Rise of Ranjit Singh and British Takeover of Punjab

Rise of Ranjit Singh

Ranjit Singh was the son of the Sukerchakia misl chief, Mahan Singh. He was only 12 years of age when his father died in 1792. He inherited a small kingdom comprising Gujranwala, Wazirabad and some areas in Sialkot and adjacent regions. This was a period when the Sikh confederacies were fighting among themselves for supremacy. This internal fighting of the Sikh chiefs, coupled with the Afghan invasions under Zaman Shah between 1795 and 1798, helped Ranjit Singh in consolidating his power in the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was able to curb the power of the independent Sikh principalities and he brought them under a single political authority. He had occupied Lahore in 1799 under a grant from Zaman Shah, the Afghan king. Thus with his control over both Lahore and Amritsar, Ranjit Singh laid the foundation of a sovereign Sikh monarchy in the Punjab, with himself as its undisputed king.

While Ranjit Singh had full faith in the Sikh scriptures and the Sikh religion, he did not allow his personal faith to come in the way of his administration. Punjab being a land of the people of diverse ethnic, religious and language groups it needed a secular administration and the Sikh rulers acted rightly in order to consolidate their rule in the region. Ranjit Singh was thus accepted as a legitimate ruler, not only by the Sikhs but also by the Muslims of Punjab.

He gradually extended his dominions north westward to as far as the Afghan hills and including the Kashmir region, and south westward well beyond Multan, toward the Sindh region. The Treaty of Amritsar with the British in 1809 barred his expansion south eastward and directed Ranjit’s expansionism northwestward. The contact with the British also produced in him an admiration for the company’s disciplined troops, who had stood their ground when they were attacked by the Sikh squads at Amritsar. This led Ranjit Singh to develop a formidable Sikh army with over 40,000 disciplined infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and a powerful artillery-as well as to employ a large number of foreign mercenary officers. The Sikh army compared favourably for efficiency with the company’s forces.

Ranjit Singh employed Hindus and Muslims besides Sikhs, but his regime was in fact a Sikh dominion based, however, on implicit Hindu and Muslim support. It used most of the revenue to support the army, which made it militarily powerful but its retarded development. It was a highly personal system, centred on Ranjit Singh himself. It was thus one that the Company could not attack lightly, but that had an innate weakness behind its formidable facade.

British Takeover of Punjab

These weaknesses began to be exposed soon after Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839; within six years the Sikh state was on the verge of potential dissolution. The possibility of a military occupation of the Punjab was discussed by the Lord Ellenborough with the Home Government in October 1843 but given the weakened state of the British Indian army after five years of war in Afghanistan, any action against the powerful Punjab army was considered inadvisable.

However the British soon found their opportunity as the repeated changes in the government of Punjab, the corruption among the officials, general indiscipline in the army and the disenchantment of the mercantile class and Lahore’s population damaged the morale of the rulers and the subjects. Moreover, they also found allies in the higher rungs of the Punjab government, e.g., Prime Minister Raja Lal Singh and the Commander-in-Chief Misar Tej Singh.

When war broke out between the Company and the Punjab army in December 1845 the Company’s army was almost routed, but the spinelessness of their leadership failed the Punjab army at a critical moment. Consequently, a sharp and bloody war ended in a British victory at the Battle of Sobraon in February 1846. However, despite this victory, the British feared to annex outright a region full of former soldiers and wished to retain a buffer state against possible attack from the northwest. Punjab was forced to sign a humiliating treaty at Lahore under the terms of which the British took Kashmir and its dependencies, along with the fertile Jullundur area, reduced the regular Punjab army to 20,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, and exacted a sizable cash indemnity. As part of this treaty, a strong British force was stationed at Lahore. Later, another treaty was signed on 16 December 1846 which gave the British Resident at Lahore extensive authority (through a council of Regency) over all matters in every department of the government; the British stationed their troops in the Punjab with their expenses to be paid by the Lahore government.

The British later sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, the chief of Jammu, who had changed sides to back them. This sowed the seeds of a chronic political problem of the status of Jammu and Kashmir which the Indian subcontinent faces even today.

Sikh nobles chafed under the conditions of the peace, and two years later a rising at Multan became a national Sikh revolt; the Sikh court was helpless. Another brief and still bloodier war, with the Sikhs this time fighting resolutely, ended with their surrender in March 1849 and the British annexation of the state.

Annexation this time proved viable, perhaps because of the underlying internal tensions. The British repressed the sirdars, or Sikh leaders, but left the rest of the community and its religion untouched.

There was little commercial exploitation of the state, and the Sikhs found employment in the army. Lord Dalhousie closely supervised the administration through a like-minded agent, Sir John Lawrence. The pair produced a new and superior administration, establishing what was known as the Punjab school. It was noted for strong personal leadership, on-thespot decisions, strong-arm methods, impartiality between the communities, and material development, including that of irrigation. There was a lot of emphasis on the building of canals, roads and bridges. The Punjab system was relatively strong and efficient, creating a modicum of prosperity in region obviously benefiting the British also. An important result of these developments was that the Sikhs sided with the British during the 1857 revolt.

Comments

Leave a Reply