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Baba Ala Singh


A Review by Surjit Singh Gandhi


Author : Dr Kirpal Singh
Publisher : Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar
Pages : 163+12; Price : 250/-

Baba Ala Singh, a dissertation by Dr Kirpal Singh, is a landmark addition to the historical literature concerning cis-Sutlej region of the Punjab, especially the role played by Baba Ala Singh in its politics. The study is unique in the sense that it utilizes all available historical sources including Marathi sources, Akhbarat Darbari Muallah, ‘Boundary Dispute Correspondence’ et al, whereas the authors of the earlier works ‘Tarikh-i-Patiala’ and ‘Baba Ala Singh’ did not have access to these works. Besides, the author very skillfully has given an account of Baba Ala Singh both as an individual and as an important figure of the then Indian political landscape. The author also highlights how Sikh ideology spurred Ala Singh to build his kingdom.

In the eighteenth century, particularly after the demise of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire skidded fast towards its decline mainly because its policies were centred on Islamic unitarianism. Many forces challenged the supremacy, unity and prestige of the Empire leading ultimately to its dismemberment and rise of different independent principalities in different parts of the Mughal Empire. The cis-Sutlej region was typical in the sense that it spectacled its decline and its disintegration in all its dimensions.

The Marathas were impatient to grab a part or the whole of the region. Isa Khan, originally the Jagirdar of Akbar and Faujdar of Lakhi Jungle under Jahandas Khan, staked his claim to the Subedari of Sirhind. Rai Kalha of Raikot, the Afghans of Malerkotla had their own plans to expand their political influence. The Brars, known for their ferocity and adventurous spirit, carried their depredations upto Sunam and Raikot from their base at Faridkot. Bhattis, Hindu Rajput converts to Islam, aspired to carve their independent principality. Dal Khalsa, the socio-military organization of the Sikhs also wanted to be recognized as a political force. The Subedar of Sirhind, whether he worked under Mughal Emperor or Ahmed Shah Abdali, could hold his reins very strongly primarily because of their Masters’ vacillating political stands and unprincipled manifestations of the political elite, close to Delhi rulers.

Amidst such a fluid situation arose Ala Singh who is popularly known as Baba Ala Singh. People prefixed Baba which literally meant ‘respectful’ with his name because they held him in high esteem.

Ala Singh started his career as a petty Zamindar of Phul amidst rivalries of the descendants of Tiloka who was his uncle, and other chieftains – all aspiring for higher political status in the cis-Sutlej region. Ala Singh, through his wise diplomatic overtures, most successfully combated the aggressive designs of the sons of Tiloka, and set himself on the course to be considered a significant local chieftain.

In the process, he left his ancestral village Bhadaur and shifted to Barnala to free himself from the dominating influence of his brother, Dunna. Shortly after, he alongwith his brothers, pressed hard on the descendants of Tiloka to hand over to them the villages which formed their share of the common property of their ancestors. Ala Singh, besides retaining Barnala got Tapa, Khara, and Tajoke, Khan se Mehta, Aakalia, Pheruwal, Hudiya and Dhabuwali. These villages became the nucleus of the Patiala kingdom which Ala Singh built step by step.

Visualising the fast emergence of Ala Singh as a powerful chieftain, the neighbouring Zamindars and chieftains felt much upset. Rai Kala, Jamal Khan of Malerkotla took help from Asad Khan, the Faujdar of the Jalandhar Doab and attacked Barnala. Ala Singh sought the help of the Dal Khalsa, then hovering around in the neighbourhood and defeated them. The victory of Ala Singh exalted him to the position of a powerful chief. Not only this, it brought him closer to Dal Khalsa who now looked upon him as one of them, aspiring for establishing Sikh influence in the cis-Sutlej area.

Thereafter, Ala Singh followed a two-pronged policy of consolidating and safeguarding his rule. He established villages where he encouraged his kins and admirers to settle and to serve as military posts. For example, he raised the village Longowal and acquired Dodan (modern Bhawanigarh), which served as bases to organize forays against the Bhattis. Ala Singh’s successes made him a cynosure of his co-religionists as also of all those who were tired of chaotic conditions. The popularity of Ala Singh was galling to Ali Muhammad Khan, the newly appointed Faujdar of Sirhind who arrested and shut him up in the fort of Sunam for failing to make payment of heavy amount of tribute as a token of his total submission to him. Feeling completely devastated and desperate, Ala Singh patched up with Karam Singh, the surviving head of the Seema’s family, and through his help he managed to escape out of the fort to resume and reorganize his activities. Ali Muhammad was chagrined, but had to abandon his efforts, when he learned about the impending march of Ahmed Shah Abdali.

Subedar’s departure from Sirhind further emboldened Ala Singh to subdue his adversaries. He defeated Jodha, the ruler of Bathinda, killed Farid Khan and snatched Munak from Sardar Khan. All these conquests brought immense popularity to Ala Singh who began to be acknowledged as the most resourceful chieftain of the area. After this, he had to fight against the Bhattis, the Rajput converts to Islam who had been carrying on their depredations into the territory of Ala Singh. He defeated and killed Bhatti chiefs, Inayat Khan and Walayat Khan in the battle of Budladha. Soon after when the most powerful of the Bhatti chiefs led a strong contingent against Ala Singh, he was defeated at village Khudal which further skyrocketed the prestige of Ala Singh.

Expansion had its own challenges and Ala Singh proved fully capable to meet them successfully. He now had to reckon with big powers such as the Mughals, the Afghans, and Marathas – all of them though antagonistic to each other but brimming with the ambition to establish their control in the cis-Sutlej region. Ala Singh’s role was difficult, but he played his cards very dexterously. That he appraised the political situation at all-India level correctly is a tribute to his expertise in crafting valid political strategies. In the process, whereas he safeguarded his own territories, he did not permit any leeway either to the Marathas or Afghans to get a firm foothold in cis-Sutlej region. Side by side, his stature among the Sikhs, especially among the Dal Khalsa, enhanced who recognized him as one of them to bolster Sikh influence.

He sided with the Mughals in the battle of Manupur. Probably he wanted to soften the Mughal attitude towards the Sikhs including himself. When after 1756, Cis-Sutlej region was ceded to Ahmad Shah Abdali by the Mughal Emperor and the Abdali's governor of Sirhind planned to crush him, he induced the Marathas to realise their long cherished ambition to establish their influence in Punjab by not allowing Ahmad Shah Abdali to tighten his grip over the cis-Sutlej area. In the battle of Panipat, Ala Singh extensively helped the Marathas. The purpose seems to be more than what the textbooks say. Besides safeguarding his own territories, he wished to be in proximity in terms of political relations with powerful indigenous forces to combat the Mughal and Afghan menace. Ahmad Shah Abdali, while returning to his country, plundered Barnala and arrested Ala Singh. Ala Singh was at the mercy of the Afghans. At that time, he very adroitly cultivated good relations with Abdali through Najibuddaula. He ingratiated himself as his supporter. Much pleased, Ahmad Shah Abdali ordered Zain Khan, the Faujdar of Sirhind, to recognize Ala Singh as duly designated chief with 726 villages in his possession.

During and after the carnage of the Sikhs in 1762, there occurred a change in the mood of the Ahmad Shah vis-à-vis Sikhs, who now thought of putting one section of the Sikhs against the other. Ala Singh was very shrewd to manipulate the circumstances in his favor. He accepted the title of Maharaja and the insignia of royalty, kettledrum, and banner. Perhaps, to expose Abdali, for his hypocritical approach to Islam, he agreed to pay the cost which Abdali agreed to accept for granting premission to Baba Ala Singh to keep his hair unshorn as mark of his Sikh identity and as an invaluable gift from the Guru.

This move of Ala Singh was unpalatable to the Dal Khalsa whose help was always crucial in his career. Dal Khalsa considered him a co-fighter against the Mughals/Afghans and, therefore, it was difficult for them to digest that Ala Singh accepted the title of Maharaja from Ahmad Shah Abdali. The crisis, however, was averted when Ala Singh explained his position and Jassa Singh Ahluwalia assertively argued that Ala Singh’s design was a diplomatic move.

All these facts, the author has graphically portrayed. While detailing the facts, the author amply highlights the administrative policies and personal character of Ala Singh. The most important aspect of his administration was that it was not particularistic; it was singularly secular. It was perhaps the only bright spot in the whole politically murky landscape of the late eighteenth century. The author supports his opinion with copious references from the Jungnama by Qazi Nur Muhammed who was contemporary of Baba Ala Singh. The focus of his administration was the welfare of his subjects, especially the peasantry who were encouraged to bring under cultivation large tracts of fallow lands. He took care that his officials behaved gently and lovingly with them. It was due to the extensive cultivation of land that he could spare food for his political allies.

His civil administration was simple and easily accessible. The impact of his administration was integrative. This was the reason that Ala Singh’s rule did not face any revolt or any organized dissent.

The author very cogently distinguishes Ala Singh from other chieftains of the cis-Sutlej area. Whereas, the latter were authoritarian and unresponsive, Ala Singh was compassionate and considerate. Ala Singh was inspired by Sikh ideology whose dominant feature is seeking welfare of the whole mankind. On the other hand, his contemporary chieftains had only one objective and that was to keep themselves in power. Ala Singh’s personal character was aboveboard, morally sound, while majority of contemporary chieftains were unscrupulous and had no love for morals.

The biography is well-crafted and well-documented. The learned author, however, has touched only marginally the role of Dal Khalsa in Ala Singh’s career. He has also given only a very brief account of Ala Singh’s relations with the Marathas and the Afghans.

 

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