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Hari Singh Nalwa, famously known as the "lion-ripper," waited patiently for his visitor. 

Hari Singh Nalwa, famously known as the "lion-ripper," waited patiently for his visitor. Since Maharaja Ranjit Singh had begun allowing occasional visits from foreigners, a steady stream of them had come to interview Nalwa and share his story with the world. However, this particular visitor would prove to be quite different from the rest.

Baron Charles Hugh was no ordinary European anthropologist or diplomat. He was a renowned explorer and an enthusiastic traveller. Having thoroughly researched Hari Singh Nalwa, the Baron impressed him by recounting the very legend that had earned Nalwa his fearsome nickname. The Baron detailed how Nalwa had earned the title "Nalwa" by bravely cleaving the head of a tiger that had attacked him.

Impressed by the Baron's knowledge, Hari Singh Nalwa presented him with a portrait depicting the dramatic scene of him slaying the tiger. Also, Nalwa subtly inquired about the political landscape and various states in Europe. The Baron's keen observation did not miss this subtle exchange, and he later remarked that their conversation was markedly different from typical interviews in India. He noted that their discussion involved a genuine exchange of ideas and references to actual events. This meeting between Hari Singh Nalwa and Baron Charles Hugh was not just another routine encounter. It was a significant exchange of knowledge and perspectives between two distinguished individuals from different worlds.

Hari Singh Nalwa battling Islamic radicals.

Baron was just one of the many foreigners who encountered and described the personality of Hari Singh Nalwa, the Marshall of the Khalsa forces. Alongside him, many biographers and observers from the Indian subcontinent were fascinated by Nalwa. However, the most authentic and detailed account of Hari Singh Nalwa comes from the ballads of Pandit Sitarama, a Hindu cleric employed by Nalwa's grandfather to record the military exploits of his family and descendants. It seems that Sitarama's original manuscripts have been lost or he did not start writing until after Hari Singh was born. Nonetheless, his ballads provide deep insights into the Nalwa clan, into which Hari Singh was born in 1791 AD. Both his grandfather and father died while serving the predecessors of Ranjit Singh, in 1762 AD and 1798 AD respectively.

According to Sitarama's account, Hari Singh was raised by his mother. At the age of ten, he was initiated into the Khalsa faith, which brought joy to everyone. When he turned eleven, he displayed excellent horseback riding skills, could roar like a lion, and was blessed with immense strength gifted by God. By twelve years old, he showed qualities of a leader. At thirteen, he could recite sacred Gurbani verses from memory. Sitarama states that at fourteen, Hari Singh aspired to become a skilled swordsman, and destiny fully favoured him in this pursuit. During this period, the political landscape in Punjab had significantly transformed. The Khalsa Misls or confederacies were no longer in power.

A young Ranjit Singh, guided by his maternal mentor Sada Kaur, had managed to expand his territories and defeat the confederacies. Simultaneously, they had also stopped the Afghan expansion towards North India and gained control over the Punjab-Afghan border region. By 1801 AD, Ranjit Singh had accomplished his goals, and Punjab was now renamed the Sikh Empire. His fame and fearsome reputation had spread throughout Punjab, other parts of North India, and even reached China. When Hari Singh arrived at Ranjit Singh's court, he had two objectives in mind. Firstly, to resolve a family dispute, and secondly, to seek employment in the powerful monarch's military forces.

A gesture of truce 

Ranjit Singh was amazed by the bold young man standing before him. This youth argued his own case. He acted as both the accused and the accuser. Ranjit Singh asked about his family background. He was stunned to find out the young man was related to warriors. These warriors had fought alongside Ranjit Singh and his ancestors in battles. Ranjit Singh immediately settled the dispute in the young man's favour. He offered him a job as a bodyguard in his forces. The young man's name was Hari Singh. Hari Singh readily accepted the bodyguard position. In 1804 AD, Ranjit Singh held a special court session. At this session, he honoured people who helped him. These people assisted Ranjit Singh in gaining his kingdom. They also helped him consolidate his power.

There is uncertainty about why the young Hari Singh was honoured. The oral tradition in North India says Hari Singh fought and killed a tiger that attacked Ranjit Singh. However, Sitarama is unclear on this, though he mentions it happened. European sources state that it was due to Hari Singh's success as a bodyguard.

Whatever the reason, Hari Singh soon received the title of Nalwa. He was also promoted to the rank of Sardar or chief. Surprisingly, Ranjit Singh broke his own policy. He placed a battalion of 800 men, including infantry and cavalry, under the young Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa. This not only increased Hari Singh's popularity and influence. As Baron Charles Hugh notes, it also gave him time for his favourite hobby. Hari Singh enjoyed taming and domesticating tigers.

Important role of Hari Singh Nalwa 

Hari Singh was only 16 years old when he was called to a military meeting. Ranjit Singh talked about his plan to attack Kasur. Kasur was a strong fort. It belonged to the Islamic Kasuria Pathan people. The Pathans were friends with the Afghans. The Khalsa forces did not like the Afghans.

Ranjit Singh had tried to capture Kasur three times before. But he failed each time. There were many reasons for the failures. Kasur was a naturally strong fort. It was very hard to defeat. But this did not stop the Khalsa forces. They invaded Kasur in early February.

The Khalsa forces cut off all supplies going into Kasur. They surrounded the town. They did not let any food or aid go in. This went on until February. Finally, the chief Katub-ul-Din Khan surrendered to the Khalsa forces.

Hari Singh's role in the Kasur campaign is not clearly mentioned. He was given some land as a reward for his "prominent role in the whole matter."

Sitarama describes the victory in a poetic way. He says, "In the blink of an eye, Hari Singh roared and accepted the challenge. He told Ranjit Singh that he would immediately go and conquer Kasur with his own sword. The monarch's heart was filled with joy seeing such promptness and courage."

After this victory, Hari Singh's name is mentioned in the memoirs of Khushwaqt Rai. Rai was an aboriginal spy espionage agent . He notes Hari Singh's importance and constant presence by Ranjit Singh's side.

Later, European accounts mention a large group of Sikh cavalry soldiers marching towards Haridwar, which was in British India at that time.

The British spies were angry at the Sikh cavalry movement towards Haridwar in British India. They kept a close watch on the soldiers until they reached Haridwar. There, they saw Hari Singh paying respect at the place where Guru Nanak Dev had questioned Hindu practices. Hari Singh also donated land and money to his family genealogists and advisers.

The British obtained a document about this incident. They were amazed to learn that Nalwa was now known as Singh-Sahib. This was an exclusive title reserved for Ranjit Singh and his close military/religious companions.

At the same time, a spy agent sent by the Deccan Peshwa reported a change in Hari Singh's status. He said that the noble ruler (Ranjit Singh) came to the Saman tower and inspected the drill of young soldiers. Ranjit Singh kept watching the parade of the horsemen for a long time. Afterwards, Ranjit Singh gave them 2,000 Rupees for expenses and sent them to join Hari Singh Nalwa's army. This was a special detachment named after its commander Rajman Sardar Hari Singh Wali.

Nalwa’s next achievements 

Hari Singh Nalwa achieved great importance as the chief marshal of the Sikh empire. However, his greatest achievement was still to come. In 1793 AD, Timur Shah, the ruler of Afghanistan, died. This caused a lot of internal conflict among his successors over who would become the next ruler.

Shah Mohammad was able to capture and remove his brother Shah Shuja from the throne. He also blinded another brother, Shah Zaman. This allowed Shah Mohammad to gain his ancestral throne for the second time. However, this led an unsatisfied governor, Atta Muhammad Khan Bamzai, to declare independence. He also invited the dethroned Shah Shuja to assist him. But Shah Shuja faced his own troubles. His ruling brother had placed a mercenary by his side to kill him if he showed any signs of rebellion. In this confusing environment, Ranjit Singh found himself hosting different Afghan factions. They were seeking his help to defeat their opponents.

Towards the end of 1812 AD, a new person entered the situation. He was sent by Shah Mohammad himself. This person was the Shah's own minister, Fateh Khan Barakzai. He brought a message from his master. The message showed the respect that the Afghan rulers had for the Sikhs. This was especially because the Sikhs had blocked the Afghans from their territories in North India. Shah Mohammad had decided to cooperate with the Sikhs instead of fighting them when they were very powerful.

So he offered the possibility of an alliance. Through this, he hoped to defeat Bamzai, who governed Kashmir bordering the Sikh empire. Ranjit Singh readily agreed. A joint force of Sikhs and Afghans then set out for Kashmir, crossing the Pir Panjal mountains.

However, tensions arose between the two sides when they reached Kashmir. The Sikhs had succeeded in freeing the dethroned Shah Shuja, who decided to go back with them to Lahore. Stunned by this unexpected event, Barakzai refused to pay the Sikhs their agreed financial dues. Appointing his brother as the new governor of Kashmir, Barakzai began marching towards another rebellious area of his master's empire.

The tale of Attock 

The custodian of the Attock fort was scared of Barakzai's approach. So he started secret negotiations with Ranjit Singh. This resulted in the Sikhs taking over the Attock fort. They then began a major campaign to expand right into the territories of Afghanistan itself!

Barakzai was frustrated and confused by this decisive turn of events. He asked Shah Mohammad for help. A new game of political manoeuvring then started. Mohammad plotted to assassinate prominent Sikh figures. But Ranjit Singh's superior spy network prevented him at every step.

The angry Shah Mohammad made a new plan. The Sikh forces under Hari Singh were stationed at Attock against the Afghans. Mohammad invited Barakzai's brother in Kashmir to march towards Lahore. In a letter intercepted by the Sikhs, Mohammad outlined his strategy. He wrote, "Since we worship the same God, it is our duty to jointly eliminate the tribe of infidels who are like thorns in the garden of Punjab. As soon as the war flames are lit and troops are placed under Vazeer Fateh Khan to move them in that direction, God willing, we shall soon confuse them and then divide the Punjab between us!" However, ironically for the Shah, Barakzai had pinned his hopes on another plot planned by the dethroned Shah Shuja. But this plot too was foiled by Sikh spy agents. As a result, Mohammad was forced to engage in the battle of Attock.

Under the command of Diwan Mokham Chand, the Sikh forces showed great bravery, despite rebellion by some Muslim soldiers in their own ranks. In June 1813 AD, the heavily demoralized Afghan forces had to retreat, while joyous Sikh war cries rang out across Attock. Realizing this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, Ranjit Singh sent Hari Singh to guard Attock and also expand Sikh territory into Afghanistan itself! Understanding that much of the Afghan economy and society depended on robbery, violence and fundamentalism, Hari Singh set about pacifying the Attock region.

In June 1815 AD, Hari Singh defeated a rebellious chieftain named Sherbaaz Khan. He incorporated Khan's territories into the Sikh empire and forced him into exile. The following year, Hari Singh, Fateh Singh Alhuwalia, Misr Deewan Chand, Illahi Baksh, Nihal Singh Attariwali and seven companies attacked and captured Mankera, south of the Indus salt range.

The Khalsa at Attock

In 1810 AD, Hari Singh led a strong Sikh force against Multan. Multan was a strategic location on the Kabul-Bengal trade route and was originally home to pagan sun worshippers. These sun worshippers had faced brutal persecution by Muslims, but were finally relieved of their suffering by Hari Singh's forces. However, Multan's military put up strong resistance against the Sikh invaders. It took eight long years of battle before Multan finally surrendered to the heavy artillery of the Sikhs in 1818 AD.

The following year, with the aid of Akali-Nihung Sadhu Singh Ji, Hari Singh also incorporated the areas of Muzaffargarh and Sikandrabad into Sikh territories. This conquest of Multan finally ended the decades-long Afghan presence in the Bari Doab region. Sitarama described this victory as so momentous that 'the people of Hindustan were simply left speechless in awe.

While the Sikhs were celebrating their victory, darker events were unfolding in Afghanistan. In 1818 AD, Shah Mohammad's son killed his father's minister (Vizier). This catalyzed three major consequences. Firstly, Mohammad was forced to flee from Kabul to Persia, where he lost his former prestige and became a vassal state. Secondly, Barakzai's brothers overcame all rivals and established themselves as the powerholders in Kabul. Thirdly, the Sikhs finally crossed into the Peshawar region.

Peshawar was held by Barakzai's step-brothers. On hearing of the Sikh forces' arrival, they fled to the hills. They later launched a stealth attack but were crushed by Hari Singh, who routed their entire forces in battle. By 1822 AD, both step-brothers were paying tribute to Ranjit Singh to avoid facing the mighty Hari Singh's aggressive presence. By 1819 AD, Hari Singh finally subdued the Afghans and consolidated Sikh power across the Indus river. In recognition of this, Ranjit Singh made Hari Singh the chieftain of the central Afghan domains and also appointed him as viceroy over other North Indian regions.

Hari Singh’s return to Afghanistan 

After implementing reforms in Kashmir and Ladakh, Hari Singh returned to Afghanistan in 1837 AD. During this time, Barakzai Mohammad Khan gathered a force of 29,000 warriors to create obstacles for the Sikh invasion in Jalalabad. He decided to turn the tide against the Sikhs after witnessing the annexation of Punjab, Multan, Kashmir, Derajat, Hazara, and Peshawar, which were the second most important socio-political regions in Afghanistan. In 1836 AD, Hari Singh captured the strategic village of Jamrud, blockading the entrance of the Khyber Pass. Subsequently, he also succeeded in defeating Fatteh Khan, a pro-Barakzai chieftain who expressed extreme rebellion against the Sikhs.

The following year, a large part of the Jamrud garrison was deployed to Lahore for the wedding of Ranjit Singh's grandson. Receiving intelligence about the wedding, Mohammad Khan, his sons, and 29,000 warriors rushed to dislodge Hari Singh from Jamrud. Hari Singh and his 800 warriors initially fought off the attack while a message was sent to Ranjit Singh requesting reinforcements. While the Sikhs were still collecting the spoils of the battlefield, a much stronger Afghan force returned, inflicting grave casualties upon the defenders.

Caught in the intense battle, Hari Singh was wounded in the head and carried to the garrison headquarters by his orderlies. He ordered his captains to fight until the very end and conceal news of his impending death. The "Lion-Shredder" breathed his last just before a 10,000-strong Sikh force arrived from Lahore and routed the Afghans. A warrior until the end, his demise was greatly mourned by friends and spectators alike. A heroic figure, Hari Singh succeeded in stamping out the Islamic radicalism seeping into Afghan society and paid the Afghans back in the same manner they persecuted non-believers. While there have been many heroic figures who became popular over the years in history, Hari Singh Nalwa is one of them. If he had lived a longer life and had access to the resources and artillery that the British possessed, he likely would have conquered most of Asia and Europe.

 

*Based on an article by the Admin at Misl-E-Hukumat, published in tisarpanth blogpost on 18th July 2014

 

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