The Rise of the Sikh Confederacies"When they take up a musket in hand at the time of battle, they come to the field fiercely springing and roaring like lions and immediately split many a breast and make they blood of many others spill in the dust. You may say that this musket was invented by these dogs (Sikhs). though guns are possessed in large numbers by others, yet nobody knows them better. these bad-tempered people discharge hundreds of bullets on the enemy on the right and left and in front and on the back. If you disbelieve in what I say, enquire from the brave warriors who will tell you more than what I have said and would have nothing but praise for their art of war. The witness of my statement are those thirsty thousand heroes who fought with them." Qazi Noor Muhammad, Jang Namah (Battle Chronicles), 1765.
The departure of Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1708, after installing Guru Granth Sahib the last Guru, left the Sikh people with a legacy that was both inspiring and demanding. Over the next century, they would face almost complete destruction followed by a golden age of sovereignty won in the scramble for freedom for the collapsing Mughal Empire. The immediate successor to Guru Gobind Singh in his capacity as generals of the Sikh army was a former ascetic who had been baptized into the Khalsa and was popularly known as Banda Singh Bahadur (1670-1716). Banda Singh swept into the Punjab from central India, where Guru Gobind Singh had departured.
Raising an energized army from the discontented peasants, town after town fell to Banda and his followers. they struck first at those who had caused the Guru so much trouble during his lifetime. Wazir Khan, the Mughal governor who oversaw the execution of the two youngest sons of Guru Gobind Singh, was killed in a skirmish during the capture of Sirhind. The impact of the Sikh army on the social order was radical."The reversal of previous customs was striking and complete. A low scavenger or leather-dresser, the lowest of the low in Indian estimation, had only to leave homes and join the Banda Singh, when in a short time he would return to his birthplace as its ruler, with his order of appointment in his hand. As soon as he set foot within the boundaries, the well-born and wealthy went out to greet him and escort him home. Arrived there, they stood before him joined palms waiting his orders. A scavenger, from the nature of his duties, is intimately acquainted with the condition of every household. thus the new ruler had no difficulty in exacting from every one their best and most valuable belongings, which were confiscated for the use of the guru [sic], or his treasury. Not a soul dared to disobey an order; and men who had often risk to themselves in battlefields, became so cowed that they were afraid even to remonstrate." W. Irvine, Later Mughals, (Luzac & Co., London, 1922)
The turmoil in the Punjab ruffled feathers in the capital, Delhi, and the once-conciliatory Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah, took draconian measures. By ordering all non-Muslims to shave their beards, he effectively outlawed the Sikhs. the formidable Mughal army marched north and drove Banda Singh and his men back into their stronghold in the Punjab Hills.
The death of Bahadur Shah in 1712 and the succession to the throne of Farrukh Siyar the following year offered no respite. The new emperor organized regular expeditions against the Sikhs. Banda Singh, his peasant army and the fiercely independent Akali warriors, who had been the spearhead of the Khalsa victories, lived in the saddle, outwitting the imperial forces for three years. In December 1715, after three years of battling and a nine-month siege, Banda and his men were finally starved into surrender. The capital was primed for a triumphant parade of the captured Sikhs to demonstrate Mughal superiority over this band of rebels. Hundreds of Sikhs were beheaded and their heads publicly displayed.
"The great rebel Gooroo [Banda Singh] who has been for these twenty years so troublesome in the subaship [province] of Lahore is at length taken with all of his family and attendant by Abdus Samad Cawn the suba [Governor] of that province. Some days ago they entered the city laden with fetters, his whole attendants being left alive being about seven hundred and eighty, all severely mounted on camels which were sent out of the city for that purpose. Beside about 2,000 heads stuck upon poles, being those who died by the sword in battle. He at present has his life prolonged with most of his mustsadis [clerks] in hope to get an account of his treasure in several parts of his kingdom and of those that assisted him, when afterwards he will be executed, for the rest there are a hundred each day beheaded. It is not a little remarkable with what patience they undergo their fate and to the last it has not been found that one apostatized from this newfound religion." Report by John Surman and Edward Stephens
The horrific scene of executions reached a climax as Banda Singh, refusing to accept Islam as an alternative to death, watched his four year-old son, Ajai Singh, being hacked to pieces before his eyes. He himself was subjected to a tortuous end on June 9, 1716 by being pulled limb from limb. For the next two decades, the Sikhs remained in persecuted remoteness, Nevertheless, the Akali Sikhs played a vital role in honing their guerrilla tactics, preserving their faith and retaining their place of respect in the eyes of the peasantry.
As the once great Mughal court descended into scenes of murder and in-fighting, the predatory rulers of Afghanistan and Persia invaded India through Punjab; first in 1738, the Persians under Nadir Shah, and then the Afghans under Ahmad Shah Durani, who marched his plundering columns into India no less than nine times between 1748 and 1767. It was during these expeditions that they came face to face with the hardened Khalsa guerrilla warriors. Excellent horseman and marksmen in the Parthian mould, the Sikhs drew respect from friend and foe alike.
"This sect abounds in giant-sized and lion-limbed youths whose stroke of the leg would certainly cause instantaneous death to a Vilayati Qipchaq horse. Their matchlock strikes a man at a distance of nine hundred footsteps and each of them covers two hundred kos (600 km) on horseback." Sayyed Ghulam Ali Khan, Imad-us-Saadat, 1760)
The ruthless guerrilla methods of the Khalsa were efficient and feared. They carried out expertly placed ambushes on horseback without allowing themselves to be maneuver into pitched battles. Drawing a small contingent of the main army into skirmishes, they would gradually break their opponents' formation and collective strength.
"If their armies take to flight, do not take it as an actual flight. It is a war tactic of theirs. Beware, beware of them for a second time. The object of this trick is that when the furious enemy runs after them, he is separated from his main army and from his reinforcements Then, they turn back to face their pursuers and set fire even to water. Did you not see how during the flight they took to a deceptive flight from before the Khan, and how, then, they turned back on him and surrounded him on all sides." Qazi Noor Mohammad, Jang Namah, 1765
Using this tactic repeatedly, the Khalsa could reduce an organized well-equipped army into a harassed, disorganized and demoralized body of men. It was a way of fighting well suited to the individualistic bands of peasants and it turned the Sikhs into a virtually indestructible army. In times of reversal, they would disperse into the wastes of the Punjab plains. In better times, they would reemerge in small groups that became the core of the strong and flexible organization which continued as a underground movement whenever the Mughal rulers tries to reassert their authority between invasion from foreign forces.
The Akalis were professional and religious core of the Khalsa army. Despite early European accounts describing Akalis as 'fanatics' or 'warlike', in the eyes of the eighteenth century Punjabi peasantry they had already earned the reputation of being the truest Sikhs. This was largely due to the invaluable role that they played in resisting successive invading forces during the most chaotic and turbulent decades n the history of Punjab. Contemporary Sikh and Afghan writers pour praise on the nature and the qualities of the Akali Sikhs.
"Do not call the Sikhs dogs, because they lions and are brave like lions in the battlefield. How can a hero of the battle who fights like a lion be a dog? If you cherish the desire to learn the art of war; come before them in the field. They will show you such wonderful feats of war. O, Swordsman! if you want to learn the modes of fighting, learn from them how to face the foe like a hero and how to come unscathed from the battle. You may be knew that their title is Singh and it is injustice to call them dogs. O, youth! If you are ignorant of the Hindi language (I can tell you that) the meaning of Singh is lion." Qazi Moor Mohammad, Jang Namah, 1765
The Khalsa provided the kindred spirit of the disparate Sikh communities, who had otherwise little or no interaction. Like no other martial force in India, they possessed a value system that forged them into the beau ideal of the Guru's warrior-saints. This position as saintly defenders of the Punjab and its inhabitants, irrespective of faith, endeared them to the common people. A combination of their devastating guerrilla tactics and the groundswell of support from the peasantry led to a tradition of considerable success. Ultimately, these evolved into twelve misls or confederacies. Twice a year, the entire army of the Khalsa, the Dal Khalsa, would meet at Amritsar to make decisions on matters affecting the Sikh community; otherwise, the misls acted largely on the initiative of their own leaders.
Conquering India's land held no attraction for the Afghans and the Persians; they entered India simply to loot the crumbling Mughal state. On their return, they were met, while still battle-weary, by Sikh guerrilla forces and relieved of their booty. By the 1760s, the Khalsa army was powerful enough to have taken Lahore several times after defeating large Afghan forces. Lahore was captured again from the Afghans in 1767 and Sikh rule extended over the greater part of the Punjab. Soon afterwards, it spread to the hill country of Jammu and Kashmir. As the invading Persians and Afghans faded back to their homes in the west and Mughal power continued to wane, the Khalsa's power base and confidence grew.
"Five hundred of Najaf Khan's horse dare not encounter fifty Sikh horsemen." Colonel A.L.H. Polier, a Swiss officer in the Mughal in Delhi, 1776
By 1783, the Sikh forces were making successful sorties into the Mughal capital of Delhi. occupying it for eight months, together with the Red Fort. However, recognizing no political authority, the self-governing Akali warriors, the vanguard of the Sikh success, became marginalized as the Sikh chieftains started to organize themselves on territorial grounds. Success corrupted the idealism of the Sikh chiefs.
Numerous petty territorial disputes broke out between the misls, and Sikh fought against Sikh. Continued dissension led to the weakening of the misl organizations. In the ensuing disorder, the most powerful group, the Sukerchakia misl rose to supremacy under the leadership of a 17 year old warrior-chief, Ranjit Singh, who was later to be known and feared as the Sher-e-Punjab, the Lion of the Punjab.
With innate intelligence, bravery and cunning, the young Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) consolidated the warring misls and again formed a united Khalsa brotherhood. By 1799, he had entered Lahore, the capital of Punjab.