Historians Amar Pal Sidhu, Mandeep Rai, Sukhmani Bal Riar and William Dalrymple in the session on Anglo-Sikh wars, at the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh on Saturday. (Anil Dayal/HT)
The Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1845 and 1848 are the only two instances where the generals betrayed their own army. The complex account of how it changed the course of Indian history was the topic of discussion during the second session on Day 2 of Military Literature Festival here on Saturday.
Moderating this conversation among historian Amar Pal Sidhu, professor Sukhmani Bal Rai, and Scottish author William Dalrymple, bureaucrat Mandeep Rai said: “Generals Tej Singh and Lal Singh betrayed their own Sikh army to join hands with the British… otherwise Pakistan would have never been in existence. This account of treachery runs very deep,” he said, “even historians don’t know how deep.”
In the first Anglo-Sikh War, governor-general Sir Henry Hardinge was ready with 7,000 troops of the British Bengal Army. The entire British army, which included the East India Company soldiers, had five divisions and 13,000-odd troops.
Rai said: “In the (first Anglo-Sikh) war, the sons of Maharaja Ranjit Singh died one after another. His son, Sher Singh, was shot by his own cousin from point-blank range, while grandson Nau Nihal Singh was killed on way back from his father’s funeral. If the generals had not committed treachery, the Sikhs would not have lost the first war.”
Amar Pal Sidhu, who has written a book on the Anglo-Sikh Wars, highlighted the vulnerabilities of the British army and how close it came to surrender. Hardinge was at Ferozshah and preparing to lay down arms. “The British army had not eaten for days, not had water for 20 days, and run out of ammunition. It was weak and incapable of fighting further, only if generals Tej Singh and Lal Singh had not betrayed their Sikh army. The British surrender would have been a seminal moment in history, which would have changed its course.”
The death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 was a great blow to the Sikh Empire of Lahore. “It collapsed like the empires of Alexander and Nader Shah after their demise.” About his experience of visiting these battlefields next to the Sutlej riverbanks in Pakistan, Sidhu said: “These are the loneliest places in Punjab.” The history writers also tried to imagine what a Punjab without Pakistan would have been like.
Dalrymple, however, said, “The East India Company had huge resources at its disposal, both in terms of weapons and men. Even if it had lost one battle, it had no dearth of backups.” The Sikh army, on the contrary, was a treacherously led force. The Lahore Durbar itself, he said, was facing factionalism. There was a Dogra faction, a Rani Jindan faction besides many other intrigues, he said.
The second Anglo-Sikh War happened when Multan revolted and killed two British officers. “The army under general Sher Singh Attariwala, son of general Chattar Singh Attariwala, joined the rebels on the banks of the swollen Chenab river,” Rai said. Dalrymple said: “The tragedy of the Sikhs is that their richest archive sits in Pakistan and they cannot access it without a visa. What has survived of the Sikh and Afghan war papers in the national archives is not enough… a huge frustration for the Sikh historians.”
Reporting from Hindustan Time and Times of India.