Monday, March 09, 2020

Plundering the Plunderers

How did Jammu & Kashmir end up with a Hindu ruler?

It is often said that the root of the so called Kashmir Problem lies in the fact that a muslim-majority state was ruled by a Hindu king - the Dogras - who decided to accede the state to India, instead of going to Pakistan.

If we set aside the ancient history of J&K, long list of ancient kings listed in the Rajatarangini, the Fourth Buddhist Council held in the valley, the life and times described in Kshemendra's amazing Samaya-Matrika,  and fast forward to the recent past when most of the population had already been forced to convert to Islam, we find a phase that has not received the attention it deserves. You could call this the Sikh phase of Indian history.

If there were a roll call of kingdoms in North India, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Punjab was perhaps be the last king standing when the British had, by hook or crook, by using the latest European weaponry available, colonised much of India. A recent book by Sarbpreet Singh titled, "The Caravan Merchant of Philadelphia" provides a wonderful glimpse in to the life and times of this amazing, one-eyed king.

Ranjit Singh owes his rise to a series of foreign invasions that followed the collapse of the Mughal empire. It started in 1731 when Nadir Shah of Persia began enlisting Abdali tribesmen from Herat into his army to take advantage of the chaos that was building up in Delhi. The Shah plundered so much wealth from India that he did not have to tax his countrymen for a few years that followed.

Following Nadir Shah's assassination in 1747, one of his Abdali protege's took over. Ahmad Shah Abdali was based out of Kandahar and during his rule (1747 to 1773), he crossed the Indus River more than eight times to invade and plunder North India. In 1756, during his fourth invasion he  took control of Delhi, deposed Alamgir-II, killed about 10,000 residents of Delhi in one single day, and headed back home with booty laden on 28,000 elephants, camels, bullocks and mules, followed by 8000 soldiers on horse and foot who carried their own spoils.

A few years later, in 1761, during his  fifth invasion, a decisive victory was won over the Marathas at the Third Battle of Panipat (1761).  By now he had also renamed himself  'Dur-i-Durran' or 'Pearl of the Pearls', and from then on the Abdalis became better known as the Durranis.

Each time time the Durrani's made his journey back to Khandahar with his caravans laden with loot, the Sikhs of Punjab made habit of plundering the plunderers. Hit-and-run tactics evolved into decisive battles after Rajit Singh took over leadership of the Sikh confederacy. In a few decades Ranjit Singh's empire stretched all the way from Kabul and Hazara to Kashmir. It is during this period that the Dogras became powerful in Ranjit Singh's court.

At the turn of the century, after the death of Ranjit Singh, the British started pushing further eastwards. Following the Battle of Sabraon (1846), the final battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War, the Treaty of Lahore ensured the end of the Sikh kingdom:

The Jalandhar Doab region was annexed and the Sikh Army was reduced to 20,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry...and a war indemnity of 15 million rupees was imposed and because of its inability to pay, the regions between the Beas and the Indus, including Kashmir and Hazara were seized. Most of the seized territory was sold to Raja Gulab Singh Dogra for 7.5 million rupees and he was declared the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
So, far from being the 'original' rulers of Jammu and Kashmir, the Dogras essentially purchased a kingdom for themselves, and remained at the mercy of the British until India was partitioned in 1947.


* Singh, Sarbpreet (2019): THE CAMEL MERCHANT OF PHILADELPHIA - Stories from the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Tranquebar / Westland Publications PL
* Review -

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