Assassination of Chet Singh Bajwa – The story of the 24-hour Ultimatum
The Story of a ‘24-hour Ultimatum’ — October 8-9, 1839
Maharaja Ranjit Singh died on June 25, 1839 leaving behind 6 sons, eldest1 of whom was Kharak Singh, born in 1801. It was not uncommon, that kings, who left behind multiple wives and plenty of princes, but no properly groomed successor, destined their kingdoms to doom.
In case of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire, the process was hastened by sycophants and scheming Dogra brothers — Gulab Singh, Dhian Singh and Suchet Singh — whom the Maharaja had reared and placed at vantage points. And, above all, the ‘octopus’ known as the East India Company lying just south of the Sutlej river, had already planted its tentacles in the Maharaja’s kingdom, waiting to swallow it.
Towards the closing days of Ranjit Singh, Kharak Singh was neither a favourite of the Maharaja, nor of most of the members of his family, or of his Durbar. He was considered as an imbecile, or not intelligent enough to firmly hold the reigns of his father’s kingdom.
In his younger days, Kharak Singh was not so. Being the first born, though not to the Maharaja’s first wife, Mehtab Kaur, but to the second Rani, Raj Kaur (a k a Mai Nakkain) he was apple of the eye of the Maharaja and the courtiers. In 1812, the Maharaja had celebrated his marriage with considerable pomp and show.
What came to be regarded and actually proved to be greatest misfortune of this family, and its heritage, was the presence of Dhian Singh in Ranjit Singh’s Durbar. This arch hypocrite, cunning but very efficient in his position as the Prime Minister, seemed to hover over the Maharaja’s mind always. Maharaja made all major decisions himself, but easily got entangled in the cobwebs spun by Dhian Singh, and his brother, Gulab Singh, even in affairs of the royal family.
Dhian Singh did not let Prince Kharak Singh or next in line Prince Sher Singh, have easy access to their father. They were often kept waiting for hours. They even had to bribe the attendants to gain entry. They were also kept away from the Capital on missions and campaigns, more often than required.
Kharak Singh had a religious bent of mind, and was therefore restrained in his social behavior. Taking opium was not considered such a bad thing those days. Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself was habituated to it. Under the pain of rejection and deprivation, Kharak Singh had succumbed to the stupefying effect of opium and alcohol.
Hence, the opinion that Kharak Singh was an imbecile had some elements of truth in it.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh had been ailing, for many years, mostly because of his excessive consumption of hard ‘potent’ drinks, especially made for him. The drinks and opium had impaired his digestive system, even when he was in the prime of his youth. A stroke of paralysis had affected his left leg. On August 18, 1835, he was struck by paralysis of the face, from which he never recovered completely. In January 1839, he was struck by paralysis of the tongue. Although he never lost his mental faculties, lately he was communicating through gestures of his hands, and nods of his head.
Wazir Dhian Singh took full advantage of this handicap. He pretended to understand all the gestures, and directives of the Maharaja.
Shortly before the Maharaja’s death, on June 25, 1839, Dhian Singh called for Beli Ram, the Toshakhanea, and told him that the Maharaja had indicated through signs that the Koh-i-Noor diamond be given away in charity. However, Beli Ram refused, saying that the priceless gem should be retained for Maharaja’s descendants, as twenty-one lakhs of rupees had already been given away to the Brahmins.2 (For this refusal, Beli Ram had to pay a very high price later. When Dhian Singh became all-powerful, during the early reign of Kharak Singh, Beli Ram was thrown into prison, where he remained for four months.)
Kharak Singh Succeeds Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Succession3 had originally been decided by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, by holding an investiture ceremony on September 27, 1816, announcing Kharak Singh as the heir apparent.4
Dhian Singh also had a long plan in supporting Kharak Singh as successor to the throne. It fitted into the grand plan of Dogra brothers. Kharak Singh could be treated as a pawn, instead of a King. It would have been far more difficult if handsome and intelligent Sher Singh had come on the scene, at this time, as he was popular not only among the people but also among the troops. When he came later on the stage, the Durbar had been infested by jealousies and conspiracies.
During the last moments of his life, Ranjit Singh had become so feeble, that he had lost his power of speech. As per custom, when it appeared that the Maharaja was about to breathe his last, his body was lifted from the bed, and placed on the ground, and it happened so more than once, probably because Maharaja had a strong desire to live.
Dhian Singh summoned Prince Kharak Singh, to Maharaja’s bedside; placed his hand in Maharaja’s hand, and then in his own hand, and announced publicly that the Maharaja had named Kharak Singh as his successor, and him – Dhian Singh – as his Prime Minister.
Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh was at Peshawar, in connection with implementation of the Tripartite Treaty, to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Kabul. He sent a message that coronation be delayed until his arrival in Lahore, a few months later.
To facilitate Nau Nihal Singh to attend the coronation of his father, it was decided to hold the ceremony in October.
In the meantime, Kanwar Sher Singh approached the British for support to his claim to the throne, as he was the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s first wife, Maharani Mehtab Kaur. After some delay, the Governor-General advised him that Kharak Singh was his master.
Dhian Singh was anxious to see Kharak Singh installed on the throne. Coronation took place at Lahore, on September 1, 1839 — 8 days before the arrival of Prince Nau Nihal Singh from Peshawar.
The subject of this episode, Chet Singh Bajwa, was a friend of Maharaja Kharak Singh, and was also related to him, through his wife. Anxious to become the Wazir, he worked his way to become Maharaja’s chief advisor. Because of Chet Singh’s influence over Kharak Singh, Maharaja’s son Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh, and Prime Minister Dhian Singh, both, hated him. To get rid of Dhian Singh, Chet Singh promoted a recurring rumor that Dogra brothers were conniving to subvert and take over the kingdom.
Dhian Singh, on the other hand, spread a rumor that Chet Singh was a traitor and was in the pay of the British; that he had agreed to place Punjab under British protection, and that when they let him take over, he would pay six annas out of every rupee (that is 3/8th) of revenue to the British; that he would disband the Khalsa army, and turn out all the current Sardars from their commands (Earlier, similar offer was made to the British by Rani Sada Kaur, aggrieved mother-in-law of Ranjit Singh.).
The Sikhs in general had little or no faith in any of the opponents, and believed that probably accusations of the both were true. Chet Singh, however, had the support of commander-in-chief5 General Ventura, who had long held ill feelings towards Dhian Singh.
On October 8, 1839 Chet Singh held consultations with him and other officers of the ‘French Brigade’ – General Avitable, and General Court – who sided with him and decided to liquidate families of the Dogra brothers.
Major Hugh Pearse tells us in the Memories of Alexander Gardner, that “euphoric Chet Singh was rash enough to warn Dhian Singh in open Durbar that day: ‘See what will become of you in the next twenty four hours’. Dhian Singh smiled and said, ‘Your humble servant Sir, we will see’.”(p 215)
Alexander Gardner, an American, was colonel of Artillery in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. After the Maharaja’s death, among the conflicting factions of the Court, Colonel Gardner was on the side of the Dogra brothers, with whom were also associated the Sandhanwalias – collaterals of Ranjit Singh.
After the Durbar, Dhian Singh went over to the zenana (family quarters), in the palace, entry to which had earlier been allowed to him, by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, but had lately been stopped by Kharak Singh. He met Rani Chand Kaur, mother of Nau Nihal Singh, and convinced her that in case Bajwa succeeds in his designs, he and the foreign officers would dominate and the royal family would become a cipher.
They called in Kharak Singh’s wife, and finally the prince, Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh himself. It was agreed that Maharaja Kharak Singh should be made to step aside and be the Regent of his son, Nau Nihal Singh. They agreed that the only obstacle would be Chet Singh, so he should be ‘put away’.
And, so started the first in the series of political murders, leading to anarchy, and the end of the Sikh empire.
In absence of any other eyewitness accounts, it would be appropriate to give credence to the Memories of Alexander Gardner, Colonel of Artillery in the Service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, edited by Major Hugh Pearse. In his memoirs Gardner tells us:
“I received orders [from Dhian Singh] that loaded guns were to be placed at nightfall at all gates of the palace, and that whatever occurred, whatever there thunders might be at the gates, every one was to feign sleep. Raja Dhyan Singh asked me if I would like to accompany him, and of course I accepted the invitation.
“The party consisted of about fifteen: the three Raja brothers – Gulab Singh, Dhyan Singh and Suchet Singh – in addition to Prince Nao Nihal Singh; then came the heads of the Sindhanwalia family, the two trusty noblemen called Rao Lal Singh and Rao Keshur Singh, and myself.
“The ladies of the Zenana had promised to leave us free entrance to the building where the Maharaja and his minister [Chet Singh] slept.
“It was near midnight when we entered the palace, and no sooner we left the gate through which we had been admitted a voice accosted us, “Who is it?” Dhyan Singh replied, “The Maharaja goes to-morrow to bathe at Amritsar, and we are to make the necessary preparations.” This was the concerted answer.
“We reached another and inner gate, which noiselessly opened on a whispered order from Dhyan Singh. Without uttering a whisper, we stealthily crept our way in the dark up a flight of stairs, over a place called Badshah-i -Takht, and thence to the immediate vicinity of the royal apartment. Here Gulab Singh and Dhyan Singh held a whispered consultation, the purport of which I could not catch.
“At this moment a man started up, and seeing us, called out and tried to run off. Suchet Singh shot him dead, and was himself instantly knocked down by a tremendous cuff on the ear dealt him by his brother, Gulab Singh, who cursed him under his breath for his imprudence. On looking over a parapet we saw two companies of the Maharaja’s guard.
“Dhyan Singh quickly went down the staircase to the place where they were stationed, and was accosted by subadar who said, “why did you fire?” I had followed Dhyan Singh, and stood immediately behind him. He simply showed his right hand (on which he had two thumbs) and put his finger to his lips.
“On seeing the well known peculiarity the subadar whispered, “Lie down,” and the whole of the two companies noiselessly lay down at full length and pretended sleep. The subadar then pointed with a mute gesture to the room of the doomed man, the door of which had been left ajar. There was a light in the room. Dhyan Singh approached and entered it, followed by the whole party. Lo! there sat Maharaja Kharrak Singh on his bed washing his teeth. The adjoining bed, which belonged to Chet Singh, was empty. When asked where his minister was, Kharrak Singh simply replied that he had gone out on hearing a shot fired.
“Perceiving a fierce sort of half smile light up the faces of the Dogra brothers, he begged that Chet Singh’s life might be spared, and would have proved very restive had not his own son and four or five Sikhs held him down while he proceeded in search of the fugitive. Two torches had to be lit, and on entering the room where we expected to find the Minister it appeared to be empty; it was very long and narrow. Lal Singh however, called out that he saw the glitter of a sword in one corner, and there cowered the wretched man, his hand upon his sword. We were armed only with daggers.
“The eyes of Dhyan Singh seemed to shoot fire as his gaze alighted and fixed itself on his deadly foe. Gulab Singh was for interposing to do the deed of blood himself, fearing for his brother (who was a short man) in the desperate defence he counted on; but Dhyan Singh roughly shook him off, and dagger in hand, slowly advancing towards the enemy, said, “The Twenty four hours you were courteous enough to mention to me have not yet elapsed.”
“Then with the spring of a tiger the successful counter plotter dashed at his enemy and plunged the dagger into his heart, crying out, “Take this in memory of Ranjit Singh.” Dhyan Singh then turned round to his party, his face radiant with gratified purpose, and courteously thanked us for aid.
“We then in token that this was entirely a State proceeding, prostrated ourselves at the feet of the Maharaja Kharrak Singh, and subsequently at the feet of his son, Nao Nihal Singh. The latter had been most actively and fully occupied in trying to pacify his father, whose rage was uncontrollable. It was only by the intercessions, prayers, and explanations of the Maharani and the other ladies of the Zenana, added to those of his son, that he could be brought to understand the political necessity of the doom that had been meted out. The night’s work done, we all returned quietly to our camps”.
According to the Colonel, a general sensation of relief was felt on all sides at the death of Chet Singh and not the slightest animosity was awakened by it. But, we can not take his word for it, as Dogra watchers must have seen through the plot of Dogra brothers, and felt anxiety for what was to come next. Maharaja Kharak Singh mourned the loss of his friend and advisor, until his own end — brought about by the same conspirators, through slow poisoning.
There were other persons too, who suffered because of their faithful obedience to the head of the state, successor to their benefactor — Ranjit Singh.
On October 9, 1839, the morning after the murder of Chet Singh “Misser Beilee Ram, [Toshakhanea] Misser Ram Kishan, Misser Sookhraj were sent for and after having caused 2 irons each to be fastened on the legs of the two former and one on the latter they were sent to prison. Koonwar Nao Nihal Singh thought of killing them, but owing to their being Brahmins, did not (Extract of intelligence report from Lahore, dated the 8th and 9th of October 1839).6
Shape of Things to Come
Maharaja Kharak Singh succumbed to slow poisoning by his detractors on November 5, 1840. On the following day, soon after his cremation, Nau Nihal Singh was wounded in an improvised accident, and at night done to death — believably by Dhian Singh. Keeping his death secret, to play the role of a king-maker Dhian Singh invited Sher Singh to stake his claim. Most of the army chiefs and several ministers acknowledged him as successor.
Raja Gulab Singh thought it was foolish on his brother’s part to do that. He took the side of Rani Chand Kaur, mother of Nau Nihal Singh. She cleverly announced that Nau Nihal Singh’s widow, Sahib Kaur, was in the third month of pregnancy. She proposed that she would rule, as Regent, pending the birth of her grandchild. When challenged, that it was no time for a woman to head the large kingdom of Ranjit Singh, she answered, if Queen Victoria could rule over England, why couldn’t she rule over Punjab. She had the support of Raja Gulab Singh and the Sandhawalias. Sher Singh withdrew. He went back to Batala. Dhian Singh obtained a month’s leave and went to Jammu.
Before leaving, he told the army commanders, who were in favour of Sher Singh, to remain prepared to help Sher Singh, if and when he comes. He also offered the army the bait of higher pay and cash rewards. Now, the stage was set for a civil war – Chapter Two, in the fall of the Sikh Empire.
1 Kharak Singh was born to Maharaja’s second wife, Rani Raj Kaur, on February 9, 1801. Sher Singh was nearly seven years younger to Kharak Singh. He was born to Maharaja’s first wife, Maharani Mehtab Kaur, daughter of Mai Sada Kaur, on December 4, 1807. Mehtab Kaur’s first child, Ishar Singh was born in 1804, but he died in infancy — at age one and a half years. Maharaja’s other sons were: Tara Singh (twin brother of Sher Singh); Kashmira Singh (b 1819); Multana Singh (b 1819) and Dalip Singh (b 1838)
2 Cited by Lady Login, in Sir John Login and Duleep Singh, p 197.
3,4 According to Fauja Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh held an investiture ceremony on September 27, 1816 to formally announce Kharak Singh as his heir apparent – although the 16-year-old youth did not have countenance of a leader, and was considered deficient of mental faculties required to manage an empire. (Fauja Singh, Ed, Maharaja Kharak Singh, p xv)
[But, intelligence report, sent on that day, to the British by an insider (Khushhal Singh, Chamberlain) states: “Kanwar Kharak Singh was granted a robe of honor consisting of eleven garments, one elephant with a silver howdah, a pearl necklace, a turban-gem and a plume in honor of his appointment over his country.” There was no mention of announcement of heir apparent.]
5 In 1836, Ranjit Singh gave General Ventura the title of Commander-in-Chief, while retaining himself the actual control of armies. Previous Commander-in-Chief, General Allard, had left for France in 1836. He returned later that year, but the Maharaja let General Ventura retain that position. General Allard died at Peshawar in January 1839.
6 Cited in Maharaja Kharak Singh, Fauja Singh and M L Ahluwalia. Eds, p 67)