A Sikh military camp in 18th century

Strategy is the plan behind the battle plan; it is the idea of objective that manifests itself in the shape of tactics.

The Sikh guerilla leaders, although they were obviously acting upon a systematic military doctrine throughout the course of their struggle, have left behind no account of their designs and deliberations. The contemporary historians, who cared to take notice of their military activities, have merely described what they heard and saw and not what the Sikhs had thought and planned. Consequently, there is little direct evidence available with respect to the strategy of the Sikhs and their battle plans, although there is enough evidence available from which these can be inferred. The strategy of the Sikhs becomes sufficiently obvious if we closely follow the course of their battles and correlate their tactics with their objectives. While formulating their strategy they seem to have taken into account the obvious factors, such as, their own objectives and those of their enemies, as also the character and composition of the enemy forces and the real source of his strength.

India has, since times immemorial, been victim of three types of invaders from the northwest. One type were the early invaders who came to this country to make it their abode or made it their home once they were secure in their new possessions. They defeated and drove away the original inhabitants only to settle down in their place. This marked the beginning of their undoings and their eventual absorption into the life of the land. They influenced and got influenced, and once a working synthesis was achieved they merged themselves into that vast stream of religions and cultures called Hinduism. Such were the Aryans who are said to have come to India in 2000 B.C., and the Parthians, the Scythians, the Huns, the Gurjars and various other tribes who invaded India between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500.

The second type of invaders were the robber-kings who had little territorial or political objectives in India and marched upon this country primarily for the sake of plunder. They came with enormous hordes of hungry tribesmen, lured to their standards by the prospects of plunder, and carried sword and fire to every place they visited. They fought and defeated the Indian Kings, burnt and plundered the towns and villages, sacked and slew the local population, and went back with enormous booty of gold and grain, gems and girls. They swept the capitals bare of their wealth, took away the crowns, and whilst returning restored the empty throne to its previous occupant or bestowed it upon their slaves to rule if they could. However, quite often they showed little concern as to who ruled after them and how. The more notorious among them were Mahmud Gazni and Mohammed Ghori who invaded India in the eleventh century, and Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali who came in the eighteenth century.

The third type of invaders were the military commanders who came to this country to occupy it and to rule over it. They also plundered as they conquered but this, they considered, a part of warfare. They defeated and dethroned the native Kings and set themselves up as new monarchs. Many of them were great empire builders and followed a systematic policy of expansion. They squeezed the people and invested the resources of this country in raising mercenary forces with which they conquered more territories and subjugated more people. They invested as they earned, and expanded as they invested. Their armies were the source of their treasury and their treasury was the source of their military might. Together, these two generated the power with which they forcibly maintained themselves over the people until they were ousted by a more powerful contender. Such were the men who created the Slave, the Khilji, the Tughlak, the Lodhi and the Mughal Empires in India.

Although the Sikh records do not speak of any such historical interpretation in clear terms, the two different strategies formulated by the Sikh guerilla leaders in their struggle against the Mughals and Ahmad Shah Abdali do show that they were conscious of this interpretation and fully realised as to what type of invaders their two enemies were. As there was considerable difference between the character and composition of the Mughal and Afghan armies, and as they were pursuing two different objectives, the Sikhs were obliged to formulate two different strategies which we propose to discuss in sufficient detail in the following pages.


The Mughals, as has been said earlier, were imperialist-expansionist type of invaders who had continuously been expanding their empire in India during the past 200 years through squeezing the people and investing their revenues in raising mercenary forces. The real strength of the Mughal empire lay not in its army but in the vast resources of Hindustan. The Sikhs seem to have realised this. They, accordingly, devised such a strategy as aimed at denying them these resources. To begin with, the Sikhs persuaded the peasants to withhold payment of land revenue to the Mughals. Where persuasion failed, as it failed more often than it succeeded in initial stages, they resorted to calculated terrorism in the countryside. They raided the villages and plundered the landlords, the moneylenders, the revenue officers and the hostile Peasantry, Conse quently the land revenue collection went down. Rattan Singh, whose Panth Parkash is based on contemporary oral evidence, has thus summed up the military implications of this economic warfare of the Sikhs: "Land revenue the Mughals could collect none as the peasants refused to pay any on the ground that they had already been robbed of their produce by the Sikhs. The Mughals, as they could not collect enough taxes, had little money to pay to their soldiers who consequently deserted them. And tell me if anyone can collect revenue from the peasants without being able to enforce recovery?"1 None could, not at least in those days.

The Sikhs also infested the trade-routes and plundered the merchants on the move. They frequently raided the Sarais or the inns and the ferry sites. Within a few years they were thus able to close the highways to trade and traffic. Merchants avoided the Panjab plains and preferred to take their goods through the hill states of Jammu and Kangra. This resulted in sizeable loss of income to the state from customs and transit duties. The third target of the Sikhs were the escorts carrying state revenues from the parganahs or the revenue estates to the districts and thence to Lahore and Delhi. They ambushed the escorts, raided their camping sites and plundered them in everyway. Thus they strove to block the flow of wealth to the capital, a centre where it generated power. This economic warfare waged by the Sikhs had far-reaching political and military implications. The Mughal economic system, primitive as it was, was not capable of bearing the burden of a disruptionist war of attrition. Consequently, it broke down under strain, and with it collapsed the Mansabdari and Jagirdari systems which were the backbone of the Mughal military system. These barons, the Mansabdars and the Jagirdars, when they failed to collect the revenues assigned to them, also failed to raise and furnish stipulated contingents for the royal army.

The Sikhs further combined their economic strategy with the political and evolved a system of taking control of the population through the Rakhi system. Those were the days when confusion and anarchy reigned in the Panjab. There was virtually no government and the law of the jungle prevailed. People had become an easy prey to anyone who chose to oppress them. The common man lived in constant dread of the invading hordes of the Afghan robber-soldiers, the professional robbers, the Sikhs, and worse-than-robber type of revenue collectors. "Revenue administration there was none; the cultivator followed the plough with a sword in his hand, the Collector came at the head of a regiment, and if he fared well, another soon followed him to pick up the crumbs." "Society lived in a sort of trustless truce broken from time to time by treacherous murders and thievish forays." In such times the Sikhs offered to protect the people on payment of a nominal 'protection fee', the Rakhi. In return they were not only to refrain themselves; they were also to restrain others and to protect the people from all types of marauders. In the areas thus brought under the Rakhis system raids were prevented, disputes settled and justice (rough and ready) meted out. In this way the Sikhs took over all the police functions of the state, and these were the only functions of the state in those days. Thus the people get relief and respite and the Sikhs got an opportunity to prove that they meant to rule. Politically, the Rakhi system made them saviours of the people; economically it assured them of regular legal income; and militarily, it put their organisation on sound footing. In terms of guerilla strategy, it meant an onslaught on the stable image of the Mughal empire and the staying power of the Afghan occupation forces.

In terms of pure military strategy, the Sikhs made the mercenary spirit of the Mughal soldiers, their principal target. The so-called Mughal army of the Panjab Governors of those days was mainly composed of the Irani, Turani and other Central Asian mercenaries. Individually though, these soldiers were brave and reckless, their weakness lay in their mercenary spirit and their lack of loyalty to their Prince and the country of their employer. They had no direct stake in the ontcome of the battle and consequently had little interest in serious fighting.

They frequently changed sides and often made off on the slightest pretext of reverse. Even in the midst of an offensive they were actually on the defensive because they were always keen to save their horses, the loss of which ruined them irretrievably: If they lost their animal they also lost the trooper's extra allowance. The Sikhs were different. Soldiering was not their livelihood. It was a political necessity and a religious duty for them. The Sikhs believed in a war of mutual extermination; for them capitulation was ruled out. They were thus able to turn the contest of arms into a clash of wills, and such was their success that "fifty of them were enough to keep at bay the whole battalion of the King's forces".


Ahmad Shah Abdali, except that he wanted to annex the Panjab to his Afghan empire, had little political ambitions in India. After his fourth invasion (1756-1757), when the Mughal empire lay prostrate at his feet, he made no effort to capture it even though Shatba (the prayer for the new King) was read in his name. He merely plundered in and around Delhi and while returning, he restored the throne to the vanquished Mughal Emperor, Ahmad Shah. Even in the Panjab he tried to establish his direct rule only once (May 1757-April 1758) and frequently plundered it although it was his province ever since 1752. To Ahmad Shah war did not mean an extension of politics; it meant, at best, a means of extortion through politics. And, to his Baluch-Afghan hordes, it simply meant an organised plunder, a trade by arms. The main objective of the repeated invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali was to plunder the wealth of India and to carry it to Afghanistan. It was so apparent from his conduct that every Panjabi understood it, as is clear from their common saying: Those born in Kabul are our regular guests.

The Sikhs, although they were not the first people to understand the true object of the repeated invasions of Ahmad Shahs were certainly the only ones who decided to frustrate it. Their technique was simple: they robbed the robber. Initially they concentrated on plundering raids involving little fighting and subsequently, they combined serious fighting with plundering. They hung loosely around the Afghan army making use of every opportunity of plunder that fell in their way. Whenever it suited them to take the part of assailants, they fell upon the Afghan baggage train and on their convoys relieving the Afghans of much of their booty. Further, they hovered round the Afghan camp cutting off stragglers and intercepting supplies. They also ambushed the foraging parties and plundering detachments which ventured to go away from the main Afghan force. As their strength increased, their raids grew both in frequency and ferocity. They made frontal attacks on the Afghan vanguard and towards the close of their struggle they did not spare even the main Afghan force. The Sikhs thus frequently aimed their blow at the robber instinct of the Afghan soldiers and hit his mind and morale through his belly. Over a period of time the Sikhs were thus able to convince the Afghans that while it was easy to plunder in India, it was difficult and risky to convey the booty through the Panjab. This way, they made the Afghan trade by arms unprofitable. The diminished chances of plunder were one of the reasons of desertions in the Afghan army during the last invasion of Ahmad Shah Abdali.

The military strategy of the Sikhs was elusive-offensive in nature and aggressive in content. They always strove to retain initiative, and this was necessary. Ahmad Shah Abdali, unlike the Mughals, fought a highly mobile and aggressive type of war. Against an enemy on the defensive there was nothing that could stand between him and the victory. The Sikhs had known it all along and further learnt it at their own cost in the holocaust of 1762, though they were then entrapped much against their wishes. Consequently, they never permitted themselves to be manouvered into a pitched battle of sufficiently long duration, not even till the end. They would only offer him a battle when Abdali was not in a position to accept it, either due to the urgency of returning home or because his soldiers were already exhausted. Defensively, the plan best adopted by them was to offer nothing tangible to the enemy to attack. They never tried to impede the advance of Ahmad Shah except on few occasions in which they suffered heavy losses. They appeared where he was not, threatening his base camp or the advance guard, and disappeared as soon as the main Afghan force arrived on the scene. This way they exhausted and demoralised the Afghan soldiers and then, as usual, confronted them with battle when they were eager to return home. Although the Sikhs could never achieve a decisive victory over Ahmad Shah in this manner, but ultimately he lost. "Guerrillas never win wars but their adversaries often lose them."6


The tactics of the Sikhs were not static and were usually worked out by the men on the spot. Rattan Singh whose account is based on contemporary oral evidence, was told by a former veteran that one basic tactic of the Sikhs was: "Hit the enemy hard enough to kill, run, turn back and hit him again; run again, hit and run till you exasperate the enemy, and then, melt away." 7 Their entire theory of war is summed up in the word Dhai Phat or two and a half injuries. They considered approach, and all that goes into the making of it when element of surprise is to be secured, as one secret of success. This they called one Phat or injury and regarded it 40 per cent of their battle activity. The half Phat was the sudden swift Shock action which put the enemy off his balance. Then they suddenly withdrew before the enemy could strike back and disappeared to where he could not chase them. They considered speedy and orderly withdrawal to be the second secret of success or the other complete Phat.8 Qazi Nur Mohammed who fought against the Sikhs, sums up their science of war as follows: To face the enemy like a hero and then to get safely out of action.9

They practised all types of harassing tactics such as ambush, dusk and dawn raids, but their favourite was to lead the enemy into baited traps. Unable to destroy the whole Afghan force and unwilling to let it remain intact, they devised a method of killing it bit by bit. With this object in view they would lure a section of the enemy to clsase them, and when it was cut off from the main force they would wheel round and encircle it. When facing the main Afghan force, a party of them would gallop forward and come to a sudden stop to discharge its muskets. Then they would wheel round making room for the others, and thus they kept up uninterrupted fire and smashed the enemy lines. Forster says that their mode of attack was different from that of any other cavalry in Asia.10. In those days when retreat meant rout and dispersal meant defeat, the Sikhs successfully dispersed to operate and returned to renew the attack. These were entirely new elements which the Sikhs introduced in the north Indian warfare of the period under review


  1. Copyright © Arjan Dass Malik"The Sword of the Khalsa"