HARKING BACK: How they lost the fight after winning all the battles

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, June 21, 2015

Whenever we read the verses of Shah Muhammad, one couplet stands out as representing the state of affairs of Punjab and the Punjabis at the time the British took over in 1849. It represents the lost dreams of the only true Punjabi State.

The verse goes like this: “O’ Shah Muhammad, we won all the battles, yet ironically lost the fight”. This couplet represents the betrayals that the magnificent army of the Punjab was faced with. At Ferozshahr, Sobraon, Chillianwala and, lastly, at Gujrat, in every battlefield the Punjabis routed the army of the East India Company, yet each and every time to be betrayed by the commanders of the Khalsa Army. As we now research these battles in detail, mostly thanks to the archived dispatches, documents and letters now conserved in British archives, we see that on each and every occasion critical Sikh military victories ended in defeat because the soldiers were betrayed by their commanders.

Once the Lahore Darbar surrendered in March 1849, all the betrayers were rewarded, and let it be said rewarded well. Even today the families of those who betrayed are among the richest in both India and Pakistan. Their off-springs were also provided with ample opportunities to retain their family power and positions, and come 1947 almost all the feudal lords of the Punjab were in politics. Even today, through our bureaucracy and the various political parties, they hold on to power. Among them is a new breed of post-feudal politicians, mostly with industrial trappings.

In this piece let me dwell on those who did not betray their land, or better still the Lahore Darbar or what was left of it. Let us begin with the first battle aftermath. In February 1846 the Punjabis had won at Sobraon, but their commanders positioned their army in such a fashion that through a pontoon bridge the British crossed the river at Ferozepur and captured Kasur. The Kasuri Khans were more than happy to assist the British and they were amply rewarded. Even today these ‘Kasuris’ hang on to that advantage.

After this defeat, just two weeks later on February 15, 1846, Gulab Singh Dogra, Fakir Nuruddin and Raja Dina Nath, all with huge ‘havelis’ inside the walled city of Lahore, left the city together to present ‘nazars’ to Lord Gough. They represented the Sikh, Hindu and Muslims of the city. The British commander refused to accept any ‘nazar’ till they made sure the entire Punjabi Army had surrendered. The common man and the soldiers were defiant. The leaders had betrayed. The British strategy was for the Sikhs to remain in power, the Hindus to remain neutral and the Muslims to be ignored because they held the ambition to return to power.

At this farcical ceremony Lord Gough was to write to the Company “the miserable sight of all of them wanting to sell their homeland”. He specifically writes about the sigh of an old Sikh soldier, who said: “Ajj Ranjit Singh mar gaya”. Though there surely must have been hundreds of loyal Punjabis, but for this piece I have selected a few who met a sad end once the ‘trap’ was set, which was basically a series of betrayals by the top plotters, especially Gulab Singh Dogra, who got Kashmir in return for services rendered. Fakir Azizuddin had died of grief (so they claim) and was represented by his brother Nuruddin, more so out “not having any other choice”. Raja Dina Nath represented the Hindu Brahman class, for whom healthy financial sheets mattered most.

Among those who did not betray, Lord Gough mentions Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s last wife as “the only man left in the Punjab”. Maharani Jindan Kaur, who was born Jind Kaur Aulakh of Chachar, Gujranwala, remembered by all as Rani Jindan, fought the British till the end, only to end up being exiled with her son Maharajah Dilip Singh to England. She died in Kensington, England, in 1863, while the last maharajah died in a Paris hotel in 1893. Sikh royalty thus came to an end.

Among the loyalists the man who fascinates me most is Bhai Maharaj Singh who was popularly known as Baba Maharaj. He lived in Lahore but belonged to a village near Sheikhupura. He was a ‘das hazari commander’ and a major influence on the main Khalsa Army. His popular name in Lahore was ‘Baba Karni Wala’. He was the very first to be exiled because of the fear that he might lead a rebellion as most soldiers were very loyal to him. If you go to Singapore even today you will find hundreds of people flocking his ‘samadhi’ with flowers, throwing money and burning oil lamps. The followers are of every nationality, Chinese, Malay, Tamils and Punjabis of every religious bend. The ‘Old Man of Miracles’ still lives.

Amazingly in Lahore, inside Delhi Gate just off Kashmiri Bazaar there is a shrine of ‘Baba Karni Wala’ where an equal number of devotees still come. Who the Baba really is I have never been able to find out, but they say, and this is pure local fiction that he was a brave soldier who disappeared and the British were never able to catch him. I wonder if this is the same Baba. You never know!

Then there was that amazingly brave ruler of Multan, Dewan Mulraj, who was captured and brought to Lahore in chains and tried in the Lahore Fort. They exiled him to Kala Pani (the Andeman Islands) but he pleaded that if he crossed the seas (an ancient Hindu belief), he would die. It was his firm religious belief. They tried him, sentenced him and took him in chains to Calcutta. When he was put on the ferry, he stopped breathing and was declared dead on the August 11, 1851. Mind you Mulraj was just 36 years old and a very healthy man. Beliefs can do stranger things to humans.

Then there were the leading Muslim artillery officers, all from inside the walled city of Lahore, men like Gen Karim Bakhsh and his entire family of gunners, who were sent to Kala Pani, where a few were released once they crossed the age of 60. The real heroes of the Punjab remain unknown. Those who betrayed were the heroes of the new dispensation. Come 1857 and they again betrayed their soil, and were further rewarded. Today we do not know who the real heroes were. The fact is we just do not care.



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