Harking Back: ‘Ignored century’ with lessons for today’s confusion

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn April 2, 2017

One of the most neglected ‘recent’ period in Lahore’s history is almost the entire century starting 1707 AD, from the death of the last ‘great’ Mughal Aurangzeb to the rise of the remarkable Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1799.

This surely is the most complex and defining century, one that in a way determines how we behave today. Within it lies the secrets of the dynamics, and logic, of what is happening today, confused and intricate as it is. History certainly does not repeat itself, but merely carries lessons for future analysts. Our neglect, at a sub-conscious level, is that we do not pick up the lessons. If we study current political and military personalities and their actions, legal and otherwise, we can find amazingly similar characters in this neglected period with abandon.

In this period we will concentrate on a very short time period in the middle of a little recognised force that ruled Lahore from 1758 to 1759. They decisively knocked out the powerful invading forces of the Afghan Abdalis, chasing them beyond the mountains of Peshawar. On the 20th of April, 1757, the Maratha forces under their general Raghu Nath Rao, an immensely brave Rajput Rao warrior, attacked Lahore and captured it. The Peshwa’s commander entered the Lahore Fort.

This had an emotional significance for the Hindus of the sub-continent. After almost 738 years a Hindu ruler had returned to Lahore. The original rulers of Lahore were invariably Hindu Rajput Rao. It took the Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni to defeat the city’s Puru, the Hindushahi ruler Trilochanpal Shahi in 1020, reducing the city to dirt and taking the entire able-bodied population left alive after a massacre to sell in Central Asian slave markets. It was an experience that for centuries was difficult to forget for the people of Lahore. Today communal considerations have wiped that out of our collective memory.

The Maratha move on Lahore must be seen in the context of the fall of Sirhind to the Marathas. Ahmed Shah Abdali’s son Taimur Shah Durrani correctly judged the overwhelming force of the advancing Marathas, assisted as they were by a fired-up 15,000 cavalry force of Punjabi Sikh ‘misls’. The Punjab was finally rising again. In legend it has been compared to the amazing victory of the Bharata tribe on the banks of the River Ravi at Lahore over the combined forces of the Ten Kings (‘Dasanrajan’) as described the epic Mahabharata.

The fall of Sirhind to the Marathas advancing on Delhi had alarmed Ahmad Shah’s son Taimur Shah Durrani and his governor Jahan Khan at Lahore. The Afghan chiefs lost nerve and fled to Peshawar, leaving behind their troops in Lahore under Aziz Khan. On the approach of the combined forces of the Marathas and the Sikh ‘misls’, the Afghan forces started fleeing the city, taking with them, as remains their tradition, anything they could lay their hands on. On the 20th of April 1758, Raghu Nath Rao attacked and conquered Lahore.

In a parallel move of immense military finesse, the Maratha general Tukojee Holkar conquered Multan and moved northwards to Peshawar. The forces from Lahore, in no small measure reinforced by additional Sikh ‘misls’, moved westwards in a classic pincer movement to finish off the Afghans by the 8th of May, 1758. Such was the power of this assault that the Afghans abandoned the sub-continent returning beyond the Khyber Pass.

The Sikh ‘misls’ in an immensely wise move decided to withdraw to their homeland of the Punjab, and kept themselves aloof from the Maratha forces. This meant that the Marathas under their commander Dattajee Shinde, were left alone to defend the western borders. So it was that Holkar and his 10,000 troops were stationed in Peshawar, another 4,000 troops under Narsojee Pandit were stationed at Attock. A large Maratha force of 6,000 troops under Baboojee Trimbak headed southward to defend Multan and an additional 3,000 Maratha troops went to Dera Ghazi Khan under Netagee Bhosle.

Thus almost 35 per cent of the Maratha force under their supreme commander Raghunath Rao headed back to Lahore. They were assisted by a rebel Mughal force under Adina Beg Khan, a crafty Arain from Sharaqpur, near Sheikhupura, who had joined the Marathas on the promise of becoming the ‘subedar’ of the Punjab. The Sikhs, so accounts tell us, simply melted away towards their ‘misl’ territory. This strategy of an invisible force of immense potency, capable of reappearing at short notice, is what saw the Sikhs ultimately gain ascendancy.

This is the point at which the Marathas were at the peak of their power. The cities of Peshawar, Multan, Lahore and Delhi were under them as were all the cities of eastern and southern India. One description claims their territory was over 2.8 million square kilometres.

With the Sikhs refusing to talk the Marathas decided to appoint Adina Beg Khan as the ‘subedar’ of the Punjab, provided he paid them an annual tribute of 7.5 million. They withdrew their thinly-spread army back to Maratha country to defend the eastern borders. This meant that the man from Sharaqpur was left alone to deal with the Sikhs, whose influence in Lahore was considerable. Amazingly, the Muslim elite were highly suspicious of Adina Beg, who felt threatened and fled Lahore to live in Batala. His son-in-law Khawaja Mirza took over. He was so incompetent that a well-known phrase became common in the streets of Lahore, that being: “Aik Khawaja tay ohe Mirza, tarla gowacha” (On the one hand a Khawaja and same a Mirza means a lost mixture).

A depressed Adina Beg Khan died on the 15th of September, 1758. His death was followed by turmoil with his soldiers deserting and looting the countryside. The Marathas refused to return to assist. This disinterest led the Afghans, who had by now regrouped, return to attack and take the fort at Attock. However, at Lahore as the Afghans approached the Sikhs invited the Marathas and another combined force decimated the Afghans.

The Sikhs played their cards very well. Abdali gathered a 60,000 force to avenge the defeat and the fifth invasion of the sub-continent had started. This time the Afghans had heavy field guns. It was a new modern army. The 1759 Battle of Lahore had started and the swift Sikhs ran through their guns and defeated the Afghans.

But the defeat of the smaller Maratha garrisons led the Peshwa to send a larger army and the Third Battle of Panipat took place. Abdali was better equipped in a fixed set-piece battle and the Marathas were decimated. Abdalis victory brought home the message to the Marathas that for them Deccan was more important than a ‘distant’ Punjab. Also growing French and British influence to the east meant the Punjab and Lahore and Delhi did not matter much to them.

The Sikhs again disappeared into the countryside. From now on they would attack and disappear. This over the years exhausted the Afghans who were robbed of their loot at ever few miles by smaller Sikh horse groups who depended more on speed than a pitched battle. Finally the Afghans decided Lahore was no longer a viable option to defend, just as the Marathas had learnt earlier.

In the turmoil the three Sikhs started to rule Lahore. By 1799 the Muslim elite invited Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who entered with their assistance and peace finally returned to the city and the Punjab. The ‘unknown’ century before 1799 is so similar to what is happening today in our land. Only we have to learn from history, not see it repeated.


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