Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Subjugation of North Western Frontier
By Kirpal Singh
THE greatest legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is his conquest of Hazara and Peshawar and the consolidation of the north western frontier. But for this achievement, all these regions, along with the entire trans-Indus territories, would have been lost to India forever. They would not have been part of the British Empire. Pakistan would also not have inherited them. These would have been in Afghanistan. Hence, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s achievement in this context is of international importance.
According to Ain-i-Akbari, all these trans-Indus areas were included in the Kabul province which was one of the provinces like Lahore (Punjab) or Multan. Kabul had Pakhly viz, Hazara (modern district of Hazara) as one of the Sarkars like those of Kabul, Sewad (Peshawar area), Issa Khyl etc. Though these areas were under the control of Mughals but they were never subdued. In the Attock District Gazetteer, it has been stated: "But the Mughal sway was always more nominal than real. They appear to have been content to levy revenue and there is nothing to show that any serious government was attempted. The whole district paid only about half a lakh of rupees and the head of each tribe remained practically independent."
This nominal sway of the Mughals ended after Nadir Shah’s invasion. All trans-Indus areas and some portions of West Punjab were brought under the control of Kabul by Ahmad Shah Abdali, founder of modern Afghanistan, who succeeded Nadir Shah. Repeated invasions by Ahmad Shah Abdali could not crush the Sikhs. They had just the opposite effect and greatly helped their rise to political power.
Sikhs were successful in wresting most of the territory of Punjab from Ahmad Shah Abdali. Qazi Nur Mohammad in his famous Jang Namah gives details of the Sikh possessions. He concludes: "From Sarhind to Lahore, Multan and Derajat, the whole country has been divided by these wretched dogs", among themselves. The Sikh chiefs had very nominal control over the western part of Sindh-Sagar Doab — areas of Fatehjang, Pindigheb and Bhakhar.
The rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) will ever remain a watershed in the annals of the trans-Indus regions. Maharaja Ranjit Singh undertook to subdue and control effectively the ferocious tribes populating these regions. After the conquest and annexation of Multan and Kashmir, he led his legions across the Indus. This was a big challenge to the valiant Afghans who raised a cry of Jehad under Azim Khan Burkazi, ruler of Kabul. A big Afghan army collected on the bank of Kabul river at Naushehra. Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory and Ghazis were dispersed in 1823.
Hazara, the country west of Kashmir, east of Peshawar and northwest of Attock, was conquered and annexed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1820. Its first Nazim under Ranjit Singh was Amar Singh Majithia who ruled over the territory for two years. He was successful in suppressing the rebellion of Muhammad Khan Tarin and was able to defeat Dhund, Tarin, Tanol and Kharal tribes who were fighting against him. Lepel Griffin writes about the battle: "The battle was over, the enemy had taken to flight and the Sikh forces had retired from the field, when Amar Singh thirsty and fatigued went down to the little stream Samandar to bathe and drink. He had only a few horsemen with him, when a party of the enemy troopers returning and seeing the weakness of the little party came down and killed Amar Singh and his followers after a desperate defence."
After the death Amar Singh Majithia, who is also known as Amar Singh Kalan, Hari Singh Nalwa was appointed the Nazim of Hazara. He was not unknown to the Hazara tribes. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh led his army to conquer Mankera in 1821, he ordered Hari Singh Nalwa who was in Kashmir to join him there. At that time, Hari Singh Nalwa had only 7,000 men. On the way he was opposed by 20,000 wild mountaineers living in the Pakhly hills. Pakhly or Hazara was the spot dreaded by merchants because these tribals demanded toll on the merchandise. Hari Singh, after his vain efforts to induce the enemy to yield him a passage, attacked with vigour and storming their blockade, defeated them. This was no mean achievement to defeat about 20,000 Hazara tribals with 7,000 men. Maharaja was much pleased over this exploit of Hari Singh Nalwa. Hari Singh Nalwa joined his assignment in Hazara in February 1822 and undertook to punish the murderers of Amar Singh, his predecessor. He attacked Hasham Khan who was supposed to have a hand in the murder. He surrendered and produced the real culprits who were punished. Hasham Khan promised to be loyal.
In order to understand the defence measures of Hari Singh Nalwa, it is essential to be conversant with the geographical conditions of this region as well as the tribal distribution. Hasham Khan belonged to the northern area and was the leader of Karal tribe (or Karlani tribe which is a branch of Khattak tribe). In order to have full control over this area, Hari Singh built a fort at Nara, modern tehsil Abbotabad. The army was stationed there to keep the Pathans in check on this side. On the western side of Hazara territory, the Indus forms a natural defence. The north western side was bounded partly by Jhelum and partly by a mountainous range known as Pakhli range. In the Ain-i-Akbari, the entire territory is known as Pakhli. The word Pakhli appears to have been derived from Pactyan nation, mentioned by Herodotus. In order to check these ferocious tribes, Hari Singh Nalwa adopted a well-thought-out policy. He built a very strong fort in the valley surrounded by mountains and named it after the eighth Guru of the Sikhs as Harkrishangarh and also founded a town named Haripur. The town was surrounded by a wall which was four yards thick and sixteen yards high and had only four openings. Drinking water was provided by digging a tank. Many small drains were dug to carry sullage water. Baron Hugal visited the town on December 23, 1835, and he found the town humming with activity.
In the upper ranges of Pakhli there lived mainly Jadus, Tanaoli and Swatis. They were warlike tribes and it was very difficult to control them. These were the tribes that had blocked the passage of Hari Singh Nalwa in 1821 and had been defeated by him with much lesser force. Hari Singh built forts at strategic places and garrisoned them. The roads were built to link them so that reinforcements could be sent from one fort to another at the time of crisis. This policy of building fortresses proved very successful and very deterring for these tribes. The forts built in the upper ranges of Pakhli were Fort Nowan Shekar, Fort Dhamataur, Fort Darband and Fort Shinkiari. An old fort at Tarbela was repaired.
The Afghan and Pathans always considered themselves superior to the people on the Indian side. They looked down upon Indian Muslims and contemptuously referred to them as Hindko. Their pride was pricked for the first time as they had been defeated by the Sikhs whom they considered infidels. Undoubtedly, they were agitated and used to say Khalsa Hum Khuda Shuda (Khalsa too has become believer of God)
Khattaks had predominantly settled in Khattak country from the south of Kabul river on the low lands from Indus to Nowshera. They were fanatical people and never liked the Sikhs. Yusufzsis, the most numerous of the Peshawar tribes, were extremely warlike. Muhammadzai inhabited the area north east of Peshawar. The Gigians had their settlements south of Muhammadzai areas and they were in open rebellion as their lands had been given to Barkzai chiefs under the Sikh government. Afridis ruled supreme in the Khaibar area. Besides these, there were other tribes like Khalils, Mohammadans etc. These tribesmen looked to their own Malik or Khan or council of elders — Jirga — for guidance in matters of common interest and not to the ruling authority at Peshawar. As such they were ever ready to take up arms when called upon by their chief/chiefs against the infidel Sikhs.
Hari Singh Nalwa knew how to match the Sikh hatred of Afghans. He set up a very strong administration in the Peshawar valley. He levied a cess of Rs 4 per house on the Yusafzais. This cess was to be collected in cash or in kind. For its realisation, personal household property could be appropriated. There was scarcely a village which was not burnt. In such an awe were his visitations held that his name was used by mothers as a term of fright to hush their unruly children.
It was prudently realised that although the spell of Afghan supremacy was broken, the region predominantly populated by turbulent and warlike Muhammadan tribes could not be securely held unless a large army was permanently stationed there. A force of 12,000 men was posted with Hari Singh Nalwa to quell any sign of turbulence and to realise the revenue. The terror of the name of the Khalsa resounded in the valley. Part of the city of Peshawar was burnt and the residence of the Barkazi Governor at Bala Hissar was razed to the ground. Hari Singh Nalwa strengthened the Sikh position by garrisoning the frontier forts.
In order to consolidate the defence of the north western frontier, Hari Singh Nalwa closely studied the topography of the Peshawar region. There were three rivers flowing from Afghanistan to Peshawar forming three water routes as well as land routes. Hari Singh Nalwa decided to build forts in this terrain in order to check infiltration and invasions by the Afghans from all these routes. The nearest mountainous pass to Peshawar is the Khaibar which is only nine miles from Peshawar. On previous occasions, all important invaders had entered India through it. Hari Singh Nalwa decided to construct forts on all these strategic points. On the bank of Kabul river, Michni fort was constructed and it was put under the command of Nichhatar Singh, son of a well-known general Dhanna Singh Malwai. In this fort were stationed 300 infantry men, 100 horsemen, 10 artillery men, two big and two small cannons. On the bank of Barla river also a strong fort was built. It was named Barha fort and 300 infantry men, 100 cavalry men and three cannon pieces were placed there and the required provisions were supplied. It was placed under Lehna Singh Sandhanwalia, a well-known warrior. But the most important route was through Khaibar Pass which had been the traditional route for invaders since time immemorial. After surveying the entire area, Hari Singh Nalwa spotted a small round on the eastern end of Khaibar Pass which was a part of the nearby village of Jamrud. It had remnants of a small mud fort. Hari Singh decided to build a fort there. The necessary material was collected and the foundation of a very strong fort was laid on October 17, 1836. Hari Singh Nalwa himself laid the foundation of the fort after offering prayers.
Masons and labourers worked there continuously and they were able to raise this historic fort in a month and 25 days. Its walls were four yards wide and 12 yards high. It was named as Fatehgarh Sahib. Inside this fort were stationed 800 infantry, 200 cavalry, 80 artillery men, 10 big cannons and 12 small cannons. Maha Singh, a seasoned general, was appointed the commander of the fort. The fort faced scarcity of water. It was overcome by harnessing a nearby stream that was under the control of the Afridis. The Afridis were offered a jagir worth Rs 1200 in return for control over the stream. An alternate arrangement of water was also made within the fort to face any eventuality by digging a big well. Another important fort was built on the road leading to this fort linking Peshawar. It was just in the middle of the road between Jamrud and Peshawar. It was named Burj Hari Singh and 100 men were stationed there. Besides this, Hari Singh also got repaired the old forts like Attock, Khairabad, Shubkadar and Jehangira.
This chain of forts on the north western side was linked by roads so that reinforcements could reach each fort in times of crisis. Peshawar was strongly fortified and it was linked to Attock by a line of towers erected at a distance of every two kos.