Rolling Back Afghans – Part I
Dr Kirpal Singh
This paper was presented in “Dr Ganda Singh Memorial Lecture Series”, conducted by Punjabi University, Patiala, by the eminent Sikh Historian Dr Kirpal Singh, Prof of Emeritus. We are taking privilege to reproduce this article in two parts for the benefit of our readers.– Editor
Afghanistan has been in news recently. Previously Russia was involved in Afghanistan affairs, now USA has been taking keen interest in Afghanistan. During the 19th century of Indian history, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839 A.D.) was successful in tackling the Afghans who had ruled over Punjab for decades and rolled back the ever gushing tide of Afghan invasions. How this happened is the subject of this lecture.
Geography has played a major role in the history of civilizations and countries, and India has been no exception. The Himalayas in the north were impassable till late 20th century and the Indian Ocean denoted the limits of India in the south. The geo-political of North-West India was influenced by the nature of power across the Hindu-Kush range of mountains in the north-west. The region to the north Hindu-Kush all the way to Siberia has produced the Mongols and their strong invasions across Asia to the south-east into China, to the west towards Europe and to the south towards India through Hindu-Kush. The situation was high mountain range covering a long distance rapidly descending into fertile plains on the north-west, but the terrain was such as to allow lightly armed mobile forces like cavalry to go through them and attack the plains. The communications in those days were slow, there would be little time for the further plainsmen to organize themselves for adequate defence.
When there existed a strong empire with military resources in north India it was secure from depredation of Afghans. Broadly speaking there were two such powers. Ashoka ruled over the entire Afghan Country. After Ashoka, Kabul and Qandhar were ruled by Akbar, the Mughal Emperor. The decline of Mughal empire was set in when Aurangzeb ignored the Strategic Logic of the sub-continent and the North-West by pre-occupying himself almost totally for decades with his south Indian military campaigns.
In the 18th century the Mughal empire was crumbling and the British empire was still busy with getting foothold in the east and south India. No power was holding Khyber pass and it was inevitable that invasions from Afghanistan and beyond would start. By the end of 18th century, Afghans ruled Punjab, while Sikh power was rising and nominal Mughal ruler was the king of Delhi.
The year 1739 is a landmark in the history of North-West of India. It saw the beginning of fierce contest between different political powers to decide who was to rule over Punjab. Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1738-39 shatterred Mughal Empire. He struck his coin at Lahore, plundered the Mughal Capital and obliged the emperor to sign a document which made trans-Indus territories of Mughal Empire part of Persian Empire. The river Indus became the boundary between two empires. The revenues of four pargnas of province of Lahore were to go to Nadir Shah.1
When Nadir Shah was returning from Delhi with wealth and riches of the Mughal capital the Sikhs were bold enough to plunder the rear of his army. It annoyed Nadir Shah who enquired about these people. Zakaria Khan, the Punjab Governor told him about the Sikhs that they lived on the saddles of their horses. Nadir Shah asked the Punjab Governor to be more careful about the Sikhs. After the departure of Nadir Shah, Zakaria Khan took strong measures to suppress the Sikhs. Once again military columns were sent to various villages to weed out Sikhs. Nobody was allowed to give shelter to them. Awards were fixed for those who captured Sikhs, or gave any information about them.2
In order to prevent Sikhs to visit Amritsar, Zakaria Khan appointed one Massa Rangarh of village Modiali at Amritsar. He erected four pillars at the four corners to keep strict watch on the movement of Sikhs. He took his seat at Darbar Sahib. Dancing girls gave performance of their art at the sacred shrine. Mehtab Singh Mirankot and Sukha Singh came in disguise and cut off Massa Rangarh’s head and disappeared. The government retaliated by executing a number of Sikhs like Taru Singh, Subeg Singh and Shahbaz Singh, Bota Singh etc.3
After the death of Nadir Shah in 1747 his ablest General Ahmad Shah Abdali succeeded him. He is considered to be the builder of Afghanistan. He turned out the Mughal governor of Kabul and captured Peshawar.4 He had plan of building Afghan empire expanding upto areas west of river Jamuna. For this purpose he made several invasions. The Mughal emperor being weak, invited Marathas. When Ahmad Shah Abdali conquered Delhi he appointed Najib as commander-in-chief of army. Najib was defeated by the Marathas.5 In this way the Marathas became a party contending for political ascendancy in the north-east of India.
In the political arena of mid 18th century Punjab there were four powers, at strife of which the Sikhs were deemed to be the weakest. In the first round of this strife the Mughals were face to face with the Afghans. The invasion by Nadir Shah (1737-39 A.D.) had completely shattered the Mughal empire. And then, Ahmad Shah Abdali who invaded the Punjab repeatedly added the last back-breaking straw.
The First Invasion by Abdali 1748 A.D.
In 1745 A.D. Zakaria Khan, the strong governor of the Punjab expired, which led to war of succession between his two sons Yahya Khan and Shah Niwaz Khan. Yahya Khan was supported by Qamaruddin, who was Wazir in the Mughal Court in Delhi. Shah Niwaz Khan invited Ahmad Shah Abdali to attack the Punjab. Abdali already wanted to annexe some territories of the Punjab to his empire. So he led his legions to Punjab. When Wazir Qamaruddin came to know of it, he along with myriad Mughal soldiers took a position at Manupur near Sirhind. In the battle of Manupur Abdali was put to flight. But Qamaruddin was killed in the battle. As a result of this victory Mir Mannu, the son of the Wazir Qamaruddin was appointed the governor of the Punjab.6
The Second, the Third and the Fourth Invasions
This way the Sikhs were not a party during Ahmad Shah Abdali’s first invasion. Abdali was defeated and he returned. To avenge this defeat he again invaded Punjab in 1750 and 1752. Mir Mannu who had been appointed as governor accepted him as his superior and thus the territories of Punjab, Kashmir and Sindh became subservient to the Kabul kingdom. In this manner the Sikhs also were deemed to be subordinate to the Afghans. In 1753 Mir Mannu died and his wife Mughani Begum unable to control the situation invited Ahmed Shah Abdali. This was Abdali’s fourth invasion. This time after conquering areas of Lahore, Sirhind, etc., Abdali went upto Delhi. He ransacked Delhi and annexed territories upto Sirhind into his empire. This was the time when in 1757 A.D. Tamaur Shah and Jahan Khan desecrated Sri Darbar Sahib. At this very time Baba Deep Singh came to Amritsar fighting the Afghans and embraced martyrdom. This battle has been described by Tahmas Khan, the page of Mir Manno in his Tahmas Namah.8
The Fifth Invasion and Encounter with the Marathas
Ahmad Shah Abdali’s first four attacks were devoted to annihilating the Mughal power in the northern India. In his fifth invasion he had to face the Marathas in the third Battle of Panipat. When Ahmad Shah Abdali annexed Sirhind, Punjab, Multan, Sindh and Kashmir, Adeena Beg the faujdar of Jalandhar invited Marathas from Delhi. He invited the Sikhs to conquer Sirhind, because he knew that the Sikhs were ever-ready to invade Sirhind and owing to the martyrdom of the younger Sahibzadas having taken place there called it “Gru damned Sirhind” (Guru Mari Sirhind). This way, the Sikhs and the Marhattas captured Sirhind and later on they overran Lahore.9 The Abdali’s rule in the Punjab thus came to an end. The Marathas had their sway upto Attock and they appointed Adeena Beg the governor of the Punjab.
Ahmad Shah Abdali could not tolerate the seizing of the territory in the Punjab by Marathas and, therefore, he again invaded India with a fuller force. This was the fifth invasion by him. The Marathas also marched northwards from Deccan fully prepared. Abdali was commanding less troops, but by means of daring and superior military strategy, he carried the day against the Marathas who fell in the Battle of Panipat.10 Now, Abdali had one power in view, which he wanted to crush and it was the Sikhs.
The Sikhs had been offended by Afghans as they had destroyed Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. When Ahmad Shah Abdali’s son Taimur Shah, and his General, Jahan Khan were returning to Kabul after ransacking Delhi, along with a lot of booty, the Sikh bands raided them, seized a good quantity of plundered goods and chased the Durrani forces over a sufficient distance. It happened in March 1757. Thereafter to wreak vengeance on the Sikhs, the Afghans attacked the town of Kartarpur (near Jalandhar) founded by Guru Arjan Sahib and set ablaze the Gurdwara Tham Sahib. On his way back from Delhi, Abdali halted at Lahore where from he sent his troops to Amritsar and desecrated Sri Darbar Sahib.11
Bloody Carnage of Sikhs (Wada Ghallughara) 1762 C.E.
In 1761 A.D. Ahmad Shah Abdali before leaving Lahore appointed Khwaja Ubaid the governor of Lahore and Khwaja Mirza Jaan the faujdar of Char Mahal (These char Mahals were Sialkot, Pasroor, Gujarat and Aurangabad). Mirza Jaan was killed while fighting the Sikhs, and thereafter Ahmad Shah sent Nooruddin to establish law and order in the Punjab. He was defeated by Charat Singh Shukarchakhia and he retired to Sialkot. Hearing this, Khwaja Ubaid who was the governor of Lahore gathered a large force and attacked Gujranwala, the capital city of the Shukarchakkia Misl. Charat Singh called upon the other Misaldars including Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Jai Singh Ghanayya and Hari Singh Bhangi to come to his aid. The assembled Sikhs put Khwaja Ubaid to flight and he fled to shelter inside the Lahore fort. The Sikh chiefs pursued him and conquerred Lahore. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia made Saadat Khan faujdar flee. This way the Sikhs carried the day everywhere. The Sikhs decided to set right Aaqil Das Niranjania of Jandiala as he had been spying upon the Sikhs and reporting to Abdali. When Niranjani came to know of it he called Ahmed Shah Abdali to his support.12
Abdul Karim, the author of Waquiyat Durrani writes: “Ahmad Shah Abdali was sleeping. Suddenly he was shaken out of slumber on seeing a dreadful dream. Without informing anybody else, he took along a special force of three hundred soldiers who were on guard duty and set out towards India. While departing he sent a message to Shah Wali Khan telling him that he was going to India for a crusade (Jehad) and urging the latter to join him soon with whatever forces be available.” The minister using his own good sense issued some fifty or sixty commandments urging the military leaders to join the king along-with troops because he had left for a Jehad. Shah Wali Khan along with his troops joined the king and said to him, “In such a haste and without equipment your incursion into the enemy territory is not unattended by risks. Kindly unravel the mystery.” In response the king said, “In a dream I met the divine prophet Hazrat Mohammad Sahib – May he be blessed – who said to me, “I have blessed you with kingship. Get up and leave for the Punjab, where at Jandiala the Sikhs are harassing the Muslmans. When I received this command, I did not want to make any delay in carrying it out.”13
When Ahmad Shah reached Jandiala, he came to know that the Sikhs had left that place. Abdali stayed there for two days and learnt that the Sikhs had gone towards Sirhind and were troubling Zain Khan, the governor of Sirhind and Bhikhan Khan of Malerkotla. Abdali sent a horseman and assured Zain Khan and Bhikhan Khan that he was speedily coming to their help. Abdali reached near Malerkotla within two days and Zain Khan learnt that Ahmad Shah Abdali’s forces had arrived.14
Ahmad Shah Abdali divided his forces into three sub-sections, the first under himself the second under his minister Shah Wali Khan and the third under Jahan Khan. The troops under Shah Wali Khan were to make a detour and join the troops under Zain Khan. Abdali’s and Jahan Khan’s soldiers were to surround from the other sides. Thus the Sikhs were to be encircled from all sides. On the contrary the Sikhs were so situated that about fifty thousand of them had assembled near the village Kup. Their baggage and about fifty thousand women and children accompanying them were at the village Garma which was six miles away from Kup. When Ahmad Shah Abdali reached Malerkotla, the Sikhs learnt of the Afghans’ arrival. At once the Sikhs advanced towards the village Garma. To checkmate them Zain Khan who was the governor of Sirhind marched forward. In this encounter, Zain Khan’s vanguard commanded by Qasim Khan was badly beaten and it had to retreat. In the meanwhile the Durranis in large numbers and donning red uniforms reached there. They surrounded the Sikhs from all the four sides. They fought with arrows and swords, but the attack was sudden.15
Abdul Karim the author of Waquiyat Durrani writes that Ahmad Shah Abdali had sent the following message to Zain Khan the governor of Sirhind: “Since our army includes personnel of Uzbek tribe, we have told them to kill anybody wearing Indian dress. So Zain Khan should order everyone in his army to wear leaves of trees or blades of grass on their heads, lest the Uzbek soldiers should kill them during the fighting taking them for enemy personnel.”16 Abdali passed orders to his own forces that anybody with leaves of a tree or blades of grass on his head might be regarded as Zain Khan’s soldier. This incident shows that there was not much difference between the habiliments of the Sikhs and those of the Afghans which necessitated wearing of a mark of leaves on the head by the latter.
Miltary Strategy of the Sikhs
The Khalsa planned that four Sikhs should be sent to Garma with the instructions that the horde comprising children and women should head towards Barnala. Consequently four Sikhs namely Sandhu Singh, Ala Singh, Sekhu Singh and Buddha Singh led the caravan.17 But they had hardly covered a short distance when 8,000 Afghans under Shah Wali Khan assaulted them. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia sent more Singhs as reinforcement and then the Sikhs combatted Afghans of Malerkotla and Zain Khan as has been described by Rattan Singh Bhangu:
The caravan had gone two or three Kos when the foes raided it.
Zain Khan and Malerkotla Afghans rushed to kill them.
Sham Singh said to the Khalsa
That he would take care of Zain Khan and Malerkotla Afghans.
And that you all attend to the remaining three sides considering it to be a crusade.18
The Sikhs were now fleeing as well as fighting and the Afghan forces were chasing them. As per Dr Hari Ram Gupta, Abdali’s forces were adept in the use of arms and the art of war. From the military viewpoint the Sikhs had neither full scale of weapons nor tactical training which could stand them in good stead in face to face fighting. But they fought zealously and were ready to sacrifice their all in the name of the Guru. At last Shukarchakkia Chief S. Charat Singh grand father of Ranjit Singh said to them with a warning:
“Listen to my suggestion. Just as the king has organised his troops, you also make misls to fight. Organise four gigantic misls and deploy two on either side. If a side is pressed hard, I shall come to its rescue.”19
Rattan Singh has given a vivid description of the battle of Massive Massacre:
Then two more hordes joined. Baland Khan and Zain Khan joined. They shook the Singhs in such a way as wind makes the leaves of the Peepal fly. They fought, fled and returned to fight. The Giljias were numerous and the Singhs could not be effective.
The Singhs fought intermittently and protected the caravan. Then Ahmad Shah attacked from behind. Still the Singhs kept fighting; intent on protecting them sometimes they stood and fought and sometimes they ran caravan away.20
In this battle the Singhs fought and fled, and took possession of horses and weapons of the Afghans killed by them. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Charat Singh took an active part in this battle. Rattan Singh so showers praises on Charat Singh:
Charat Singh’s gun made him famous the world over. He could target the enemy from near as well as far off place.
While the Singhs were fighting against the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, Zain Khan and Malerkotla, they halted enroute at a village named Gehl to refresh their breath but in vain. Next there was another village named Qutb Bhahmani. This village had a pond of water where first the Sikhs and then the Afghans quenched their thirst. In the way there was nowhere water for men and horses. The Afghans had now got tired, fighting since early morning. Many of them had been killed also in this battle. So, Abdali did not deem it proper to pursue the Sikhs any further.21
Contemporary, semi contemporary and subsequent historians greatly differ on the number of Singhs martyred in this massacre. It is generally estimated that from ten to thirty thousand Sikhs embraced martyrdom in this massacre. But usually it is supposed that those who were martyred were about 20000. Rattan Singh has mentioned them as 30,000.22 The Sikhs deemed this critical time also as a trail by the Almighty. Just as gold gets purified in the crucible, in the same way the Khalsa assumed that the impurities had been washed away and the pure Khalsa had survived. Rattan Singh states”
A Nihang roared and said aloud:
“The pure Khalsa has survived and the impure been lost”.23
This event is known in Sikh history as “Wada Ghallughara”, the great massacre of Sikhs.
Martyrdom of Baba Gurbakhsh Singh
Qazi Nur Mohammad who accompanied Ahmed Shah Abdali during his seventh invasion and called the Sikhs “dogs” has given a vivid account of Baba Gurbakhsh Singh whose revered memorial (Shahid Ganj) is just behind Akal Takht, Amritsar. These thirty Singhs who challenged an army of thirty thousand Afghans24 belonged to the Jatha of Bhai Gurbakhsh Singh of village Leehl near Khemkaran, district Tarn Taran. The names of three of them have survived, Man Singh, Basant Singh and Nihal Singh. The author of Jang Namah writes:
“When the Shah arrived at the Chak there was not a single Kafir to be seen. But a few of them had remained in an enclosure so that they might spill their own blood. And they sacrificed their lives for the sake of Guru. When they saw the renowned King and the army of Islam, they came out of the enclosure. They were only thirty in number. But they had not a grain of fear about them. They had neither the fear of slaughter nor the dream of death. Thus they grappled with the Ghazis and in this grappling they spilt their own blood. All the accursed Sikhs were killed and went to hell. The Islamis ran to the right and the left in search of them but they did not find even one of the impertinent dogs. The Shah had, therefore, to return to Lahore helplessly”.25
Ahmed Shah Abdali made several invasions to occupy and annexe Punjab to Kabul kingdom. On every occasion he was harassed by the Sikh bands. The Sikh warriors bands, called Missal, began to occupy territory at various places. They conquered Lahore in 1765 and struck coin in the name of the Gurus. The Inscription of the coin was the same as that issued by Banda Singh Bahadur, viz
By the grace of the True Lord is struck the coin in the two worlds: The sword of Nanak is the granter of all boons, and the victory is of Guru Gobind Singh, the king of kings.
The reverse had the following words in praise of his newly founded capital:
Struck in the city of peace, is illustrating the beauty of civic life, and the ornament of the blessed throne.
He also introduced an official real for his state documents and letters patent. It contained the following inscription expressive of his deep sense of devotion and loyalty to his master:
Dego Tego Fateh Nusrat bedrang
Yaft as Nanak Guru Gobind Singh.
[The kettle and the sword (symbols of charity and power), victory and ready patronage have been obtained from Guru Nanak – Guru Gobind Singh. The same inscription continued uptill 1849 when the Punjab was annexed. Most of the Punjab was occupied by the Sikh Misaldars.26
Ahmad Shah Abdali, the best horseman of his times in Asia, conqueror of Delhi, the age old capital of the Mughals, the victor of the Battle of Panipat where he gave crushing defeat to Marathas felt exhausted before the valiant Khalsa. He left Punjab and died in 1772 A.D.
A Tribute by Qazi Nur Mohammed
Out of contempt for the Sikhs he calls them sag which in Persian means dog. dog of hell, pig eaters, accursed infidels, etc. But he has paid the highest tribute to the character of Sikhs of eighteenth century. A bigoted writer who has got strong prejudice against Sikhs paying such glowing tribute to their character, is a matter of pride for the Sikhs. he writes:
Leaving aside their mode of fighting hear you another point in which they excel other fighting people.
In no case they would slay a coward or put any obstacle in way of fugitive
They do not plunder the wealth and ornament of women, be she a well to do lady or maid servant.
There is no adultery among the dogs nor are these mischievous people given the thieving.
Whether a woman young or old they call her ‘budhya’ (an old lady) and ask her to get out of the way. The word ‘Buddya’ in Indian lauguage means an old lady.
There is no thief at all among these dogs nor is there any house breaker born amongst these miscreants.27
1. Ali Uddin, Ibrit Namah (Persian), Vol. I, Lahore (Pakistan), 1961, pp. 191-92
2. Teja Singh Ganda Singh, A Short History of Sikhs, Orient Longman, 1950, pp. 125-26
3. Ibid., pp. 125-129
4. J.N. Sarkar, Fall of Mughal Empire, Vol. 1, pp. 126-127
5. Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 143-44, 272.
6. Teja Singh Ganda Singh, A Short History of Sikhs, pp. 134-35.
7. Ibid., p. 154
8. P. Madhva Rao (Trans.), Tahmas Namah Maskin, Bombay, 1969, pp. 61-62.
9. Rattan Singh Bhangu, Panth Parkash, Amritsar, 1939, p. 314
10. J.N. Sarkar, Fall of Mughal Empire, Vol. II, Orient Longman, pp. 250-251.
11. Teja Singh Ganda Singh, A Short History of Sikhs, pp. 151-154.
12. Hari Ram Gupta, History of Sikhs, Vol. II, New Delhi, 1978, pp. 173,173, 179.
13. Munshi Abdul Karim, Waquiyat-i-Durrani, translated by Mir Waris Ali, Punjabi Adabi Akadami, Lahore (Pakistan), 1963, pp. 51-53
14. Hari Ram Gupta, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 180
15. Rattan Singh Bhangu, Panth Parkash, p. 348
16. Abdul Karim, Waquiyat-i-Durrani, p. 55
17. Rattan Singh Bhangu, Panth Parkash, p. 349.
19. Ibid., p. 350
20. Ibid., p. 352
21. Dr Hari Ram Gupta, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 183
22. Rattan Singh Bhangu, Panth Parkash, op. cit., p. 358
24. Qazi Nur Mohammad, Jang Namah, (ed) Ganda Singh, Amritsar, 1939, p. 35 (See also footnote)
26. Teja Singh Ganda Singh, A Short History of Sikhs, pp. 183-84.
27. Qazi Nur Mohammad, Jang Namah, p. 158.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2011, All