The Great Sikh General Hari Singh NalwaM/
‘Rajan ke Raj Hari Singh sartaj jaye, payao beech kaar khoob kini talwar ko,
Singh aswari qatlaam kini bhari, judh maha bhaikari, vaas liyo baikunth ko’.
(If one were to crown a true King of kings, the honour would go undoubtedly to Hari Singh Nalwa. His talent in battle was unmatched which has ensured him a place in Heaven).
Indomitable courage, unsurpassed bravery and inexhaustible zeal are words that aptly describe one of the greatest warrior heroes ever born-The Sikh General Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa. His place in history of the Indian subcontinent is in the highest echelon and his valiant exploits are stuff that legends are made of. He left an indelible mark on the history of India in a short span of time, to be forever revered as one of its most glorious chapters.
In 1799 the Sikh kingdom had been established by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sardar Hari Singh, his most valued Commander-in-chief, was at the forefront of all major expeditions and triumphs, commanding the Sikh army at the highly turbulent and strategic North West frontier. His victorious battles against the Afghans and the ferocious North western tribes resulted in conquests of lands from Kashmir in the north to Multan in the south, and from Kasur in the east to Jamrud in the west. For the first time in eight hundred years, the passage of invaders into India, through the Khyber Pass, was successfully blocked. As is well known, the Trans Indus region could never be fully controlled even by the mighty Mughals from Akbar to Aurangzeb. Hari Singh, with his immense initiative and daring, succeeded not just in subduing this rugged territory populated by an extremely volatile and ferocious population, but as an administrator, he also transformed the wild North west region into a well managed and commercially profitable territory of the Sikh Kingdom.
Sardar Hari Singh was born in 1791 in Gujranwala (in present Pakistan) to Sardar Gurdial Singh of the Uppal Khatri clan and Mata Dharm Kaur. His father was a commander of the Sukerchakia Misl who lost his life during a battle against Zaman Shah, grandson of Ahmad shah Abdali. Hari Singh was just seven years old at this time but even at this tender age, he displayed rare courage, dignity and God gifted strength of mind and body. By his tenth year he had been initiated into the fold of Khalsa, and was ignited with the lofty ideals of Guru Gobind Singh and the ‘Panth’. In 1804 Hari Singh found employment in the court of Lahore, and soon captured the attention of Maharaja Ranjit Singh because of his impressive personality and equestrian skills. Pleased with his enthusiasm and talent, the Maharaja granted him a command of a cavalry of 700 men and horses and bestowed the title of ‘sardar’ on him. Hari Singh named his regiment ‘Sher Dil Rajman’ that went on to create history in future years. He also emerged as an ultimate hero when he bravely and single handedly killed a tiger in an unarmed combat, a feat that has been the subject of many a ballad sung in his praise by future generations of Indians. Probably the cognomen ‘Nalwa’ was given to him for accomplishing this feat, though there is inadequate evidence for the same.
Hari Singh’s first significant participation in a Sikh conquest came in 1807 during the battle of Kasur, when the young man got a chance to exhibit his dauntless courage and alacrity. Kasur was then an Afghan stronghold near Lahore, and an important acquisition for the Sikh kingdom. With this successful campaign Hari Singh embarked upon a journey that was to make him one of the greatest icons of history. The onward march towards greater recognition came with Hari Singh’s commendable contribution in the victories of Sialkot, Attock, Rajouri and Mahmudkot in the next few years. The fall of Attock marked a significant moment in Sikh history as it blocked the passage of Afghans from Kabul to Kashmir, thus breaking their hold over this mountainous region.
It was Hari Singh’s able leadership in 1818, that resulted in the conquest of Multan, the most important Afghan Saddozai bastion and trading station east of the Indus, south west of Bari Doab . This victory pleased Maharaja Ranjit Singh so much that he expressed unbounded joy and pride for the young General by showering him with words of praise. By 1819, Sikhs had taken possession of the important Afghan strongholds in the ‘doabs’ and had entered Peshawar, the summer capital of the kingdom of Kabul. Though Peshawar was subdued, it was not brought under Sikh rule until much later.
Kashmir had been under Afghan domination since 1752, when Ahmad Shah Abdali had annexed it to the Kingdom of Kabul. In 1819, Maharaja Ranjit Singh entrusted Hari Singh and Misr Diwan Chand with the task of leading offensive operations in this territory. This was done in response to a fervent appeal for help from Kashmiri pundits who were facing severe oppression at the hands of Afghans. The Sikhs conquered Poonch and a significant portion of territory south of Pir Panjal Mountains in early June, 1819. By July, Kashmir had been subjugated and brought under Sikh rule after five centuries of muslim domination. Hari Singh once again proved his mettle and showed exemplary organizational skills and competence during the entire military operation. He also took effective steps to curb future Afghan intrusions into the valley from vulnerable points like Darband. In 1820, at the age of 29, Hari Singh was appointed as the Governor of Kashmir which was not just strategically very important but was also the largest revenue earning ‘subah’ of the Sikh kingdom. Despite facing many challenges like famine, epidemics, insurgency and hostile activities of refractory tribes, Hari Singh’s tenure and able administration left a lasting impact on Kashmir. It was at his behest that several socio economic reforms were initiated in the ‘subah’. Not only did he abolish ‘begar’ or unpaid forced labour, but also introduced Sikh coinage in Kashmir, which was popularly called ‘Hari Singhee’ even in subsequent years all over Kashmir and Punjab. This period also saw a considerable boost in trade and impetus to handicraft. Apart from this Hari Singh was also able to inspire confidence among the Kashmiris through his charitable grants to all sections of society. His tenure lasted till the end of 1821, as his valuable services were required for the Sikh Forward Policy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh against the Pashtuns. And the King trusted no one more for the job!
In 1822, Hari Singh was granted the Jagirdari and Governorship of Greater Hazara as a reward for his able generalship in the Battle of Mangal against the tribal army of Damtaur. Not only was this campaign an exceptionally arduous one due to the hazardous mountain terrain but it was also conducted successfully with a much smaller army than that of the opponents! After this, the Sikh presence along the Indus frontier was all pervading- politically, militarily and administratively. As Governor of Greater Hazara, Hari Singh’s administrative skills and ability to provide security and stability, transformed a turbulent region into a commercially viable territory. This resulted in greater productivity, and facilitated travel and trade. His Land reforms in the region and building of the Rangila Canal for better water supply and making Haripur as a trading point were ingenious steps that reflected his far sightedness.
Meanwhile deep in the Sindh Sagar doab, south of the Salt Range, descendents of the Saddozai clan of Afghans still exerted considerable influence, with Mankhera as their stronghold. In an expedition led by the Maharaja himself, Hari Singh’s astute generalship and military acumen resulted in the fall of Mankhera, and subjugation of Pakhli and Damtaur soon after. Henceforth the Indus river defined the western extent of the Sikh kingdom.
Thereafter, the Sikhs turned their attention to the Trans Indus region, dotted with four strategically located mountain passes including the Khyber Pass. The Sikhs had made their influence felt in Peshawar in 1818, but as stated above, though the Barakzai Governor of Peshawar was compelled to pay tribute, the territory had been left unconquered. The Khyber Pass, situated west of Peshawar at an altitude of 3500 ft, was the most important doorway into the subcontinent. Over the centuries, turbulent tribes collectively called the ‘Pashtuns’ came to inhabit the region between the Hindu Kush mountains and river Kabul.
Though by 1822 most of the Afghan territories had been subdued, a Barakzai chieftain Azim Khan still nursed a dream to vanquish the Sikhs and vindicate the Afghan honour. For this purpose he tried to seek help from the British for a combined offensive against the Sikhs, but it was declined. In early months of 1823 Azim Khan declared ‘jihad’ (religious war) and started encouraging the Pashtuns of the region to enroll for a war against the ‘infidels’. The Yusufzai tribemen joined this army in large numbers and remained in the forefront of the Sikh Pashtun conflict that ensued thereafter. With an army of 8000 men, along with Diwan Kirpa Ram and Prince Sher Singh, Hari Singh crossed the Indus at Attock and reached the Sikh post at Khairabad. His men besieged the tribal fort of Jahangira and conquered it in a show of great tactical maturity. Thereafter Hari Singh successfully reduced the tribal strongholds on either side of the Indus, which resulted in considerably weakening the Yusufzai position. However, a ferocious battle was fought between the Afghans and forces led by Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself at Naushera, but the tribesmen were no match for the Sikhs. The Barakzais under Azim Khan did nothing to extend help to their Pashtun brothers who had risen to their clarion call. Hari Singh’s formidable role in this victory further enhanced his prestige.
After the battle of Naushera and the one that followed in the next year at Sirikot, remnants of Afghan power declined steadily along both sides of Indus. However, the Yusufzais could not forget the humiliation heaped on their Afghan pride by the victorious Sikhs, and soon regrouped under Sayyid Ahmad, a Wahabi spiritual leader who they believed would redeem their fate. But Hari Singh’s alert supervision along the Sikh frontier held the influential Sayyid at bay.
However, soon he managed to find an opportunity to intrude into Sikh territory in 1825, following a rumour that Maharaja Ranjit Singh was ill. Though the Yusufzais attacked Hazro, north of Attock, Hari Singh’s timely arrival with his troops saved the town and its citizens from Afghan onslaught. Yet again, in early 1827, Sayyid Ahmad, along with the Barakzais in Peshawar, marched towards Naushera, crossed the Landai river and proceeded in the direction of Attock, with all signs of aggression. The fierce balttle that ensued at Saidu resulted in a resounding defeat for the Sayyid, despite his vastly superior numbers. Only eight thousand Sikh soldiers under Hari Singh’s able command, had managed to defeat a lakh and a half strong army of the insurgents. It was in May 1831, that the last battle between the Wahabis and Sikhs was fought at Balakot , resulting in the death of Sayyid. Immediately Hari Singh began strengthening the existing fortifications of Attock and Khairabad, to ensure security of the Sikh kingdom in future.
1831 was a landmark year in the glorious military career of General Hari Singh. Not only was the Wahabi menace crushed successfully, but this event had increased the power of the Sikh Kingdom immensely. However, it was not just on the battlefield that Ranjit Singh trusted Hari Singh implicitly. In April 1831, entrusted with diplomatic responsibilities by the Maharaja, Hari Singh led a Sikh delegation to meet William Bentinck, a senior British official who was to later become the Governor General of India. Despite apparent warmth at this meeting in Shimla, Hari Singh was sharp enough to see through British military and trade designs under the veneer of friendship. He was well aware of the policies of the East India Company.
One of the most important acquisitions for the Sikhs was Peshawar, which was subdued three times in the past by them, but never made a part of their Kingdom. Peshawar, the winter retreat of kings of Kabul, was a fertile and revenue rich territory. Its occupation held great promise for the Sikh Kingdom as it was situated barely 190 miles away from the Afghan capital. In December 1834, a fresh opportunity arose for the conquest of Peshawar. But ironically, the Afghan stronghold fell into Sikh hands without any resistance, which was indicative of the formidable reputation enjoyed by Hari Singh in the Pashtun territories. The fort Bala Hissar was captured by the Sikh army. With the occupation of Peshawar, the boundaries of the Sikh Kingdom now extended deep into the Trans Indus region. However, Dost Mohammad of the Kabul ruling family, encouraged by his success in a battle against Shah Shuja, the deposed king of Afghanistan, decided to challenge the Sikh might yet again in 1835. Although the Sikh army under Hari Singh and other Sikh chieftains was in a state of readiness to engage with the Kabul Afghans, Dost Mohammad, having lost the support of Sultan Mohammad Khan and his brother Jabbar Khan, fled his camp with his army, weapons and equipment.
The situation in the volatile Peshawar territory soon grew tense again as the Yusufzais started showing defiance by refusing to pay tribute to the Sikh officers. Kanwar Sher Singh had already expressed his reluctance to continue in his assignment as Incharge of Peshawar. As no other sardar volunteered to go there either, Hari Singh was recalled from his leave in October 1836, and instructed by the Sikh Maharaja to proceed to Peshawar to extract the tribute and its arrears. As Hari Singh reached there, he led his men in an attack on Jamrud, a village right at the mouth of the Khyber Pass. After this conquest, the extent of the Sikh kingdom reached the foothills of the Hindukush mountains. In a further offensive, Panjtar, a Yusufzai stronghold was completely destroyed and arrears due to the Sikh kingdom were realized.
As stated above the Trans Indus region had never been so completely controlled in the past even by the mighty Mughals, the way it was done by the Sikhs. General Hari Singh, the commander in chief of the Sikh army in the North west, who by sheer dint of his courage and gallantry, had accomplished a formidable task. But, the conquest of Jamrud by Hari Singh had ruffled the Afghans immensely. Dost Mohammad Khan feared that after Jamrud, the Sikhs would proceed to Jalalabad, and eventually occupy Kabul. The Panjtar defeat had sent alarm bells ringing among the Afghans. Dost Mohammad proceeded to Jamrud in a bid to wrest the forts of Jamrud and Peshawar. In the battle that followed, the Sikhs were totally outnumbered but fought valiantly. However, in the ensuing melee, Hari Singh who was in the fore front, was grievously injured. But to ensure that the Afghans did not take advantage of the situation, he ordered his lieutenants to conceal the news in case he died, till reinforcements arrived from Lahore. On the arrival of fresh Sikh troops, the Afghans decided to retreat to Kabul. They could not achieve any of their objectives- capture of the fort of Jamrud nor the possession of Peshawar. Hari Singh succumbed to his injuries but even in his last hour of life, he saved the North west frontier from being ravaged by the Afghans.
After Hari Singh’s death there was a definite change of Sikh military policy, which now became more defensive than offensive, along the Afghan border. Henceforth, there was a definite reversal of the victorious march of the Sikh might. And it would not be wrong to say that after the death of this braveheart, the Sikh kingdom began to decline.
Hari Singh’s brave exploits and heroic feats became a popular theme for martial ballads and poetry. Poets of all communities penned verses in his praise -‘Qissa Sardar Hari Singh’ by Qadir Baksh urf Qadaryar, ‘Jangnama Sardar Hari Singh’ by Ram Dayal ‘anad’, ‘Jangnama Hari Singh Ka’ by Gurmukh Singh, ‘Siharfian Jang Pishaur Singha te Pathana di’ by Misr Hari Chand, are notable among them. Such was the exemplary service of this brave general that even the British, headed by Governor General Lord Auckland, paid glowing tributes to him.
The brave exploits of General Hari Singh Nalwa still live on in the memory of Punjabis worldwide. His performance as an administrator and military commander in the North West frontier remains unmatched and his story is stuff legends are made of!
Dr Preeti Singh
The author is an Astt. Professor in the Dept. of History of SGND Khalsa College, Delhi University. She has also authored a Book – ‘Transitions in Indian Economic Historiography’.