Death of Prince Nau Nihal Singh
Accident or Murder ?
Maharaja Kharak Singh breathed his last on November 5, 1840. For his cremation a huge pyre was built, because his two young Sikh wives – the second, Khem Kaur and the third, Ishar Kaur, together with 11 maid servants, were to be burnt alive along with his dead body. His first wife, 44–year-old Rani Chand Kaur did not commit satti.
Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh, by nature, could not bear heat for a long time. After standing near the huge fire for a long time, he felt sick and returned to seek shade. As he entered the gate of the Hazoori Bagh the roof fell over his head, injuring him slightly. Walking by his side was Mean Udham Singh, a nephew of Prime Minister Raja Dhian Singh, who died on the spot. A few steps behind them was Raja Dhian Singh, who immediately removed the Kanwar, in a palanquin, to Hazoori Bagh, allowing no body, not even his mother, to see him. Every body was told that the Kanwar was recovering,
Dhian Singh secretly sent message to Kanwar Sher Singh at Batala (70 Km away), to rush to Lahore to claim the throne. Sher Singh was in the good books of both, the British and Dhian Singh.
On arrival of Sher Singh, three days later, it was announced that the Kanwar was dead, and the death was kept secret for security of the State.
It was generally believed that fall of the roof was no accident. “Gate of the Hazoori Bagh was brought over his head” (Encyclpaedia of Sikhism. Vol. III, p. 212).
British authors, such as Cunningham, Gardner, Smyth and Steinback support the general belief that the accident was engineered by Raja Dhian Singh.
Some historians such as Khushwant Singh (History of the Sikhs), M.L. Ahluwalia (Introduction to Maharaja Kharak Singh, p, l iii) Muhammad Latif (History of the Punjab) have concluded that it was an accident. (History of the Sikhs, II)
If it were a clear case of accident, ordinarily, doubts would not have arisen, that the Dogras engineered the accident. It is true that the Dogras were so hated by so many people, that they could be blamed, for any thing, even for bad weather. However, if there were grounds for speculating that the accident might have been staged, and if Dhian Singh’s involvement was ruled out, because his own nephew, Meean Udham Singh, was accompanying the Kanwar, and died in the accident, it did not necessarily mean also ruling out the event as an accident.
Could some body other than Dhian Singh, have not staged the accident? Did no body else have a motive to get rid of Nau Nihal Singh?
Also, did Dhian Singh have a confidential report, that something was going to happen, but did not know what and where?
An eyewitness, Captain Alexander Gardner, attached to Wazir Dhian Singh says:
“I was present at the commencement of the ceremony of cremation of Maharaja Kharak Singh and when the torch was applied was standing close by in attendance on Raja Dhyan Singh. Before the new Maharaja left the spot I was directed by Dhyan Singh to go and bring forty of my artillerymen in their fatigue dress: I was not told, nor have I ever ascertained what they were wanted for. When I returned, the catastrophe had just occurred.
Maharaja Nao Nihal Singh had passed through an archway on is return from bathing and just before entering it he took the hand of his constant companion Udam Singh, the eldest son of Raja Gulab Singh; the two young men entered the archway together. As they emerged from it a crash was heard; beams stones, and the tiles fell from above, and the Maharaja and Udam Singh were struck to the ground. The latter was killed on the spot, and Nao Nihal Singh was struck to the earth. He was injured in the head, but presently attempted to rise, and cried out for water. The Prime Minister rushed up, and, it is said, pushed aside the dead body of his own nephew, reserving all his devotion and care for the young king. Nao Nihal Singh was carried into the palace, the doors were closed, and admission denied to all. Several of the principal sardars begged to see the Maharaja, among them the Sindhanwalias, relations of the royal family; in vain did Nao Nihal Singh’s mother in a paroxysm rage and An anxiety, come and beat the fort gates with her own hands – admittance even to the fort there was none, still less into the Maharaja’s apartment. None of the female inmates, not even his wives, were suffered to see him.
The palki-bearers who had carried Nao Nihal Singh to his palace were sent to their homes; they were servants in my own camp of artillery, and were five in number. Two were afterwards privately put to death; two escaped into Hindustan, the fate of the fifth is unknown to me. One of the palki-bearers afterwards affirmed that when the prince was put into the palki, and when he was assisting to put him there, he saw that above the right ear there was a wound which bled so slightly as only to cause a blotch of blood about the size of a rupee on the pillow or the cloth on which Nao Nihal Singh’s head rested while in palki. Now it is a curious fact that when the room was opened, in which his corpse was first exposed by Dhyan Singh, blood in great quantities, both in fluid and coagulated pools was found around the head of the cloth on which the body lay.
Another eye witness, Major G. Smyth, writes:
No Nihal Singh was not seated on an elephant, but was on foot, and it was not a beam that fell. And the Prince was not killed on the spot. I was present. (A History of the Reigning family of Lahore, Appendix, p. 10.)
Could some other party have been involved?
There were other parties too, who found Nau Nihal Singh a roadblock in their programs and desires, and found comfort in his death. One such party was the British Government. There was no love lost between the British and Nau Nihal Singh.
It is not positively known that the Rajas of Jammu thus designed to remove Nau Nihal Singh; but it is difficult to acquit them of the crime, and it is certain that they were capable of committing it. (History of the Sikhs, p. 208.)
The statement would be equally true, if the words “the Rajas of Jammu” were replaced by “the British”.
Based on an intelligence report, British author of History of the Punjab writes:
It is reported, the prince [Nau Nihal Singh], in open durbar, before all the sirdars, drew his sword, and declared that he was ready to use it for the destruction of the encroaching influence of the English. (Vol. II, p. 214.)
The British had several grievances against Nau Nihal Singh:
1. Obstruction to movement of a British Brigade through Punjab, urgently needed in Afghanistan to save the regime of puppet Shah Shuja;
2. Nepal’s attempts to approach Nau Nihal Singh, to forge a Gorkha-Sikh alliance against the British; Appendix 1)
3. British attempt to make major changes in the Tripartite Treaty, and their efforts to take away from the Sikhs, Yusafzai territory including Peshawar, which the Shah had ceded to Ranjit Singh in the Treaty of 1834.
The British were so upset with policies of Nau Nihal Singh that only a month before the death of Nau Nihal Singh, the British, were actively planning to March on Punjab and force it into submission, for a free passage for British troops through Punjab, and for other related facilities.
[See details of British plan, in letter dated October 2, 1840 from H. Torrens, Officiating Secretary to the Governor-General, Calcutta, to the Commander-in-Chief.] (Appendix II)
Sher Singh was in good book of the British at this time. Even before the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, he had “betrayed the strongest desire to conciliate” the British Government “with a view to provide for his future interests.”
Captain Wade, who was Political Agent of the British, in a long report assessed the Punjab position, on the first day of the year 1838. Following is an extract from that long essay that he submitted to his government:
Kanwar Sher Singh has squandered away his popularity with his money and is not likely to be able...to raise a strong party in his favor the French officers have shewn a disposition to support his pretensions. He is active, intelligent and prepossessing in his address, his manners and his conversation and had he the countenance of his reputed father, his talents might have prepared him for the exercise of authority, but the Maharaja has withdrawn much of the favor which he formerly shewed to him which has of course diminished his influence. His possessions also are nearly all situated on the left bank of the Satlaj and he has lately betrayed the strongest desire to conciliate our Government with a view to provide for his future interests.
Then, there is a question: If it was a conspiracy, why the deodhi should have been selected for staging the ‘accident’?
All the Sardars and Ministers of the Durbar and the British knew that Nau Nihal Singh could not bear heat, and he would need shade soon after attending the cremation of his father, under the scorching sun of June.
According to ‘Intelligence Report, Jan. 5-11, C. M. Wade to Government’:
On the 5th instant [January 1840] at noon Naunihal Singh accompanied by four of his Khidmatgars went to the bath where he being unable to bear the heat fainted. ... In consequence all the physicians immediately waited on him and finding him senseless made him Pashao or washed his legs in hot water when he recovered, although every one had given up the hope of life being saved. The Sardars gave charities and among others Konwar Sher Singh distributed seven hundred rupees. In the evening Naunihal Singh began to utter and gave assurances of his recovery...
Seventeen days after the death of Nau Nihal Singh, T. H. Maddock, Secretary to Government of India, brought all matters concerning Nau Nihal Singh to a close. He wrote to the Governor-General’s Agent, for N.W. Frontier:
The Governor-General-in-Council directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your several dispatches of the dates and on the subjects noted on the margin [listed below] with their respective enclosures.
The events that have occurred at Lahore subsequent to the date of these dispatches render it now unnecessary that you should receive any particular orders in reply thereto. (Emphasis added)
[Notes on the margin]
Letter dated 29th October, respecting Utter Singh’s reported visit to Katmandoo and intercepted letter purporting to be from Nao Nihal Singh and others to Dost Mahomed.
Do. dated 31st do. With copy of a letter from the Sikh Durbar to Nepal Court, stating that Khareetahs should be sent with the sanction of the British Government.
Letter dated 1 November. With copy of letter from the agent of the Lahore Court at Cabool, to Nao Nehal Singh.
Do. dated 4th do. With Letter from Herat to Lahore given by Nao Nehal Singh to the Agency Moonshee.
Do. dated 10th Do. Forwarding abstract of news, and reporting events subsequent to Nao Nehal Singh’s fatal accident.
On the death of Nou Nehal, Mr. Clerk [British Political Agent] had sent a message of congratulation to Sher Singh. (Wm. Murray/Henry T. Prinsep, History of the Punjab, II, p. 231. London: 1848)
All the evidence against the British is circumstantial, but the motivation could not be ruled out.
The least that one can read between these lines is that death of Nau Nihal Singh and succession of Sher Singh to the throne, had resolved most of the issues, of concern to the British.