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Sikh States

Maharaja Ranjlt SinghThere is, perhaps, no more notable and picturesque figure among the chiefs who rose to power on the ruins of the Mughal Empire than Maharaja Ranjlt Singh, the founder of the short-lived Sikh kingdom of Lahore. In the stormy days at the beginning of the century, amid a fierce conflict of races and creeds, he found his opportunity, and seizing it with energy, promptitude, and genius, he welded the turbulent and warlike sectaries who followed the teaching of Govind Singh into a homogeneous nation. Under his strong and remorseless rule, the Sikhs, trained and disciplined on a military system more perfect than had before or than has been since employed in the native States of India, were rapidly converted into a formidable fighting machine, which only broke in pieces when the folly and weakness of the great Maharaja's successors persuaded them to use it against the English. The Sikh monarchy was Napoleonic in the suddenness of its rise, the brilliancy of its success, and the completeness of its overthrow.

The tenth guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), had transformed the Sikhs into a militant brotherhood dedicated to defense of their faith at all times. The Sikhs kept up a system of desultory plunder both of invaders and of the people fleeing from them. Lahore submitted and was spared; and it escaped again, on Nadir's return, after the defeat of Mohammed Shah at Karnal and the massacre at Delhi, by having a large sum of money ready to meet the expected demand. The Punjab offered no more effective resistance to the invasion in 1747 of Ahmad Shah Alulali, who kept possession of Afghanistan after Nadir's death. He began by claiming the revenues of the parts of the Punjab and Sind which had been ceded to Nadir. On his third invasion (1752) he obtained possession of Lahore and Multan. The king of Delhi was now also an Ahmad Shah, and the invader was, for distinction, called in India Ahmad Khan Afghan. His son Tinmir, whom he made governor of Lahore, was driven out by the Mahrattas. Ahmad found frequent visits to the Punjab necessary, and only after the total defeat of the Mahrattas at Panipat in 1761 did he retire finally to Kabul.

For a time the Sikhs seemed to have the prospect of holding the Punjab for themselves. Their number and power had greatly increased. They had grouped themselves in associations of kindred and neighborhood called "misls," (Punjabi: from the Persian word "misl" meaning "similar" or "alike") with distinctive names. Powerful members of certain of these clans, representing the aristocracy of the Sikh families, acquired the chiefship of large tracts of country on both sides of the Sutlej, some of which became nearly independent states. Then there were certain members of the Sikh confederation, not enrolling themselves in any clan nor owning any master, who assumed the rdle of religious enthusiasts and warriors, and the name "Akali" or immortal. They were the ghazis of Sikhism. They dressed in blue and wore a high-pointed turban on which they carried several chakras of different sizes, their own special weapon. The chakr or chakra is a thin knife-edged ring of flat steel, a severe missile in skilled hands, but not much used.

Under this new federation, much more closely knit together by ties of race and common faith than the Mahrattas, the people became animated by a martial spirit and a fiery enthusiasm such as the Hindus had not hitherto displayed. The history of the Sikhs illustrates a phenomenon well known in Asia, where an insurrectionary movement is always particularly dangerous if it takes a religious complexion, and where fanaticism may endure and accumulate under a spiritual leader until it explodes in the world of politics with the force of dynamite. The martyrdom of their first prophet and their persecution by the later Mogul emperors had engendered in these hardy peasants a fierce hatred of Islam. They had been repressed and broken by the Afghan armies of Ahmad Shah, but as his grasp on the Punjab relaxed, their combination became closer and more vigorous, until by 1785 the Sikhs had mastered the whole country between the Jhilam and the Sutlej rivers in the center of the Punjab, were threatening the Muhammadan princes about Delhi, and had made pillaging excursions eastward across the Ganges into Rohil-khand.

The Sikhs south of the Sutlej enlarged their possessions and made marauding excursions across the Jumna and the Ganges even as far as to Rohilkiind. The capital was held by three leading Sikh chiefs, when, in 1797 and the following year, Zamau Shah, grandson of Ahmad, brought an army with the view of recovering the Punjab, but was recalled both times by troubles at home. He secured Lahore without opposition, and on leaving in 1798 he made it over to a young Sikh who had attracted his attention and done him good service. This was Ranjit Singh, son of Maha Singh Singh, a Jat Sikh who had risen to considerable power, and who died in 1792.

For some time, and until the rise to power of Ranjit Singh, the Sikhs consisted of a number of confederacies, more or less loosely bound together, each ruled by its own chief. It was Ranjit Singh who united the great majority of them into one confederacy under himself as king. He was the founder of the Sikh kingdom. He rose to eminence, like so many other Oriental rulers, at an early age: he was only twenty when he became Governor of Lahore. The history of the transformation of the Sikhs from a purely religious sect into a great military confederation will always be identified with the name of Ranjit Singh, who, if he did not originate the movement, at any rate brought about its consummation.

The young ruler of Lahore was soon to make himself master of the whole Punjab, while heavy misfortune was awaiting Zaman Shah himself, who was to find shelter in the Punjab. The dethroned and blinded king was met in 1808 at Rawal Pindi by Mountstuart Elphinstone when returning from his mission to Shah Shuja at Peshawar. When Ranjit Singh was beginning his career at Lahore the English adventurer, George Thomas, was trying, with the army he had raised, to carve out a little principality for himself in the Sikh states south of the Sutlej. Ranjit was a man of strong will and immense energy, of no education but of great acuteness in acquiring the knowledge that would be of use to him. He soon began to bring all the separate bodies of Sikhs under his control, and to acquire authority over others besides the Sikhs.

When Ranjit Singh endeavored to include the Sikh states south of the Sutlej within his jurisdiction, the heads of these states — chiefs of Sirhind and Malwa, as they were called—sought and obtained in 1808 the protection of the British, whose territories had now extended to their neighborhood. In the country between the Jamnah and the Satlaj were the great chiefs of what were known as the "Protected Sikh States." As early as 1809 the British Government, under the territory administration of Lord Minto, had assumed the protection of the numerous petty Sikh states lying between the Jumna and the Sutlej, and brigades had been quartered at Loodiana and Ferozepoor, on the left bank of the latter river, to protect them against the incursions of Bunjeet Singh, the ruler of the Punjab. On the failure of heirs to some of these chieftains, their possessions, on their death, were deemed to have lapsed to the British Government, which thus became possessed, between the years 1836 and 1843, of the country known as the Cis-Sutlej States, comprising the districts of Thanesur, Umballa, Loodiana, and Ferozepoor. This territory was not attached to any presidency, but was placed under the Governor-General's Agent, who had charge of the diplomatic relations on this frontier, and the superintendence of the remaining protected chiefs.

The English were then desirous of alliance with Lahore as well as with Kabul, for protection against supposed French designs on India. A British envoy, Mr. Charles Metcalfe, was received by Ranjit in 1809 and the alliance was formed. Ranjit steadily strengthened himself and extended his dominions. In 1809 he obtained possession of Kangra, which the Nepalese were besieging. In 1813 he acquired the fort of Attock on the other side of the Punjab; and the same year he obtained from Shah Shuja, now in his turn a refugee in Lahore, what he coveted as much as territory, the celebrated Koh-i-nur diamond, which had been carried off by Nadir Shah from Delhi.

The famous jewel, known as the Koh-i-Nur, the Mountain of Light is said to have originally belonged to one of the Pandava chiefs of Mahabharata story. Eventually it came into the possession of the Mogul emperors: it passed from them into the hands of Nadir Shah, the Persian king, who sacked Delhi in 1739: thence it fell to the Afghan, Ahmad Shah Abdali, and thus eventually passed into the possession of Shah Shuja, at one time monarch of Afghanistan, but when Ranjit Singh made his acquaintance he was living in exile. Ranjit Singh invited him to take up his residence at Lahore : on his arrival, Ranjit Singh lost no time in demanding the jewel. Upon Shah Shuja denying that he had it, and declaring that he had placed it with a banker for safe keeping, the old Maharaja lost his temper and placed a guard round his guest's palace: all who left the house were searched, and no one was allowed to enter with food. Yielding to this treatment so contrary to all the laws of Oriental hospitality, Shah Shuja agreed to surrender the jewel on the condition that Ranjit Singh would guarantee him his friendship and protection. This, the Sikh Maharaja, taking an oath on his most sacred volume, the Granth, promised solemnly to do. Having obtained possession thus discourteously of the famous diamond, the Sikh Maharaja afterwards seized all the jewels that remained in the possession of the Shah. The Koh-i-Nur afterwards, on the final conquest of the Punjab by the British, passed into the possession of the Sovereigns of Great Britain, and now lies with the other regalia of the Crown in the Tower of London.

In 1818, after some failures in previous years, he captured Multan. Kashmir, which had successfully opposed him several times, was annexed the following year, and likewise the southern part of the country between the Indus and the hills. The Peshawar valley he succeeded in adding four years later, but he found it best to leave an Afghan governor in charge of that troublesome district. These trans-Indus and other outlying tracts were left very much to themselves, and only received a military visit when revenue was wanted. Peshawar was never really ruled till General Avitabile was sent there in later years.

When he was gradually raising his large and powerful army Ranjit received into his service certain French and other officers, who drilled his troops and greatly improved his artillery. He valued these European officers highly, and exerted himself much to retain them. One of them, M. Allard, used to say that if it was sometimes difficult to get into Ranjit's service, it was more difficult to get out of it. While he relied on these foreigners for military and sometimes also for administrative services, he drew around him a body of native ministers of great ability, of whom the brothers Gulab Singh and Dhuin Singh of Jammu were the most influential. (They had another brother, Suchot Singh, less prominent and less at court.) Ranjit maintained friendly relations with the English Government until his death. This was of much importance when, immediately after his death in 1839, the British were putting Shah Shuja back on the throne of Kabul.

The Maharaja's health began to fail him in 1838, when he began to suffer from paralysis: he had led a very hard life, and he had weakened his naturally robust constitution by his occasional bouts of hard drinking. He tried a variety of remedies for his complaint, and amongst them, he had recourse to those specifics of electricity and galvanism which are becoming such popular forms of treatment in these days. On the day of his death he had some twentyfive lakhs of rupees distributed as alms to the poor, and to the priests of the two places which rank as holy in the estimation of all Sikhs, one as the place where the founder of their religious system was born, the other as that where he died. Having performed this act of piety, the old Maharaja had himself moved from his bed to a carpet on the ground and passed peacefully away in the year 1839.

The anarchy that followed his death, and which eventually resulted in that aggression on British territory which led to the Sikh wars, and the final absorption of the Punjab into the British dominions, may be taken as a measure of the service he rendered the British during his lifetime by preventing disorder on British frontiers, but his special service was the erection of a strong bulwark against any further invasions from Central Asia and Afghanistan; whereby he afforded an opportunity to the British for the peaceful development of their empire.

The Punjab was annexed by England on 2d April 1849. For the government of the new province, including the Jalandar Doab, previously annexed, and the cis-Sutlej states, a board of administration was appointed consisting of three members. In place of this board a chief commissioner was appointed in 1853, aided by a judicial commissioner and a financial commissioner. British troops, European and native, of the regular army were stationed at the chief cities and other places east of the Indus and at Peshawar. For the rest of the trans-Indus territory there was a special body of native troops called the Punjab frontier force, under the orders of the chief commissioner.

At the commencement of the 19th century, the British had rescued the "Protected Sikh States" by their interference from the grasp of Ranjit Singh, and ever since the time when the Rajah of Patiala placed in the hands of young Charles Metcalfe the keys of his fort, and said that all he possessed was at the service of the British Government, those chiefs, secure in the possession of their rights, had been true to the English alliance. They had survived the ruin of the old Sikh Empire, and were grateful to the British for the protection which the British had afforded and the independence which the British had preserved.

There are seasons in the lives of all nations, when faith is weak and temptation is strong, and, for a little space, the Cis-Satlaj chiefs, when the clouds of the first British trouble were lowering, may have been beset with doubts and perplexities and fears of siding with the weaker party. Their hesitation, however, was short-lived. During the Mutiny campaign of 1857 the Punjab, under Sir John Lawrence as chief commissioner, was able to send important aid to the force engaged in the siege of Delhi, while suppressing the disturbances which arose, and meeting the dangers which threatened, within the Punjab itself. In 1858 the Delhi territory, as it was called, west of the Jumna, was transferred from the Northwest Provinces to the Punjab. Tho enlarged province was raised in rank, and on 1st January, 1859, the chief commissioner became lieutenant-governor.

Map Punjab 1839 Map Punjab 1900

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:13:28 ZULU