(This is an except from “Umdat Session 2 — The First Great Game: Sikhs, Marathas and the EIC”)
After the success of the Dal Khalsa, Sardar Charat Singh consolidated his base around his home region of Gujranwala.
The Umdat mentions that the Sukerchakias had gained their patrimony from the blessings of Guru Har Rai Ji. Sardar Charat Singh began the consolidation of the region around Gujranwala, and was succeeded by his illustrious and equally enterprising son, Sardar Mahan Singh.
Sardar Mahan Singh rose to power in an era in which the internal cohesion of the Sikh Confederacy had broken down and various Misl-Houses had become nascent kingdoms, launching an era of warring states, during which they competed for control of tributary provinces and trade routes : especially in the remaining Hindu and Muslim principalities of the region of greater Punjab, extending from south of the Indus to the Yamuna, and into Jammu and the Sivalik Hills.
Of the sixteen odd Sikh houses — (who dominated the region inhabited by around 70 aristocratic houses in all, including Hindu and Muslim ones, among which were houses of Rajputs, Jatts — both communities had Hindu and Muslim faithful — and Pathans, who were solely Muslim) — the most powerful were the Bhangi Sardars who had their patrimony in Sialkot, and claimed tribute from principalities all the way till the borders of Sind, in Multan and Derajat; while a rising power were the Kanhaiyas, who claimed tribute from Jammu and Kangra.
The Sukerchakias under Sardar Mahan Singh were wedged between the two. The opening passages in the Umdat narrated the struggle between the Sukerchakias and the two powerful houses, and other aristocratic houses. Sardar Mahan Singh battled successfully against all challengers, and extended his hold — claiming tribute from Jammu and as far away as Kullu in the Himachal hills. When he died on campaign in 1790 — still a young man — he was already among the most powerful Sardars of the post Dal Khalsa era.
Ranjit Singh was born in 1780. He succeeded his father when he was still only a child, so, was in a precarious position with enemies on all sides and, as the Umdat narrates, also within. One such intrigue which targeted him was the assassination — still unexplained — of his mother. After the death of his mother, Ranjit Singh’s mother-in-law Sada Kaur, now the head of the Kanhaiya misl after the death of her husband in battle, became his de facto guardian.
Ranjit Singh however came into his own in a few years. In 1793–4, Shah Zaman, the grandson of Ahmad Shah, launched an invasion of Punjab. The Umdat narrates how Ranjit Singh rallied his soldiers, marshaled his resources and even attempted to build an alliance with other Sikh Sardars, and also Daulat Rao Scindia, the chief Maratha king. However, no one answered in call.
So, for the initial seasons of war, Ranjit Singh resorted to the old and time proven tactics of the Sikh Army — disrupting Shah Zaman’s supply lines as the Afghans attempted to muster up an invasion force in Punjab. The Bhangi Sardars who were in control of Lahore in the meantime abandoned the city, allowing Shah Zaman to reoccupy it. No other Misl Sardar rose to challenge Shah Zaman, and Sindha didn’t bother even to respond to Ranjit Singh’s call. Shah Zaman was however unable to proceed any further even as contingents of the imperial army were defeated by Ranjit Singh in battle one after the other.
Finally, the young king and the Afghan emperor, after many seasons of stalemate, chose diplomacy. Shah Zaman retreated safely from the Punjab, and in turn, gave Ranjit Singh the ‘rights’ to the city of Lahore.
Practically, these rights meant nothing since Lahore had been under Sikh control since the 1760s. However, with this legal document, Ranjit Singh was able to gain the support of the Muslim clergy and aristocracy of the city. (The Umdat also mentioned that during his brief reoccupation Shah Zaman had oppressed the citizenry.)
We closed the first session with Ranjit Singh taking control of Lahore. In the next session of the Sikh History Bookclub we will read Umdat from pages 50 to 100 as we see how Ranjit Singh rose to become de facto King of Kings among the Sikhs, and was recognized as the most powerful of the Sikh rulers by the East India Company and the Marathas.
The latter two had been competing in the previous decades for control of central India. After two wars between them, a split in the Maratha confederacy had been further augmented by quarrels among the chief houses — especially of the most powerful Scindias who were now allied with the English, and the Holkars, led by the enterprising warrior king, Jaswant Rao.
As we approach the 1800s, this struggle had intensified and began to draw in the Sikh polities north of Delhi. This wider geopolitical contest which would determine who would dominate which sphere of the subcontinent