Sikh Militia of the Eighteenth Century
DAL KHALSA is the term used to describe the militia which came into being during the turbulent period of the second half of the eighteenth century and which became a formidable fighting force of the Sikhs in the northwestern part of India.
The first Khalsa army formed and led by the creator of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), had broken up at the time of the evacuation of Anandpur in December 1705. Another force, at one time 40,000 strong, raised by Banda Singh Bahadur (1670-1716) was scattered after the capture and execution of its leader. The fierce persecution which overtook the Sikhs made the immediate re-formation of a similar force impossible, yet the Sikh warriors in small groups continued to challenge the State’s might. Armed with whatever weapons they could lay their hands upon and living off the land, these highly mobile guerilla-bands or jathas remained active during the worst of times. It was not unusual however for the jathas to join together when the situation so demanded. Ratan Singh Bhangu, Prachin Panth Prakash, records an early instance of the warrior bands of the Bari Doab (land between the Rivers Beas and Ravi) being organized into four tummans or squadrons of 200 each, with specified area of operation and provision for mutual assistance in time of need.
Moreover, it was customary for most jathas to congregate at Amritsar to celebrate Baisakhi and Divali. Divan Darbara Singh (d. 1734), an elderly Sikh, acted on such occasions as the common leader of the entire congregation.
In 1733, Zakariya Khan, the Mughal governor of Lahore, having failed to suppress the Sikhs by force, planned to make terms with them and offered them a jagir or fief, the title of Nawab to their leader and unhindered access to and residence at Amritsar. Kapur Singh, a senior and dedicated warrior, was accepted by Sikhs as their leader and invested with the title of Nawab.
Sikh soldiers grouped themselves around their leaders most of whom were stationed at Amritsar. In consideration of administrative convenience, Nawab Kapur Singh divided the entire body of troops into two camps called Buddha Dal (the elderly group) and Taruna Dal (the younger group), respectively. Taruna Dal was further divided into five jathas, each with its own flag and drum. The compact with the government broke down in 1735 and, under pressure of renewed persecution, the Khalsa was again forced to split into smaller groups and seek shelter in hills and forests. Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739 gave a severe blow to the crumbling Mughal empire, and this gave the Sikhs a chance to consolidate themselves.
At their meeting on the occasion of Divali following the death on 1 July 1745 of Zakariya Khan, they reorganized themselves into 25 groups of about 100 persons each. The number of jathas multiplied further and by March 1748 there were as many as 65 groups operating independently of each other, although they still acknowledged the pre-eminence of Nawab Kapur Singh.
By this time a new claimant to power had appeared on the scene. Ahmad Shah Durrani had launched his first invasion of India and occupied Lahore on 12 January 1748. On the Baisakhi day, 29 March 1748, when the Sikh jathas gathered at Amritsar, Nawab Kapur Singh impressed upon them the need for solidarity. Through a gurmata or resolution, the entire fighting force of the Khalsa was unified into a single body, called the Dal Khalsa, under the supreme command of Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluvalia.
The 65 bands were merged into 11 units, misls, each under a prominent leader and having a separate name and banner. The Dal Khalsa was a kind of loose confederacy, without any strict constitution. All amritdhari Sikhs were considered members of the Dal Khalsa which was mainly a cavalry force. Anyone who was an active horseman and proficient in the use of arms could join any one of the eleven misls, having the option to change membership whenever desired. The misls were subject to the control of the Sarbatt Khalsa, the bi-annual assembly of the Panth at Amritsar.
Akal Takht was the symbol of the unity of the Dal Khalsa which was in a way the Sikh State in the making. The Dal, with its total estimated strength of 70,000, essentially consisted of cavalry; artillery and infantry elements were almost unknown to it.
The term Dal Khalsa, however, does not appear in any of the contemporary Indian chronicles before Browne. The title first appeared in James Browne’s India Tracts published in 1788. He writes, "Since the Sikhs became powerful and confederated for the purpose of conquest, they have called their confederacy Khalsa Gee, or the State, and their grand army Dull Khalsa Gee, or the Army of the State." Among the Indian writers, Sohan Lal Suri, ‘Umdat-ut-Twarikh refers to it thus: "They [the Sikh Sardars] named their conquering armies as the Dal Khalsa Jio."
The Dal Khalsa established its authority over most of the Punjab region in a short time. As early as 1749, the Mughal governor of the Punjab solicited its help in the sup
pression of a rebellion in Multan.
In early 1758, the Dal Khalsa, in collaboration with the Marathas, occupied Sirhind and Lahore. Within three months of the Vadda Ghallughara (q.v.) or the Greater Holocaust of 5 February 1762, the Dal Khalsa rose to defeat Ahmad Shah’s governor at Sirhind in April-May 1762 and the Shah himself at Amritsar in October of the same year. Sirhind and its adjoining territories were occupied permanently in January 1764.
The Khalsa thenceforward not only had the Punjab in their virtual possession, but also carried their victories right up to Delhi and beyond the Yamund into the heart of the Gangetic Plain. Although they failed to sustain or consolidate their gains in that direction, they had liberated the Punjab from foreign rule inch by inch and had sealed forever the northwestern route for foreign invaders.
Themselves victims of the worst kind of religious tyranny, the leaders of the Dal Khalsa established a just and humane rule in the Punjab. After the initial period of predatory raids aimed at undermining the authority of the Mughal government, they established, like the chauth of the Marathas, a system of rakhi, lit. protection, to protect the life and property of the people.
Rakhi was a levy of a portion, usually one-fifth, of the revenue assessment of a territory as a fee for the guarantee of peace and protection. After the conquest of Sirhind in January 1764 when Sikh sardars started occupying territory, the misldari system came into operation. Peace that returned to the Punjab after half a century of turbulence resulted in increased prosperity of the people.
The removal from among its midst by death of the towering personality of Jassa Singh Ahluvalia in 1783, virtually meant the end of the Dal Khalsa. Writing prophetically in the same year, a foreign observer, George Forster, A Journey from Bengal to England, records: "The discordant interests which agitate the Sicque [sic] nation, and the consti-tutional genius of the people, must incapacitate them, during the existence of these causes, from becoming a formidable offensive power …. Should any future cause call forth the combined efforts of the Sicques [sic] to maintain the existence of empire and religion, we may see some ambitious chief led on by his genius and success, and, absorbing the power of his associates, display, from the ruins of their commonwealth, the standard of monarchy …" The observation became true seventeen years later when Maharaja Ranjit Singh occupied Lahore.