The Tribune - Spectrum

V. N. Datta

Mulk Raj Anand

Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon

Surjit Hans

Prithipal Singh Kapur

Shiv Kumar Gupta

Kirpal Singh

Mohinder Singh

Prabhjot Singh


Modernisation of the army
By Shiv Kumar Gupta

"THE army is an instrument of the state. Every change in the constitution and organisation of the state is, therefore, bound to be reflected in the organisation of the army." The history of the army under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, does not offer any exception to this axiom.

The Sikhs, after passing through a series of vicissitudes, first established themselves as a political power in the Punjab in 1765, when Jassa Singh Ahluwalia captured the territory annexed by Ahmed Shah Abdali and struck a coin in commemoration of this historic event. But the mode of fighting of Sikhs then was desultory and hardly suited to the requirements of a well-settled state. "The army of the Khalsa, consisted of horsemen, brave indeed, but ignorant of war as an art. Saddle was the home of the Khalsa for several generations." According to Forster, "They were armed with a matchlock and a sabre. Their method of fighting was queer indeed."

Col Alexander Gardner However, "towards the end of the 18th century, a strong man of genius and commanding personality was born among them, who taking a lesson from the deplorable situation prevailing in the community and the country at the time determined to build up a strong, centralised and effectively controlled military system by amalgamating the best element in the foreign with the best element in the indigenous fighting mechanism." It was none else than Ranjit Singh, who emerged not only as a great ruler but also a great general. His father, Mahan Singh, the Chief of Sukarchakya Misl, left him in 1792 at the head of the small confederacy and a small body of Sikh cavalry. Ranjit Singh wanted to unify the entire Punjab. He was convinced that the army, modelled on medieval lines, was no match for the forces he was anticipating to fight. Until it was modified, he could not hope to emerge victorious over regular troops like the English, whose drill and tactics he studied with infinite patience or even over the Afghans who were always a source of anxiety in the north-west.

While he was keen on adopting European methods, Ranjit Singh never completely wanted to discard the system which he had inherited from his forefathers. It was a system well-known for its skirmishing and manoeuvring ability, dash and gallantry. Moreover, the Sikhs too were reluctant to change for the new arms proposed to be raised under European discipline. The military system of Ranjit Singh as it finally evolved, was a blend of best of both, the old and the new ideas. "He was not a blind imitator of the West, exactly as he was not an orthodox follower of the East."


Ranjit Singh had anticipated as early as 1805, when Holkar had come to Punjab, pursued by the British, that a war with the British lay in the logic of history. Soon after Holkar left, Ranjit Singh visited Lord Lake’s camp in disguise to find that British troops were better trained than Holkar’s. Ranjit Singh’s apprehensions were confirmed when he was forced to sign the Treaty of Amritsar in 1809, which checked him from building the Punjab of his dreams by confining him to the River Sutlej in the South. He resolved to prepare himself and his army so as to meet any future encounter with the British. "A standing national army, hitherto unknown in this part of the sub-continent, rather than the feudal levies of the chiefs, became the recognised policy of the Maharaja."

With these ideas, Ranjit Singh changed the entire organisation of the Khalsa army. The cavalry ceased to be the most important arm and the infantry became the favourite service. Creation of the artillery was started from scratch. The change was facilitated by the employment of European Officers, Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Germans, Austrians and the English. Of the foreign officers who entered the Maharaja’s service, Ventura and Allard had served Napoleon in his campaigns against Spain and Italy. Court, another Frenchman, commanded two battalions of Gurkhas. Colonel Gardner, an Irishman of considerable ability, was employed in the artillery. All these officers were basically engaged by Ranjit Singh for modernisation of his troops. He never put them in supreme command.

It is very significant to note that when Ventura and Allard reached Lahore in 1822, Ranjit Singh had almost completed the fabric of his empire. He had conquered Multan in 1818, Kashmir in 1819, Dera Ghazi Khan in 1820 and Dera Ismail Khan in 1821. Peshawar was subdued in 1834. According to Cunningham, "It has been usual to attribute the superiority of the Sikh army to the labours of these two officers and of their subsequent coadjutors, the generals court and Avitable, but in truth, the Sikh owes his excellence as a soldier to his own hardihood of character, to that spirit of adaptation which distinguishes every new people and to that feeling of a common interest and destiny implanted in him by his great teachers."

However, it cannot be denied that these European generals gave a moderate degree of precision and completeness. There is no denying the fact that during the early phase of military organisation, under Ranjit Singh, every branch of army considerably gained in size, shape and strength.

Cavalry was the most sought after branch of the army. "It was uplifted from the position of a feudalistic levy that it used to be in the past and was constituted as part of the state’s standing army." Maharaja’s cavalry was divided into three divisions — regular cavalry; ghorchara; jagirdari fauj. The regular cavalry of the Maharaja comprised a fine body of men in appearance, equipment and discipline. They had gone through an efficient course of training on western lines under the Maharaja’s French General, Jean Francois Allard. The ghorchara fauj and jagirdari cavalry did not undergo regular training, as the regular cavalry did. They cared little for the principles of modern organisation or the science of war, nor did they follow any prescribed rules of strict discipline. "Organised on the model of Sikh misls, they believed that the dash of cavalry charge and reckless courage were enough to overwhelm the foe." "Because of their desperate courage, the ghorchara had earned for themselves a name and for Ranjit Singh a kingdom."

Of the infantry and the artillery, the Sikhs knew very little before the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Having realised the importance of drill and discipline, Ranjit Singh desired to organise the infantry entirely on western lines. As Punjabis were not coming forth, it was composed of "the remains of the battalions that were formerly in the service of Sindhia and other native powers together with deserters or men discharged from the company’s territories. These troops were divided into battalions which were aimed partly with muskets and partly with matchlocks to which bayonets were attached. A sword, being the personal weapon, was carried by all.

Ranjit Singh tried to attract his people to join the infantry by offering them good pay, by personal attention to their drill and equipment, and by himself wearing the strange dress, and going through the formal exercise. Gradually, the infantry service came to be preferred and before Ranjit Singh died, he saw it regarded as the proper war-like array of his people.

Order of Merit presented to Lord Auckland by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1838It was Ranjit Singh’s conviction that the easy victories gained by the English army, were chiefly due to their steady artillery fire. He organised a regular Ordnance Department and employed a number of European officers. General Court joined Maharaja’s service in 1827 and General Gardner, who came to be popularly called Gardona Sahib, in 1932. Under them, Maharaja’s artillery became a highly organised and efficient arm of his army. Of course, Lehna Singh Majithia was an original inventor in Maharaja’s service, who had considerably improved the Sikh ordnance. Principal workshops were situated in Lahore for casting guns. Each gun had its own name, too, as Fateh Jang (victorious in war), Jang-i-Bijli (destroys like lighting) etc. Kashmiri artisans and trained craftsmen, under the supervision of officers like Lehna Singh Majithia, Faquir Nur-ud-Din, Doctor Honiburger and other Europeans carried on the work of casting, boring, polishing and decorating guns and pistol barrels.

Mian Qadir Baksh was one of the man whom the Maharaja sent to Ludhiana to learn gunnery. Although Ranjit Singh, with the aid of French and Italian officers, formed a very powerful and well-appointed artillery, it was to the last, a branch of the service hated by Sikhs and principally filled by Muslims. Osborne has observed that the Maharaja was "very proud of the efficiency and admirable condition of his artillery and justly so, for no native power had yet possessed so large and well disciplined a corps."

Ranjit Singh also had a model brigade known as Fauj-i-Khas. It had 4 battalions of infantry, 2 regiments of cavalry and a troop of artillery. Its artillery was maintained on European model, cavalry on British model and infantry on French pattern. Well-dressed, well-armed and well-disciplined, it was the best contingent of the Maharaja’s army and raised to a high degree of perfection under the command of Ventura. Impressed by its efficiency, the Maharaja ordered a reorganisation of his whole regular force on the model of Fauj-i-Khas in 1835. The British were alarmed at it. Strict orders were issued to all political agents in India in 1837 "to be vigilant and try to arrest any French officer travelling in disguise to join Ranjit Singh’s army."

The Khalsa army, under Ranjit Singh, presents entirely a new spectrum. "The change is distinctly perceptible in three important directions, namely the organisation, the equipment and the mode of fighting. Infantry and artillery which were virtually a non-entity in the 18th century now came to be regarded as the mainstay of military strength. A steady fire from guns or muskets was considered more conducive to success than irregular attackers of cavalry or a guerrilla mode of warfare.

Again, the maintenance of stranding national army, regularly paid from the treasury, displaced the old system of feudal levies by the chiefs." It was indeed a radical change in the old order of things. No wonder in 1845-46 when efficiency of the Khalsa army was put to an acid test during the war with the British, their reckless valour was the subject of high admiration even among the British commanders.