NEW DELHI(HT)The British may not have had such a long and free run of the country had the Sikh army not been betrayed by its own generals; and there would have been no Pakistan, said Amar Pal Sidhu, a British historian, at the Military Literature Festival here on Saturday. But well-known author William Dalrymple didn’t think it was so simple.
The fodder for discussion on the second day of the festival was the two Anglo-Sikh wars that ensued after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sidhu, who has written two books on the subject, said that had the Sikhs won these closely-fought wars, the British would have lost the first war of independence in 1857. “They won it only because they had recruited a large number of soldiers from the disbanded Sikh army.”
A DIVIDED DURBAR
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.
Yet Mandeep Rai, a former bureaucrat and historian, maintained that had the Sikhs got an edge over the British, the results would have been different regardless of the resources. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had raised a very powerful and cosmopolitan army. “He had Muslim gunners who never fled the battlefield. Then there were Gurkhas, Sikhs and Hindus. It was a most cosmopolitan army of the brave,” said Rai.
But this army had a mind of its own and turned mutinous once the Maharaja passed away. Sidhu said, “Unable to govern it, politicians such as General Lal Singh, the vizir, and Tej singh, the commander-in-chief, decided to destroy this army and ally with the British for the sake of stability.”
STAB IN THE BACK
About some of the acts of treachery that let to their defeat, Rai said the Sikh army lost the Battle of Subron because Gen Tej Singh, the commander-in-chief, crossed the pontoon bridge linking the two flanks of the Sutlej and ordered its destruction.
The battle of Firoze Shehar on December 12, 1845, was also lost due by treachery. Rai said General Henry Harding had asked his aide de corps to bring out his sword so that he could surrender after the battle that continued till late at night. But the next day, the battle took a different course due to the machinations of General Lal Singh.
The fallout of Sikh victory over the British, said Sidhu, would have been far-reaching. The Anglo-Afghan wars wouldn’t have taken place as Punjab would have been a strong buffer. “And last but not the least, there would have been no Pakistan as Punjab would have been a secular independent state,” Sidhu declared.
Confessing that he is no expert on the Anglo-Sikh wars, Dalrymple said one reason for the fog that continues to surround the Lahore Durbar is poor access to archives. “The Punjab archives are housed in the Central Punjab Secretariat compound. To get to its gate is a difficult task, leave alone accessing the archives.”
But that hasn’t stopped historians from writing about this chapter of Indian history. Sukhmani Bal Riar, a history professor at Panjab University, read out a long list of scholars who have written on this subject.
Sidhu, who has visited the sites of all these battles, is already working on a third book. And the saga of the Anglo-Sikh wars continues.