Ranjit Singh, the great Sikh leader of the 19th century, had employed French officers from Napoleons Grand Army to drill his troops on the European model, and their fighting qualities were respected by the British. For 50 years the Sikh kingdom extended from the Khyber pass to the borders of Tibet and China and the Sikh arts flourished in the grandeur and excesses of the Sikh court of Lahore. wpe2.jpg (24521 bytes)
The death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1839) was virtually the death of the Sikh kingdom. The revenue and judicial system began to crack up. Taxes were not collected in time and the pay of the civil and military personnel fell into arrears. The army which Ranjit Singh had built into a first class fighting force became like a monster unleashed. Many Europeans fled the country and Punjabi officers were reduced to drill-masters without any authority over their men. Control passed to the stewards elected by the soldiers who bargained for conditions of service with their officers.
Ranjit Singh’ successors murdered each other in scenes that pale the bloodiest Elizabethan drama, until a six year old King, his Mother and a vizier were left to rule. The sanguine drama of murder and reprisal continued behind the palace walls. The army grew in numbers till it had trebled itself – but without direction or discipline of any sort.
The English knew that the Sikh kingdom was ready to fall. All it needed was a little shaking. The British for a long time had coveted the Sikh Kingdom. Ranjit Singh had frustrated their design. He could match their wiles as his army could match theirs in strength. At the time of his death the British had suffered serious reverses in Afghanistan and had neither the power nor the excuse to move against the Sikhs. Within five years the situation had changed and the British again became aggressive.
The British raised the strength of their army in the Punjab, a strong line of reserves was also built up. In the summer of 1845, 70 thirty-ton boats were brought up and training in bridge-building started under the very noses of the Sikh soldiers guarding the frontier. Then the Governor-General himself came to the Punjab to plan the campaign.
The fight put up by the leaderless rank and file of Ranjit Singh’s army surprised both the British army and the traitorous Sikh ruling classes. They mauled the British. For the next three days, the Sikhs waited for reinforcements promised by their commanders to finish off the English army. Reinforcements were deliberately held back. Instead of gun-powder, sackloads of sand were sent. The British who had received reinforcements defeated the Sikhs at Ferozeshahr. Two more battles ensued, one at Aliwal and the other at Sabraon, where the Sikhs were completely routed. By the treaty of surrender signed at Lahore in March 1846, nearly half of the kingdom was taken over by the British who at the same time sold Jammu and Kashmir for a paltry sum to a courtier of Ranjit Singh.
Young Dalip Singh was taken under protection and ordered to hand over the Koh-i-noor diamond. A British Resident was installed in Lahore with an army of his own. Lord Hardinge wrote: ‘We must bear in mind that, by the Treaty of Lahore, the Punjab was never intended to be an independent State…. In fact the native Prince is in fetters, under our protection and must do our bidding.’
On the British side Lord Dalhousie replaced Lord Hardinge as Governor-General. He believed that the right to annex the Punjab was ‘beyond cavil’. He wrote: ‘The task before me is the utter destruction and prostration of the Sikh power, the subversion of its dynasty, and the subjection of its people. This must be done promptly, fully and finally.’
The plan to annex was provided by the revolt of a small district within the Punjab. It was an insignificant affair which could have been put down without much exertion. But the British decided to describe it as a Sikh rising so as to have the excuse of annexing what remained of their kingdom. To the surprise of the British a Sikh rising it did become. The British tried to elicit the support of the Mohammedan Peasantry by asking them to rise ‘in the memory of their murdered parents, friends and relatives’ and destroy the Sikhs. wpe3.jpg (17260 bytes)
The major engagement of this campaign was fought at Chillianwala in February 1849. The Sikh armies once again defeated the English. It was the worst reverse ever suffered by them in their history of empire building in India – and that at the hands of a virtually leaderless army. Once again when the British believed the battle was lost, their friends in the Sikh camp came to their rescue by holding back their fire. The British forces were given time to recoup their strength. At Gujarat, fresh forces entered the battle and turned defeat into victory. On 10 March 1849, the Sikh armies laid down arms. A fortnight later a proclamation was read annexing the Sikh kingdom to the British Crown.
“…our English cavalry with their blunt swords were most unequally matched against the Sikhs with tulwars so keen of edge that they would split a hair…I remember reading of a regiment of British cavalry charging a regiment of Sikh cavalry. The latter wore voluminous thick puggries round their heads, which our blunt swords were powerless to cut through, and each horseman had also a buffalo hide shield slung on his back. They evidently knew that the British sword was blunt and useless, so they kept their horses still and met the British charge by laying flat on their horses’ necks, with their heads protected by their thick turbans and their backs by the shields; and immediately he British soldiers passed through their ranks the Sikhs swooped round on them and struck back handed with their sharp, curved swords, in several instances cutting our cavalry men in two….”
Sgt William Forbes Mitchell (93rd Sutherland Highlanders) 1910.
“56 years ago I joined the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs in Loralai, Baluchistan and at once became embued with the teachings and the life of Guru Nanak. The Sikh Gurus, the Sikh religion, the Gurdwara, the Granth Sahib became part of my life. The British and Sikh officers of the Regiment were convinced that religion was an important factor in the make-up of a good soldier and we fostered that in every way possible.”
(An extract from a speech made by Brigadier the Rt.Hon.Sir John Smyth, Bt.VC at a celebration of the 500th Birthday Anniversary of Guru Nanak at Grosvenor House in Park Lane in December, 1969)
Sikh soldiers, too, are required to adhere rigidly to Sikh customs and ceremonies and every effort has been made to preserve them from the contagion of Hinduism. Sikhs in the Indian Army have been studiously ‘nationalised’ or encouraged to regard themselves as a totally distinct and separate nation, their national pride has been fostered by every available means and the ‘Granth Sahib’ are saluted by British Officers of Indian Regiments.
Handbook for the Indian Army – Sikhs, Major A.G. Barstow,
2/11th Sikh Regiment, 1928