The forgotten hero of Punjab – Jassa Singh Ahluwalia

SourceIndian Defence Review (http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/the-forgotten-hero-of-punjab-jassa-singh-ahluwalia/)

The year was 1762.  In a forgotten corner of the world, Punjab was fighting for her freedom. Ahmad Shah Abdali (Durrani), lord of Punjab whose vassal included the Mughal emperor in Delhi and the world’s greatest conqueror of his time, was ranged against Jassa Singh Ahluwalia ‘the mountain’, Padshah of the Sikhs.

Earlier in the year Ahmad Shah, in what was yet another in a stream of unending invasions of Punjab commencing with Mahmud of Ghazni in 1001, had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Sikhs in what is known in their history as  Wada Ghallugara. when 25,000 Sikhs including women and children had been slaughtered at Kup, about 250 kms northwest of Delhi. Ahmad Shah had then marched to the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple) at Amritsar, the holiest place of worship of the Sikhs, blew it up with gunpowder so that not a single brick remained, and then to add insult to injury, proceeded to fill the holy tank with the carcasses of dead cows. The time for vengeance would come.

When later in October, Ahmad Shah was at Lahore and realized that the Sikhs were gathered in strength for their annual meeting, he decided to deal with his greatest detractors, a death  blow.  The omens were far from propitious. It was Diwali-the 17th October and a full solar eclipse was in progress. Ahmad Shah was confident. He had 50000 well-trained battle hardened Afghans. The Sikh army, already filled with a murderous hate, realizing that their quest for freedom and sovereignty would be shattered with defeat, fought with a primeval ferociousness. Shouting Wahe Guruji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guruji ki Fateh,  their  battle cry, they charged the Afghans. George Forrester (1783) recounts this engagement… “ the Sicque(sic) nation amounting to 60,000 cavalry, had formed a junction at the ruins of Amritsar, where they resolved to… pledge their national existence…the Sicques roused by the fury of a desperate revenge, in sight also of the ground sacred to (them), whose monuments were destroyed by the enemy they were to combat, displayed during a bloody contest, which lasted from morning until night, an enthusiastic and fierce courage, which ultimately forced Ahmad Shah to draw off his army and retire with precipitation to Lahore.”  Whilst Jassa Singh’s victory was not complete or comprehensive, as with the Mongol defeat by the Mamelukes of Egypy in 1260 it shattered the myth of Abdali’s invincibility.

In April 1761, Abdali was returning triumphant having destroyed Maratha power at the third battle of Panipat. His booty included 2200 Hindu women being taken to Afghanistan to be sold into slavery. The Sikhs were at their bi-annual meeting at Amritsar when the relatives of the women pleaded for succor. Jassa Singh left immediately with a volunteer force, caught up with the Afghans at the River Sutlej at Goindwal, rescued the women and had them gallantly escorted to their families. This action which required great audacity, swift and faultless execution and a complete indifference to danger, made him a household name in north India. Henceforth he was also known as Bandhi Chhor or Liberator.

Later in 1764, Jassa Singh, commanding the Khalsa armies conquered Sarhind, the richest province of the empire. Jassa Singh’s share of the cash spoils amounted to 9 lac rupees. He donated this entire amount to the rebuilding of the Harimandir Sahib which is as it stands today! This great act of generosity, referred to as Guru ki Chaddar endeared him forever to his religious minded people.

These are but some of the actions that caught the attention of the oppressed  people of Punjab who joined the cause in droves. Jassa Singh translated this energy and enthusiasm into military and diplomatic victories against both the Mughals and, after 1752, the Afghans.  For historical comparison, a similar feat was performed by the legendary French hero, Charles Martel ‘The hammer’ who famously defeated the Moorish army of Abd-ar-Rehman in 732 AD at the battle of  Tours(Portiers). He then cleared southern France of foreign occupation making his country safe from foreign occupation.

Jassa Singh was born on 3 may 1718 in village Ahlo near Lahore. At this time Punjab was completely in ruins – oppression was at its height, the movement for freedom having been crushed with the horrific execution of Banda Bahadur and his followers.

Jassa’s father died when he was 5 years old and he together with his mother spent the next 7 years in Delhi with Mata Sundari, Guru Gobind’s widow where he imbibed the lessons of the Gurus, making Guru Gobind’s mission his own. Soon he was to leave the safe environment of Delhi to claim his destiny, to a life of adventure in the heart of Punjab. After an initial period with his uncle, Bhag Singh’s jatha, he joined his mentor, Kapur Singh’s warriors, his first job being to feed the horses. Who knew one day he would be king!  The young Jassa honed his martial skills- hunting wild boar and partridge helped; and the threat of attack (Emperor Farukh Siyyar having passed an edict with incentives of 50 rupees per Sikh head!) and constant skirmishes made him fearless.

The young and enthusiastic Jassa soon made a mark for himself.   After his first notable exploit- against Murtaza Khan, the chief supplier of Central Asian horses to the emperor, there was no looking back. Distinguishing himself in the hit and run attacks on Nadir Shah’s baggage train when he was returning triumphant from Delhi (1739), laden with booty,  1748 he used the confusion surrounding Abdali’s first invasion (1748) to lead the Dal Khalsa (Sikh army)  to capture Amritsar from Salabat Khan whom he killed. Amritsar would now become the Sikh rallying point and indeed the  centre of their symbolic resistance. Resistance. In  the Baisakhi meeting that followed-on 29 March 1748, Jassa Singh was made commander-in-chief of the Dal  Khalsa now divided into 11 groupings or misls from the previous 65. These would act in unison and were subject to Gurumatas, (resolutions) taken at Amritsar, which were binding on all.  In 1753, before his death, Kapur Singh, his mentor, proclaimed Jassa Singh the head of the panth, giving him Guru Gobind Singh’s mace to reinforce his leadership of the community. The stage was set for the conquest of the whole of Punjab.

Jassa Singh’s conquering career really took off after this event. His victories included the defeat (in combination with Kaura Mal) of Shah Nawaz of Multan; he conquered Khwaspur and Fatehabad in 1753; he defeated Aziz Beg and Bakhinda Khan (1754), the commanders who  attacked  Amritsar. Along with Adina beg Khan, he defeated Buland Khan at Mahilpur (1757). Again in 1757 he defeated Saadat Khan, Abdali’s representative at Jalandhar. In 1758 he defeated Ubaidulla Khan, the Afghan general sent by Abdali. Shortly afterwards, Hira Mal and Gulsher Khan were defeated and killed by him and in 1760  he got the better of Abdali’s  outstanding general, Jahan Khan. Along with Charat Singh Suckerchakia, Ranjit Singh’s grandfather, he defeated Ubaid Khan and subsequently conquered Lahore(1761). Coins were struck to mark this victory. In 1764 he defeated Zain Khan and conquered Sarhind. From this period on Abdali was on the defensive and during his return after his invasion in 1764/5, his authority was confined to his own camp! Lahore was occupied by the Dal Khalsa and the Gobind Shahi coins were struck  in 1765 as the formal declaration of their sovereign status. ( JS Grewal; Sikh ideology, polity and social order;1996:100-101).

Punjab was now free after over 700 years. Jassa Singh did not stop here-  Sikh conquests continued, culminating in the conquest of Delhi on 11 March, 1783. Jassa Singh, to prove a point, sat on the throne of Hindustan! Whilst he left shortly afterwards, he ensured, through his lieutenant, Baghel Singh, the building of the eight main gurudwaras of Delhi. At the time of his death, the combined armies of the Dal Khalsa (Sikh army)totaled approximately 200,000 men with 60-70,000 horse available at any given time. Sikh rule extended from Lahore, Multan to Jammu, Kashmir, the Kangra hills to the environs of Delhi. Their influence extended even further-to the Ganga Doab, Rajasthan and Agra. Abdali invaded again in 1769 but could go no further than the River Sutlej. After his death in 1772, his son Shah Zaman, was equally unsuccessful with respect to Punjab. It had taken Jassa Singh and his misl leaders over two decades of fighting and diplomatic maneuvers.  The Mughals had been suppressed, the Afghans repulsed and Punjab now belonged to her people.

How was all this achieved?  How did the independent minded Sikhs given the democratic nature of their faith and their natural resentment to authority, combine together? And how did the misl leaders, who were themselves competing against each other, display unison under a single command? And more importantly, why was Jassa Singh’s army when it fought alone or jointly, so successful?

Of course, the foundations had already been laid by Guru Nanak who started a peaceful religion in the 16th century that appealed to the masses. His teachings gave character and a cohesiveness to the people.  Nine gurus of great character followed and built on this foundation. Heroic sacrifices added to unity.  Under Guru Gobind Singh Sikhism started having militant undertones first, under Guru  Hargobind(1606-44) and finally under Guru Gubind Singh (1675-1708). The accent had now changed from the love of the community, hard work and charity to the punishment of transgressors and oppressors- the Muslim rulers and their agents. With his creation of the Khalsa in 1699, a militant brotherhood  was formed, whose aim was nothing short of freedom and sovereignty.  Sikh society was revolutionized in a short time and the   ‘the sparrow’ would now  ‘hunt the hawk’. But Guru Goboind died  without fulfilling his mission.

The task was carried forward by Banda Bahadur (1707-15),  who although finally defeated and horrifically killed, had through his  spectacular victories, given the Punjabis a taste of freedom and sovereignty they would never forget. The Dal Khalsa (and the individual misls) too  were now better organized with the necessary chain of command and incentives in a manner to produce military success. The guerrilla tactics they used had  become second nature to them and were proving to be increasingly effective The threat of the Mughal army and later, Abdali were to become further unifying forces for the Sikhs.   And finally there was the fighting quality inherent in the Sikhs. Even the Afghans were impressed. Nur Mohammad, brought along by Abdali  to write an account of his 1764-65 campaign initially referred to the Sikhs as dogs but reluctantly changed his mind by the end of the campaign. In his Jangnama he wrote:- ’….. the designation of Singh means lion, and lions indeed they are. Every one of them behaves like a lion in battle.’

The answer lies partly in the great generalship of  Jassa Singh along with the other  misl sardars like Charat  and Maha Singh Suckerchakia, Hari Singh Bhangi, Jai Singh Kanhahiya and Jassa Singh Ramgarhia..  Jassa Singh in particular showed strategic boldness and good sense. But for a  successful commander of a protracted campaign- in this case lasting over two decades- much more than generalship is required. As Clauswitz describes this quality “As the moral forces in one individual after another become prostrated, the whole inertia of the mass rests on the Will of the Commander; by the spark in his breast , by the light of his spirit, the spark of purpose, the light of hope, must be kindled afresh in others”. This is the kind of leadership required- the exercise of psychological power by one individual over the rest, this quality possessed by Jassa Singh in full measure.  Jassa Singh was charismatic. His physical presence inspired awe- he was tall, broad shouldered and muscular with penetrating dark eyes. His proficiency in the use of arms was legendary, his unusually long arms giving him an edge as a swordsman. He was known to challenge opposing generals in a one-to-one contest in his booming voice, this display of confidence being a great morale booster to his troops.

His troops saw his courage and fearlessness at close quarters- he was reputed to have 32 wounds on his body, 22 from a single defensive engagement in 1762! He was able to instill in the Sikhs, faith in God and the belief that, given the justness of their cause, ultimate victory would be theirs. The misl leaders  realised the extent of his determination and that he was the only one among them who felt certain of victory. This was so even when all appeared to be lost.  Their further awe of him was not only because of his closeness to Guru Gobind’s family, but also because morally he stood tall . At  a time when revenge against their oppressors was  foremost on the minds of his co-religionists, he ensured there were no cases of prisoners murdered in cold blood or any maltreatment of women in areas where his armies operated. Enemy soldiers  were allowed to go free if they laid down their arms. He never allowed any pressure to be put in the name of religion on the basis of his belief, central to Hinduism and Sikhism that there are many ways leading to God. He was against tyranny, never Islam. He did however put his foot down on cow slaughter and the Mullah’s call for evening prayer which were both banned.

Lastly and this is crucial for such leadership, he showed what is called ‘superior predicative judgement’(‘Lords of War’ by Correlli Barnett), the ability to accurately forsee the consequences of his actions-  much in evidence both in victory and  defeat. His successes only increased his aura! Jassa Singh further kept the chiefs loyal to him through his statesmanship and diplomacy. He showed dramatic self restraint (and sometimes excessive generosity) – he could easily have added more territories but preferred to let the other misls take a greater share for the sake of unity; similarly he could have ruled Lahore from 1765 onwards having a greater claim to it and even having conquered it in 1761 but let Hari Singh, Lehna Singh and Sobha Singh Kanahiya do so for the same reason. He ensured timely help for the misl sardars.

There was no misl chief who was not beholden to him and so he got them to unite when most required. He helped Charat Singh defeat Ubed Khan, the governor of Lahore; he helped the Bhangis defeat the Afghans at Qasur(1779) and saved Patiala from Abdul Ahad Khan (1779). He maintained a balance of power in the region and for example stood up to all the misl chief bent on destroying Patiala, a co-religionist but friendly with the Afghans -realizing how important unity was for the greater purpose. ‘The house of Patiala would have been snuffed out of its infancy but for his ungrudging and benign support’ (Natwar Singh- ‘The Magnificent Maharaja’ 1988:26). He gained influence through close strategic relations with Suraj Mal and Jawahar Singh- the Jat rulers of Bharatpur whom he helped militarily against the Rohillas, Mughals, Rajputs and Marathas.

His personality, moral superiority, diplomatic skills and military strategy made the chiefs and the Dal Khalsa look up to him as their supreme and revered leader and as the true successor to Guru Gobind Singh’s mission. He was regarded as the warrior saint sent for their salvation! Indeed he was as much a saint as a soldier possibly could be.

The territories acquired and subjugated and the conquest of Lahore, Sarhind and Delhi, were great achievements of Jassa Singh and reflected the greater achievement of freedom for all of Punjab and sovereignty for its people. But the impact of Jassa Singh was much greater than the sum total of his achievements. Jassa Singh gave victory at a time when people felt powerless against their tyrannical oppressors. When Aurangzeb had killed thousands, converted even more, the ruling Hindu elites and so the bulk of the population accepted it and made the necessary adjustments to their lives. Ordinary folk, mostly Hindus who became Sikhs, had found new strength from Guru Gobind Singh who resolved to remove the sense of failing and helplessness among them. Jassa Singh continued this work and awakened a sense of their basic dignity.

In the 18th century, the Sikhs were transformed from being dependent on their masters for their very lives to independent landowners and rulers in their own right – within two generations. There was something extraordinarily satisfying for Punjab’s people in this feeling of freedom, and then of power after centuries of subjugation and great misfortune. Sikh character had changed fundamentally- chardian kala- the exuberance and optimism they had willed themselves to feel in times of adversity had now become a permanent feature of their psyche, helped by military victories following scores of defeats and humiliations. And Jassa Singh had defeated a foreign power (and the greatest in the world of his time)- for the very first time in post Islamic history! With the defence of India he and the misl chiefs ensured the preservation of a more tolerant mind-set and culture. Maharaj Ranjit Singh (1790-1839),  built on these achievements, created a unified Sikh state and extended the frontiers of Punjab.

The real hero of India was of course Guru Gobind Singh, for the revolutionary steps he took to create the Khalsa in 1699, and indeed the expectations he created from the way he lived his life, which put into motion the fight for freedom. Jassa Singh would have unhesitatingly accepted this analysis with all humility-that was his character. Jassa Singh, on whom was thrust great responsibility, lived a simple life. A true follower of the Gurus, he combined his quest for freedom with a deep sense of tolerance and respect for all religions, which showed in the generosity of his character. It is said that Jassa Singh was a Sikh by honest conviction perhaps more so than Maharaj Ranjit Singh. ‘It is no coincidence that (Jassa Singh) who embodied Nanak’s ideals, and lived his life in the image of Guru Gobind Singh, was the more revered and beloved of the two. (Griffin;1993:418).

What does Jassa Singh’s life teach us and what are the lessons for India? Jassa Singh fought against all odds and came out victorious and gave the people of north India a feeling of  success, a feeling they had not had for centuries. This is exactly the kind of feeling of confidence and achievement required today. The lesson learnt from Jassa Singh is reflected in what Napoleon said that there were ‘two powers in the world- the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind’. Jassa Singh’s life teaches us that to be winners we have to look at problems squarely in the eye and that there is absolutely no need to be awed by anyone or any country- in our case particularly by China!  Here, taking a leaf from Jassa Singh’s thinking and actions there might be a requirement amongst our leadership, for example, for a completely different approach and mindset for the conduct of a possible war. The strategic creation of high maneuverability in the armed forces, freedom of action given to them leading to actions undertaken on our terms, using tactics and in terrain advantageous to us would then be the object of focus.  This may require doing away with concepts such as ‘fighting for every inch’ but would lead inexorably to success. It goes without saying that the media must be managed in the event of war – to keep its (and hence the nation’s) attention on the armed forces’ view of national interest! The very fact of this change in thinking and attitude will inevitably help raise morale all round for the ultimate battle of the mind!

From Jassa Singh we graphically learn that success and victory comes with a clear vision, focus on key goals, equanimity in the face of crisis (or reverse) , dogged and determined action and the will to fight to the bitter end. We also learn not to take short cuts- Abdali had offered Jassa Singh the rulership of Punjab in his name. Jassa Singh refused and defeated him subsequently. Finally, for grand success, one factor was essential- a deep love and respect for the country- to be regarded as a mother-to whom any threat whatsoever was completely unacceptable and any pain inflicted dealt with in the severest manner. Jassa Singh realized that for such action (or initiative) to be effective it was necessary to be vitally strong. In today’s world this translates into a complete focus on economic and military might with more than adequate deterrence (deep offensive capability for example), astute diplomacy for a manageable neighborhood and the realization that we cannot really be strong if we are divided and have hundreds of millions of poor people.

Jassa Singh died in 1783.  As a rare gesture for his services to the community, he was cremated within the precincts of Harimandir Sahib (Golden temple). – near Burj Baba Atal Sahib, where his samadh exists to this day. But whilst the shrine dedicated to him lies almost forgotten, his legacy remains, inspiring warriors to fight for freedom, justice, equality and legitimate sovereignty. His soul lives on in all acts of indomitable courage performed and yet to be performed by Indians.

Jai Hind.

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