Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Situation in Punjab, Sikh confedrations and Afghanis

Punjab presented a picture of chaos and confusion when Ranjit singh took reins of Sukerchikias misal. The edifice of Ahmad Shah abdali's empire in India had crumbled. Afghanistan was dismembered. Peshawar and Kashmir though under the suzerainty of Afghanistan had attained de facto independence. Barakzais were the masters of these places. Attock was ruled by Wazrikhels and Jhang lay at the feet of Sials. Pathans were ruling Kasur. Multan had thrown yoke and Nawab Muzaffar Khan had taken its charge.
Map of Punjab in 1790's

Both Punjab and Sind were under Afghan rule since 1757 after Ahmad Shah Abdali was granted suzerainty over these two provinces. They were confronted with the rising power of Sikhs in Punjab. Taimur Khan, a local Governor was able to turn away Sikhs from Amritsar. He razed to the ground the fort of Ram Rauni. But this state of affairs did not last long and the Sikh misal joined hands and defeated Taimur Shah and his Chief minister Jalal Khan. The Afghans were forced to retreat and Lahore was occupied by the Sikhs in 1758, Jassa singh Ahluwalia proclaimed Sikh's sovereignty and became its head. He struck coins to commemorate his victory.

When Ahmad Shah Abdali was engaged in his campaign against the Marathas at Panipat in 1761, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia plundered Sirhind and Dialpur, seized some places in Ferozepur district and took under his possession Jagraon and Kot Isa Khan on the other bank of Sutlej. He captured Hoshiarpur and Naraingurh in Ambala and levied tribute from the chief of Kapurthala. He then marched towards Jhang. Sial chief offered stout resistance. When Ahmad Shah left in Feb. 1761, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia again attacked Sirhind and extended his territory as far as Tarn Taran. He crossed Bias and capture Sultanpur. In 1762, Ahmad Shah again appeared and a fierce battle took place. It is called Ghalughara, a great holocaust. Jassa singh fled to Kangra hills after Sikh forces were totally routed. After the departure of Ahmad Shah Abdali, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia attacked Sirhind, it was razed to ground and the afghan Governor Zen Khan was killed. This was a great victory to Sikhs who were rulers of all the area around the Sirhind. Jassa Singh hastily paid visit to Hari Mandir at Amritsar, and he made amends and restored it to original shape as it was defiled by Ahmad Shah by slaughtering cows in its precincts.

Ahmad Shah died in June 1773. After his death power of Afghans declined in Punjab. Taimur Shah ascended the throne at Kabul. By then misals, had established themselves in Punjab. They had under their control the area as far as Saharnpur in east, Attock in west, Kangra Jammu in north and Multan in south. Efforts were made by Afghan rulers to dislodge Sikhs from their citadels. Taimur Shah attacked Multan and defeated the Bhangis. The Bhangi sardars, Lehna Singh, and Sobha singh were driven out of Lahore in 1767 by the Abdali but soon reoccupied it. They remained in power in Lahore till 1793-the year when Shah Zaman succeeded to the throne of Kabul.

Another menace to Sikhs was the Pathan ruler of Kasur who was loyal to Kabul. During the Abdali attacks, he took side with him and plundered the Sikh territory. Now again assistance was promised to Shah by Kasur ruler, Nizam-Ud-Din-Khan.

The first attempt by Shah Zaman was made in 1793. He came upto Hassan Abdal from where he sent an army of 7000 strong cavalry under Ahmad Shahnachi but the Sikhs totally routed them. It was a great setback to Shah Zaman but again in 1795 he reorganized forces and attacked Hassan Abdal, snatched Rohtas from Sukerchikias, whom leader was Ranjit Singh. who suffered at Shah Zaman' hands but did not lose courage. However, shah had to be back in Kabul as an invasion was apprehended on his own country from the west. After he went back, Ranjit dislodged the Afghans from Rohtas.

Shah Zaman could not sit idle. In 1796 he moved, crossed Indus for the third time and dreamt of capturing Delhi. His ambition knew no bounds. By now he had collected 3000 strong afghan army. He was confident a large number of Indians will join with him. Nawab of Kasur had already assured him help. Sahib Singh of Patiala betrayed his countrymen and declared his intentions of helping Shah Zaman. He had family traditions of loyalty to all the invaders who attacked India. Shah Zaman was also assured help by the Rohillas, Wazir of Oudh, and Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Shah was bent upon to finish the infidels. The news of Shah Zaman invasion spread like wild fire. Chicken hearted people started fleeing to hills for safety. Heads of Misals, though bound to give protection to the people as they were collecting Rakhi tax from them were the first to leave the people in lurch. In Dec. Shah occupied territory upto Jhelum. When he reached Gujarat Sahib singh bhangi panicked and left the place. He could not offer any resistance.

Next was the territory of Ranjit singh. He was alert and raised an army of 5000 horsemen. But they were inadequately armed with only spears and muskets. The afghans were equipped with heavy artillery. Ranjit singh thought of a stiff united fight against the invaders. He came to Amritsar. A congregation of Sarbat Khalasa was called and many Sikh sardars answered the call. An almost unanimous opinion prevailed that Shah zaman's army should be allowed to enter the Punjab, and they all should retire to hills.

However, Sada Kaur thought otherwise and exhorted the Sikhs to fight to the last. She persuaded Ranjit singh to be bold enough to face the Afghan army and offer stiff resistance. Forces were reorganized under the command of Ranjit singh and they marched towards Lahore. They were able to gave Afghans a crushing defeat in several villages and ultimately surrounded the city of Lahore. Sorties were made in night in which they would kill a few Afghan soldiers and then leave the city in the thick of darkness. Following this tactic they were able to dislodge Afghans at several places.

In 1797, Shah Zaman, suddenly left for Afghanistan as his brother Mahmud had revolted. Shahanchi khan with considerable force was left at Lahore. The Sikhs however followed Shah upto Jhelum and snatched many goods from him. The Sikhs returned and in the way were attacked by the army of Shahnachi khan near Ram Nagar. The Sikhs routed his army. It was the first major achievement of Ranjit Singh. He became the hero of the land of Five Rivers and his reputation spread far and wide.

Again in 1798 Shah Zaman attacked Punjab to avenge his defeat in 1797, people took refuge in hills. Sarbat Khalsa was again called and Sada Kaur again persuaded Sikhs to fight till the last man. This time even Muslims were not spared by Shah Zaman forces and he won Gujarat very easily. Sada Kaur aroused the sense of Sikhs of national honor and if they had left Amritsar then she will command the forces against Afghans. She said an Afghani soldier was no match to a Sikh soldier . They would be give befitting reply and by the grace of Sat Guru they would be successful.

The Afghans had plundered the towns and villages as they had vowed and declared openly that they would exterminate the Sikhs; but in the process the Muslims suffered most as Hindus and Sikhs had already left for the hills. The Muslims thought that they would not be touched but their hopes were belied and their provisions were forcible taken away by the Afghans.

Shah Zaman sought help of raja Sansar Chand of Kangra, that he will not gave any food or shelter to Sikhs. He agreed. Shah Zaman attacked Lahore and Sikhs were surrounded from all sides, they had to fight a grim battle. The Afghans occupied Lahore on Nov. 1798, and planned to attack Amritsar. Ranjit Singh collected his Men and faced forces about 8 Km from Amritsar. It was a well-matched encounter which forced Afghans at last to retire. They were humiliated and fled towards Lahore. Ranjit Singh pursued them and surrounded Lahore. Afghan supply lines were cut. Crops were burnt and other provisions plundered so that they did not fall into Afghan's hands. The Afghans never expected such a humiliating defeat at the hands of Sikhs. Nizam-ud.din of Kasur attacked Sikhs near Shahdara on the banks of Ravi, but his forces were no match to Sikhs. Here too, Muslims suffered the most. The retreating Afghans and Nizam-ud-din forces plundered the town which antagonized the local people.

The Afghans struggled hard to dislodge Sikhs but in vain. Sikh cordon was so strong that they made impossible for the Afghans to break it and proceed towards Delhi. Ranjit singh became terror to them.

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  1. Copyright © Surinder Singh Johar "The Secular Maharaja"
  2. Copyright © Harbans Singh "The Heritage of the Sikhs"
  3. Copyright © Khushwant Singh "History of the Sikhs"