HARKING BACK: The reality that masks the history of our people

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 14, 2015

In the writing of history, especially that of Lahore and the Punjab, there is too much importance given to kings and armies. The people, the local points of influence, just have no place in our discourse.

As I sat in the library going over rare documents of the 1780s’ with regard to the Punjab, in which Lahore and Multan remained central, there is a set of amazing documents of British intelligence reports of those times. Almost 70 years before the British officially took over Lahore and the Punjab, they had been using a variety of sources to gather information about this area.

In this piece it is my intention to describe three aspects of life in our city and country in the early 1780s. First is the extent to which British influence prevailed over the major Sikh Sardars, mostly irregulars leading the emerging ‘misls’ before Maharajah Ranjit Singh took Lahore in 1799.

Secondly, how the British had penetrated leading Muslim clerics to provide detailed information of their areas on a regular basis.

Lastly, as the struggle for power was underway with Ahmed Shah Durrani, known as Abdali, coming regularly to ransack and loot, and rape on an unimaginable scale, and when the Afghans were not there the Sikhs looted the rich, and coupled with the strange turn in the weather Lahore and the Punjab suffered a famine the likes of which this world has seldom seen.

As the strength of the Sikhs increased in the early 1780s, the East India Company’s Governor General, Warren Hastings, was alarmed as Sikh ‘misls’ plundered Delhi at will. He set into motion an intelligence operation, initially led by Major James Browne, (read Sir Chris Bayly’s: ‘Empire and Information’) who sent a top spy George Foster to travel across “the Sikh territories” disguised as a Muslim horse trader.

Browne’s title was ‘British Agent and the Minister’ to the Moghal Court of Delhi in 1782. Foster spoke fluent Punjabi, Kabuli Pushto and chaste Lucknow Hindi and soon he was on very friendly terms with all the Sikh ‘misl’ Sardars, mainly because he mysteriously managed to provide the finest horses. If ever the British had a versatile spy it was this man George Foster.

It is amazing how Major Browne’s runners, operating through Foster, were riding all across the Punjab meeting and exchanging letters with all the military Sardars of the country.

In Lahore he even had a ‘hujra’ in the outer shops of the Mosque of Wazir Khan. This place makes sense because in those days outside the mosque in the compound now overtaken by a shrine, was where the trade caravans stopped.

It was outside the mosque that the major horse deals were made, and it was at this very place where besides the Sikh ‘misls’, the British had managed to please the Muslim ‘ulema’.

The spies operated under the guidance of Lakpat Rai, the ‘vakil’ of the Moghal court, who had contacts in Lahore and Multan. Through him all the top Sardars were promised their own fiefdoms under British protection. These contacts did not wane with time, for we see that as soon Maharajah Ranjit Singh died in 1839, the off-springs of these old contacts were again promised lavish patronage for siding with the British.

In the last battles of the Sikhs with the British we all know that in each and every battle the British agents, who were all the major generals of the Khalsa Army, deserted. Nowhere else is this more clear than in the Battle of Chillianwala where a victorious Sikh army was deserted by almost all its generals to end up on the losing side. If ever defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory this one battle in our history is it.

Along with this amazing intelligence network, the British laid an intricate collection point of information from the ‘amils’ of the Punjab. We now learn from intelligence records of the EIC that all these ‘amils’ were sent a monthly stipend through the Foster networks of horse-runners.

Amazingly, accounts of these disbursements were kept in the Wazir Khan Mosque ‘office’. In the countryside, especially in Multan, the ‘pirs’ were encouraged, and as Punjab was a Muslim majority country grievances against the Sikhs were encouraged.

The rise of the ‘pirs’ and their sole right to understand ‘shariat’ and ‘tariqat’ (the way) was encouraged. We now learn, from British intelligence reports, that it were the British who promised the Muslims a ‘Khilafat’ once they managed to topple Sikh power.

That the Sikhs through sheer ruthless military prowess managed to suppress any resistance is now part of history, though much later they did keep rising in the western portions of the Punjab.

The point really is just how did all this intrigue of neutralising Sikh ‘misl’ Sardars and giving false hope to our ‘ulema’ end up.

How did the people fare in such circumstances with dubious Sikh leaders, fraudulent ‘mullahs’ and marauding Afghans stealing whatever wheat and rice stores that existed in Lahore, Multan and the villages in between? It was a scene that the Sufi poets have dwelled on a lot. But let us stick to recorded facts.

We learn, and let me quote verbatim, from ‘Browne’s Dispatches: 1782 to 1785 (NAI) CPC VIII, that: “In April 1783 a severe famine was facing the Punjab. In 1781 and 1782 there was virtually no rain and the harvest was so poor that in 1782 starvation had set in.

In the winter of 1782-3 there was no winter rain. Hence there was just no ‘rabi’ crop. The drought is known locally as ‘Chalisa’. So terrible are conditions that all across the country our riders report weak skeleton bodies lying along the roads and in many cases entire villages have nothing but corpses.

“Riders report that children have run away to forests and are eating leaves and wild berries. In some case tree bark is being cooked. Reports from Lahore and other major towns, even as far as Delhi, tell of thousands of people lying dead in the streets.

There are reports of Afghan riders stealing whatever food was left adding to the famine. As we proceeded to the east the effects were less and less”.

If this was not a holocaust, and intelligence reports tell of the British deciding not to expand their territory westwards because of the scale of the problems that they expected to face.

We know of a story in the weekly ‘Delhi Gazette’ of 6th June, 1784, as saying: “The ‘assaur’ and ‘sawan’ passed with nothing but scorching sun. In ‘bhadoon’ the clouds did come but no rain. Thousands are dying within their houses. The children no longer acknowledge their parents. Calamity if ever there is this”.

But then in September 1784 the rains did come and the crops were in abundance. But then the entire countryside, and even the bazaars of Lahore, lay in utter ruins. Just as humans began to ‘live again’, the Afghans and the Sikhs returned to pillage the people.

Such has been our history, masked by grand stories of kings and beautiful princesses, of lofty claims by leaders and their priestly supporters of every faith. Makes you think just how little has changed for the people, and just how little they are mentioned in our history books.



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