Sunday, 22 February 2009

Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir

‘Maharaja Gulab Singh acknowledges the supremacy of the British Government, and will, in token of such supremacy, present annually to the British Government one horse, twelve perfect shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female), and three pairs of Cashmere shawls’

Not much more needs to be said about him. Who was the slave and who were the masters? The above description was Article 10 of the Treaty of Amritsar, March 1846, from the British government to Gulab Singh, the Hindu monarch of the newly created Dogra Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir.

Gulab Singh (1792-1857), the first Hindu ruler of Kashmir in almost a millennium and founder of the ‘Dogra’ dynasty [an ancient Hindu Rajput clan in Jammu and Kashmir], first came to prominence aged seventeen, as a low key member earning 3 Rupees a month in the service of the Sikh Empire; a powerful and potent power in nineteenth century India.

As a common soldier along with his two brothers; Dhyan and Suchet, there was little significant, sensational or spellbinding about him then. India had ceased to exist as a kingdom and had fragmented into an ocean of smaller states, royal families and dominions all vying with another for power.

The British Empire, once one of many trade partners with the Mughal Empire in the 1600s, had risen as the most compelling and aggressive player since and patronised at will all those whom it believed best served their own national interests and could weaken stronger native dominions.

It was in such an environment, Gulab Singh had been born and would emerge a winner through military conquest, intrigue and betrayal of former friends, close associates, colleagues and trusted allies.

In 1820, then just twenty-eight years old and still little more than a common soldier, Gulab Singh rose to become Raja of Jammu, while Bhimbar, Chibal, Poonch and Ramnagar were given to his brothers, Dhyan and Suchet Singh, thus beginning the Hindu Dogra dynasty that outlasted British rule on the subcontinent.

Ranjit Singh, a famous Sikh Maharaja of Punjab, and nominal overlord of Gulab Singh had conferred upon the then young Gulab Singh, a share of official statesmanship by awarding him the title of Raja of Jammu as well as his personal army, a capable general in the name of Zorawar Singh and several estates.

Gulab Singh himself, a great grand nephew of Ranjit Deo who was the last Hindu ruler of Jammu before the Sikh annexation in 1780, had joined the Sikh army in 1809 with his first role as a defender at the famous Mangla Fort and his family as a minor Rajput clan were among those selected for special treatment.

Gulab Singh’s successful siege of Multan as a Sikh soldier in 1819 led to his meteoric rise and trust in the eyes of Ranjit Singh, although others were equally if not more worthy of it.

Ranjit Singh had sought to create a buffer state of some kind to counter the balance of the Afghan Empire and the Sikhs and saw Gulab Singh as a loyal ally and subordinate regional power. Ranjit Singh himself was respected by the British and loved by the Sikhs across India.

Both Ranjit Singh and the British Empire in India cultivated and promoted cordial and friendly relations and avoided direct confrontation and actual encounters between one another. In other words, he had compromised his sovereignty and independence to retain kingship and survive as a ruler under them.

An understanding existed between them to allow the other autonomous jurisdiction over their respective territories as long as there was no interference on both sides within their own boundaries.

Only after his death, did the two sides compete for greater overall control of the Punjab, culminating in the Sikh Wars that resulted in British occupation of the Punjab, Kashmir and outlying areas.

As the nominal de facto rulers of India then, Ranjit Singh had accepted the British presence on the subcontinent and adopted a strategy of retaining his kingdom by affirming their superiority. His selection, promotion and patronisation of officers neither disillusioned nor dismayed anyone among both the British and the Sikhs.

Gulab Singh, despite his executive inexperience, lack of previous military standing and untested loyalty, to most Indians and British residents was just another adventurer put on the throne when it was the norm to do so. Most people had never heard of him and it may have seemed; he was not expected to make a lasting impression.

Gulab Singh later strengthened his rule however, by adding Reasi, Rajouri, Chanani and Kishtwar to his growing empire. Kishtwar (a place which Gulab Singh never visited in his entire lifetime, not even as king) was incorporated in 1821 when Raja Mohammad Teg Singh surrendered to him at Doda without resistance.

In June 1823, after some ineffectual rule, governorship of the province then passed to Gulab Singh’s most trusted official, Zorawar Singh, who held it for eighteen years until his death in battle.

At first the process of swallowing cities and territories under the Kingdom of Jammu enjoyed Sikh support and was patronised by Ranjit Singh, under who Jammu operated as a subordinate state.

This alliance continued until Ranjit Singh’s death in 1838, by which time, Gulab Singh had served eighteen years under him and further consolidated and secured his frontiers.

With Sikh support he had emerged as a strong and powerful ruler, perhaps gained contacts, insights into other lands close to him and made important friends and connections on the way.

By the time the Sikhs had lost Ranjit Singh, Hindu India had found a rising and highly ambitious and successful leader in the form of Gulab Singh, then still only forty-six years old.

Two years after his mentor’s death, Gulab Singh conquered Ladakh and Dardistan in 1840. Ladakh, a Buddhist area in Tibet, was populated by Chinese residents, not Indians. Zorawar Singh, a leading general in Gulab Singh’s service, also annexed Baltistan, Skardu and Western Tibet by 1841.

Meanwhile, the death of Ranjit Singh had left the Sikh state in ruins with different claimants fighting for the throne. Sher Singh, a son of the late Ranjit Singh, represented one of the major players as a biological descendant, while Rani Chand Kaur, a widow of another Sikh ruler, Kharak Singh, one of two successors to Ranjit Singh both of whom died in 1840.

Gulab Singh was sent as the emissary of Rani Chand Kaur to none other than Dhyan Singh, his own brother. The latter had already announced his support for Sher Singh.

After some negotiations, it was agreed, Rani Chand Kaur would rule as regent until her expected grandson, the son of her still living daughter in law and widow of the last Maharaja, would assert his right to the Sikh throne upon reaching the age of maturity. Sher Singh would be entrusted as vice regent and Dhyan Chand as principal advisor.

The political arrangement collapsed within days as other claimants soon seized Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, and hence the throne. Soon Sher Singh and Rani Chand Kaur themselves decided to dissolve their agreement in favour of military might.

Sher Singh enjoyed the support of much of the army both within Lahore, the capital, as well as possessing loyal regiments stationed just outside the city and his supporters included European officers.

Rani Chand Kaur meanwhile had Gulab Singh; a rare insider into Sikh warfare, administration and up until now a supporter and loyal ally of the Sikhs in general. In addition he was also a ruler of another state with a separate army and experienced officers

Gulab Singh was appointed as Queen Rani’s Commander-in-Chief and entrusted with the role of defence. However, Sher Singh’s popularity with the army and military units outside the city culminated in his eventual triumph and victorious entry into the city in January 1841.

Strictly speaking, the bloodshed had ended through a ceasefire, orchestrated and finalised by Sher Singh’s representative, a few days after both sides decided to exchange fire rather than work things out. The result however, was the same, Queen Rani and Gulab Singh had suffered defeat.

Gulab Singh, not yet fifty, had capitulated, his image in ruins and his dependability as an ally tarnished. His chief adversary and victor against him on the other side was none other than his brother, Dhyan Chand, who was soon appointed as ‘Wazir’ (chief minister).

It is said by some historians the two brothers had agreed prior to the battle to sow the so-called differences and discord between them in public with a view of maximising profits and singular influence among them alone and to the detriment of others.

Nevertheless, no reprisals, indemnity, executions or trials followed and Queen Rani was given an estate as a token gesture for relinquishing her right to the throne to which she acceded.

Gulab Singh and his Dogra forces meanwhile evacuated the Lahore Fortress at midnight, but not before assembling the city’s gold, jewellery and precious gems from the city first. He would later find a more than suitable use for it in later years. The theft of state treasury and resources would leave the financial stability of Punjab depleted and in economic ruin.

Later that year however, Gulab Singh received a major setback. Zorawar Singh, the Governor of Kishtwar, Champion of the Dogra forces and winner of most of Gulab Singh’s wars until then, was killed in the Battle of Doyo in Ladakh along with most of his officers and his army, during the sixth such invasion of Tibet. His killer was a Tibetan soldier.

Whilst Zorawar Singh, who had both victories and losses to his name and had been under Gulab Singh’s tutelage, he was nonetheless a Sikh soldier in the service of Sher Singh and the latter’s death was mourned as a tremendous loss to the Sikh cause.

By 1841 however, despite a series of heavy defeats by Tibet, more advances had come under his way than against it and Gulab Singh as King of Jammu had accumulated a much larger empire than he had when he first rose as a soldier-king of his home province in 1820.

Ladakh, which had been won more by negotiation with the Chinese Emperor than by arms, had been added to his domains in 1834, and deeply resented the Dogra invasion. Ladakh staged as much as six revolts in six years with victories varying on both sides. Zorawar Singh was sent on each occasion to quell the rebellions.

The Tibetans had zeal and the spirit of independence in them, but unfortunately for them, not a regular militia, infantry or defence corps and lacked the financial ability to stage a war or a government to help win it.

Gulab Singh on the other hand, was a monarch of a twin kingdom, enjoyed British support and patronage and was equipped with modern weaponry and a trained army. The tides were heavily in his favour. In 1840, regular revolts in Ladakh subsided and it seemed Gulab Singh could concentrate on the rest of his kingdom.

Ladakh however, staged another revolt soon after Zorawar’s death, the seventh in Gulab Singh’s reign and the rebellion lasted until September 1842. The ‘Lama Guru of Lhasa’ (the Dalai Lama, as the then King of Tibet) and Gulab Singh later arrived at an understanding to respect ancient boundaries and ceased hostilities.

A series of crushing defeats elsewhere in the next few years however, brought Gulab Singh’s world crashing down further briefly however. Sham Singh, a Sikh general (died 1846), invaded Jammu during the cold season of 1844.

His aim was not to annex the whole province, but just to embarrass and humiliate Gulab Singh in his own territory. Sham Singh’s successful expedition was rewarded by the surrender of Jasrota and the Sikh general withdrew.

In March 1845, Sham Singh returned and again led an expeditionary force to the Hindu kingdom. The demand for withdrawal was a payment of 35, 000 Rupees; the amount Gulab Singh had stolen from the Sikhs in the Lahore Fortress upon evacuation. Gulab Singh refused and the two went to war.

The Sikh general came within ten km of the Kingdom of Jammu before Gulab Singh, now aged fifty-four, agreed to pay indemnity arrears as well as return the treasures he had stolen from Lahore. Historians however, argue he still had most if not all of the Sikh treasury even after this episode and used some of it to purchase Kashmir.

Had Sham Singh lived longer, he might have contained and even quenched the Dogra ruler’s thirst for territory, wealth and fame permanently but as events would later show, opportunities for greater land and legal jurisdiction over them emerged to many but only he seized them successfully.

Although Gulab Singh had already demonstrated disloyalty to his Sikh masters, he remained under their services as a comrade, an associate and close ally and in 1845 the Punjab needed him more than ever.

War with the East India Company; the same seemingly innocent British trade partner of the 1600s, was a few months away. The Sikhs had become alienated with the British by now, while the latter sought to weaken the State and reduce the frontiers of Punjab further.

The Sikh state had grown too powerful and economically independent of British support and was among the last vestiges of native Indian dominions left in the subcontinent and the two sides prepared for a showdown.

Both knew the encounters between them would not be simple short and decisive battles. This was especially true as the Sikhs had learnt to how use British weaponry and fought alongside them in nearby Afghanistan some years earlier.

An additional 'brick' on the Sikh side was Gulab Singh. He was to provide relief columns and reserve forces from Jammu and allow the Punjab government to operate from within his borders and accept Sikh contingents to withdraw into his territory and seek asylum if required.

The rights of passage, supply of weaponry and even detachment of forces from one kingdom to another was nothing new. Gulab Singh had readily assisted British forces in their fruitless invasion of Afghanistan (1838-1842). British troops had evacuated from Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass and recovered in Jammu.

With easy access to his territory and armaments during the war, the British Empire had got to know him well. He had done so as Commissioner of Lahore and a sizeable proportion of Sikh soldiers also participated.

Unknown to the Sikhs however, Gulab Singh had since changed sides and loyalties. The British were a more promising flock, possessed a much larger empire and looked the more likely to win. In addition, Gulab Singh wasn’t going to rise that much further with the Sikhs, the British might reward him handsomely.

Henry Hardinge, a British governor-general and official at the time, explained to Queen Victoria, the situation the East India Company found itself in thanks largely due to their new ally, Gulab Singh in a letter dated 18/02/1846.

’Raja Golab Singh, on being installed as Minister [in the Sikh State], put himself in communication with us, proffering every assistance in his power for the furtherance of any ends in regard to the State of Lahore which we might have in view’.

In a letter to the assistant agent to the British governor-general, Lieutenant E. Lake, dated 15/01/1846 shortly before his actual defection to the East India Company, Gulab Singh also wrote,-

‘He who wishes to climb the summit of a lofty mountain, must start at daybreak; should he delay, night may close over him ere he has gained the desire of his heart; the treasure which is buried in the depths of the mountain will become the prize of that man who is first to reach the summit’.

During the Second Sikh War (1846), the Sikhs continued to rely on Gulab Singh’s expected intervention and sent messages for him to comply quickly. In the First Sikh War (December 1845), Gulab Singh had not even bothered to make an appearance or send someone in his place to state his position on the issue.

Instead, Gulab Singh remained somewhat neutral, voicing espousal for the Lahore government but in reality, a willing and eager observer of the strangulation of the Sikh state.

‘Gulab Singh urged the army not to attempt attacking the British until he joined them and this he avoided doing on one pretext or another knowing full well that in due time the British would attack and capture the position of Sobraon’.

These were the words of William Edwards in Reminiscences of a Bengal Civilian, a British resident in India at the time over the events leading up to the Battle of Sobraon (Sobraon was then a small village) in 1846.

Gulab Singh had deliberately placed his army in un-strategic positions away from where the Sikhs needed them most and carefully disposed of his relief regiments ability to assist the Punjab forces and give the British a clear advantage. The Sikhs at different times during the war appeared to be winning and made several advances whilst some British military leaders retreated and sensed defeat.

The Dogra monarch’s actual non-interference but repeated verbal promises of support to the Sikhs, did not pass unnoticed to the British and Gulab Singh was duly invited as an attendee and leading representative of the Sikhs to the ‘peace talks’ that followed their dismal defeat.

Eight thousand Sikhs were slain, the State treasury was stripped of its cash, capital and wealth, the Sikh Empire was at its lowest ebb, and now their greatest renegade stood above them as a beneficiary of their fall from grace.

Up until the 1840s, the British had been unwilling to advance further into India due to economic restraints. The demoralizing war in Afghanistan had severely drained the financial resources of the East India Company, but still they had their eyes fixed on destroying the Sikh state.

Equally striking and splendid was Kashmir, then under Sikh rule. Like Punjab, the British did not desire to rule directly. Costs of governance were too expensive as was the ability to maintain, garrison and defend it; a native subject under British suzerainty was more preferable. Gulab Singh was the willing nominee.

The ‘Treaty of Peace’ (9th March 1846) that ended the war heavily in British favour was presided by the East India Company as the victors of the war, Maharaja Dulip Singh of Punjab and Gulab Singh, the latter as a welcome participant.

The Treaty also ensured the Sikhs recognise Gulab Singh as the rightful monarch of Kashmir, which was to be awarded him by the British in a separate agreement with him personally.

The ‘Amritsar Treaty’, which followed a week later (16th March 1846), formally released Gulab Singh from Sikh authority (although he had relinquished loyalties to them years earlier) and gave him the highest official standing and rank he had ever possessed.

The treaty bound Gulab Singh as a crown servant of the British Empire, an indebted slave of the East India Company, a tributary and tax collection authority and subordinate [native] ruler under foreign protection against the interests of the Kashmiri people. It was hardly something to be proud about, even less than to record as a great event and achievement by an Indian.

Nevertheless, it was Gulab Singh’s greatest singular accomplishment ever. It didn’t matter his actual status was lower and severely diminished than earlier monarchs before him and real power belonged to the British, while he and his successors after him governed as their official agents in Kashmir.

He would rule Kashmir with an iron fist for another eleven years after that and never rise higher in merit, popularity or prizes than he had that day in March 1846. His popularity had been with the British and it was to them he owed everything.


Kashmir had existed as a state for over a millennium, several rulers and dynasties had made their mark including Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni eight hundred years earlier. At the time, Kashmir had a token Muslim presence and most residents were Hindu or Buddhist.

It was not until the 13th century Islam became one of the dominant religions in the state. Since the 1400s Muslims have accounted for no less than 85% of the population and witnessed Muslim rulers within its boundaries along the way.

A famine in the 1200s made many Hindus leave permanently in search of more cultivated, prosperous and less drought-ridden areas. Muslims from other areas then populated the lands left behind, but still remained a relative minority.

Rainchin Shah, who assumed the throne in 1320, a century later, was the first to embrace Islam and most of his subjects followed suit. Prior to this Rainchin Shah believed in no religion as such and most Kashmiris were Hindu.

Different native kings appeared and ruled until it was incorporated into the Mughal Empire under Akbar in the 16th century. It remained under Mughal rule until 1752 when Afghanistan invaded the state. Kashmir then reverted back to India in 1819 following an Afghan defeat by the newly emerging Sikh Empire under Ranjit Singh.

Ranjit Singh himself had twice tried unsuccessfully to conquer Kashmir, the first time in 1812 and then again in 1814, but even after subjugation he never actually visited Kashmir, but that didn’t stop him from immense taxation of his new possession and enacting legislation that altered their way of life.

The Muslims had not been under Non Muslim rule for as long as they could remember. Although both Hindus and Muslims had initially approached Ranjit Singh themselves for assistance against the Afghans and provided useful military information, they did not take too kindly to then being made slaves in their own territory.

Sikh unpopularity increased further with the use of repression, torture and violence. The Sikhs had become rulers of a land they did not know how to govern. It was a difficult twenty-seven years of Sikh rule under ten different governors, all but one it is said, cared little for their needs.

For both oppressor and the oppressed the Sikh presence helped no one and the relationship resulted in depopulation, poverty and destruction of commerce and trade. Native residents never wavered in their despondency and dejection against them. No Sikh ruler attained popularity in Kashmir.

After the destruction of the Sikhs however, the awe-striking prize of Kashmir was added to the British Indian Empire in addition to Punjab. As a reward for his services under the terms and conditions of the Amritsar Treaty (16/03/1846), Gulab Singh was to administer and rule Kashmir as king.

However, it was in 1839, Gulab Singh, then forty-seven years old had first entered Kashmir as Raja of Jammu. He was sent there to quell rebellions caused by Sikh soldiers, not the common masses, following disgruntlement at the recent death of Ranjit Singh a year earlier.

Although he ruled Jammu, a neighbouring fiefdom, this may have been his first exposure to the province. Gulab Singh moved the Dogra army into the areas of rebellion and after successful subjugation, returned to Jammu the same year.

Whilst there he is likely to have seen the scenic wonders not present within his own domains. The lakes, forests, picturesque view, grassland and flowering meadows may have captivated his senses. There were hills and mountains in his own kingdom in comparison.

Seven years later in 1846, the land, its people, its produce, the state and everything within it was up for sale, except there was only one buyer permitted to purchase it, albeit with conditions. That didn't matter, Gulab Singh had the means to collect and distribute it. The Shawl industry of Kashmir, among the finest in the World for centuries, would be his treasury alone and would help fill his empty pockets into cash payments for his British slavemasters.

The price he was eventually to pay was 7.5 million Rupees along with specific clauses including military assistance and details of further annual payments to the East India Company (all of which would come directly through taxation of the people of Kashmir).

Gulab Singh acceded to the demands set by the company in the sale and thus the Dogra dynasty was born. Kashmir had been sold by one set of alien rulers (the British Empire) it detested and didn’t want to another abhorrent one; a Hindu monarchy headed by a ruler who was once employed as a senior minister by another equally great alien ruler; the Sikhs.

Prior to the annexation of Kashmir, he had been known only as Raja of Jammu, now with the inclusion of another province, he was promoted to Maharaja, a grand and august title among Non Muslim monarchs in India at the time.

The newly-appointed and foreign-designated Maharaja Gulab Singh ruled the twin kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir until his death in 1857. Like the Sikhs and the British before him, he didn’t take too much notice about the needs, welfare, aspirations and desires of the people he ruled over.

They were just chattel; part and parcel of the provisions and livestock he had inherited from the British. The territory, title, treasury and trusteeship of the kingdom are what mattered and he ruled accordingly.

It was only after the death of both Gulab Singh and his son and immediate successor, Ranbir Singh, that some semblance of welfare, economic assistance, health and sanitation, education, public development and social responsibility appeared in Kashmir under the Dogra Maharajas some forty years later and even that under forceful conditions by the British.

His first test as king however, came from within his own ranks. Governor Imamudeen of Kashmir refused to recognise Gulab Singh’s overlordship and would not permit the new monarch into Kashmir.

A British army along with Sikh regiments appeared to relieve the new monarch of the problem. Analysts have suggested Imamudeen was alone in his hatred in of Gulab Singh and did not reflect his unpopularity among native subjects.

Imamudeen’s revolt, although orchestrated by the [Sikh] Lahore government, was an affront to the beginning of his reign and illustrated his inability to control or consolidate his own territory. General Lakhpat, one of Gulab Singh’s top aides, was killed in one encounter with the governor.

British military assistance brought Gulab Singh into power again. His own regiments and personal popularity among the populace (or rather the lack of it) could not dislodge the governor themselves.

By May 1846, British governor-general Henry Hardinge reported, Gulab Singh had paid five million of the required 7.5 million Rupees as agreed by the Treaty of Amritsar. It is noticeable he could not pay most or all of it before acquiring Kashmir, but was able to deposit more than half a few months after assuming the throne.

Other than excess taxation of the Kashmiris (who had already been left bleeding and destitute for furnishing the cost of the Sikh Wars), from where did the additional currency surface? The second sum was paid in 1848 and the remaining amount was distributed by March 1850.

The Shawl Industry, an international prosperous, successful and flourishing economy in Kashmir until the advent of Gulab Singh, may have made the largest singular contribution to his budget, costs, debts and personal income.

An annual tax of 4, 700 Rupees on each weaver was imposed in the very first year of his reign on the trade. All weavers either unwilling or unable to give the required amount were ordered to abandon their looms. A further 25% duty was added on each shawl produced and the industry’s progressive trend collapsed.

In 1847, shawl artisans requested a review of the measures taken against the trade starting with a reduction in taxation, codified laws for the industry and fixed wages for workers. Gulab Singh refused to even entertain the idea.

Four thousand shawl weavers then went on strike and the looms were abandoned. Due to the monarch’s unwillingness to compromise, many weavers chose to emigrate towards Lahore and Amritsar. Gulab Singh then stationed troops along the borders to stop the mass exodus.

His son and successor, Rambir Singh (1857-1885), later increased the taxes on shawl weavers so that 1.2 million Rupees would be raised annually from the trade. Each weaver was required to pay 49 Rupees to the newly created and later infamous Dagshawl Department as well as to their individual factory owners.

This amounted to half their income. For the poorest weavers, to whom no concessions or economic considerations were given, the burden was heaviest and the extra costs meant starvation.

Later in April 1865, another peaceful weavers’ strike was organised, but resulted in the deaths of twenty-eight protestors when army personnel under Colonel Bijoy Singh, opened fire.

Like his father before him, Rambir Singh issued orders to security officials to prevent migration of Kashmiris outside his kingdom even when famine broke out twelve years later in the winter of 1877.

The causes had been colossal taxation and exploitation, but the consequences on this occasion were worse and starvation went unchecked with little or no help and sympathy from the State.

Life was not any less easier for other trades and artisans. Walter Lawrence, a governor general of India and member of the British delegation at the time of the treaty in 1846 remarked later, ‘almost every thing save air and water was taxed in Kashmir.’

At first, Kashmiris had neither welcomed nor rose up against the Dogra dynasty in 1846. To them Gulab Singh, the new Hindu ruler was just another foreign ruler, an Indian yes, but not a Muslim nor a Kashmiri, and certainly not someone who needed to win their hearts and minds.

However, it still took Gulab Singh up to ten years, most of his reign, to consolidate his rule by force of arms over the entire kingdom. What ruined his image further was his use of British forces to achieve it.

Colonel Steinbach, a British commander of some of Gulab Singh’s troops wrote as early as 1851, five years into his rule, of the Hindu monarch’s style of authority as follows-

‘The British had made a great mistake in turning Kashmir over to Gulab Singh. Not only had his military resources been exaggerated but some of his avarice and pecuniary oppression.’

In 1857, just a year or so after subjugating Kashmir successfully, a new event in India arose. The First War of Independence. A revolt initially staged by native soldiers in the British Indian army, but later incorporated to include other Indians of different religions from across the country. It remained however, largely a Muslim rebellion.

Although the revolt was geographically confined to select areas of the subcontinent, namely the United Provinces, and not carried to the whole of India, the news of its rapid rise and progress spread like wildfire.

Principalities and kingdoms still extant in the subcontinent by now were largely staunchly pro-British (if only for survival of their own dynasties) opted to patronise the British Empire in place of their brethren.

Gulab Singh among them chose to send detachments of two thousand soldiers, two hundred cavalry and six heavy guns to assist British military units in Delhi along with his son, Rambir Singh. While protecting British people in his own state, Gulab Singh handed at least two hundred Muslims who took shelter in Kashmir back to the British.

To those who felt it was little more than just a local rebellion should note the criminal actions of the British army during this turbulent time.

Frederich Engels, who watched events closely vividly, commented after the fall of the City of Lucknow to the United Kingdom-

‘There is no army in Europe, or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre- things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished- are a time honoured privilege, a vested right of the British soldier.’

Lucknow was finally taken after two assaults. The first, led by Lieutenant-General James Outram, failed miserably to take the city. Colin Campbell’s much larger forces broke the siege and sacked the city.

In Awadh alone, 150, 000 Indians were killed, 100, 000 of them civilians by the victorious British army. Only a year earlier, the city, then a prosperous independent kingdom, had been successfully annexed to the British Empire after Wajid Ali Shah, was ousted from his throne by the East India Company.

Just hearing the word, ‘Cownpore’, a strategic city that fell to the Indians at one point in the war, was all that was needed to justify indiscriminate firing, the killing of any one and destruction of anything in sight by British soldiers.

The killing spree in the capital Delhi was no different, Mirza Ghalib, a poet who lived there then, described the city once the British army moved in.

‘In front of me, I see today rivers of blood.’

He went on to describe how looting became common place and killing any one a sport. Not by natives taking advantage of the lawlessness created by the vacuum, but by the same British soldiers originally sent to restore order in the first place.

Brigadier General John Nicholson and John Lawrence of the British army had led a contingent of 17,000 Sikh soldiers and a sizeable number of Muslims from the Punjab that eventually recaptured Delhi.

Although John Nicholson was killed in the expedition, his relief force engaged in widespread pillaging and slaughter of the native population after surrender. He was nevertheless posthumously declared to be a hero of Delhi.

Observers also noted some British army personnel turned a blind eye to the killing and slaughter of Muslim rebels by Sikh soldiers under the former after the latter surrendered to them.

Wholesale rape and sexual molestation went unchallenged, as long as it was the British army who were guilty of it. While human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by both sides during the war, only one stood trial and was indicted by it and remains so to this day.

Eventually rebels captured as prisoners were stripped to the waist, made to stand in front of cannons and then summarily blown to pieces, one by one in public and without trial by British military personnel. Others were hanged on the tops of trees and left there to rot as an example and deterrence to others.

As if that was not enough, whole villages were razed to the ground and entire populations slaughtered mercilessly in several cities by British soldiers, most of them for no reason at all.

Bahadur Shah, the last of the Mughal rulers before the war, had been made titular head of India by the rebels and symbol of independence and freedom, was however put on trial and presented with a rare gift from the British; three disembodied human heads on a silver platter.

They were the decapitated heads of his three sons all of whom were executed some time earlier. Bahadur Shah himself was blinded soon after the trial and then exiled to Rangoon, Myanmar, where he died in 1862.

George Canning, British Governor General of India and nominal overlord of the East India Company, was praised for his conduct during the war and given the title, ‘Clemency Canning’ for his firm but fair hand.

Some of this may have reached the ears of Gulab Singh, who passed away during the revolt the same year. Later his son and successor, Rambir Singh, continued to support the British throughout the war.

The revolt was eventually suppressed after much bloodshed and carnage largely due to the support of the five hundred or so Indian principalities like Gulab Singh and the people of Scindia, who assisted the British against their own countrymen, but stood most to gain from it all.

Gulab Singh was a true patriot, staunch slave subject and friend to the British and anything but that to India itself. He didn’t profit the Sikhs when he was commissioner in Lahore and not to natives in Jammu or Kashmir and certainly not pro-independence Indians during the 1857 revolt.

If there was anyone or anything else he was loyal to as well, it was himself and to a lesser extent, the Hindu religion. Excess taxation in his twin kingdoms was based on creed, not on wealth, savings or otherwise.

Hindus paid little in tax in Jammu and nothing whatsoever in Kashmir. Taxation in Kashmir was based entirely on religion, Hindus were exempt from it and all Muslims who became Hindu were also excused from future payments.

Muslims in Jammu, despite being a minority, paid heavy rates and levies on almost everything, and Muslims in neighbouring Kashmir accounted for almost the entire treasury in that State.

Gulab Singh was Indian by birth but not by nature, his loyalty, first love, heart and seat of emotion was not to India but to England. What separated him from being English was his brown skin.


Gulab Singh has been hailed and praised by Hindu historians and scholars as among the greatest and most remarkable Indian military leaders and soldier-kings of the nineteenth century.

It was, they argue, his careful and articulate manner of kingship that held an amalgamation of ethnic identities, religions, linguistic and culturally diverse regions comfortably under one roof in his twin kingdoms of Jammu and Kashmir together for almost forty years.

It is further said this ethos and system of equality in not giving preference to one group over another contributed to the success of the kingdom and continued with his successors for over a century.

His advocates however, turn a blind eye to the insurgencies and succession of revolts that occurred because of his initial accession to power in Jammu. The 1830s saw a steep rise in discontent, displeasure and exasperation against him.

The Muslim citizenry, though a minority, (the Hindus occupied the majority) did not take too kindly to a Hindu ruler above them and expressed their disapproval openly. Gulab Singh put down the rebellions with much violence and bloodshed.

The rebellions nevertheless severely tested the military might of the Dogra Empire and demonstrated the precariousness of his actual popularity, image and consolidation of power.

It was the army, British overlordship and his use of torture and repression that kept him on the Kashmir throne, not his intelligence, wit, individual allure and personal appeal.

Several figures including Vigne, a traveller to India, attested to the totalitarianism and tyranny he exercised. In 1839, while still Raja of Jammu, the Governor of Poonch, a neighbouring area launched a rebellion over excessive taxation. Poonch was under his brother Dhyan Singh.

Gulab Singh, who was invited to attend by his brother following the end of the revolt, ordered some of the skins of prisoners to be stuffed with straw, the hands to be stiffened and tied. The head was severed from the body and even after death, the corpse was left out near the roadsides two miles apart so that onlookers may see a glance of it.

As a show of its correctness, he also requested one of his youngest sons to watch the executions. The son immediately ran away. Other rebels who were unfortunate to fall under his legal wing were flayed alive.

His brother, Dhyan Singh, did not live much longer either and was assassinated only four years later in 1843. His other brother, Suchet Singh, also a ruler of a neighbouring area, would similarly die in his lifetime.

Smyth, an Englishman who knew of Gulab Singh and observed his career and conquests from a distance described him aptly as follows-

‘Gulab Singh exercised the most ruthless barbarities, not in the heat of conflict or in the flush of victory only, nor in the rage of an offended sovereign against rebellious subjects; he deliberately committed the most horrible atrocities for the purpose of investing his name with a terror that should keep down all thoughts of resistance to his cruel way.

With all this he was courteous and polite in his demeanour, and exhibited a suavity of manner and language that contrasted fearfully with the real disposition to which it formed an artfully designed but still transparent covering.

He would be all things to all men, and displayed a readiness to adapt himself to the circumstances even of the humblest of his subjects that would have won all hearts, had not the tiger-nature that crouched beneath this fair-seeming exterior rendered him an object of distrust and terror.’

This then was Kashmir’s newest king. In later years, Kashmir which incidentally had a Muslim majority and a Hindu minority repeated the same pattern and met the same fate as their comrades in Jammu a decade earlier.

Although a nominal ruler of a fiefdom under Sikh suzerainty in his formative years, Gulab Singh was a Hindu adventurer with dreams of his own empire and didn’t hesitate to abscond from earlier pledges of support and alliance when it suited him.

At one point in his early career as a soldier of fortune still to make his name, he had been an ally of Sultan Khan of Bhimbar, but turned against him and joined forces with Ranjit Singh. The siege of Multan in 1819 under Ranjit Singh further brought him the first slice of success the following year; the Kingdom of Jammu.

Interestingly, Sultan Khan was captured (and then blinded) by the Sikhs a short time later, quite possibly with Gulab Singh’s inside knowledge of Bhimbar and his active personal involvement, and the ex-ruler of Bhimbar was placed in the custody of none other than Gulab Singh, his own former general.

After Ranjit Singh’s death, he betrayed the Sikhs as well. On both occasions, his defection was close to the time of their actual demise and he greatly benefited and ascended higher than when he was with either of them. Had he lived longer and been able to he might also have apostated from British ranks as well.

“He has the cunning of the vulture. He sat apart in clear atmosphere of passionless distance, and with sleepless eye beheld the lion and the tiger contending for the deer, and when the combatants were dead, he spread his wings, sailed calmly down, and feasted where they fought.”

The words above belong not to an adversary, an enemy in arms or a Muslim or Sikh individual who hated him, but rather to someone who knew Gulab Singh, dined with him, negotiated and helped him secure his fortune and kingdom.

Herbert Edwards, an Aide-de-Camp to British Commander-in-Chief of Bengal, Hugh Gough, who was present at the Amritsar Treaty and saw Gulab Singh in the 1840s, was quoted as saying. Interestingly, Gough’s successor, Charles Napier commented about Gulab Singh;-

“What a king to install! Rising from the lowest, foulest sediment of debauchery to float on the highest surge of blood, he lifted his besmeared front and England adorned it with a crown? Cramming down the throats of the Cashmerian people a hated and hateful villain.”

Henry Hardinge, the British governor general of India during the transfer further described him as ‘the greatest rascal in Asia.’ It is also of interest that Gulab Singh said of himself at the time of transfer as a ‘slave bought with gold’.

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