Punjab v/s British India
Punjabs first War of Independence
A victory lost through treachery

By K.S. Randhawa

On the onset of the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879, at the approach of Jan 13, the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Chillianwala, officers of the 24th Regiment drank a toast, to their peers who were at Chillianwala on January 13, 1849, when the regiment had fought a disastrous battle against the Sikh army of the Punjab Durbar in India. 

Ordered to charge a Sikh artillery battery at bayonet point, they were shot to pieces, losing 500 officers and men. The colours - the focus of regimental pride and symbol of their allegiance to the Queen - were lost on the battlefield. "They drank to Chillianwala - that they may never again get into such a mess". 

Ranjit Singh became the unquestioned secular ruler of Punjab from 1799 to 1839, his kingdom being the last bastion to hold out against the British - a symbol of their incomplete conquest of India. Displaying rare courage, his warrior nation extended its empire from the Sutlej to Kabul in Afghanistan and from Ladakh to Skardu and Tuklakote in Tibet. 

Every invasion of India till then, starting with the Aryans in 2000 BC had been from West to East, across the Indus. For the first time in history, an Indian, Ranjit Singh, went westwards, crossed the Indus River in 1826, going right onto Kabul. 

The splendour of the Punjab Durbar ended with Ranjit Singh's death in 1839. He left behind seven sons, none capable of ruling his kingdom. Intrigues, betrayals and assassinations attended his succession, the army becoming an uncontrollable and dissatisfied centre of power, eager for war. 

This led to the first Sikh war comprising the battles at Mudki, Ferozeshahr, Aliwal and Sabraon, brought on by the British fishing in the troubled waters of Punjab, increasing their force from 17,000 to 40,000 with the intention of crossing the international boundary along the Sutlej. The Punjab Durbar reiterated its right of passage to its possessions across the river. 

The Punjab Durbar army numbering five divisions of 50,000 men and 800 guns was assembled on the right bank of the Sutlej, in a brilliantly conceived plan to intercept the main British army with positioning of foot soldiers to provide accurate fire backed by guns and hemmed in by a cavalry charge. 

However, in a sordid tale of treachery, two Sikh commanders, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, both Brahmin convertees, colluded with the British, giving away the complete detailed battle plans with sketches to Sir Henry Hardinge, the governor-general, and Lord Hugh Gough, the C-in-C. There could have been no worse treachery in history. Consequently, despite a strategy which had a touch of Ranjit Singh's French Generals and shades of Napoleon's battle plans, the British force under Gen Littler was deliberately allowed to slip away and join Gough and Hardinge. 

At Ferozeshahr, the British suffered terrible casualties. Every single member of the governor-general's staff was either killed or wounded. That frosty night "The fate of British India trembled in the balance". Sir Hope Grant, one of the British general bloodied in the Anglo-Sikh wars recorded: "Truly the night was one of gloom and foreboding and perhaps never in the annals of warfare has a British army on so large a scale been nearer to a defeat which would have involved annihilation". 

Lord Harding sent back his sword and instructions, that the situation being so desperate, if the morning attack failed the British planned to burn all papers and be ready for an unconditional surrender. However, in the morning, both Lal Singh and Tej Singh treacherously withdrew their forces, thereby betraying their soldiers. 

Despite an overriding strength of 37,000 with 67 guns compared with the 15,000 of the British, Sabroan was a repeat of treachery with Tej Singh deserting the army and cutting the boat bridge linking his forces to the main Sikh forces on the opposite bank. 

Describing the battle at Sabraon as the "Waterloo of India", Lord Gough paid great tribute to Sikh soldiers: "Policy precluded me from publicly recording my sentiments on the splendid gallantry of our fallen foe, or to record the acts of heroism displayed not only individually, but almost collectively, by the Sikh sirdars and the Punjab army: and I declare, were it not for deep conviction that my country's good required the sacrifice, I would have wept to have witnessed the fearfully slaughter of so devoted a body of men". 

General Sir Joseph Thackwell who witnessed the battle wrote, "Though defeated and broken, they never ran, but fought to the last and I witnessed several acts of great bravery in their Sirdars and men". Lord Hardinge, who saw the action, wrote: "Few escaped, none it may be said, surrendered. The Sikhs met their fate with the resignation which distinguishes their race". This was a major British victory against a people afflicted with internal treachery and treason and was the beginning of the end of the Great Punjab Durbar. 

In an amazing coincidence, the Chillianwala Battle was fought in almost the same area where Porus, with his elephants, chariots and archers, had fought Alexander's cavalry 2,175 years earlier. Here, too, the local ruler of Hampi treacherously led Alexander through a ford known only to locals and brought Alexander's forces behind Porus.Sher Singh displayed exceptional skill by judiciously selecting his position which was protected on the left by a low ridge of hills intersected with ravines and the main stream of the Jhelum, the right being posted in different villages enclosed by a thick jungle. 

On January 13, 1849, the British launched their attack. Their artillery advanced to an open space in front of Chillianwala and opened fire on the Sikh artillery. The Sikhs replied with a vigorous cannonade. As the fire ceased the British drew up in order of battle and charged at the enemy's centre in an attempt to force the Sikhs into the river. The assault was led by Brigadier Pennycuick. For the Sikhs, the conditions were made to order. 

Scattering into the brushwood jungle, they began their hit and run tactics, their snipers taking a heavy toll of the British cavalry and infantry. Those that got through the brushwood and the ravines were easily repulsed in the hand-to-hand fighting with the main body of the Sikh troops. 

Brig. Pennycuick leading the brigade in the front fell, as did his son. Four British guns and the colours of three British regiments fell to the Sikhs and the British registered nearly 3,000 dead or wounded in the area around Chillianwala. A testimony left by a British observer says: "The Sikhs fought like devils, fierce and untamed... Such a mass of men I never set eyes on and as plucky as lions: they ran right on the bayonets and struck their assailants when they were transfixed". 

But, once again, as at Ferozeshahr, the Sikhs failed to drive their advantage. Having suffered considerable losses themselves, they were not aware of the magnitude of the punishment they had inflicted on the British. It then poured incessantly for three days - which kept the Sikhs separated from their quarry - and on the fourth day as the sun shone again, the British had pulled out and retreated across the Chaj to the banks of the Chenab. The Sikhs never realized this, having thought that they had lost. 

Once more, fate and destiny had conspired against a victory for the Sikhs, bringing into mind Shah Mohamad's words: "We won the battle but we lost the fight". 

From the ashes and dust rose a proud nation whose gallantry and steadfastness against fearful odds soon filled the ranks of the new Indian army. They have proved their loyalty and gallantry to the salt they swore, by being bestowed more gallantry awards than any other region and people. 

A difficult people to understand - and not everyone understood them - led a seasoned British commanding officer of the Sikhs to write an introduction for newly commissioned British officers assigned to the Sikhs: "There cannot be a more horrendous people when honour is at stake. Yet, put your arms around the man and hug him like a brother and apologise. Before you have finished, he has melted like butter and is ready to take on the world for you". 

Chillianwala has erroneously been referred to by the British as an Anglo-Sikh War. It was only partly so. This was in actual fact the heroic attempt of the Punjab Durbar's army built around the remnants of Sikh troops and leaders with Dogras, Gurkhas and elements of the Pathan soldiers of Col Sheikh Basawan, Ranjit Singh' Pathan commander. Then there were the Punjabi Muslims especially the Gakhars of Domeli and Jhelum and the Muslim Jats and Arrains of the Majha Region. As a result, the British for a long time did not recruit Muslim Gakhars as a punishment. 

Some of their eminent descendents have been Sardar Sir Sher Mohd Khan, the modern-day Chief of the Domeli Ghakhars, and his son Admiral Tariq Kemal Khan, one-time Chief of Naval Staff of Pakistan. It is with this background and with these feelings that the Late Ch Mohd Iqbal of Chillianwala and one-time MNA has looked after the monument dedicated to those British and Punjabi soldiers who fell at Chillianwala. 

Chillianwala is a tribute to the last and valiant attempt of the Punjabis to contain British expansionism. The Chillianwala monument on a hillock looks down on what was even then a predominantly Punjabi Muslim area far away from the hardcore Sikh areas of Lahore and Amritsar. It is here that Sher Singh's Sikh soldiery put their shoulders to the shoulders of Punjabi Muslims, Dogras and Gurkhas to bring the British to their knees and this time not affected by British instigated treachery through the likes of convertees like Tej Singh and Lal Singh. 

Ranjit Singh is no more but the spirit of the Punjabis continues to live, not only in the battlefields of valour but in the ability of these people to reach the highest levels of excellence in every sphere, all over the world. 

The writer, a retired lieut-general, has been researching the Anglo-Sikh wars. He is the only former Indian Army officer who has been twice to Chillianwala and feted by the people of Chillianwala who now maintain this historic monument.