When the Khalsa Army Conquered Kashmir

Annexation of Kashmir to The Sikh Kingdom

by Surinder Singh Johar

[Reproduced from The Sikh Review, December 2000]


After the astonishing victory at Attock, Maharaja Ranjit Singh gained more confidence and thought of annexing other strategic areas to his empire. Kashmir came to his attention first. Kashmir had great importance because of its strategic trade routes. It was a compact area rich in forests and natural beauty. The valley grew saffron and fruit in abundance. Walnuts, apples, peaches, apricots and cherries were among the superior varieties of fruits grown in Kashmir. It had several health resorts and beauty spots.

Trade and commerce flourished between Kashmir and Tibet. Kashmir imported from Tibet annually 60,000 seers@ of raw wool and woven woolen cloth, tea, gold and silver ingots and dry fruit. The exports included grain, cotton cloth, iron and spices. Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, with a population of 80,000 was a flourishing town. Its shawls and carpets were known the world over. Finer quality shawls fetched hefty profits. Leather goods, woolen products and woolen cloth were the other items produced in the valley.

In 1814, Maharaja Ranjit Singh prepared for annexation of Kashmir. On June 6, 1814, the Maharaja himself reached Bhimber. Two divisions of the Khalsa army marched towards Kashmir; the main body commanded by the Maharaja himself advanced through the Poonch route, towards the Toshu Maidan Pass while another under Ram Dayal and Sardar Dal Singh passed through Baramulla towards Supin in the heart of the valley.

However, the expedition could not succeed as the rains had set in. Pir Panjal was still snow-clad. This inclement weather had an adverse effect on the Sikh army. When the rains ceased the Maharaja’s division reached Poonch, the supplies were replenished and the force marched towards Mandi. On July 18, they reached Toshu Maidan. Here, Ata Mohammad Khan, the Governor of Kashmir, was ready to face the Sikh army. At the same time, the news was received that the Sikh forces had ascended Pir Panjal Pass, occupied Haripur, and were advancing towards Supin. The Sikhs attacked the well-defended town but did not succeed in breaching its defences. Meanwhile, Azim Khan’s cavalry reached there. A fierce battle was fought but due to heavy rains, the Sikhs suffered heavy losses. The worsted army returned to Pir Panjal. Azim Khan attacked the Sikhs at Toshu Maidan. No defence could be offered and the Sikh soldiers retreated to Mandi. The Afghans pursued the Sikhs and Ranjit Singh ordered reorganization of the army. The roads were under deep water. Many Sikh soldiers were slain. Much of the war material was lost.

“The failure of the Lahore expedition shook up the Sikh sway in the hill regions. Towards the close of the year, the Muslim chiefs of Bhimber and Rajauri broke out in open revolt, the Rajas of Poonch and Nurpur began assuming an independent tone. The reputation lost by the Sikhs could only be retrieved by successive punitive expeditions sent from Lahore during the next four years.”

The Maharaja could not sit idle. He still nourished the ambition of conquering Kashmir at the earliest possible opportunity. So he strengthened his forces, re-equipped them and gave them proper training to fight in the hills. However, it took him five years to give shape to his plans. Unless Maharaja’s ambition was fulfilled he could not relax and this opportunity came five years later in 1819.

Early in the year, Bir Dhar, a minister under Jabbar Khan, the Afghan governor of Kashmir betrayed Jabbar Khan and sought asylum with the Maharaja. Bir Dhar informed Ranjit Singh that Mohammad Azim Khan had gone to Kabul with his forces and the Kashmir valley was without any defence. The remnants of Jabbar Khan’s forces were incapable of protecting Kashmir and the Maharaja had a good opportunity to annex the valley to his territory.

Ranjit Singh, the shrewd general that he was, ordered his commanders to make preparations to attack Kashmir on a massive scale. Arms and ammunition were collected at Gujrat and Wazirabad and nothing was left to chance. On April 20, 1819, the Maharaja marched from Lahore at the head of a 30,000 strong force. Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa was commanding a division. The forces marched with shouts of Bole So Nihal — Sat Siri Akal resounding in the sky. These were followed by more troops under the command of Diwan Chand, Jaffer Jang, Hukam Singh Chimni, Sardar Jawala Singh and Sardar Sham Singh Attari. Besides, the Maharaja kept in reserve a force of 10,000 strong so that in case of any exigency it could be sent at a moment’s notice.

The Khalsa forces reached Bhimber from where the hill tract starts. Drinking water was not available in the hills, so the soldiers were asked to replenish their water supplies. Then they reached Saidabad where an old fort could be used for halt. The hakim of the fort fled without offering any resistance. The Khalsa army captured the fort without any loss of men or material. This was their first victory. The forces marched further and reached Rajouri on May 1, 1819. The Shalimar garden, situated on the banks of river Tawi and with a spacious baradari, was occupied. The local hakim tried to offer some resistance, but his forces were over-powered by the division under the command of Hari Singh Nalwa who gave him a crushing defeat. Many of Agar Khan’s soldiers were slain and much of his war equipment was lost. The Sikhs too lost ten of their brave men of whom Sardar Jodh Singh Russa deserves a mention. He was a man of indomitable spirit and his dynamism impressed one and all. Agar Khan fled and his force was so demoralised that it surrendered unconditionally. While fleeing Agar Khan was captured and was sent to Bhimber where Maharaja Ranjit Singh held his darbar.

Agar Khan sought mercy from the Maharaja and promised to remain loyal to him in future. He offered to assist the Maharaja in the annexation of Kashmir. The Maharaja pardoned him and made him Raja of Rajouri.

The Sikh forces marched further and halted at Behram Pass. The route was hilly and rugged and the entire journey was strenuous. Here, an Afghan faujdar was a petty chief. When he came to know of the massive Sikh attack he fled in panic towards Sirinagar, leaving his fortress unprotected. Behram Pass was thus captured. Mir Mohammad Khan, the kotwal of Poonch, submitted to the Sikh General and the kotwal of Supin, Mohammad Ali, followed in his foot-steps. Jabbar Dost Khan, the Raja of Poonch, who had closed the fort, did not surrender and offered some resistance. Raja Sultan Chand, who was acquainted with the topography of the area, was ordered to attack the fort. The Raja scaled the walls of the fort. Many soldiers defending the fort were slain in the battle that ensued. At last Jabbar Dost Khan was left with no alternative but to surrender to the Sikhs. The Governor of Basana was also made to swear allegiance to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Thus, the route to Pir Panjal pass was fully secured. Missar Diwan Chand divided the army into three divisions and directed them to march towards the valley of Kashmir through different routes. The Missar himself headed the forces which were to cross Pir Panjal. They marched at a lightning speed and entered the valley. Some resistance was offered by the Pathans and after many a dead and wounded, they were made to flee in dismay, leaving behind large war equipment which was taken possession of by the Sikhs. The Sikh morale was very high and on June 16, 1819, the entire Sikh force took up their position at Serai Ali, leading to Supin. Meanwhile, Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself arrived at Shabad to supervise the arrangements and to see that the supply position was in perfect order.

Jabbar Khan faced the Sikh forces in the plains of Supin with a 5000 strong force. The bugles sounded and the sky was rent with the cries of Bole So Nihal — Sat Siri Akal. On July 5, 1819, a fierce battle was fought between the opposing armies. For sometime the Afghans held the Sikh forces and were also able to capture two of their guns. But then the Sikhs rallied and regrouped their forces and made a severe attack on the Afghans who fled towards Shergarh. Jabbar Khan was wounded and had a narrow escape. Kashmir was thus conquered and made part of the Sikh empire. The Maharaja’s forces then made a triumphant entry into Srinagar. Next day the city was fully occupied. Jabbar Khan fled with a few of his men, crossed the mountains and eventually reached Peshawar.

In Srinagar, Prince Kharak Singh announced that nobody should feel apprehensive, adding that full protection would be offered to everyone. No distinction would be made on the basis of caste, creed or colour. Following the established Sikh practice, the Sikh armies did not subject the conquered territories to plunder. A huge procession was taken out in the city. It was a unique thing in the history of Kashmir. The town had been ransacked several times by earlier conquerers. For the first time, the victorious forces had remained peaceful and not a single case of loot or arson had taken place. The Sikh forces were, therefore, welcomed with open arms. A warm reception awaited the soldiers on whom flower petals were showered. Prince Kharak Singh encamped in Shergarh fort.

“The Maharaja, on receiving the news of the conquest of the important and fertile province of Kashmir made great rejoicing and sent Fakir Aziz-ud-din and Dewan Devi Dass to take charge of the new territory. Then he returned to Lahore. As was usual with him on such occasions, the Maharaja spent several days in celebrating at Lahore the victory won by his troops. The cities of Lahore and Amritsar were illuminated for three nights. The Maharaja visited Amritsar, where he gave his benediction at the Darbar Sahib, and made a large offering of money. On his return to Lahore, he recalled Missar Dewan Chand and sent Dewan Moti Ram, son of Dewan Muhkam Chand, as the first governor of Kashmir.”

Hari Singh Nalwa’s fame increased manifold. He was at the height of his glory, for he had played a leading role in the capture of Kashmir. On the Maharaja’s orders, Hari Singh Nalwa and Sham Singh Attari marched towards Muzzafrabad and Darband and they succeeded in the complete subjugation of those parts.

“The conquest of Kashmir added an annual revenue of 4,000,000 rupees to the Kingdom of Lahore and brought under Sikh rule an extensive area inhabited by varied races in the valley and its loftier mountains. It raised the prestige of the Maharaja and the majesty of his power as far as Leh, Lhasa and beyond the Karakuram mountains. It struck a heavy blow at the waning Afghan satrapies in northern India; the only one left now was Peshawar.”

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