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Khalsa To Catastrophe!

Chaos As Statecraft:
The Sikhs Slide To War

By Chris Ferree

(The illustrations which accompany the text are reproduced from contemporary sources.)

The independent Sikh state originated in the latter half of the 18th century. At this time the power of both the Moghul and the Afghan Empires was waning. The Sikhs were able to lay claim to the Punjab, the no-man's land between the Afghans and Moghuls, at the time the power of both Empires was waning.

In accordance with the practices begun by Govind, 10th Guru of the Sikhs, the Punjab was divided into 12 parts called misls, comparable to Medieval fiefdoms. Each misl was governed by a Misldar, approved by the Maharajah, who was required to provide a certain number of soldiers for the Army. Each misl was further divided into jagirs, ruled by influential nobles, or Jagirdars, who were required to supply troops to the Misldars obligations to the Maharajah.

Originally, the Sikh Khalsa ("Brotherhood of the Faithful") was brought together during times of invasion by the Afghans or Moghuls. Between these periodic invasions, the Sikhs occupied their time fighting among themselves. This was the state of affairs when, in 1788, Runjeet Singh became Misldar of the Sukerchuckia Misl. Runjeet was 12 years old at the time, so actual control of the Misl was in the hands of his mother, the Mai Malwine, and her paramour Liak Misser. Runjeet Singh

For 5 years the Mai was the real power. Then, in 1793 Runjeet discovered the criminal intrigues of his mother. When he confronted her, she not only denied the charges, but also upbraided Runjeet as a faithless child. Provoked by her abuses and confronted by proof of her guilt, Runjeet put his mother to the sword and Laik Misser "disappeared."

Runjeet now took control of the Misl, though he relied heavily on his mother-in-law, Suda Kour, for guidance. All was quiet for the next 5 years until in 1798 Runjeet was given the opportunity to capture the Sikh capitol city, Lahore. With the aid of two muslim chowdries, or city elders, He was able to walk into Lahore unopposed and become Maharajah. Runjeet's power continued to grow and by 1818 his authority was at its greatest. He brought greater unity to the country then ever before and the Khalsa became a regular standing national Army.

It was during this time that the "Dogra Brothers" appeared on the scene. Gulab, Dehan, and Suchet were ruling Rajahs of the Dogra people living in the Jammoo Hills region. Gulab and Suchet became leaders in the Khalsa and Dehan worked his way up to Wazir (Prime Minister) to Runjeet himself. The Dogra Brothers were so skillful in their craft that Dehan's son was favored by the Maharaja over his own offspring. Thus, the "Jammoo Rajas" became the most powerful men in the Punjab after Runjeet himself.

When, In 1838, Runjeet Singh died after a long reign that saw the Sikh State become the most powerful remaining Indian state independent of the British East India Company, he left behind a large cast of characters to vie for supreme power in the Punjab. There was Karruk, the Maharaja's only legitimate son, and his son Nau Nihal. There were four illegitimate sons, the twins Peshora and Cashmera , Shere, and the infant Duleep. Also, there's Duleep's mother, the Rani Chunda and her brother Jawahir. Along with the ambitious "Dogra Brothers", there was Hira, Dehan's son, and his tutor, the Pundit Jellah. To round out the cast there was the Khalsa itself, the redoubtable Army built by Runjeet Singh. To this mix was added various Sirdars, religious men, and adventurers.

Karruck Singh

Even while Runjeet Singh was alive, Dehan worked to destroy heir apparent Prince Karruck's credibility. By giving him insufficient resources, the wily Wazir made Karruck look to be incompetent. On his death bed, the Maharaja handed over the Kingdom to his son and instructed Dehan to guide the apparently needy Prince through the perils of government. Karruck was well aware of Dehan's and his brothers' intrigues. With a close ally, Cheyt, he attempted to curb the Wazir's power which did not please Dehan who planned to destroy the new Maharaja altogether.

Rumors were spread that Karruck and Cheyt were in league with the British and planning to sell out the Punjab. Forged documents, signed by Karruck, were produced, backing up these rumors. Dehan's deception was so successful that even Karruck's own son, Nau Nihal, and his wife Chund Kour, turned against him. Then, one sinister night, they imprisoned Karruck while Cheyt was conveniently murdered. Nau Nihal was proclaimed the new Maharajah. However, Dehan was not finished. He continued to destroy the relationship between the new Maharaja and his imprisoned father. He embittered each toward the other so that no reconciliation was possible. When, a year later, Karruck finally succumbed to slow poison, instead of being saddened, Maharajah Nau Nihal Singh thought it should be a day of rejoicing.

Nau Nihal Singh

Karruck was given a State funeral as befitted a former Maharaja, but Nau Nihal, the current Maharajah, tried twice to leave his father's funeral early. The ever watchful Wazir thoughtfully persuaded him to stay until he finally left to perform the ceremony of ablution in a nearby nullah. On his return to the city, Nau Nihal was joined by Dehan's nephew, Meean Oottum (Gulab's eldest son). As they passed through the main gateway, Nau Nihal stopped to say something to his friend when-some said it was the two hundred-and-one gun salutes that loosened the masonry, others said sabotage-it collapsed. Meean Oottum was killed instantly and Nau Nihal was whisked away for "treatment" by the eager Wazir. No one was allowed to see the Maharaja except Dehan himself and two of his fellow Jammoo Hillmen.

After two hours, the Wazir informed Chund Kour, his mother, of the Maharaja's death-and quickly reminded her of the chance to rule the country. She was convinced to keep the Maharaja's death a secret while the wheels were being turned. Leaving Chund Kour with dreams of power to balance her loss, the Wazir then informed Shere, the first of Runjeet Singh's illegitimate sons, that the time was ripe for him to take power. In the resulting struggle, Gulab championed Chund Kour while Dehan backed Shere Singh, giving the appearance of the Dogra Brother's being at odds for the first time. In fact, the rivalry was a performance conceived in order to allow them to control both sides in the looming civil war.

Gulab and his nephew, Hira, holed up in the Lahore fort with 2,000 men and a Horse Artillery Battery of ten guns. Dehan convinced Shere to back away from Lahore with his own troops and allow him, the Wazir, to rally the Khalsa to their cause. Then, as Shere vacated Lahore, Dehan went home to Jammoo on another matter. Shere's advisor, Jawalla, argued for returning to Lahore and striking fast without waiting for Dehan. Shere agreed, marched back to Lahore, and stormed the old fort-to no avail.

On the sixth day of siege, Dehan, with his brother Suchet, returned to Shere's camp. Shere apologized for his hasty actions and asked Dehan to stop the fighting. In a short time, the Wazir convinced the troops (perhaps easily) to stop the battle which had cost them 4,786 men, with the defenders having lost less than 130 killed and wounded.

Negotiations between Dehan and Gulab did not take long. On the eighth day since the siege began, Gulab marched out of Lahore with a jagir worth 9 laks rupees, in the name of Chund Kour, and most of the treasury of Lahore. Shere was made Maharaja and left with an Army that he could not control and Dehan as his loyal Wazir.

Gulab retired to Jammoo for a short time until drawn off to Cashmere and Hazareh to handle some mutinous troops, and later he gained prestige when he helped the British back through the Khyber Pass to relieve Sale at Jallalabad during the disastrous First Afghan War.

Jawalla, Shere's advisor who almost ruined the Dogra Brothers' plans, attempted to escape the wrath of the Wazir and fled. Six thousand Ghorchurras pursued him and, as resistance was futile, he surrendered, was imprisoned and tortured to death.

Chund Kour was persuaded to retire to her jagir by the Dogras. However, in a move that surprised even them, Shere announced he wished to marry her, his former rival to the throne.. The Jammoo Rajas knew that such a union could be disastrous to their plans. Conveniently, Chund Kour refused Shere's proposal, a refusal that the crafty Dehan embellished in the retelling. Enraged by the rebuke, Shere gave orders to Chund Kour's slave girls to put their mistress to death with a promise of jagirs worth 5,000 rupees upon success. Accordingly, four of the girls dispatched their mistress with a serviceable rock. In revenge cloaked as the law, Dehan arrested all but one of the women who had escaped. One paid a ransom for her life and the other two who could not afford a "legal defense" each lost a hand.

With the death of Chund Kour, Shere felt secure on the throne. However, Lena, Ajeet, and Uttur, Sirdars of the influential Scindawalla family, had supported Chund Kour in the recent power struggle. Upon Shere's ascension to the throne, Lena Singh was arrested and Ajeet and Uttur fled to British territory. As part of their plan to be rid of Shere Singh, the Dogras took advantage of the situation. Acquiring the services of a religious Zealot, Bii Ram Singh, as a go-between, Dehan convinced the Scindawallas that he could restore their positions. Perhaps more readily, he also convinced them that Maharajah Shere Singh meant them ill.

Duleep Singh

The "Jammoo Brothers" decided the perfect choice for a more compliant Maharajah would be the illegitimate six year old son of Runjeet Singh, Duleep. Having bought the Scindawallas with promises of a glorious return, Dehan brought them into the plot as his henchmen. At the same time, the Scindawallas saw this as an opportunity to benefit themselves at the cost of the Dogra Brothers and the Maharaja. Lena and Ajeet went to the Maharaja and exposed Dehan's plot and offered Shere a counter plot to eliminate the Wazir. Shere would order a review of the Scindawalla troops for the Wazir to attend. When he went to inspect them, the Wazir and his son Hira would be surrounded and shot. Shere gratefully agreed to their plan and sent the Scindawalla's away to make preparations.

Instead, they went straight back to Dehan Singh with a death warrant "signed" by the Maharaja. The Wazir, fearing for his life, agreed to a plot and help the Scindawalla's kill the Maharaja. Dehan would order a review of the Scindawalla troops for the Maharajah to attend and during the inspection.... It was the same plan, only the name of the victim changed.

On the appointed day, the Scindawallas, with their retinue, arrived at Shere's palace. Under the pretext of showing the Maharaja a new fowling piece, Ajeet leveled both barrels on Shere and "demonstrated" as Lena cut down the Maharaja's eldest son in the bargain. Ajeet left the scene for Lahore with 550 men, slowly followed by Lena. About halfway to Lahore, Ajeet's party met Dehan going to the Maharaja's palace. Ajeet assured the Wazir that the job was already done and that he should return to Lahore. Upon entering the city, Ajeet signaled one of his soldiers and Dehan Singh fell victim to another "demonstration." Because of Ajeet's hasty action, Dehan's son Hira and brother Suchet escaped. Upon learning of the death of the Wazir, the Dogras and ally Rea Kisseree incited the Khalsa against the Scindawallas. For a second time the Khalsa besieged the fort of Lahore. This time, however, the fort quickly fell and both Ajeet and Lena were killed. Upon the capture of the fort, Duleep Singh was declared Maharaja and Hira, was given his father's former job as Wazir.

Pundit Jellah

Because Duleep Singh was a minor, the Wazir Hira was the de facto ruler of the Punjab. Hira's tutor and chief advisor, the Pundit Jellah, also became his chief minister. The Pundit Jellah and Suchet, Hira's uncle, had an ongoing feud over a woman, which was made worse by the former's rise to power. The women was the Rani Chunda, the young Maharaja's mother. Prior to Runjeet Singh's death, both the Pundit and Suchet pursued the Rani but the latter won the race. Suchet won the woman's affections, leaving Jellah embittered while Suchet attempted to use his influence over the Rani to better his station. Allying himself with Jewahir (the Rani's brother and uncle to the Maharaja), Suchet failed in an attempt to gain control of the Army. But for the leniency of the Army and the Dogra's power, both Suchet and Jewahir would have been killed.

Gulab returned to Jammoo with his impetuous brother Suchet to settle the families affairs, which meant carving up their late brother Dewan's fortune. To this end, Gulab persuaded Suchet to adopt his youngest son. Having ordered things in Jammoo, Gulab set about strengthening the Dogra party's interests in Lahore.
Cashmera Singh

Two other illegitimate sons of Runjeet Singh were still at large, Cashmeera and Peshora Singh. By forged letters and the false testimony of one of Cashmeera's retainers, the pair of Princes were implicated in the Scindawalla's assassination of Shere and Dehan. On this pretext, Gulab attacked their residences in the towns of Sealkote and Gurriawalla. Both Princes managed to escape and wrote letters to their peers protesting their innocence. Both Princes surrendered to Gulab Singh to settle their differences. The Dogra Raja placed the two under arrest, but the Khalsa would not allow sons of the Great Maharaja to be treated in such a manner. A Guru stood security for the Princes' good conduct and they were released.

Peshora Singh

It was not long before the Princes discovered further intrigues by their faithless servant and Cashmeera had the man killed. As a breach of their oath of good conduct, Gulab immediately took action. Gurriawalla quickly fell to the Jammoo Raja, but Sealkote repulsed the attack inflicting many casualties. The two Princes seeing their only hope was an all out resistance, carried out many daring operations against Gulab's army. They were so successful that the siege was lifted and Gulab Singh had to request fresh troops from Lahore.

They could not motivate the first reinforcements to the attack, so they called for a second detachment of troops originally raised by the late Wazir, Dehan Singh. They were up to the challenge and the Princes surrendered on the promise of safe conduct for their families and men. The use of the late Wazir's troops greatly disturbed the Khalsa. They now made demands of the Wazir to remain faithful, not the least of which was the expulsion of the Pundit Jellah who had earlier earned their ire. Hira negotiated with the Army and managed to retain the Pundit while still soothing the Khalsa.

Upon hearing of his nephew Hira's distress, Suchet moved to Lahore in a bid for his own power. By the time he arrived, Hira had recovered the situation, but Uncle Suchet was not to be denied this second chance. With no support and against all advice, the rash Dogra forced the Wazir to take action. With only about 45 men, Suchet stood defiant in a small mosque against an army of almost 20,000 men with 56 cannons. They shelled the mosque for a time then 15,000 infantry rushed it. The little band of Hillmen counter attacked repulsing 4 battalions before they were defeated. Of Suchet's men only one survived. The Khalsa lost about 160 killed or wounded. The Khalsa blamed the influence of the Pundit Jellah for such extreme measures.

While Hira was busy with his uncle, the Princes Cashmeera and Peshora Singh were wandering around the Manjh (the lands between the rivers Ravi and Sutlej). They fell in with Bii Beer Singh, a holy man. This holy man preached revolutionary ideas and possessed an army of about 3,000 men and three cannon. The Wazir and the Pundit saw Bii Beer Singh as a dangerous enemy to be destroyed. However the Khalsa held him in high esteem and would allow no harm to come to the Bii.

Undeterred, Hira devised a plan to eliminate all of the troublemakers at once. First he duped Uttar Singh Scindawalla to return to the Punjab and go to Bii Beer's camp. Then he informed the Khalsa that Uttar Singh was coming with a British Army to take the Punjab. If they could make a resolute show, perhaps they could convince Uttar to return to Lahore a friend of the Sikh Government. Sheik Imam-ud-din, an enemy of the Khalsa and governor of the Manjh, was enlisted to go to Bii Beer's camp with his irregulars to create confusion and, just for good measure, Hira gave the Sheik a list of people to kill at the camp. Lal Singh, another relative of the Wazir was sent along to stir up trouble.

When these groups arrived at Bii Beer's camp, Lall acting as mediator, began mixing troops together. In the ensuing confusion shots were fired. A general melee erupted in which Cashmeera, Uttar, and Bii Beer were killed. Peshora was then in Lahore pleading their case to the Wazir. Upon the arrival of the news of his brother's death, they restored Peshora to his former holdings on the promise that he would live a quiet life.

Still another attempt was made to terminate Peshora. In this plot a breach was affected between Gulab and Hira Singh. Gulab then approached Peshora with an offer of power, to which Peshora raised a small force that Gulab was to pay. Hira and Gulab Singh then resolved their differences. Peshora Singh was forced to dismiss his troops who went to Gulab's ministers for pay. When they received no satisfaction, the soldiers attacked Gulab's men, killing many. This was portrayed as outright aggression by Peshora and a force was sent against the Prince. Peshora managed to escape yet again and disappeared for sometime.

An ominous calm now settled over the Punjab. The Sirdars and the battalions of the Army quietly arranged to secure their own safety. They sent out spies, but nobody would speak publicly about events to come. Jawahir reappeared at Lahore about this time. He had learned of indiscretions committed by both Hira and the Pundit Jellah upon his sister the Rani Chunda. He also learned that Jellah even attempted her murder. With this information, Jewahir Singh planned the extermination of the entire Dogra party. When he informed the Khalsa of the maltreatment of the Rani, they became angry. They made several demands upon the Wazir, one of which was the dismissal of the much despised Pundit Jellah.

The Wazir Hira could not soothe the Khalsa this time. Jawahir had bought them off with promises of money. The Wazir and the Pundit decided it was time to flee, but during their attempt, the Pundit, thinking only of his own safety, gave the Wazir a last piece of bad advice, which cost both men their lives.

Jawahir was now Wazir. Elated with his victory over the Dogras at Lahore, he was ready to reduce Gulab Singh back home in Jammoo. A large force of Khalsa troops surrounded Jammoo and were ready to begin their final assault, but Gulab was much too crafty to let this happen. With the application of ample amounts of cash, and the promise of more, Gulab brought the entire besieging force into his camp.

Upon hearing the news , Jawahir and his party, led by Lal Singh, began to fear lest the entire Khalsa should join Gulab. They in turn offered the troops around Lahore more money to remain loyal. A great amount of tension was felt at Lahore as Gulab and his army approached. Jawahir tried in vain to make the troops loyal to him attack the Jammoo force. The Panches, (spokesmen from the soldier "soviets" in each battalion) decided that the Khalsa would not fight itself. They allowed Gulab safe passage to make his case to the Rani.

In his interview with the Rani Chunda, it was determined that Gulab would pay the government 35 laks of rupees and return the territories of the late Rajas Hira and Suchet. With his first installment paid, Gulab was allowed to return to Jammoo. He remained there until asked to take charge of the government then facing an advancing and victorious British Army.

While Gulab was being chastised for his behavior, Prince Peshora again turned up at Lahore. The Rani Chunda received him with open arms invited him to Durbar (a council of state). Her brother, Jawahir, distressed by the appearance of another rival, gave the Prince the cold shoulder. Peshora took word of this rebuff to the Khalsa. Jewahir realized the mistake he had made and rectified the situation by promising the Khalsa yet more money. With this, the Panchayats (the soldier "soviets") advised the Prince to return to his jagir, which he did. Not satisfied, Jawahir determined that the Prince must be eliminated. Seeing that if he, the Wazir, was connected to Peshora's death, Jawahir's life would also be forfeit, Gulab helped the Wazir along. The Prince, after several attempts on his life, fled to Attock where he was finally taken and murdered by agents of Jawahir.

As news of the Peshora's death spread, Jawahir began to fear for his life. At this point all control over the army was lost. The troops were calling for revenge and Jawahir was abandoned by his allies and left to fend for himself. Resigned to his fate, he went out to meet the Khalsa. While attempting to hide behind young Duleep, the Maharajah, Jawahir was dragged down from his elephant and brutally murdered. The Rani became hysterical and pledged revenge on the Khalsa for her brother's death.

Lall Singh

It was now the Rani Chunda's turn to be the de facto head of state, with Lal Singh as Wazir. But the real power was still in the hands of the Khalsa. The Panchayats formed the actual government, dismissing the hired European officers that had trained the Khalsa. The native Sikh officers were left powerless. The troops had been spoiled with gifts of money and they wanted more, but the treasury was empty.

The Rani and her ministers decided that a final solution was needed for the Khalsa, and a war with the British would be just the thing. It seemed like a win-win solution for if the Khalsa was victorious, they could plunder all of India. If they were defeated, the humbled Army would be put back in its place. So the Rani's current lover, Tej Singh, was made Commander-in-Chief, and the Khalsa was allowed a war with the British.

Happily the soldiers marched to the front, prodding their officers along, sometimes at gunpoint. They even suspected their highest commanders of being in league with the British, but still they marched off and for all their courage and eagerness to fight, they were doomed to failure.

As the First Sikh War moved toward final disaster, Gulab Singh was asked to return to Lahore to make peace with the British. In the peace settlement the British took control of the Manjh, the Khalsa was greatly reduced in size, a permanent British Resident was sent to Lahore and an occupation force would stay for a year. Gulab, the last survivor of the "Dogra Brothers", for his part was given the Vale of Cashmere to govern and Lal remained as Wazir. The Punjab was not that easily settled, however. The Rani Chunda was soon exiled and Lal jailed because of their intrigues against the British government. The British Army at Lahore was kept on for three years.

Then in 1848 a revolt broke out in the city of Multan around which the Khalsa rallied. Many units were reformed and artillery hidden after the first war was pressed into service. Though this time their leaders were fully behind them, the Khalsa was not the same. Their hearts were in the fight but they had lost their edge and a clear cause to fight for.

With the siege of Multan, a couple of skirmishes, and two major battles, the Khalsa was defeated in the Second Sikh War was over and thus ended the independent Sikh State. Britain annexed the Punjab and peace reigned throughout the land and the recruiters did full time business as the Sikhs of the former Khalsa became the backbone of the British Army of India.

The Land And Climate Of The Punjab

Runjeet Singh's Punjab was located between Afghanistan and British India. The largest part of its territory is made up of an arid plain crossed by six major rivers. The rest of the land is hill country bordering Afghanistan, Tibet, and Nepal. The two British campaigns were fought on the plains, but the Sikhs were constantly engaged in fighting the hill tribes.

The Punjab has been described as "A beggar's cloak fringed in gold." Along the rivers life abounds, but a few miles away the landscape is dry and barren. The Company's Campaigns were fought along the rivers Sutlej and Chenab. There are three distinct types of terrain that may be encountered along these rivers.

The first type of terrain is flat and sandy. There may be a few small sand hills dotting the countryside. Also there may be belts of thick and thorny jhow jungle. Next is the open park like grassland. This terrain will have only minor elevation changes. It will generally be open with a few trees around the edges. It may be planted with crops (sugar cane being popular) that can be quite tall and offer excellent concealment.

The third type of terrain is dense jungle. Unlike the belted jhow jungle, which occupies the banks of dry river beds, this jungle can cover many square miles. The thick underbrush can hide other hazardous terrain features as well as the enemy.

All three type of terrain may be crossed with dry watercourses known as nullahs. The rivers themselves may also come into play. In places the high bank of the river may be as much as 20 feet above the plain. Also, because there were no bridges, fords were of major importance.

The climate of the Punjab is as variable as the terrain. In the "Hot" weather, high temperatures are frequently above 105 degrees. During this time dust storms can develop, creating a major hazard to travel, but they also bring a welcome drop in temperature, as much as 20 degrees.

The rainy season does not pose a major problem in the Punjab. The southern regions receive less than 10 inches of rain a year. In Lahore only one day in six is expected to be rainy and the temperature can still be high at this time of year.

During the "Cold" weather, the difference between the low and the high temperature can be great. Highs can be over 70 degrees, while lows dip to near freezing. Morning frosts and fogs are both common in the Punjab.

Source Recommendation
A History Of The Reigning Family Of Lahore, by Major G. Carmichael Smyth, 3rd Bengal Lt. Cavalry, Calcutta, 1847. By far the best book on the subject as Major Smyth resided in Lahore right up to the eve of war in 1846. The information on the Khalsa and the Sikhs found here can be found no where else.

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