Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in June, 1839 triggered a visible slide into turmoil of his Punjabi Kingdom, an unrest which had hitherto remained under the lid, even as it had simmered steadily. In defiance of his Sikh faith, the Maharaja, like his Muslim predecessors, had succumbed to the trappings and temptations of an all-powerful lifestyle and had taken multiple wives, siring a number of heirs to the throne in the process. The complex order of preference between his widows was made all the more intractable due to family squabbling as well as palace intrigues between Ranjit Singh’s pampered princes, and more importantly the three highly influential Dogra brothers in his court. The situation looked ominous, with odds for an impending demise of the durbar looking increasingly brighter with the British watching the developments unfold with an eagle eye from across the Sutlej River.
He soon died in tragic and mysterious circumstances while passing under the Roshnai Darwaza in Lahore
Nao Nihal Singh, the 18 year old grandson of the Maharaja briefly resurrected the glorious reign of his deceased grandfather, winning public support as a consequence, but he soon died in tragic and mysterious circumstances while passing under the Roshnai Darwaza in Lahore, minutes after having set fire to his father Kharak Singh’s funeral pyre. The archway crumbled and the falling bricks and limestone fatally crushed the prince’s skull, squeezing out his brain under the weight of the impact. Nao Nihal was dead within moments of the incident unleashing an unstoppable chain of events – resulting in assassinations often shrouded in mystery – leading to the inevitable weakening and eventual annexation of the Punjabi Kingdom by the British.
The British misadventure of installing their puppet, Shah Shuja Sadozai on the throne of Kabul meant that the British were ready to make peace with whoever was the de facto ruler of the Punjab, especially the womanizing Bohemian, Sher Singh. The treacherous and mysterious murders and assassinations in the royal family, especially of Kharak Sigh’s widow, Mai Chand Kaur, and the dubious role of Dogra nobility in the durbar further exacerbated the tenuous peace prevailing in Lahore at the time, according to Khushwant Singh’s book “The Fall of the Kingdom of the Punjab”, which has recently been reprinted.
The British obsession with the imaginary Russian advance and the Imperial response to the Great Game mostly played out in the minds of a few conspiracy theorists at Whitehall in London meant that the plans to annex the Punjab would remain on the backburner for a few years. The Durbar, in the meantime, despite the British preoccupation in Afghanistan, had slowly but effectively come under British control, eventually ceding partial annexation as per the first Treaty of Lahore signed on 8 March, 1846.
Working on a clever strategy of semi-aloofness coupled with an effective network of espionage extending even to some of the European Generals employed in the Durbar’s army like General Ventura and others (in Ranjit Singh’s words, haramzadas), the British inched their way towards their hitherto undisclosed aim of annexing the Punjab. The post-Ranjit Singh jostling for power and influence amongst the Sikh gentry also opened up numerous possibilities for buying out estranged and power-hungry Sardars, emboldening the British even further.
Despite having signed a treaty to keep the Durbar in power and getting paid to do that, the British Resident Currie saw an opportunity during the days of the Multani rebellion to hold back British troops, weakening the durbar and the Maharaja even further. The request to have British troops defend the durbar was spurned on the self-serving excuse that since the revolt was against its authority, it was for the Durbar to put it down. One interesting present-day parallel of the above colonial approach is when in times of civil unrest the Pakistani military establishment, in order to undermine the already beleaguered and on-the-ropes elected governments, has very tactfully refused to come to their rescue, often resulting in an imbalance in civil military relations, if not outright army coups.
Despite their de facto control of the Punjab, the Kingdom had to be won on the battlefield. The ensuing battles of Kasur, Chillianwala, Lahore and Amritsar were fought so gallantly by the Punjabi soldiers that at times British generals seriously contemplated retreating. At Chillianwala alone the British counted 3000 dead in their worst defeat in India. Lord Hardinge who witnessed the battle of Sabraon wrote: “A few escaped; no one, it may be said, surrendered.” The exceptional soldiery shown by the Sikhs earned them a huge quota of employment disproportionate to their total population when after 1857 British India raised its army, and the colonial concept of “martial races” of India was popularized (their everyday use still remains a widely accepted norm in the sub-continent).
When Gulab Singh was rewarded with the State of Kashmir for the Dogra treachery (especially by blocking the supply of gun powder in the battle of Sabraon) for a mere 2 million British Pounds, the seeds of a nuclear confrontation were unwittingly sown in the sub-continent by the British. The new Dogra Maharaja expectedly lowered himself to the level of their zarkhareed while accepting the state of Kashmir from the East India Company.
“Ek roz sub lal hojayega” (One day all of it will turn red), Ranjit Singh had prophetically remarked when shown a map of India with the colour red denoting British control by an East India Company’s officer. But the greatest legacy of this control turned out to be a division of Punjab.
Tariq Bashir is a Lahore based lawyer and can be contacted on email@example.com. His twitter handle is @Tariq_Bashir