May 7, 1844 Researched by: Santbir Singh
Location: Naurangabad (d. Tarn Taran)
Dogra Controlled Battalions of the Khalsa Army
Prime Minister Hira ‘Singh’ Dogra
Enemy Battlefield General:
Claude Auguste Court
Baba Bir Singh Naurangabadvale
Battalions of the Khalsa army loyal to the traitorous Dogras used massive artillery bombardment to slaughter over 1500 fellow Sikhs at the headquarters of the great Baba Bir Singh. Those killed included civilian members of the Sangat, warriors under Baba Bir Singh’s command and members of the Sikh nobility that were opposed to Dogra control of the Khalsa government.
Baba Bir Singh Naurangabad was perhaps the most well-respected Sikh of the Khalsa Empire time period. A former soldier in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, he left the military to dedicate himself to spreading the message of Sikhi. His dera, named Santpura, at the village of Naurangabad close to Tarn Taran, became an important religious, social and political centre in the Panth.
Baba Bir Singh’s dera was a place where the Sangat could partake in all aspects of Sikhi. Gurbani and history were taught and the Dera’s famous Langar fed over 5000 people everyday. But unlike many of the holy men of today, Baba Bir Singh was a full GurSikh. He understood that true Sikhi meant embodying the spirit of both Miri and Piri. The warrior tradition was strongly practiced at Naurangabad. Baba Bir Singh ensured there were at least 3000 cavalry warriors and over 1200 infantry soldiers at the Dera at all time. He did Katha, he was a Kirtani Baba, a Langar Baba and the commander of an army. Truly one of the great leaders of Sikh history.
After Ranjit Singh’s death Punjab fell into chaos. The full details of that decade are too complex and twisted to explore here, but it is safe to say that one of the primary reasons for the end of the Khalsa empire was due to serious miscalculations on the part of Ranjit Singh.
Ranjit Singh is not a simple figure to assess. From a Sikhi point of view he is very problematic. His personal Rehit was severely lacking, to say the least, but even more troubling was his dismantling of the Sarbat Khalsa governance model and his consolidation of power within the institution of the monarchy based out of Lahore. On the other hand Ranjit Singh’s rule was a paragon of inclusivity and a true golden age of Punjab. Muslims and Hindus were fully a part of the government and all communities flourished under Ranjit Singh’s benevolent rule. It was the longest period of uninterpreted peace that the Sikh Panth has ever had. Khalsa Raj allowed for a renaissance for Sikh arts, architecture and literature.
Sikhs respected Ranjit Singh but they did not worship him as a king as other Panjabis did. Sikhs called him Singh Sahib, for only Guru Granth Sahib is worthy of the title Maharaj. As time went on, Ranjit Singh grew weary of the popularity of prominent Sikhs, like General Hari Singh Nalva, Akali Phula Singh and General Zoravar Singh. Ranjit Singh feared that the respect and popularity these Gursikhs enjoyed were a threat to his rule. So these Panthik leaders were sent on foolhardy military campaigns, attacking Afghanistan and Tibet. They died in Ranjit Singh’s campaign for an ever larger empire while also removing any possible opposition that could arise from Panthik Sikhs.
As Ranjit Singh pushed away Khalsa leaders, he brought near to him those who would go on to betray the nation. Most of the European generals that Ranjit Singh hired to modernize the Sikh army ended up on the payroll of the British and assisted in the colonizers’ treacherous takeover of our Empire. Worse were the Dogras, originally from Jammu. The three Dogra brothers managed to ingratiate themselves to Ranjit Singh and became integral parts of the Lahore Darbar. They outwardly converted to Sikhi, but stayed true to their Hindu origins. Ranjit Singh loved them, at times it seemed, more than his own children. His favourte was the middle brother, Dhian ‘Singh’ Dogra. He heaped praise on him granting him fancy titles, huge jagirs and powerful positions.
Ranjit Singh obsessively loved Dhian Dogra’s son as well. Hira Dogra was made a Raja by Ranjit Singh who even gave him the title of ‘Farzand-i-Khas’ which means favourite son. As Panjab lost one monarch after another in those unstable years (between Ranjit Singh and Duleep Singh there were three Kings and one Queen who ruled the Khalsa Empire), Hira Dogra managed to become Prime Minster.
Naurangabad became a refuge for those who were resisting the Dogra takeover. Prominent Sikh sardars like Sardar Attar Singh Sandhanvalia, Prince Kashmira Singh and Prince Pashaura Singh (sons of Ranjit Singh), Sardar Jawahar Singh Nalwa (son of Shahid General Hari Singh Nalwa) and Divan Baisakha Singh (a prominent figure in the Khalsa court) all came to Baba Bir Singh for refuge. Not all of these figures were great leaders in their own rights. The Sandhanvalias especially had a lot of blood on their hands from the post-Ranjit Singh power struggle. But Baba Bir Singh believed in Guru Nanak Sahib’s principles and he offered safety to anyone who came to the a Guru’s house. He was well aware of how dangerous the Dogras were.
On April 9th an earthquake struck Amritsar Sahib. Many took this as a warning that the troubled situation in Panjab would soon be getting much worse. The next week was Vaisakhi. Instead of celebrating at Amritsar Sahib, tens of thousands of Sikhs flocked to Naurangabad. It was the natural place for the Panth to gather in dire times. Baba Bir Singh spoke about the importance of sovereignty and why all Sikhs must work together to maintain Khalsa Raj. He inspired the Sangat to unite under the Guru’s Nishan.
Hira Dogra was terrified of Baba Bir Singh. Not only was he harbouring nobles who directly threatened his position but Baba Bir Singh was far more popular than any government official could hope to be.
Mad with arrogance, and lacking any semblance of shame, Hira Dogra ordered 20,000 troops to besiege Naurangabad. The Khalsa soldiers in the regiments sent to attack Baba Bir Singh had been promised riches by the Dogras to ensure their loyalty, though many would later claim they didn’t know who they were attacking (unlikely). The regiment that carried out the attack was commanded by General Court, a European general with no loyalty to the Khalsa Panth.
Baba Bir Singh’s response to the coming attack is truly one of the most remarkable acts of Panthik unity ever seen in our history. It is an example for all Sikhs today.
Upon being told that the Khalsa Army was marching on Naurangabad and would soon attack, Baba Bir Singh stopped his soldiers from taking defensive measures. Instead he asked the Sevadars to make double the amount of Langar than usual as their fellow Sikhs would be tired from their march from Lahore and would need sustenance. He then asked the Sangat to start a Kirtan Divan to welcome their brothers.
Baba Bir Singh was no Gandhian pacifist. He he had a standing army and was himself an able warrior who believed in and practiced the Khalsa warrior tradition. Why then did he not fight back?
Baba Bir Singh explained to the Sangat that all Sikhs wore the Sarup of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, in their very appearance. To do Seva for a Sikh was to do Seva for Guru Sahib. And to attack a fellow Sikh, even one sent to kill you, was to attack Guru Gobind Singh Sahib himself.
To respect your fellow Sikhs to this degree is a radical act of love that many of us may find too extreme. Not many of us can be filled with as much grace and compassion as Baba Bir Singh. We don’t have to the let our fellow Sikhs kill us, but we could at least treat them with kindness and respect. We are all so quick to mock, belittle, criticise and even physically assault fellow Sikhs over the smallest differences. Let us learn a little from Shahid Baba Bir Singh Naurangabadvale’s Kurbani and try to see the Guru in our fellow Sikhs no matter how much we disagree with their ideas or behaviour.
As the Kirtan began Baba Bir Singh sat at Guru Sahib’s hazuri in the Darbar and the Sangat immersed themselves in Shabad Guru. The rest of the Sangat was busy cooking langar.
The army began to shell the Dera. Thousands were killed instantly. Thousands more panicked and tried to cross the river but they drowned in the chaos. Baba Bir Singh did not flinch and sat in perfect connection to the Guru. His right knee was shattered by a direct hit of a mortar shell, and he was shot multiple times. Only in Shahidi would Baba Bir Singh leave the Gurus’s Divan.
Shamefully, this is a Ghallughara that was committed by Sikhs upon fellow Sikhs. A disgusting mark on our history, and a stark demonstration of how colonialism infected the sovereign Khalsa government, tearing our empire apart from the inside. And yet because of Baba Bir Singh’s actions the Massacre of Naurangabad is also one of the most inspiring moments in Panthik history. A reminder to us all, about what it means to be a part of the Guru Khalsa Panth.
Breakdown of Losses:
• With over a four thousand soldiers and thousands of Sangat present the number of Shahids could be quite large.
• Total Shahids: unknown. Punjab was in the midst of a deep socio-political crisis. There was no investigation of how many were killed at Naurangabad. Both the Dogra-dominated Government and later the British colonial authorities were motivated to minimize the scale of the massacre. At the very least, a conservative estimate of 1500 is reasonable, though the actual number is likely much higher, probably around 5000.
With the backlash from the massacre at Naurangabad and then a subsequent attempt to poison Maharani Jind Kaur, Hira Dogra was finally pushed out of his position as Prime Minister. He fled Lahore as the Khalsa Army began to turn on him. But in his greed he tried to escape with literal cartloads of treasure from the Khalsa treasury on December 21st 1844. The great Panthik General Sardar Sham Singh Attari led a small force and overtook Hira Dogra’s caravan. Sardar Attari Ji delivered justice to the traitorous former Prime Minister. However his uncle Gulab ‘Singh’ Dogra still had considerable influence in the Lahore Darbar and the Dogras’ collaboration with the British to destroy the Khalsa Government was just beginning.