Imagining lahore, p.18

Imagining Lahore, page 18


Imagining Lahore

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  In desperation, Duleep Singh decided to return to Punjab, harbouring dreams of regaining a lost empire by inspiring a rebellion just with his presence. He also hoped the Russians coming in from Afghanistan would help him in this endeavour.7 Selling off all his properties in England, he sailed for India with his family. On the way, he also reverted to Sikhism in a modest ceremony. Even before his ship could reach the Suez Canal, however, he was arrested by British authorities at Port Said. He was eventually released but coerced to return to Europe.

  On 2 April 1893, Duleep Singh passed away in a cheap Parisian hotel. His last wish, for his body to be returned to Punjab, was rejected by a paranoid colonial state, which felt his funeral would bring together nationalists and serve as a rallying force against the state. His body was moved to Britain, where he was buried in accordance with Christian rites.

  Sitting across the Sutlej, which was the agreed-upon boundary between the Khalsa Empire and the British territories, the British were convinced that the former was beginning to implode. Local chieftains empowered by a weakened central authority had risen up in revolt against the Durbar. Two sons of Ranjit Singh, Peshaura Singh and Kashmira Singh, had refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the boy-king, Duleep Singh. The Khalsa army, after years of appeasement and a taste of political power, was beyond the Durbar’s control.

  In the summer of 1845, less than two years after Maharaja Duleep Singh’s coronation, the strength of the army had increased to 1,20,000, by more than 50 per cent of what it had been at the time of Ranjit Singh’s death. Power within the army had been wrested by the panchs—soldiers appointed to put forward their ‘grievances’ and ‘concerns’ to protect the sanctity of the Khalsa Empire, on the model of the indigenous panchayat system in the villages of Punjab. With the increasing strength of the army, the hold of the Durbar had weakened, as competing claimants to the throne bribed panchs to further their claims.

  Between 1839 and 1844, three descendants of Ranjit Singh had succeeded him one after another, all of whom had lost their lives either through assassination, as in the case of Sher Singh, or under mysterious circumstances, like Kharak Singh and his son Nau Nihal Singh. Local chieftains who had sworn allegiance to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, seeing the weakening of the Durbar, had stopped paying tributes as they sought greater autonomy. Within the Durbar, powerful lobbies had emerged which began reaching out to British authorities across the river as well as to the panchs to strengthen their position.

  Rani Jindan, cognizant of the precarious condition of the Durbar, understood the threat posed to her and her six-year-old son. Many, the British included, thought the situation was beyond her and would soon spiral out of control. Almost four decades younger than Ranjit Singh, Jindan Kaur, the beautiful daughter of the kernel-keeper of the maharaja, was only seventeen when his eye fell on her and he decided to marry her. Soon after her marriage, she bore the maharaja’s youngest son. Court gossips that had earlier tried to diminish the reputation of another son of the maharaja began a whisper campaign that Duleep Singh was not the maharaja’s son but that of a poor Muslim water carrier, Gulloo.8

  Maharaja Ranjit Singh put an end to these rumours through a public declaration where he acknowledged Duleep Singh as his legitimate child and heir. Hence, six years after the death of his father, Duleep Singh’s elevation to the throne of the Khalsa Empire could not be challenged, while Rani Jindan became the regent.

  Actual power, however, lay with the wazir, Hira Singh, the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s wazir, Raja Dhian Singh, who had played a crucial role in the succession struggle and had eventually lost his life when Maharaja Sher Singh was assassinated. Hira Singh, whom the maharaja had been fond of during his lifetime, took up the dangerous but powerful post of wazir after his father’s death.

  With the support of his Brahmin mentor Pandit Jalla, Hira Singh swiftly took charge of the situation and stabilized the political unrest, much to everyone’s surprise. The wazir, with the help of his uncle, Raja Ghulab Singh, put an end to the rebellion of Kashmira Singh and Peshaura Singh, and moved against Attar Singh Sindhianwala, another claimant to the throne, whose family had earlier rebelled against Maharaja Sher Singh and sought the support of the British against the maharaja. Rumoured to be supported by Dhian Singh, his brother Lehna and their nephew, Ajit Sindhianwala, had assassinated Sher Singh after he had welcomed them back to Punjab and then subsequently lost their lives at the hands of the Khalsa army, after they were incited by Hira Singh. The sentiments of the Khalsa army were effectively manipulated by Hira Singh who reminded them of the treachery of Attar Singh Sindhianwala when he sought the support of the British against the Durbar. Attar Singh and Kashmira Singh both lost their lives in the fight for the throne.

  With the opposition crushed, the army under his perceived control and the boy-king and regent powerless, Hira Singh and his mentor, Pandit Jalla, appeared invincible. However, the duo finally crossed a line when they publicly began criticizing Rani Jindan and her ambitious brother, Jawahir Singh.

  Already aggrieved by Hira Singh’s apathy towards the maharaja, Rani Jindan grabbed the opportunity and used the insult as a rallying point against the powerful wazir and his mentor. Would the protectors of the Khalsa, an empire that was bestowed upon them by their maharaja, her husband, allow Hira Singh and Pandit Jalla to insult the heir of Ranjit Singh? In her campaign against Hira Singh, Rani Jindan revealed her true self, emerging from the shadows of the harem into public life. She would no longer hide behind her veil but show her face in public, defying all norms.

  Years later, the British, when in control of Lahore, found this flaunting of feminine ‘modesty’ by the rani to be scandalous. In the years to come, she would show all the signs of an efficient political leader who successfully balanced the power groups in the Durbar, kept the army satisfied, was defiant to the British, and finally made a rebel out of Maharaja Duleep Singh.

  Hira Singh and Pandit Jalla anticipated the winds of change and made a sudden dash to save their lives, heading towards Jammu where Ghulab Singh, even though nominally under the influence of the Lahore Durbar, was for all practical purposes running an independent kingdom. On 21 December 1844, they fled Lahore but were intercepted by the Khalsa army that, after killing them, impaled their heads on spears and marched back to the city.

  Jind Kaur had successfully wrested control back from the Jammu lobby and, together with Jawahir Singh, and her alleged lover, Lal Singh,9 emerged at the helm of the Lahore Durbar. It was a weakened durbar, though, with several provinces refusing to pay tribute to the central authority, including Jammu and the powerful province of Multan in the south.

  Immediately after Jawahir Singh’s ascension as wazir, Peshaura Singh, egged on by Ghulab Singh from Jammu, rebelled and made another bid for the throne. Like the previous time, his rebellion was short-lived and he soon surrendered upon being besieged at Sialkot Fort. He was to be moved to Lahore but on the way, upon Jawahir Singh’s order, was put to death.

  The Khalsa army, which already resented their wazir, interpreted this act as an insult to the legacy of their beloved maharaja.10 The panchs convened and it was decided that the insolent wazir needed to be put to death. The maharani could only look on helplessly as her brother was killed in front of her eyes. It was evident that despite the titles and the constant appeasement through salary increments, it was the Khalsa army that was the true power behind the throne.

  For some time afterwards, no one was willing to put himself at the head of such a ferocious army, which had, in less than a year, killed two of its commanders. Eventually Lal Singh was appointed the wazir, and Tej Singh became the head of the army.

  While the rani could not save her brother from the wrath of the soldiers, she decreed the construction of a smadh to commemorate him. At a short distance from the fort, visible from its windows, a tall structure was raised that contained Jawahir Singh’s remains. His smadh was constructed with a turret on top that made it look like a temple. The Guru Granth Sahib was reci
ted without a break at Jawahir Singh’s smadh for as long as the rani was in power.

  Parking the car next to the railway track, I walked into a congested locality close by in search of the final resting place of Jawahir Singh. The colony was built after the laying of the track, in order to house railway workers. Once, the turret atop Jawahir Singh’s smadh was visible from the main road; now its remains are hidden somewhere within the ever-expanding neighbourhood.

  Soon enough, I noticed a tall, decrepit turret. I headed in its direction. Turning into a narrow street hemmed in by several tall houses, I discovered the smadh of Khushal Singh, the chamberlain of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, at the end of the road. Constructed with small bricks, its outer wall was covered with political posters. A staircase led into the smadh, which had a small dome at the top. This was once a spacious complex. It wasn’t a smadh any more, though. It had been converted into a residence, divided amongst several families.

  At a little distance, in another narrow street, I found the smadh of Jawahir Singh. Only the turret remained of the original structure, the rest having been converted into residential quarters.

  Once while looking at a map of India, Maharaja Ranjit Singh is reported to have said, ‘One day it will all be red.’ He meant the British would overrun India.11 While the two empires maintained a cordial relationship during his lifetime, war became inevitable soon after his death.

  The British, who had been observing the situation since the maharaja’s death, were convinced that the overgrown and overpaid army, despite its impressive numbers and weaponry, lacked discipline and was nothing but a rabble. They knew that in the imminent battle between the two forces, the Sikhs would be no match for the far better disciplined British army. They would soon find out that they could not have been more wrong.

  Over the years the British had been building up their army across the Sutlej, preparing to go to war against the Khalsa army. The British forces in Punjab had increased from 2500 to 8000 men immediately after the maharaja’s death. The city of Ferozepur, which abutted the Sikh territories and had been a bone of contention between the two empires during Ranjit Singh’s lifetime, was converted into a British cantonment. In subsequent years, the number of men was increased to 14,000 as new cantonments came up in Ambala, Kasauli and Shimla. With a reserved force of 10,000 at Meerut, the number of men in Punjab was further increased to 32,000, with sixty-eight guns. In 1845, 30-ton boats built in Bombay were transported to Ferozepur to be used as a bridge.12

  The situation worsened with the appointment of Major Broadfoot as the agent for the affairs of the Sikhs. One of his first acts was the declaration that the Cis-Sutlej territories (on the eastern side of the Sutlej) which had been guaranteed to Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the Amritsar Treaty of 1809, would fall under British protection after the death or deposition of Maharaja Duleep Singh.13

  Jawahir Singh, who was the wazir at the time, was infuriated when he came to know of this.14 The sense of outrage did not die with him but was rather used by other powerful chiefs for their own political agendas. It was suggested that what was being planned for the Cis-Sutlej territories would eventually be extended to all the possessions of the maharaja.

  Aware of their increasingly precarious position, Lal Singh and Tej Singh thought that the ideal way to weaken the army would be by pitting it against the British. It is reported that the two convinced Rani Jindan, grieving the death of her brother, to accept their plan.15 She wanted to avenge her brother’s death, and was also aware of the sword of Damocles that dangled over not just her own head but also that of her son. Rani Jindan might have thought that a weakened or defeated army, and the arrival of British troops in Lahore, could bolster support for the disempowered Durbar.

  On 11 December 1845, about 35,000–40,000 Sikh soldiers16 crossed the river and attacked a small British contingent of 7000 at Ferozepur.17 Even before the war began, Lal Singh and Tej Singh had written to the British, telling them of their plans to deliberately lead the army into a catastrophe. In exchange, they wanted their interests to be protected when the British took over Lahore.

  Unaware of these machinations, the Khalsa army threw itself into battle. The panchs had been temporarily abandoned for a unified command structure. There were many examples of individual bravery, taking the British, who had consistently underestimated the Khalsa army in their correspondence, completely by surprise. On several occasions, when the army was at a vantage position and a decisive victory seemed at hand, Tej Singh and Lal Singh would pull back, leaving their army unprotected. During the battle of Sobraon, for instance, after bringing thousands of his soldiers across the Sutlej, Tej Singh receded across the river and even destroyed a portion of the bridge of boats so that the soldiers had no way to return.18

  Increasingly disillusioned, the Khalsa army reached out to Ghulab Singh in Jammu to take over the reins of the army. Ghulab Singh, however, had other plans. He had already been in deliberations with the British to protect his interests. Rani Jindan, for whom memories of Hira Singh’s ministry were still fresh, was reluctant to allow Ghulab Singh to return to Lahore and take over the army. Eventually she ran out of options when the Khalsa army pressurized her to allow him to take up the ministry.

  Ghulab Singh played both sides masterfully. He rebuked the Khalsa army for its impulsive decision to wage war against the British, while also maintaining contact with the British and positioning himself as the sole arbitrator between the two sides. He even held back provisions for the army to break their spirit so as to coerce them to accept him as an arbitrator without any conditions and with complete authority. Despite their success on the battlefield, the British were also willing to negotiate because of the heavy causalities they had suffered. They were afraid that a prolonged war with the Sikhs might inspire similar ‘rebellions’ in other parts of north India.19

  On 9 March 1846, the Treaty of Lahore was signed between the British and the Khalsa Empire, bringing the First Anglo-Sikh War to an end, placing stringent conditions on the Durbar. All territory between the Sutlej and the Beas was retained by the British, while the Durbar was stipulated to pay 1.5 million pounds as war indemnity. The treasury was completely empty. Thus it was decided that Ghulab Singh would pay the indemnity from his personal treasury and would, in return, retain the lands of Jammu and Kashmir, becoming its independent ruler.

  This had, of course, been his agenda all along. The British too were happy to weaken the Khalsa Empire, while maintaining a buffer between their territory and Afghanistan.20 A separate treaty, called the Treaty of Amritsar, was signed between the British and Raja Ghulab Singh, making him the king of Jammu and Kashmir—another can of worms that would play out a century later during the Partition of India and Pakistan.

  The Lahore Durbar had achieved its purpose. The Khalsa army had been defeated and the British forces, for the first time, entered the capital to ‘protect’ the maharaja. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement, with the Durbar independent to look after its affairs. It soon became clear, though, that the newly appointed resident, Henry Lawrence, was the ultimate authority, while the Durbar and its governors would be nominal heads. Tej Singh, one of the chief architects of the war, benefited through British presence, while the other two accomplices, Lal Singh and Rani Jindan, would soon pay the price for their folly.

  By the end of the year, it had become clear that the British were here to stay. At the ‘insistence’ of the Lahore Durbar, on 26 December 1846, the Treaty of Bhyroval was signed between the British and representatives of the Durbar, requesting them to stay on till the maharaja turned sixteen, with full authority and control over the state. The regent was removed from her post with a hefty annual pension, as a council of regency composed of influential members of the Durbar headed by the British resident became the head of the government.

  Infuriated at being removed from her politically powerful position, Rani Jindan became the focus of ‘anti-British’ activities soon after. Her influence over the maharaja was seen as co
rrupting. Matters took a turn for the worse when, under the rani’s influence, Maharaja Duleep Singh refused to anoint Tej Singh, her sworn enemy and an ally of the British, as Raja of Sialkot in front of the entire Durbar.

  On 19 August 1847, while the maharaja was taken to the Shalimar Gardens for ‘entertainment’, the maharani, in the darkness of the night, was escorted out of Lahore Fort with her entourage. She would not be allowed to see the maharaja, her son, till the fateful meeting in Calcutta, more than thirteen years later.

  With the appointment of Lord Dalhousie, a passionate supporter of the expansion of the British Empire, as governor general in 1847, it was a matter of time before the British formally annexed the province. The excuse presented itself in April 1848 when two British officers, Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew and Andrew Anderson, were assassinated by soldiers in Multan.

  As part of their strategy to appoint allied governors in different parts of Punjab, the British had decided to remove Mulraj from Multan and replace him with Agnew. Despite the humiliation, Mulraj had acceded to the demand and was willing to retire with a pension. His soldiers, however, had different ideas. After killing both Agnew and Anderson, another British officer meant to assist the new governor, the soldiers turned to Mulraj to ‘lead’ the rebellion. Fearing for his life and out of options, Mulraj became the reluctant leader of a rebellion against the Lahore Durbar in 1848, by now completely controlled by the British. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Second Anglo-Sikh War. 21

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