The lion-hearted warrior

Sumant Dhamija on Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, a brave Sikh general

Jassa Singh Ahluwalia motivated the Sikhs to fight well
Jassa Singh Ahluwalia motivated the Sikhs to fight well

The year was 1762. Punjab was fighting for its freedom. Ahmad Shah Abdali, the King of Afghanistan, Persia and parts of Central Asia and India, one of the greatest conqueror of his time, was ranged against Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Padshah of the Sikhs. Earlier in the year, Ahmad Shah had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Sikhs. About 25,000 Sikhs, including women and children, were slaughtered at Kup. Ahmad Shah had then blown up the Harmandir Sahib and filled the holy tank with the carcasses of dead cows. At Lahore, he had decided to deal a death blow to the Sikh army when he realised they had all gathered at Amritsar for Divali. Despite a full solar eclipse, Ahmad Shah was confident. He had 50,000 battle-hardened Afghans but the Sikhs fought with a primeval ferociousness.

In March 1761, Ahmad Shah Durrani was returning triumphant. He had destroyed Maratha power in Punjab at the Battle of Panipat and then looted Delhi. His prized booty included 2200 Hindu women being taken to Afghanistan to be sold. The Sikhs were at their bi-annual Baisakhi meeting at Amritsar in March when relatives of the captive women came and pleaded for succour. Jassa Singh left immediately with a volunteer force, rescued the women and had them escorted to their families. He came to be known as Bandhi Chhor (liberator). In 1764, Jassa Singh marched at the head of the combined Khalsa armies and conquered Sirhind province, one of the richest in the Empire. The cash spoils amounted to Rs. 900,000 and Jassa Singh gave the entire amount for the rebuilding of the Harmandar Sahib that had been destroyed by Ahmad Shah.

Jassa Singh was born on May 3, 1718, to Badar Singh, a minor landowner of the Kalal (brewer) caste in Ahlo village (near Lahore) from where he was to later get the name, Ahluwalia. He was only five years old when his father died. He soon moved to Delhi with his mother in the care of Mata Sundari, Guru Gobind Singh's widow, who had lost her four sons and would now treat him as her own. Apart from a thorough knowledge of the Sikh scriptures, he learnt Urdu and Persian, which was to make him the most literate member of the Khalsa. At the age of eleven, he left Delhi to be with his Uncle's Jatha fired by Guru Gobind Singh's mission, which he was to make his own. Mata Sundari gave him the Guru's sword, shield, bows and arrows, which suggested predestined greatness. She gave Kapur Singh, the then military head of the Khalsa, considerably impressed by the young Jassa on his visit to Delhi, the Guru's mace to be handed over to him when he had earned a name in the service of the Panth (community).

In the period upto 1748 and subsequently, the Mughals followed a policy of intense persecution interspersed with appeasement. The Sikhs barely managed to survive in the deserts and jungles. Indeed, they fought back and with spirit. A lot had to do with inspired leadership.

The Baisakhi in March in 1748, attracted large numbers of Sikhs. With a view to strengthen themselves to face the very tough Mughal Governor, Muin ul Mulk, and the likely Afghan invasions, far-reaching changes were made. Jassa Singh was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Dal Khalsa (Sikh army) which was now divided into 11 misls (Divisions) from the previous 65. These would act in unison and subject to Gurmatas(resolutions)which were binding on all. In 1753, before he died, Kapur Singh was to proclaim Jassa Singh the religious head of the Khalsa and it was at this moment that he presented him with the Guru's mace to reinforce his leadership of the community.

Jassa Singh's conquering career, which continued till the year of his death, took off after 1748. After a series of victories, Jassa Singh subsequently conquered Lahore in 1761. The prophecy that Jassa Singh would become king had come true. Coins were struck and although Jassa Singh had to vacate Lahore on Ahmad Shah's return, the Sikhs were to take it over again in 1765.

Punjab was now free after 800 years of domination. Jassa Singh did not stop here. Subsequently, he was to invade the environs of Delhi and the Ganga Doab in the 1770s. He extracted large sums from the Emperor in lieu of his army not looting Delhi. In 1783, a year of the worst possible famine in North India, Jassa Singh with Baghel Singh, a fellow chief, invaded the environs of Delhi with 60,000 cavalry. The loot from these areas, which included Ghaziabad, Khurja and Aligarh, was so large that it was sent back to Punjab with an escort of 20,000 cavalry. Jassa Singh then marched to Delhi, defeated Prince Mirza Shiko, took over the Red Fort, and to prove a point, sat on the throne of Hindustan.

At 65, Jassa Singh died in 1783 on his way for the Divali meeting at Amritsar. His body was taken to Harmandir Sahib. As a rare gesture for his services to the community he was cremated in its precincts - at Burj Baba Atal Sahib where his Samadhi still exists today. At the time of his death, the combined armies of the Khalsa totalled 200,000 with 60,000-70,000 horses available at any given time. The Sikh rule extended from Lahore and Multan, Jammu and Kashmir to the hill states of Kangra, Chamba and others down to the environs of Delhi. The Ganga Doab had become a territory where the Sikhs plundered at will. The Mughals had been subdued and the Afghans had finally been repulsed. A bold strategist, Jassa Singh realised the futility of fighting pitched battles against better-trained Mughal and Afghan troops. He therefore encouraged hit-and-run guerrilla tactics till such time that he and the chiefs had more resources and had gathered a larger, better-trained army.