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The Punjab War of 1845 And 1846 as First War of Independence

Dr Kirpal Singh

The Punjab war of 1845-46, misnamed as Anglo Sikh war by the British, is in reality the first war of independence. This war changed the thinking and psyche of the Indian military men who always considered themselves inferior to the British soldiers. The Punjab war broke the invincibility of the British army and proved that Indians were no longer inferior. The revolt of 1857 was inspired by the bravery of the Indian soldiers consisting of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, who had jointly fought against the British in 1845 and 1846. The army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh did not consist of Sikhs alone. Shah Mohammed, the contemporary writer writes about the Muslims participation in the Punjab War:

Mazar Ali and Maghe Khan marched out from the city
The brigade of Sultan Mehmood also came out
With invincible Imam Shahi guns in tow.
Elahi Baksh brought out his guns after polishing them.
And showing them worshipful burning sticks.
O! Shah Mohammed in such a way did the Guns shine,
As if these were the flashes of lightening out to dispel darkness.

All the Punjabis were fighting against the British. The army organized by Maharaja Ranjit Singh was on secular basis and had in it Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. Only Dogras under Gulab Singh remained aloof, he had his own reasons, as he was intriguing with the British against Lahore Darbar. All other Punjabis fought against the British. Had there been no treachery of Gulab Singh, Tej Singh and Lal Singh, the British would have been defeated. It was this glorious war that inspired not only the Indian soldiers fighting on the British side, but also impressed the Britishers who have written marvellous comments on the bravery of their opponents. It may be noted here that this war was being fought against the aggressive policy of the Britishers, the fact which had been admitted by the British writers.

The British had for long been following an aggressive policy towards the Lahore kingdom and ultimately they were the first to violate the treaty of permanent friendship of 1809, signed between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the East India Company, long before the Punjab forces crossed the Satluj. Upholding the position of the Lahore Durbar, Major G Carmichael Smyth, Major in third Bengal Light writes, “We have been told that the Sikhs violated the treaty by crossing the river with their army, but the question… I only ask, had we not departed from the rules of friendship first? The year before the war broke out, we kept the island between Ferozepur and the Punjab, though it belonged to the Sikhs… Regarding the Punjab war, I am neither of the opinion that the Sikhs made an unprovoked attack nor that we have acted towards them with great forbearance. If the Sikhs’ were to be considered to have entirely an independent state in no way answerable to us, we should not have provoked them, for to assert that bridge of boats brought from Bombay was not a casus belli but merely a defensive measure is absurd.”

That the British had been preparing in advance for the eventuality of war, is further proved by following facts:
Till 1838 Ludhiana was the only cantonment of the British next to Lahore frontier with only three thousand men and twelve cannons. By the end of 1838, Firozepur had been converted into a British cantonment with five thousand men and twelve cannons. Cantonments were also established by the British at Ambala, Kasauli and Simla and fourteen thousand European troops and forty eight cannons were established there. After his arrival in India, Lord Harding further increased the strength of his forces in these cantonments by twenty two thousand men and twelve cannons. Just before the war their total strength was increased to forty four thousand men and one hundred cannons.

There were four battles i.e. Mudki, Pherushah, Aliwal and Subroan. The last was fought on the 10th of February, 1846. About this battle R Bosworth Smith writes, “One chief whose name should be recorded – Sham Singh, among the faithless faithful only found clothed in white and devoting himself to death, like Decius of old called on those around him to strike for God and the Guru and dealing death everywhere rushed manfully upon his own.”

Mohammed Latif writes, “Hoary headed Sham Singh dressed himself in a garment as white as his long snowy beard, galloped forward, cheering on his ardent followers and scorning death till the last fell martyr to his country’s freedom. His superb example was a beacon and a source of inspiration of the numerous freedom fighters who fought against the British from 1846 to 1947."

Sardar Sham Singh, knowing that the 10th of February was going to be the day of battle, rose early in the morning, dressed himself in white, and mounting his white mare proceeded to address the Army. He reminded them about their glorious traditions of bravery and sacrifice in the past, and begged them, as true sons of the soil, to die rather than turn their backs on the enemy. Since he had himself dedicated his life to the sacred cause, his words had the desired effect.

Gilbert’s Division led the third charge on the Centre. Mounting on one another’s shoulders, the attackers gained a footing on the entrenchments, and as they increased in number, they rushed at the Sikh guns and captured them. Soon the news spread down the line that enemy troops had won their way through to Sikh positions. Sardar Sham Singh, seeing his army facing defeat, took the final fatal plunge.

He spurred forward against the 50th Foot, brandishing his sword and calling on his men to follow him. But soon he fell from his horse, his body pierced with seven balls. He had remained true to his vow to the last. The self sacrifice of Sardar Sham Singh, the hero of Sabroan, had an inspiring effect. His courage and determination had turned Sabroan into the Waterloo of India, as according to Malleson, victory for the Punjab would have meant to the English the loss of India.

Unfortunately, the British have described this war as war between the Sikhs and the British, which is wrong. The Muslims with the arsenal under their command were fighting most valiantly to preserve the independence of the last Indian kingdom. The war was fought by all Punjabis and their valour encouraged the rising of 1857. This fact is not so well known. So the Punjab War 1845-46 was a real watershed in the ideology of India’s fighting forces. It was perhaps due to this fact that some members of the Parliament raised the point that the first war of Independence was the Punjab war of 1845-46.



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