Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Khalsa: Raiding the raiders

An artistic representation of the Battle of Chamkaur Sahib. The battle techniques used by the Sikhs often took their enemies by surprise and gave them an advantage.

Sikhs warriors of the 18th century adopted guerrilla tactics. They offered tough resistance to the invading Afghan armies of Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali by looting them and freeing those enslaved by them Maj-Gen Kulwant Singh (retd).

Banda Singh Bahadur shook the foundation of the nearly 200-year-old mighty Mughal empire in seven years, from 1709 to 1715. Thereafter, the Mughals could never reassert their authority in areas north of Delhi.

After Banda Bahdur’s execution, the Sikhs went through extremely difficult times, suffering brutalities at the hands of Mughals. The hard core of Banda’s army retreated to inaccessible areas of hill tracts, jungles and ravines to continue their struggle. The Sikhs developed and practised skilled guerrilla tactics.

Denying the rulers vast resources of Hindustan formed an important strategy of Sikhs. Looting government treasuries, rich landlords and goods-laden Mughal convoys became favourite targets. Rattan Singh Bhangoo, in his Panth Prakash, which is based on oral evidence, sums ups the military implication of resources denial — “Mughals could not get enough land revenue, peasants refused to pay on the grounds that they had already been robbed by the Sikhs, there was little money to pay to the soldiers who deserted.”

To undermine the government authority further, Sikhs introduced the ‘Rakhi System,’ which offered protection on payment of a nominal fee; it ensured double protection because the Sikh bands restrained themselves and also protected people against marauders. They took over police functions. This made them saviours and seriously undermined government’s authority.

Nadir Shah and his successor, Ahmed Shah Abdali, repeatedly came to India not to rule but to loot. These raiders were ruthless; mass killing, rapes, abductions and enslaving of thousands of slaves were the results of these raids. The Sikhs were the only ones who relieved them of their booty, and freed slaves.

Nadir Shah, after plundering Delhi, was returning to Persia in the summer of 1739; he was moving close to the foothills of the Himalayas to avoid the heat of the plains of Punjab. The Sikhs, who were already there and were well-versed with the terrain, found Nadir’s loot-heavy army carrying goods on elephants, camels and horses, an easy prey.

They started to raid and plunder the baggage train as soon as the returning Afghan army entered Punjab and continued to do so all the way to Indus. Thus, the Sikhs relieved him of most of his looted wealth and managed to free the Indian youth, including women, who had been enslaved.

Nadir Shah was surprised at this dare-devil acts by Sikh raiders. He inquired from Zakariya Khan, Governor of Lahore, “Who are these mischief makers? Zakariya replied: “These are a group of fakirs, who visit their Guru’s tank (at Amritsar) twice a year and after bathing in it disappear”.

Nadir Shah wanted to know where they live. Zakariya said: “Their houses are their saddles; they can last long periods without food and rest. They are known to sleep on horseback. We have put prizes on their heads, but their number keeps increasing. They are never despondent, but are always singing the songs of their Pirs…A drop of nectar from their Guru transmutes a coward into a lion — so wonderful is its effect”.

Nadir Shah remarked: “Take care, the day is not distant when these rebels will take possession of your country”.

Ahmad Shah Abdali, who succeeded Nadir Shah, raided India nine times between 1747 and 1769. Like his predecessor, his aim was to plunder India’s wealth and carry it to Afghanistan.

The Sikh army was determined to frustrate his motive by “robbing the robber”. Sikhs shadowed the Afghan army, lurking around the ‘soft spots’ and flanks, often taking an opportunity to raid, kill, plunder and free enslaved men and women. During one of the raids, in March 1761, Sikhs freed over 2,000 young women, meant for Afghan harems, and escorted them safely to their homes, some as far as Delhi and beyond. They robbed Abdali during eight of his invasions. With each raid they got more resources and strength, and became bolder.

Tired and exhausted battle-weary Afghan soldiers, eager to return home, were no match for the battle-hardy, highly motivated Sikhs: “Fifty of them were enough to keep at bay the whole battalion of King’s forces”. Abdali made his ninth and last attempt to conquer Punjab in1769; the Sikhs blunted his invasion at Jhelum itself. Abdali returned to Kandahar, a defeated and broken man.

Rattan Singh Bhangoo, describes the Sikh guerrilla tactics: “Hit the enemy hard enough to kill, run, turn back and hit him again; run again, hit and run till you exasperate the enemy, and then melt away”. This guerrilla tactics is summed up in two words: Dhai phat (two-and-a-half injuries). The approach to battle with total surprise is one phat, a sudden shock action throwing the enemy off balance is half phat; successful speedily and orderly withdrawal after the attack is the remaining ‘one phat’.

Qazi Nur Mohammed, who accompanied Ahmed Shah Abdali, was an eye-witness to all engagements. He was no friends of Sikhs; his strong hatred is obvious when he refers to them as dogs, pig-eaters, accursed infidels, dirty idolaters, and so on. Despite his strong dislike for Sikhs, he could not help describing their excellent conduct, their valour in the battlefield, their values, agility and grand physical appearance. In his own words:

“Do not call the Sikhs dogs, because they are lions and are brave like lions in the battlefield. When they take the Indian sword in their hands, they traverse the country from Hind to Sind…None can stand against them in battle, howsoever strong he may be…When their battle axes fall upon the armor of their opponents, it becomes their coffin… they come to the field fiercely springing and roaring like lions and immediately split many a breast and make the blood of many others spill in the dust. The body of every one of them is like a piece of rock…Every one of them is more than 50 men…At time of peace, they surpass Hatim” (in goodness and generosity).”

They retained their mobility by staying on horseback, without allowing to pitch classical battle to the enemy. They would cunningly draw a small contingent of the enemy from the main force, luring it to chase them, thus isolating it from any possible help, then encircle and annihilate this isolated contingent. After the skirmish, the Sikhs would retreat quickly, carrying with them much-needed horses and weapons. Qazi Nur Mohammed describes the technique:

“If their armies take to flight, do not take it as an actual flight. It is a war tactics of theirs. Beware; beware of them the second time. The object of this trick is 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”.

Beside raw courage, supreme fighting skills and missionary spirit to die in the battle, which the Khalsa had in plenty, they also had a major force multiplier in their favour — the local support of Hindus and Muslims, both helped them, especially the peasantry. This was achieved by the exemplary conduct of Sikh solders during battle. Sikhs never forgot –“Soora so pahchaniye jo lare deen ke het, purja purja kat mare, kabh hu na chhade khet”.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


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