Harking back: The Mughal eunuch who signed away Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 13, 2015

Exactly 250 years ago, on the 16th of April, 1765, the first Sikh rulers of Lahore rode into the city and took over the Lahore Fort. The great Ranjit Singh was not yet born. The Sikh era had formally started.

The Sikhs managed to take power while the Governor of Lahore, Kabuli Mal, an Ahmed Shah Abdali-appointed ruler, was away in Jammu recruiting Dogra soldiers to help him to save Lahore. The rise of the Sikhs can only be understood, and was only possible, if we consider it as the rise of the Punjab’s oppressed peasantry. Otherwise this rise was just not possible.

The fast dwindling power of the inept Mughals as the sub-continent disintegrated meant that they were not able to provide military assistance to stop Afghan invaders bent on loot, pillage and rape. Internally, Punjabi peasants of every social and religious variety were taxed to unbearable levels by Hindu and Muslim landlords acting for themselves, for the Mughals and also the Afghans. In some places starvation was the result.

Just how did this vacuum come about? A lot of us have never studied this immensely important period in the history of Lahore and Punjab. Surely it represents a glorious period in the history of the people of our land. It is in this growing vacuum that we see the Afghan invader coming to the sub-continent nine times to loot its wealth. In a way that process is as old as time, and in a way still continues, only now it is subtle and invisible.

The vacuum of power really opened up in 1752 when the weak Mughal court could no longer provide the Governor of Lahore with military assistance against the increasing Afghan raids. An even greater headache was the increasing militancy power of Punjab’s peasantry, led as they were by the Sikhs. For this reason there was a need for the Governor to search for foreign mercenaries, like the Dogras, to protect their possessions.

The fast growing power of Sikhs is in reality the story of the poor exploited peasantry of Punjab. The immediate threat to them was that of feudal lords, mostly Muslims of Afghani, Irani and Turani origin, who kept them in bondage, and hence in perpetual poverty.

Legally speaking Lahore was under Mughal rule, at least until the 13th of April, 1752, when the Mughal emperor, ironically also named Ahmed Shah, under the influence of his handsome Irani eunuch ‘darogha’ (head police official) Javed Khan, in a treaty agreement signed away sovereign power over Lahore from the Mughal Empire to the ruler of Kabul. This is an immensely important event in our history because it shaped, to a considerable extent, the way events unfolded over the next century. It was more than half a century later that Maharajah Ranjit Singh got legal sovereignty restored, which till the Treaty of Amritsar of 1809 remained with Kabul.

In a way it was this agreement that, initially, prevented the British from taking over Punjab directly. There is a school of thought that claims the British undertook incursions into Afghanistan so that they could legally annex Punjab. Surely the power equation as it stood then go against this proposition. As both Afghan and Mughal strength was slowly and effectively drained by the Punjabis themselves, and with Mughal armed strength collapsing, that vacuum led to a period of immense uncertainty.

But the agreement of 13th April, 1752, also opened the door to an array of events that led to the collapse of both the Afghans and the Mughals. In this period also rose a remarkable lady by the name of Mughalani Begum, who was to become the ruler of Punjab for a very brief period. The story of this remarkable woman has been dealt in great detail by my senior Rafique Dogar in his amazing book ‘Mughalani Begum’.

Mughalani Begum was the wife of Mir Mannu, the Governor of Punjab and son of Nawab Qamaruddin Khan, the Prime Minister of Delhi. Her maternal uncle was Zakariya Khan, Viceroy of Punjab. Her real name was Surraiya Begum and after marriage was called Mughalani Begum. But more on her later.

The Mughal forces of Mir Mannu had managed to defeat the marauder Ahmed Shah Abdali on the 11th of March, 1748, in the battle of Manudar. After this defeat Abdali headed for Lahore, followed at a safe distance, by the forces of Mir Mannu. The weak Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah on hearing of the victory of Mir Mannu appointed him Viceroy of Punjab, who immediately appointed Kaura Mal as his Diwan in Lahore.

The clash between Mughal and Afghan forces allowed the third force, the Punjab peasants led by the Sikhs, to occupy huge tracts of land. They started butchering rich landlords of every hue and shade as peasants formed ‘panchiats’ and spelt out in detail the tactics and past of every landlord. For the exploiters, both Mughals and Afghans, this was a startling result of their rivalry and was denuding Punjab of their ‘income generators’. In a way it was Punjab’s first proletarian revolution.

Initially, the Mughals took on the role of crushing the Sikhs as the Afghans held their hand for two years. Many scholars believe this was a ‘silent agreement’ with the objective being to crush the Sikh-led Punjab’s peasantry. The massacres of the Sikhs that followed are beyond description, and today form a major part of the Sikh historical discourse. The logic of the Afghans was that as the Sikhs and the Mughals weakened, this would open the door for them to sweep away all. Kaura Mal read through this and suggested that the Sikhs be placated and the Afghans be dealt with first.

Abdali invaded in December 1751 and defeated the Mughal forces. In a diplomatic move Abdali made Mir Mannu the Viceroy of Punjab. This effectively undercut Mughal rule and led, again in mysterious circumstances, the Irani eunuch Javed Khan to force the Mughal emperor Ahmed Shah to sign away Lahore and Multan to the Afghans. The fight from this point onwards was between the Afghans and their agents and the Punjabis.

Here we see the mysterious death of Mir Mannu in November 1753, and the rise of his wife Mughalani Begum to power. For two years the rule of Mughalani Begum is one of utter intrigue and uncertainty and makes immensely interesting reading. Finally Ahmed Shah Abdali ended this by appointing her deputy Muhammad Amin Khan as the Governor.

The fight from this point onwards was between the Punjabis, led by the Sikhs, and the Afghan invaders. With time and given the fluid tactics of the Sikhs, the Afghans were weakened. In this context on the 16th of April, 1765, the Sikh trio of Lehna Singh, Gujjar Singh and Sobha Singh took over Lahore.

Twenty months later Abdali returned and the people of Lahore literally begged him to appoint Lehna Singh as the Subedar of Lahore. Abdali sent Lehna gifts and fruit with an offer of ‘sobedari’. Lehna Singh returned them and sent him a bag full of roasted gram (Bhunnay Channay). “We are free people and live off channay,” he said. Abdali, as one account says, said: “Our time to leave has come”. The rest is history.


Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page