Evolution of the Sikh Polity II – the 18th century

GS “Sial Mirza” Goraya
15 min readAug 27, 2021

I

With the capture and execution of Banda Singh Bahadur in 1716, the first phase of the Sikh Reconquista of Hindustan had come to a gruesome close – he was martyred alongside 740/80 of his companions; a further 2,000 Sikhs were imprisoned and executed in reprisals following his capture, most of them civilians.

Banda Singh Bahadur had led the combined Sikh forces as the Commander-in-Chief (Jathedar), and after a series of successful campaigns had established the first Sikh territorial state. (A form of non-territorial state building within the overarching Mughal imperial structure had been commenced by Guru Nanak himself with the founding of Kartarpur : see Sangat and Society. This was not an anomaly. As recent analysis of South Asian history has shown the Mughal Imperial system was more akin to a states system than a proto-federation; such statelets – or subpolities – were also built by European trading companies in coastal India, and mercenary groups such as the Rohillas in the Ramganga Plains.)

Despite its brief existence, the first Sikh territorial state had created an epoch defining template which later state building efforts in the 19th century, by Sikhs, would draw on as a foundational template.

There were two important legacies of this first Sikh state, which we will be important for our subsequent discussions in this essay :

⁃ one, the declaration of Sikh sovereignty, that is, a total separation from the Mughal states system; exemplified by the coins struck in the the name of Guru Nanak and Gobind Singh, and sovereignty claimed from them;

⁃ two, the consolidation of the form of the Sikh polity, as a metapyramid like hierarchy of Khalsa Panchayats, with multiple units stacked all the way upward, led by a General-Statesman/Jathedar, supported (and checked) by a Council of Five.

This metapyramid structure created a system of legitimacy generation, which derived its ultimate authority from the Gurus, and functioned through a structure defined by rule of law of the Guru Panth: that is one in which power was not exercised arbitrarily, and imposed from top to bottom, by a monarch, but generated from the deliberation and consensus of the Sangat of Khalsa Sikhs. (See Evolution of the Sikh Polity I for discussion of the genesis of this model.)

There is a strong indication that the constitution of this model of the Sikh Polity was given its final form by Guru Gobind Singh during his final days at Nanded. (See Life of Banda Bahadur by Prof. Ganda Singh.)

II

There was a fundamental notion of egalitarianism in this first Sikh constitution : described by J. S. Grewal as the doctrine of the Guru Panth, that is the Guru being manifest in the Panth, thus each member of the Panth being, fundamentally, an equal representative of the Guru’s authority, meaning, in practice, when the members of the Panth were assembled in any gathering, their word (and worth) was counted as equal to each other, and together they were the formal articulants of the Guru Panth’s general will. I call this the inherent republican ideal of the Sikh Polity in the first essay.

As a consequence of this republican ideal, the selection of leaders was primarily based on merit, recognised by the members of the assembly. Their selection was operationalised though a combined decision making of the panchayat and assembly. Any leaders so selected were considered as legitimate leaders of the Panth. (Note: implicit in this power of selection, is also, the authority for rejection.)

In the final days of Banda Singh Bahadur, we saw this process of legitimacy generation and withdrawal – reflecting the will of substantial sections of the Guru Panth, and a withdrawal of legitimate authority from their ‘Jathedar’. Some historians project this as a betrayal of Banda Singh by his generals. However, in my view, this was the normal operation of ‘rule of law’ in the Guru Panth based Sikh polity.

III

Banda Singh Bahadur’s campaigns had been a demonstration of geostrategic genius. There was in my view much deeper strategising by the Sikh leadership (possibly based on instructions by Guru Gobind Singh himself) than we give credit to the Khalsa Armies for.

Guru Gobind Singh had declared a final break with the Mughal states system in the Zafarnama proclaimed to Aurangzeb in 1705. Despite this, after the death of Aurangzeb, he had attempted to facilitate this separation through diplomacy – with the emperor’s successor, Bahadur Shah. We will never know what the outcome for the nature of the Sikh polity – and the course of Indian history – would have been had these negotiations been successful. As it turned out, the reluctance of Bahadur Shah to concede power, motivated no doubt by the interference of various factions of the Mughal court, including the Muslim clergy – which was already vary of the thinning of Islamic faith in the royal family – had made it more or less clear that the separation of the Sikh polity from the Mughal regime would have to be accomplished through force.

Guru Gobind Singh – as his demonstrated through various examples from his life – was a forward looking statesman, diplomat and strategist. It is most likely that he had conceived of the general nature of Sikh campaigns against the Mughal empire, and communicated it to his council, before his assassination in 1708.

The precision of the Sikh Deccan Army’s campaigns demonstrates this : the first flag was planted on the edge of the Rajputana deserts (south of which was a harsh generally impassable terrain), and from thereon the Army proceeded striking along the agricultural hinterland of the outer Delhi province (cutting off supplies to the imperial city), moving north eastward, consolidating positions till the Sivalik hills (north of which was, again, rugged terrain).

This geostrategic arc severed communications lines between the imperial capital and the northern provinces, effectively dividing the empire into two. The rapidness of this movement prevented the mustering of forces to counter the Sikh Army, while giving time for Sikhs from Punjab to gather in force. Also, concerted attacks of the Muslim/Mughal aristocracy destroyed the revenue accumulation structure of the rich provinces of Delhi and Punjab, and disrupted the flow of tribute from the Hindu rajas of the Sivalik hills. Furthermore, with the breakdown of communications with further north provinces of Lahore, Kabul and Kashmir the Mughal empire lost access to the mercenary markets of Central Asia, manpower from where was so crucial to dominating the burgeoning peoples of Hind.

The Sikh campaigns it should be noted occurred simultaneously with civil war in the Mughal regime – contests for succession to Bahadur Shah who had died in 1712. The regime was stabilised (briefly) by Farrukhsiyar, who assassinated his uncle Jahandar Shah (a son of Bahadur Shah who had to fight his brother for the throne himself; Farrukhsiyar would also be assassinated by Ajit Singh Marwar in 1719).

The Empire was disintegrating from within and seriously pressed on all sides – the Marathas too came out of their brief contraction to claim territories in the Deccan.

In this context, the loss of revenue from the northern provinces (which included a trickle of Silk Road trade) was truly a deathblow for the empire. As it turned out, there was an opportunity for a devil’s bargain.

Even as Farrukhsiyar was struggling to raise funds and soldiers for the provincial wars, he was approached by a delegation of the East India Company: who were camped in Delhi to have their firman trading rights renewed. The rights, granted to the English by Jahangir, had been withdrawn by Aurangzeb: after the Company had commenced a foolish war with the Mughals, overplaying its hand before it had the power to do so – this was the so called Child’s War of 1686–1690.

The Mughal court, a den of corruption and in dire need of funds, not only granted the Company the old trading rights but additional opportunities to penetrate the faltering edifice of the regime.

The consequences of this bargain are well known.

It is unlikely that such compromises would have been made had Banda Singh’s rebellion ‘failed’.

IV

The decade long regime of the first Sikh territorial state was, therefore, far from an ephemeral moment in subcontinental, or even world, history. In fact, this should be seen as an important decade of transitionary change, characterised by a series of geopolitical processes – occurring in other regions of the subcontinent as well, through the agency of the Marathas, Rajputs, Jats, Afghans and various Indian Nawabs, and also Europeans – which each together created the texture of 19th century Indian, even Asian, concert of powers.

The Sikh factor in the North Indian domain, in the heart of the empire, was arguably the spoke around which this geopolitical wheel turned – especially because it struck at the heart of the empire geographically, threatened the imperial centre, and shattering the structure of accumulation of wealth and manpower on which Delhi relied to maintain its dominance. Once the centre was so constrained, the peripheries grew increasingly – and naturally – free.

V

For the Sikh community, the decade was crucial for. institutionalising the constitutional structure of the Guru Panth driven Khalsa Polity. This solidification created a national population, or demos out of a people : which would be vital for the community to maintain its coherence through a long and challenging half century which followed the dissolution of the first territorial state.

The Sikh polity, after the dissolution, did not collapse. Rather it transformed from a territorial into a non-territorial (Cakravartin) state. Crucial to this was the Khalsa army maintaining its internal order, as a metapyramid united under the command of the Commander-in-Chief Jathedar.

In addition, two other pillars of authority in the period of the 1720s to 1730s were Mata Sahib Devi, revered consort of Guru Gobind Singh, and Bhai Mani Singh, who maintained the Hari Mandir Sahib at Amritsar. Even a non-territorial state needs an institutional headquarters: Bhai Mani Singh was crucial for maintaining this. The authority of the revered Mata Sahib Devi and the venerable Bhai Mani Singh created two pillars of structural coherence : centred around the authority of the former, a Sikh Sangat scattered in the towns and cities of India could organise themselves into a network, further consolidated through the issuance of various Hukumnamey (Legislative Commands); while centred around the latter developed a nascent Sikh parliament (the Sarbat Khalsa) and the emergence of a form of judicial role: Bhai Mani Singh played a crucial role in resolving various rifts that had developed between factions of the Khalsa Army.

Drawing wealth and resources from the network of the Sangat spread out across the trading networks of north India, and gradually the new realm of a greater Indian Ocean trading world, and given coherence by the two pillars of authority, the Cakravartin Sikh State became a nomad machine occupying the hinterland – as an internal frontier – of northern Hind.

While the remnants of the Mughal regime were able to reoccupy the cities, wider and wider spaces of the hinterland were gradually dominated by the roving Khalsa Cakravartinis : who began to enter the written records composed by city dwellers as bandits and dacoits. Such constructions of ‘barbarians beyond the city walls’ are common across history.

What had in fact occurred was a phenomenon of two types of regimes occupying the same territory: one confined to the cities, the other, roaming the wide open spaces in between.

The authority of the imperial centre, in such a situation of overlapping sovereignties, failed to reassert itself in most of Punjab. While Abdus Khan, the governor of Lahore during Banda Singh’s insurrection, had been beholden to the commands of the Mughal court, his successor, Zakariya Khan became a more or less independent ‘prince’ of Lahore.

Empires are essentially structured hierarchies organised for accumulation of wealth. They are organised in such a way as to facilitate the flow of wealth from provinces to the imperial centre. It is vital for the maintenance of Empires, that a balance be struck between how much wealth is drawn out from a province vs. how much is allowed to remain. If the balance veers too much towards the drawing out of wealth it can result in the impoverishment of provinces, often resulting in famine or revolts. If however too little is drawn out, it allows local aristocratic factions to accumulate that wealth for themselves, and build their own power, often allowing them to challenge the imperial centre.

One consequence of the first phase of the Sikh Reconquista was the complete shattering of the structure of accumulation which had facilitated the Delhi court’s drawing out wealth from the northern provinces. So total was this demolition, that even after the first Sikh regime was extinguished, rather than the structure of imperial accumulation being restored, a new kind of power structure emerged in Punjab. The Mughal Empire was effectively destroyed.

What replaced it was a mosaic of largely independent subpolities – some of the Muslim aristocracy, some old Hindu Rajas, with a roving Cakravartin Sikh polity occupying the marches in between.

VI

From 1726 to 1738, the Sikh Cakravartin Nomad Machine contended with Zakariya Khan, who was practically the Prince of Lahore, for control of greater Punjab. While the roving Sikhs were a force too strong to contend, Zakariya Khan struck at what was the the one remaining structural pillar of the Sikh polity : he had Bhai Mani Singh, in Amritsar, executed.

Bhai Mani Singh’s authority in Amritsar – which was practically a inland port city state – had been vital to maintain the Sikh headquarters and channel the flow of resources from the network of the Sikh Sangat towards sustaining the Khalsa cause. Zakariya Khan no doubt wanted to strike an ideological blow as well.

As it turned out there were other geopolitical currents in the offing. The sustained absence of a centralised unified structure in the greater Punjab region created a volatile and inviting open frontier for any external power, suitably unified, to carry out such a campaign.

Nader Shah of Persia became that force. The post-Mughal urban polity of Punjab crumbled before the might of the invasion. The nomadic polity of the internal frontier hinterland fared better. (Nader Shah is said to have predicted that the Sikhs – those whose home is in the saddles of their horses – would one day be rulers of all the land. This is was no doubt a reflection of his understanding of the Khaldunian cycle of history.)

Nader Shah’s incursions into Hindustan were predatory raids intended to take advantage of geopolitical window of the broken frontier. After his death (by assassination) in 1747, his general Ahmad Shah Abdali founded a breakaway regime in the eastern reaches of his empire, in the land of Khorasan, becoming king of the Afghans, and founding, Afghanistan.

Ahmad Shah had much greater ambitions for Hindustan. For a decade he raided the North Indian provinces of the almost defunct Mughal Empire with wrathful avaricious impunity, but then having done so to his heart – or treasury’s – contend, he wished to create a new Ghurrid Sultanate. There was a problem.

The renewed threat of external invasion had pushed the post-Mughal Punjabi Muslim Regime and the Sikh Cakravartin Regime – now the Dal Khalsa under the the leadership of Jassa Singh Ahluwala – into a temporary alliance. The new unity drew in a third partner, the Marathas, who in the preceding years had consolidated their hold over the Deccan, and had been gradually inching towards north central India.

In the late 1750s this tripartite alliance achieved decisive victories over the Afghans. In 1758 one party to the alliance, Adina Beg, died, and with it, came to an end the post-Mughal Punjabi Muslim regime, which had been consolidated by Zakariya Khan, and has its true inheritors in the Punjab/Pakistan of today. The Marathas who now controlled the urban centres of Punjab, failed to maintain their alliance with the Sikh Cakravartin Regime, perhaps not understanding its true power.

In 1759, Ahmad Shah entered the field with a renewed fury : defeating the Marathas in the Battle of Sonipat, followed by another decisive battle at Panipat in 1761. Then, he turned on the Sikhs.

The years from 1762 to 1765 witnessed what could arguably be called the most ruthless, bloodiest and earth shatteringly ferocious battles between the imperial armies of the Durrani Empire and the Dal Khalsa Armies of the Sikh Demos. In a subsequent essay I will explore these three years – during which also occurred the massacre of thousands of innocent Sikh civilians (the Vadda Ghallughara) and the destruction and desecration of the Harmandir Sahib.

The consequence was, however, a completely unexpected defeat of what was perhaps among the most powerful armies of the world at the time by what would seem to the superficial historian a ragtag coalition of raiding bands. The Sikh Dal Khalsa Army which defeated the Durrani Empire was in fact a deadly nomad machine, with an almost hydra like quality to emerge doubly vicious from every supposed defeat. In the three years after the first few victories of the Durrani Empire, season after season, imperial armies were forced to face the shame of defeat, as a regular procession of the severed heads and lifeless bodies of regional Afghani governors, travelled up the Khyber. (A story which, as I said, I will explore in substantial detail.)

Finally Ahmad Shah himself was forced to take the field and had to suffer the ignominy of defeat in a pitched battle. The tide of history had turned.

The Sikh defeat of the Afghan Durrani Empire was a Khaldunian cycle operating in reverse.

Ibn Khaldun was a 14th century theorist of history from North Africa, who, in his grand work, the Muqqadimah, had expounded a theory of how across history rugged nomad dynasties from the frontiers replaced soft urban dynasties, from era to era. For most of Indian history (the pattern in fact is true for Eurasia at large) the rugged frontier dynasties have struck out from north to south.

The Cakravartin Sikh polity had reversed the wheel of time.

VII

The victory of the Dal Khalsa over the Durranis launched the second phase of the Reconquista.

The template for this phase was the first territorial state of Banda Singh Bahadur, as Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, following Banda’s lead, took the pseudo-monarchical title of Sultan al Qaum and struck coinage announcing the formation of a new regime which claimed its authority from Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind.

This, in turn, would create the template for a new generation of Sikh ‘kings’.

While we have spoken at length of the Sikh Cakravartin State, there was a parallel development that we should briefly explore. There was, simultaneously in the first half of the 18th century, the emergence and consolidation of another type of nominally Sikh state : the clan based polity, exemplified by the Phulkian states. (Please see Poornima Dhavan’s From Sparrows to Hawks for a detailed exploration of this).

These states emerged from the colonisation of villages by clan based Jat chiefs, who had adopted the Sikh faith. To distinguish them from the Sikh Cakravartin State, which was founded as per the constitution of the Khalsa polity, I call them polities of Sikh kings, rather than Sikh polities. Their internal order drew upon kinship-dynastic rather than Sikh polity structures, although the kings themselves gradually accepted the overarching authority of the Guru Panth, there was a modification of that principle of equality, to accommodate the natural hierarchy of a clan based polity.

In the second phase of the Reconquista, what followed was the gradual settling or territorialisation of the Cakravartin Sikh state. The unity – and overarching loyalty – which created the logic of collective action in the Dal Khalsa was replaced, as a consequence of the transition from nomadic to settled life, into a kinship-dynastic system similar to the clan based Sikh-ruled polities.

The pillar through which the Dal Khalsa had maintained its internal unity was the institution of Gurumatta : Consensus in the Assembly of the Guru, an innovation which was a legacy of Bhai Mani Singh, which had been nurtured by Nawab Kapur Singh, and had accomplished its historic purpose – in a Spenglerian sense – under the leadership of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia.

The subunits of the Dal Khalsa, the misls, had initially been only organisational battalions of the unified Khalsa Army. Each misl was a sort of subunit of the metapyramid of the unified Khalsa, but gradually as leadership had created followership, prominent. commanders of the misls began to be recognised as Misl Sardars. As the Misls began to territorialise duing the Second Reconquista, the Misl Sardars gradually became – no doubt influenced by the clan based polity structure; most of these chiefs were Jats – heads of dynastic houses, which, in most cases, as is the nature of clan based polities, a hereditary position.

One of the reasons for this transformation lies in the logic of accumulation. In a section above I have spoken about how accumulation operates in empires. As the various Sikh clans had begun to challenge local aristocrats, an institution had developed among them – known as Rakhi, essentially meaning subjugation (disguised as protection). Various Sikh clan chiefs (not the Sikh Cakravartin State, initially) had begun to impose Rakhi on non-Sikh aristocrats as early as 1740 : (see Agrarian System of the Sikhs by Indu Banga for more on this).

From 1765 to 1795, the institution of Rakhi became the engine of expansion for newly territorialised Sikh Misl Houses, as the Misl Sardars searched for revenue for the maintenance of their armies, collection of stores of ammunition and the building of forts.

This was the high age of the Misl Era, during which the pursuit of power fuelled the expansion of the Sikh Misl States system as far. south as the frontiers of Sind, west of the Indus to Derajat, into Jammu and the Shivalik hills, and by the 1780s into the lower Ganges valley. There were a few instances of concerted action during this era – especially the occupation of Delhi, and the imposition of Rakhi on the Mughal Emperor himself. But this was largely an era of great founders of dynastic houses, which were gradually transforming into nascent kingdoms.

By the 1780s, there were 16 great houses, dominating the 50 odd Muslim and Hindu houses of the greater Punjab region : the Indus to the Yamuna. The Gurumatta system had largely become defunct, but the Misl system still existed in a loosely organised way, and was generally subverted to serve the purposes of the Great Sardar or his Comitatus. The 16 houses made alliances and counter-allainces, often crossing the boundary of their misls, and not hesitating in allying and counterallying with the Muslim and Hindu houses, to increase their dominance.

The history of this era and its consequences for the region will be discussed in the next part of this essay. For now, we invite you to join our conversation at the Sikh Bookclub on Clubhouse, as we discuss the rise and consolidation of the Sukerchakia Misl of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

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