USUNG HEROES OF PUNJAB – during Anglo Sikh Wars
By Inderjeet Singh (Nottingham)
The historians and Government of India have ascribed every ruler and leader who fought East India Company during the revolt of 1857 as freedom fighter and patriot. Glowing tributes are paid every year to the provincial rulers who fought in the ‘first war for independence’ despite the fact that many of them till the very end were negotiating with East India Company to get their kingdoms and principalities back.
The First and Second Anglo Sikh War ended in 1846 and 1849, just 11 and 8 years prior to the revolt. In Punjab there was no Maharaja or ruler leading his army against East India Company due to his personal grievances during these two wars, as Maharaja Duleep Singh was still a minor. Celebrated historian RC Majumdar has stated that “The Sikhs were the last defenders of the liberty of India”1. Despite this neither in Punjab nor rest of India (or Pakistan) anyone remembers them. This write up will try to elaborate who fought from the Punjab side during the Anglo Sikh wars and what became of them afterwards.
Heroes of Second Anglo Sikh war
It is important to remind the readers that following the First Anglo Sikh war, although Maharani Jind Kaur continued to act as the regent for Maharaja Duleep Singh, effective power had passed into the hands of the British resident, Colonel Henry Lawrence.
Diwan Mool Raj
Mool Raj was the son of celebrated Diwan Sawan Mal, a Chopra Khatri who was the governor of Multan for 23 years. He succeeded his father as governor of Multan in September 1844. Due to internal politics and tax arrears he tendered his resignation to Sir Frederick Curric, the new British Resident at Lahore
On 19th April 1848, the new governor designate, accompanied by two British officers came to take charge from Mool Raj, his troops revolted, killed the two British officers and held him prisoner. Later Mool Raj reluctantly joined them but by then Mool Raj became the symbol of Sikhs’ discontent and they rallied round him to strike against the British. The incidents at Multan led to the second Anglo Sikh war. For 6 months due to summer months there was no action from the British but in the subsequent battle, he was defeated and on 22 January 1849 Mool Raj surrendered and later was tried by a court of inquiry and sentenced to death. The Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, however, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment as he was found not guilty of inciting or participating in killing on two British officers at Multan. Mool Raj was first detained at Lahore and then, in January 1850, taken to Calcutta where he fell seriously ill. He died on 11th August 1851 aged 36 near Buxar on his way to Banaras.
Sher Singh Attariwala & his father Chatar Singh Attariwala
He was appointed governor of Peshawar in October 1845, and recalled in August 1846 to Lahore where he was nominated a member of the Council of Regency. His father Chatar Singh was conferred the title of ‘Raja’ who requested it to be given to his son in November 1847.
In April 1848, Raja Sher Singh commanded the Khalsa Durbar troops sent out to Multan by the British Resident to quell the rebellion by Diwan Mool Raj. However Sher Singh left the British camp and went over to Mool Raj along with the Khalsa troops. He later moved northwards to join his father, Chatar Singh, at Hazara. Sher Singh’s action set into motion a chain of events which set the whole of the Punjab ablaze. Many disbanded Khalsa soldiers joined and swelled his ranks. Overnight, he became a leader of Sikh resistance.
Sher Singh proclaimed himself a Servant of the Khalsa and that of the sovereign, and called upon the people to rise in arms and expel the British from their country. Simultaneously, the rising in the north under his father, Chatar Singh Attariwala, gained popular support. The Sikh contingents at several places revolted and joined him. The British commander in chief Lord Sir Hugh Gough without formal declaration of war crossed the river Ravi on 16 November 1848, with 24,000 men and 65 guns. Sher Singh fought the British at Ramnagar* on 22 November 1848, defeating Brigadier General Campbell’s 3rd Infantry Division.
Soon afterwards he joined his father, Chatar Singh, and together they defeated the British at Challianwala* on 13 January 1849 but in the last battle at Gujrat on 21 February 1849 Sikhs suffered a heavy defeat. Following annexation of Punjab, Sher Singh along with his father was detained at Attari and their jagirs were confiscated. However Sher Singh continued to contact former soldiers to renew the struggle. The father son duo was then imprisoned at Allahabad. They were later transferred to Fort William at Calcutta from where they were released in January 1854 but were not allowed to return back to Punjab. Chatar Singh passed away in December 1855 and Raja Sher Singh died at Banaras in 1858 hundreds of miles away from their home.
Bhai Maharaj Singh
He was a saintly person turned revolutionary who led an anti-British movement in the Punjab after the first Anglo-Sikh war, was born Nihal Singh at the village of Rabbon, in Ludhiana district. He had a religious bent of mind and came under the influence of Bhai Bir Singh of Naurangabad (Tarn Taran district). After the latter’s death in 1844, he succeeded him as head of the Naurangabad dera and was held in high esteem by a vast following, including most of the Sikh chiefs and courtiers. Maharaj Singh’s revolutionary career started with the alleged Prema conspiracy case involving him and Maharani Jind Kaur in a plot to murder the British resident, Henry Lawrence and topple the British Government in Punjab.
Bhai Maharaj Singh, whose movements were restricted to Naurangabad by the British, went underground. The government confiscated his property at Amritsar and announced a reward for his arrest. In November 1848, he joined Sher Singh Attariwla’s forces at Ramnagar and was seen in the battlefield riding his black mare and encouraging the Sikh soldiers to lay down their lives for the sake of their country.
Thereafter he took part in the battles of Challianwala and Gujrat, but, when Sher Singh Attariwala surrendered to the British at Rawalpindi on 14 March 1849, he resolved to carry on the fight single-handed. He escaped to Jammu and in December 1849, he went to Hoshiarpur and visited the Sikh regiments to enlist their support. Bhai Maharaj Singh, who carried on his head a price of 10,000 rupees, was arrested on 28 December 1849 at Adampur. Dr Vansittart, the Jalandhar deputy commissioner, who had arrested Bhai Sahib, was impressed by his personality that he recommended special treatment to be accorded him. However the government did not wish to take any risks and deported him to Singapore where, after several years of solitary confinement, he died on 5 July 1856. He had gone blind before the end came. Although a memorial has been raised in Singapore in his honour, very few people are aware of this remarkable man.
Sultan Mahmud Khan
He was the son of legendary General Ghaus Khan who was commander of artillery and served with distinction under Maha Singh and his son Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sultan Mahmud was a commander of a section of heavy artillery. His derah of artillery was designated as Topkhanai Sultan Mahmud.
Under Maharaja Sher Singh his son Sultan Ahmed Ali Khan, was made a Colonel. Sultan Mahmud was sent in command of the artillery to Hazara where he remained until 1848 when both he and his son were moved to the Derajat. At the outbreak of the second Anglo Sikh war, Sultan Mahmud as well as his son, Sultan Ahmad Ali Khan, joined the rebel Sikh forces at Ramnagar and fought against the English throughout the war. After the annexation of the Punjab, his jagir was confiscated and received a small pension which he held until his death in 1859, at Bharowal, his ancestral village in Tarn Taran district. The three generations of this family served the Khalsa Durbar with excellence but sadly they are not remembered in either side of the border.
Heroes of First Anglo Sikh War
Unfortunately this is remembered in Punjab more for the betrayal of Army Commanders (Two Brahmin converted Sikhs namely Lal Singh & Tej Singh and Gulab Singh Dogra) than anything else. We should not ignore the people who fought bravely in this war.
Raja Ajit Singh Ladva
He was son of Sardar Gurdit Singh of Karorsinghia Misl who was the ruler of Ladva now in Kurukshetra district (Haryana). His territory also included Baddoval, near Ludhiana, like his father he was ally of Khalsa Durbar. In the first Anglo Sikh war, Ajit Singh along with Sardar Ranjodh Singh Majithia crossed the Sutlej at Phillaur with a force of 8,000 men and 70 guns.
In rapid marches Ajit Singh and Ranjodh Singh seized the forts of Fatehgarh, Dharamkot, and Baddowal, and stole into Ludhiana cantonment, setting many of the barracks on fire. In the action fought on 21 January 1846 at Baddoval, Sir Henry Smith`s column was attacked and more than 200 of his men were slain. But Ajit Singh suffered a defeat in the battle fought in Aliwal after a week. His estates were confiscated by the Company in 1846 and he was arrested and detained at Allahabad. However he escaped and after long wanderings is supposed to have died in Kashmir. Sadly no one remembers him even in his home town.
Sham Singh Attariwala
It is apt that this write-up finishes with the legendary Sham Singh Attariwala. He is perhaps the only Anglo Sikh war hero who is remembered officially by Government of Punjab. A samadh and memorial has been raised in his ancestral village (now town) Attari in district Amritsar.
Sham Singh was a general of Sikh army. At the outbreak of the first Anglo Sikh war, he was at Kakrala, south of the Sikh frontier, for the wedding of his second son, Kahn Singh. As he heard the news, he rushed back to the Punjab.
The defeat of the Sikh forces at Ferozeshah led Maharani Jind Kaur to summon him from Attari. Sham Singh, who was nearly 60, immediately arrived and joined at the battle of Sabhraoh on 10 February 1846. Dressed in white and riding his white horse, the grey bearded Sardar Sham Singh moved from column to column calling upon his men to fight to the last. He inspired many and died fighting in the battle.
Lord Hugh Gough, the British commander-in-chief, under whose leadership the two Anglo-Sikh wars were fought paid tribute to the gallantry of the Sikhs, he said: “Policy precluded me publicly recording my sentiments on the splendid gallantry of our fallen foe, or to record the acts of heroism displayed, not only individually, but almost collectively, by the Sikh Sardars and the army; and I declare were it not from a deep conviction that my country’s good required the sacrifice, I could have wept to have witnessed the fearful slaughter of so devoted a body of men.”
Scores of Sikh Sardars who fought in these wars were deprived of their jagirs and were given a small pension. Ranjodh Singh Majithia who fought bravely in the first Anglo Sikh war was arrested in 1848 following interception of his correspondence with Diwan Mool Raj just before the second Anglo Sikh war. He was released after the annexation but his jagir was confiscated and was given a small pension. Nihal Singh Ahluwalia, the ruler of Kapurthala despite his treaties with British fought in the first Anglo Sikh war from Punjab side. All his territories, south of Sutlej river were confiscated. An interesting case is that of Imam Shah who was of Persian descent and his grandfather was in Nadir Shah’s army. He rose to the position of Colonel in artillery section of Khalsa army and was killed in action in the battle of Sabhraon. His son also fought in the first Anglo Sikh war. Jawahar Singh Nalwa son of Hari Singh Nalwa “fought against the British with great gallantry at Challianwala and Gujrat, and he was the man who led the dashing charge of Irregular Cavalry at Challianwala, which so nearly ruined the fortune of the day.”2
The names mentioned are a representative of brave Punjabis who fought the East India Company which almost wholly consisted of Bengali (& Bihari) soldiers. The latter were responsible for handing victories to East India Company over Tipu Sultan, Marathas, Sikhs and practically the whole India. Following the revolt of 1857 if they could be considered as freedom fighters why Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus who fought for Punjab are not remembered and given that honour.
* Both sides claimed victories. It is appropriate to say both failed to defeat the other. Lord Gough was severely criticised after these battles.
1. RC Majumdar: History of the Freedom Movement in India Firma, K. L. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta, 1962
2 Lepel H. Griffin: The Panjab Chiefs Historical and Biographical Notices of the Principal Families in the Territories under the Panjab Government, 1865
Source: Sikh Encyclopaedia by Dr Harbans Singh