformation was rooted in reorganization, training and re-equipment on European lines under the guidance of European mercenaries in employment of Ranjit Singh. A well equipped and motivated force must have   helped his objective to consolidate his rule and, with the borders in the east and south secured under the treaty, to subdue the northern and western territories.

The reorganized and enlarged Army however became a problem in the almost anarchical environment after the death of Ranjit Singh. They realized their strength and declared Army as the Sarbat Khalsa, the supreme Sikh body whose decisions were binding on all. [p. 61] The Army voted and raised their strength, salary and allowances. The Panchayat system that they adopted eroded their discipline yet the morale of individual soldiers was high and they looked forward to a contest with the British. [pp. 61-63] To reduce their clout the Regent Maharani Jindan thought of a war with the British as win-win situation for if she lost the war, the army panchayats would be weakened and if they won – that would be great anyway. The next almost 100 pages describe the first Anglo Sikh war in great detail of each battle, the troops involved and the behind the scene negotiations and treacherous wheeling and dealing that led to the defeat of the Durbar Army.

The bitter trauma suffered by the soldiers who were so very confident of themselves has been captured by Shah Mohammed[3] in various metaphors such as remorse at ‘disturbing a hornet’s nest’ [79], of fear at being pursued by the Goras like ‘jins’ [78] and the destitute state in which the retreating soldiers reached home and their families ‘had virtually to reclothe them.’ [86] There were acts of bravery and leadership – Mewa Singh, Sham Singh Attari and Manghe Khan are praised. [90] Teja Singh blew the bridge so the forces could not withdraw and tragic death of so many for the treachery of one, [91 – 93] and then Jindan wrote to the Lat to deal with the residual soldiery in a suitable manner! [95]

Shah Mohammed bewails the game played by Jindan and says it is but history repeating for such have been the wiles of women through the story of human travails – be it Ramayan, Mahabharat or the tale of Raja Bhauj. Avtar Singh Gill’s description is quite as detailed and construction even more graphic. The shared sense of bravery and shame at the defeat comes out very strongly. Amrinder quotes contemporary British sources to reinforce the bravery and courage displayed by Sikh troops. Arthur Hardinge, son ADC of the Governor General wrote ‘Few escaped; none, it may be said, surrendered.’ Historian Cunningham says ‘No Sikh offered to submit, and no disciple of Gobind asked for quarter.’ General Gough later recorded ‘were it not — that my country’s good required — I would have wept to have witnessed the fearful slaughter of so devoted a body of men.’ [p. 150]

The story goes on through the initial dismemberment of the kingdom after this historic defeat to the expected dismay among the disbanded soldiers at their sense of betrayal. Neither their sullenness nor token resistance or local mutinous incidents helped and annexation of Punjab eventually came after the surrender at Rawal Pindi in March 1849. Young Duleep Singh had to sign away his and his successor’s claims to the throne. The Sirdars were made to fall in line under duress even blackmail. Amrinder rues at the perfidy of Dalhousie ‘The revolt of a dismissed Governor and less than half a dozen chiefs and nobles was used as an excuse to encompass Punjab into the British Empire while the government in the Punjab was run by his nominees. What could be more hypocritical.’ [p. 231]

A sad story indeed but well told. Amrinder has a flair for writing and definitely tried to grasp the details of the tactics used and the conduct of the battles. The maps are well prepared and the narrative can provide the material for a sand model discussion as a practical example of how to run a good military capability into ground.

Khushwant Singh says Ranjit Singh as Maharaja of Punjab did not wear emblem of royalty or sit on a throne; struck coins named Nanakshahi; his government was called Sarkar Khalsaji, and he as Singh Sahib. He set up Sharia Courts for Muslims and others by common law of their community or caste. Yunani free medical aid was made available. He participated in religious festivities of all faiths.

LOOKING THROUGH THE PRISM OF GURBANI

Pondering over the totality of happenings in this tragic story of rapid rise and then the harder they fall type of decline with its accompanying display of degraded values and attendant loss of thousands of young lives, brings to mind several verses of Guru Nanak, mostly from Babar Vani that almost seem to have been written to fit this story. Let us sample some perspectives.

The kingdom was built by Ranjit Singh and the rapid accretion of territories was a combined result of craftiness, force and stick and carrot – as Amrinder suggests, his means were not the most ethical. Witnessing the fate that befell the Lodhis and their companion ruling elite, Guru Nanak says: For the sake of this wealth, so many were ruined; because of this wealth, so many have been disgraced. It was not gathered without sin, and it does not go along with the deadeis jar kaaran ghanee viguthee ein jar ghanee khuaaee paapaa baajhahu hovai naahee mueiaa saathh n jaaee.[4]

The tragic ruination suffered even by the rich and the pampered at the hands of Babur evokes compassion but this happened because the kings reveling in pleasure and sensuality had lost their higher consciousness – saahaan surath gavaaeeaa rang thamaasai chaae.[5] This is God’s way for He strips those He would destroy of virtue – jis no aap khuaaeae karathaa khus leae changiaaee.[6] The strange circumstances of deaths of unworthy successors of Ranjit Singh also evoke compassion as well as contempt at their incompetence and love of pleasure and pelf.

The invaders, another treacherous set of marauders, came from Kabul like a marriage party of sin demanding our land as their wedding gift – paap kee ja(n)n(j) lai kaabalahu dhhaaeiaa joree ma(n)gai daan.[7] The Creator Himself does not take the blame, but having brought Khurasan under His protection dispatched Mugals as messenger of death and terror to Hindustan – khuraasaan khasamaanaa keeaa hi(n)dhusathaan ddaraaeiaa aapai dhos n dhaeee karathaa jam kar mugal charraaeiaa.[8]

In the ensuing battles, so many young brave soldiers did not return home. As Guru Nanak had said: Men whose letters were torn in His Court were destined to die — Those women whose husbands did not return home – how did they pass their night? The Creator Himself acts, and causes others to act. Unto whom should we complain? Pleasure and pain come by Your Will; unto whom should we go and cry? The Commander issues His Command, and is pleased. O Nanak, we receive what is written in our destiny – jinh kee cheeree dharageh paattee thinhaa maranaa bhaaee– jinh kae ba(n)kae gharee n aaeiaa thinh kio rain vihaanee aapae karae karaaeae karathaa kis no aakh sunaaeeai dhukh sukh thaerai bhaanai hovai kis thhai jaae rooaaeeai hukamee hukam chalaaeae vigasai naanak likhiaa paaeeai.[9]

The suffering visiting upon the innocent, the young and the brave draws compassion but one message that the Guru does convey is that the Creator is the Master of all but if the powerful strike out against the powerful, it may not cause grief to any one – karathaa thoo(n) sabhanaa kaa soee  jae sakathaa sakathae ko maarae thaa man ros n hoee.[10]

Relating the above to the phenomenon of the rise and fall of the Sikh Raj, these reflections of Guru Nanak on the fall of Lodhis that eventually led to the creation of the Mughal Empire do provide some guidance. The battle between the two warring sides was a fight between two powerful adversaries whose outcome may be a cause for regret but not grief. Such events are a divine play that visit upon us when the ruling elite stray away from their moral and ethical responsibility and a tyrannical invader, no less immoral or unethical, is let loose to tyrannize them. In this struggle, one evil force unseats another evil and incompetent force from their entrenched position of power. These cataclysmic events can bring great amount of suffering to the innocent, usher in historical changes but do not imply that the invader can lay claim to moral or ethical victory of waging a just war. Nor does the losing side deserve alibis to cover their disgrace.

Thus viewed, regret we may at the loss of power so soon after we won it after huge sacrifices but not grieve at our defeat even if it clearly could be blamed on treachery and intrigue by the most trusted. We may compose pathos about the anguish of those who suffered and relate the heroics of those who made sacrifices, but acts of treachery cannot absolve the incompetence or apathy of those in leadership.

SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Coming back to the less lofty mundane world of our raw emotions, the reading of this phase of Sikh history does arouse a mix of feelings in us – pride at the bravery when under extreme pressures, admiration for generous and just disposition towards their subjects as rulers and lingering regret at their dismal inability to bring longevity to the fruits of their endeavors. As such these events do tend to be pretty wrenching for us and it shows in our writings. The Sikh soldiers who fought valiantly and paid a heavy price deservedly receive compassionate praise from Shah Mohammed and the contemporary British writers.

Looking to their broad historical context the importance of these events in the making of history in this part of the world is unquestionable.  Sikh resistance led to the weakening of the mighty Mughal Empire and Sikh Raj under Ranjit Singh was the end result of this struggle in the North West. The prize did not come easy and after a lapse of several centuries, the Sikh Raj succeeded in securing the Indian hinterland from invaders from the North West. The real beneficiaries of this strategic gain were the British and the enormity of this endeavor by Sikhs can only be gauged when one thinks of the disastrous experience of the USSR and the US in trying to subdue the region over the last three decades.

Turning introspective, realization dawns that such ups and downs do befall peoples and in a way help them to learn and grow. If we look back, the initial success of Banda brought glory and joy to the long suffering Sikhs but it soon turned into deep trauma in a string of military debacles. Absent the guidance of Gurus, the Sikhs hit upon the institution of Sarbat Khalsa to bridge a strongly missed leadership vacuum that helped them pull together and successfully wage their resistive struggle to ultimate success less than half a century later. Success brought its ills and soon some of the groups that had steadfastly worked as a team, turned onto one another in fits of anger or compelled by competitive urges. Ranjit Singh grasped the moment, controlled fragmentation, blocked sarbat khalsa from issuing political gurmattas and brought decision processes firmly under his control. Modernization of the military and institutional structures brought results but the gain was short lived because the successors of Ranjit Singh failed to grasp the complexities inherent in their jobs.

The Raj however did help to concretize Sikh influence in the affairs of Punjab that eventually gave shape to their political identity. The surviving Rajas and affluent Sirdars did not take long to cultivate the much needed link with the new British dispensation and many of them took leadership in Singh Sabha movement and other reform and developmental initiatives as the contours of a changing political and social landscape started emerging.

I must revert to one subject. The books even though praising of bravery of Sikh soldiers seem to summarily ascribe the emergence of their truant behavior in formation of Army Panchayats that claimed to be the sarbat khalsa, as indiscipline and greed. To me this may deserve greater deliberation though my thoughts below are largely speculative.

Going back to the early Sikhs, history indicates that the Khalsa had internalized miri-piri and had learnt to think and act in the common interest on their own. Their success acting in small bands under very adverse circumstances is a testimony to their grasp of the goals adopted at the sarbat khalsa meets. It was for this reason that their image as hane hane miri or each rider a sovereign came to be well known and gave credence to their identification as representing the Panth. Ranjit Singh took this set of the brave individualists and tried to mould them into a disciplined army. He did largely succeed but with the evident drift after his death, the soldiers turned restive, could possibly have harked back nostalgically to memories of the 18th century successes of the Khalsa against the invaders and Mughal satraps. Army Panchayats wearing the mantle of Sarbat Khalsa could have seemed a credible vision to restore the Sarkar Khalsa. That they were able to identify the British as the real threat and were raring to take them head on is indicative of their native ability to look through the haze of treacherous intrigues. It also is indicative of their vain bravado as the writings of Shah Mohammed so vividly portray.

Taking a narrower view of the fallout of the Raj for Sikhs, there are a couple of instances. As a standing army, the Sikh soldiery was a resource that Ranjit Singh used to help other chiefs who sought his help. There is increasing emerging evidence of Sikh soldiers who were either sent by the Raj or made their way to Hyderabad[11], Assam[12], Singapore[13], North Sumatra[14] and other far off destinations and then continued to live there. This was the beginning of the spreading of Punjabi Sikhs farther into the sub continent and beyond. Disconnected from the mainstream for a long time, these migrations are now coming to light.

My sense also is that the experience of Raj helped Sikhs to launch with relative ease into the wider world that was waiting to open up with the consolidation of the British rule. They soon repositioned themselves as co equals in the emerging social and political activism, developed effective interface with the ruling elite, initiated and were able to sustain their reform projects and managed to not get subsumed by the dominant Muslim or Hindu interests in the highly competitive emerging political space. Valuing their valor the British gave them preference for service in army and police that helped the rural population economically and encouraged the spread of Sikh observances. It is a matter for conjecture if absent their experience of Raj the Sikh repositioning could have been such a success.

Coming to our life and times Sikhs are again at some kind of cross roads. Whether they will be able to read the signs of times and position themselves for the future or their nostalgia for the things that were, will be so strong that they will stay caught midway between the urge to relive their lives, by the rules of an age gone by, or choose to exercise their freedoms to grasp where the future seems to beckon and set their course, is in the realm of speculation. We may perhaps leave the readers with these thoughts inspired by the reading of a difficult period of Sikh history.

Let me close by saying that I had sensed Amrinder as being thoughtful but the way he seems to have got me going, he perhaps is thought provoking too!

——

Nirmal Singh

*New Delhi,

4 Oct. 2010

[1] Page numbers in parenthesis relate to Amrinder Singh, The Last Sunset

[2] Khushwant Singh, History of Sikhs, Vol. I, Chapter 13

[3] The numerals in parenthesis refer to the Canto numbers.

[4] Asa M I, p. 417, line 17

[5] Asa M I, p. 417, line 9

[6] Asa M I, p. 417, line 18

[7] Tilang M I, p. 714

[8] Asa M I, p. 360

[9] Asa M I, p. 417

[10] Asa M I, p. 360

[11] There is overwhelming evidence of Sikh troops being sent to the Nizam to act as his body guards and perform other trusted tasks. They were located in Hyderabad, Nanded and some locations in Berar etc. They continue to live in those parts now referred as Dakhani Sikhs.

[12] One Maharaj Singh was exiled to Singapore by the British after the Second Sikh War in 1849. Then in 1873, Captain Speedy recruited 110 Sikhs from the Patiala, Ludhiana and Ferozepur districts of Punjab for service in Perak (in Malaysia). This band was known as the Perak Armed Police and by 1888 the group had grown and came to be known as the 1st Perak Sikhs. By 1896, the force numbered 900 and was renamed the Malay States Guides with Walker as their first Colonel.

[13] Per Assam Minorities’ Commission Chairman, the settlement of Sikh community dates back to 1820 when Ahom king Chandrakanta Singha sought the help of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to fight back the third aggression of the Burmese army. Maharaja Ranjit Singh sent a battalion of 500 Sikh soldiers under General Chaitanya Singh. The General and most of his soldiers fell in the war at Hadira Choki. The Sikh community of Borkhola in Nagaon are descendants of these soldiers.

[14] Among the early Sikhs in North Sumatra in the 18th century was a Sikh Regiment brought to Indonesia by the British colonial administration. Some of these troops were sent to Indonesia to supply arms to the Dutch who were struggling to suppress Indonesia’s demands for independence. Many Sikh soldiers switched sides, taking over Dutch ships and joining the locals in their fight for freedom. Many of these Sikh soldiers eventually settled in Sumatra. Today, there are approximately 1,000 Sikhs living in North Sumatra.[Courtesy: Jakarta Globe]8/ 27/10

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