Anglo-Sikh Wars: The Struggle for Power in 19th Century India

The Anglo-Sikh Wars were two significant conflicts between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company during the mid-19th century. These wars ultimately led to the annexation of the Punjab region into British India.

The First Anglo-Sikh War

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) was the last great ruler of Punjab. After his death in 1839, his son Khadag Singh and then Sher Singh became king. After the killing of Sher Singh, Maharaja Daleep Singh, a minor son of Ranjit Singh, became king. He was only five years old, so his mother Rani Jindan became his regent. Lal Singh, her paramour, aided her. But the Sikh army of Punjab was not happy with Jindan Kaur, the Rani, so they enabled Khalsa Panchayat and started taking decisions on their own. Often the civil administration and the Punjab army were in collusion. The court intrigue in Punjab was also weakening the state.

The English East India Company had recently fought a long war against Afghanistan (1836-42). Though they failed to gain anything substantial, they realized that Punjab was key to having better control over Afghanistan. They wanted to make Afghanistan a buffer state between British India and Russia. The British took advantage of the weak political situation in Punjab and were in search of an excuse to wage a war against them.

The appointment of Major Broadfoot as the Company's agent at Ludhiana was a well-thought-out plan by the British. He succeeded in allying with Teja Singh, the commander-in-chief, and Lal Singh, the wazir. Both the traitors convinced their army to cross Satluj on December 13, 1845. Though the Sikh army was still in the territory of their king's dominion, it was enough for the British to declare war against Punjab. It was just an 'excuse' not a 'cause' for the war. Even Lord Harding, the then Governor-General, was not sure whether it would be accepted in England as a reasonable act. However the British were desperate to expand their empire to India's natural frontier.

The first battle was fought at Mudki on December 18, 1845, in which the Sikhs were defeated but the British also suffered heavily with the loss amounting to 872 soldiers being killed and wounded. The second battle took place at Firozshah on December 21, 1845. The Sikhs put forth a great resistance. Sir Hugh Gough, the commander-in-chief of the British army, called that night a 'night of horror'. The Sikhs were clearly at the upper hand. The British army had not taken food for thirty-six hours and fired all rounds of ammunition. They were in a great state of confusion. Had Teja Singh and Lal Singh not treacherously retired from the battlefield at that critical time, the result would have been different.

The British were now nervous. The Governor-General was worried, so he requested the Sikh Sardars to desert their army and promised them awards and rewards in return. Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu was promised Kashmir, and Lal Singh was heavily bribed. But the Sikh army rallied again under Ranjhor Singh and defeated the British army, led by Henry Smith, at Buddiwal on January 21, 1846. But Ranjhor Singh was defeated at Aliwal on January 28, 1846. The decisive battle, however, was fought at Sobraon, near Sutlej, on February 10, 1846. Lal Singh gave a plan of the Sikh positions at Sobraon and Teja Singh mysteriously disappeared from the battlefield. In spite of the treason and treachery of their leaders, the Sikh soldiers dashed against the British forces. They swore by the Granth Sahib not to leave the field alive. The flooded Sutlej became red, as approximately 10,000 Sikh soldiers and 3,000 British soldiers died. The British crossed Sutlej on February 13 and captured Lahore on February 20. A treaty was imposed on Punjab on March 9, 1846, known as the Treaty of Lahore.

Treaty of Lahore

1. The Sikhs had to give the southern territory of Sutlej—the Jalandhar Doab.

2. Punjab had to give Rs. 1.5 crore as indemnity but 'Lahore Darbar' was not in a position to give it. So it agreed to transfer to the Company the territories situated between the rivers Beas and Indus, including Kashmir and Hazara, in lieu of one crore rupees. Punjab agreed to pay the remaining 50 lakh rupees in cash.

3. The Maharaja of Punjab gave up his entire claim over the forts, land, and hills situated between Beas and Sutlej.

4. The Maharaja agreed to reduce his army. Punjab was not allowed to retain more than 12,000 troops in Cavalry and 20,000 troops (25 battalions) in infantry.

5. All 250 guns (artillery) were given to the British.

6. British troops were to be allowed to pass through Lahore territories.

7. Without the prior approval of the British, no European or American would be employed in Punjab.

8. Dalip Singh was recognized as the Maharaja, his mother Rani Jindan as regent, and Lal Singh as Wazir.

9. The Company promised not to interfere in the internal matters of Punjab. However, the Company's Resident in Punjab, Sir Henry Lawrence, always violated this code.

Through a supplementary treaty (March 11, 1846), a British force was to remain at Lahore till December to be maintained by the Lahore Durbar for "protecting" Maharaja and his citizens. Ironically, Lal Singh also gave this idea.

The intrigue in Lahore Durbar continued. Lal Singh was not happy to give Kashmir to Raja Gulab Singh, so he encouraged Imam-ud-din to oppose Gulab Singh. The English recaptured Kashmir. Lal Singh was exiled on December 16, 1846. A regency was formed for the administration of Lahore consisting of eight leaders under the 'guidance' of the British Resident. Teja Singh, Sher Singh, Nur-ud-din, and Dina Nath were some of the important leaders.

The Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49)

The fate of Punjab had already been decided in the first Anglo-Sikh war. Through the Treaty of Lahore and the formation of Regency, Punjab was fully under the control of the British. The annexation of Punjab was only a matter of time and political decision. The revolt of Diwan Mulraj, the governor of Multan which is in Southwest Punjab, provided an opportunity for the British to wage another war. The British demanded thirty lakh rupees (later the demand was reduced to twenty-five lakh rupees) and all the land north of the Ravi. Unable to meet the new harsh conditions, he tendered his resignation in December 1847. John Lawrence, the Resident, told him to continue till the next arrangement is made. The new Resident, Frederick Currie, sent Kahan Singh Mann as the new Governor of Multan on a fixed salary of Rs. 30,000 per annum. He went with 500 state troops and two British officers—P.A. Vans Agnew and W.A. Anderson. On April 19, 1848, Mulraj handed over the fort of Multan to Kahan Singh Mann, but the two British officials were killed, most likely by the dissatisfied Sikh soldiers. They compelled Mulraj to assume their leadership.

The British could easily have suppressed the rebellion at Multan, but they did not. It was part of their strategy, so that the revolt could spread to other parts too. It happened exactly as they had planned; the revolt spread to Bannu, Peshawar, and Northwest Punjab. Even the Afghans promised to help the Sikhs. Now, they could blame Lahore Durbar, Dalip Singh, and Rani Jindan for conspiring against the British. They got a big excuse to wage a war against Punjab.

In mid-November 1848, Lord Gough with his troops crossed the river Ravi and fought against the Sikh army at Ram Nagar on November 22. It was an indecisive battle. Multan fell in early January 1848 and on January 13 they fought at Chillianwala. Though the battle remained indecisive, the British suffered heavy losses. According to Hunter, it was an evening battle fought by a brave old man in a passion and mourned for by the whole British nation. The British lost 2,357 men, eighty-nine officers, and four guns. Gough, the commander-in-chief, was ordered to be replaced by Sir Charles Napier.

But before Napier could take over, the British defeated Punjab at a place called Gujarat, on the bank of the river Chenab, on February 21, 1849. This proved to be the most decisive battle of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, as the Sikhs suffered heavily. They lost their entire camp, chiefs, soldiers, and ammunition. Their allies, the Afghans, led by Dost Mohammad, too were driven back to the hills.

The Sikhs surrendered on March 12, 1849, at Rawalpindi. An old Sikh warrior exclaimed, "Aaj Ranjit Singh Margaya" (Today Ranjit Singh has died). Through a proclamation by Governor-General Lord Dalhousie, Punjab was annexed on March 29, 1849. The East India Company's rule reached up to Afghanistan's border, India's natural frontier. Lord Dalhousie had no hesitation in annexing Punjab, as he had no love for 'Titular pageantries' and 'Shadowy sovereignties'. Dalip Singh was given a pension of Rs. 50,000 per annum and sent to England for education. The famous diamond 'Kohinoor' was taken away along with the sacred arms of Guru Govind Singh. To administer Punjab, a Board of Commissioners was established which had three members—Sir Henry Lawrence as President, his brothers John and Charles Mansel. Henry was responsible for 'political', John for 'land revenue' and Mansel for 'judiciary'.

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