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How a Sikh Queen Negotiated with the British and Saved Her Son’s Govt

The cover of Priya Atwal's Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire.

The cover of Priya Atwal's Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire.

One project of hers that has gone completely unnoticed by historians is the new town that she ordered to be built in the heart of the kingdom, named Duleepgurh.

Henry Hardinge was certainly determined that the Punjab would never again be entirely independent, but nevertheless declared privately to his leading deputy in the region, the Political Agent Henry Montgomery Lawrence, that its government should ideally be either ‘Sikh or British’. By this, Hardinge meant that either the Company would have to take over the region entirely, or that Duleep Singh’s government should control the region with as little drama as possible—nothing in between. The latter option was the ideal way for the Company to maintain the security of its northwestern frontier, and it was Hardinge’s preferred outcome—no doubt influenced by the multiple ways in which the Company had been burnt before, during attempts to intervene more aggressively in the politics of Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Burma and Nepal. However, the initial Treaty of Lahore’s incredibly challenging demands on the weakened imperial state left Jind Kaur and her ministers in a very complex situation. They needed to pay off the war indemnity and cut down the Khalsa Army in order to safeguard the future independence of the kingdom; but they all knew that, even after the Army had been defeated in battle, it would be an exceedingly difficult task to peaceably dismantle and demobilise a body of men who had hitherto been so militant in their political activity.

Such circumstances forced the Maharani to ask Henry Lawrence and Frederick Currie, the Governor-General’s Secretary, to stay on at Lahore with the British garrison. If the royal government were to have any hope of fulfilling the terms of the Treaty, a military force was desperately needed to help not only with managing an orderly re-organisation of the Khalsa Army, but also with keeping the peace in the capital and enforcing revenue collection throughout the remaining lands of the Sikh kingdom. Within two days of the original Treaty being ratified, Currie swiftly negotiated and knocked together an additional set of ‘Articles of Agreement’, which were signed by Duleep Singh and his key courtiers on 11 March 1846. This granted the support of the British garrison at Lahore until December, but set a deadline: by that time, all of the obligations of the first Treaty should have been met. The Maharajah’s government would also have to foot the additional bill for the cost of the Company troops. The post of Resident was still not added at this stage, however, so Lawrence and his assistants were only meant to play a supporting and supervisory role in the internal administration of the Sikh Empire.

As could be expected, though, Hardinge was quick to instruct Lawrence to send him detailed reports on all happenings at Lahore:

I should be glad to receive in Demi-official letters to Mr Currie as much information as you can give of the Court—the Ranee’s mode of life, the parties at Court, those in the Provinces likely to be troublesome, the temper of the inhabitants of Lahore, that of the S[ikh] Troops—& even of our own Troops.

All of this information would help the Governor-General to ascertain whether or not to adjust his plans for the re-establishment of a Sikh royal government, as well as providing useful material with which to justify his decision to his own superiors in London—the Company’s Board of Directors and Parliament. The experiment had begun, though with a strict deadline by which miracles were expected to be achieved.

The intelligence records and reports sent by Lawrence to Hardinge, together with the ever-helpful chronicle of Sohan Lal Suri, shed valuable light on life at Lahore during this critical period, as Jind Kaur, her vazir Lal Singh and the rest of the royal court endeavoured to meet the stringent demands of the new treaties. The matters that needed to be addressed most urgently were the reduction of the troops and the payment of the indemnity. These issues required austerity measures that were deeply unpopular, since they struck at the landed and financial privileges of the very groups that had hitherto dominated the state: the soldiers, and the wealthy sardars and landholding courtiers. The problem was further compounded by the loss of large chunks of valuable territory to the British and Gulab Singh, which meant that not only would many of the Punjab’s landed elite have to relinquish substantial sums of personal wealth in order to help pay off the indemnity bill; but the royals and the court would either have to significantly curb their own expenditure too, or else rapidly find new sources of revenue.

Jind Kaur and Duleep Singh held a daily durbar together every morning, at which all of these problems were tackled bit by bit. The Maharani would typically consult with the appointed ministers and courtiers and transact state business on behalf of, but in the presence of, her young son. Lawrence’s news-writers reported that she made regular complaints about the delays of the kardars (the durbar’s local tax-collectors) in sending grain and revenue payments, and promptly sent fresh orders in every direction to bring them into line. There is also a mention of 200 boy-soldiers from the Maharajah’s so-called ‘Lilliputian Regiment’ being discharged, as part of the courtly retrenchments and the overall project of military demobilization. Duleep Singh, now 8 years old, had previously held ‘reviews’ of these ‘troops’ at his durbars, on which occasions he had ‘inspected’ their drills and appearance—much as his father and older half-brothers had in the past. The formation of a specific regiment of young boys for Duleep to supervise was most likely part of his military training, and perhaps also a valuable way for a new generation of soldiers to form a personal bond with the Maharajah. However, the drastic austerity measures that his mother was having to force through clearly cut short this interesting project.

This is not to say that the Maharani completely abandoned a sense of creativity in governance at this time. One project of hers that has gone completely unnoticed by historians until now is the new town that she ordered to be built in the heart of the kingdom, named Duleepgurh. While we know of a settlement of the same name that was established by a British military officer in or around Bannu in December 1847, it is not entirely clear what happened to Jind Kaur’s Duleepgurh. Suri’s chronicle contains a note about how the Queen-Regent and the Maharajah carried out a personal inspection of the site on 23 December 1846, as a midway stop during a trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Their camp was pitched ‘near Dogaich’, which suggests that the royal establishment of
Duleepgurh must have been located somewhere nearby, on the road between the two main Punjabi cities of Lahore and Amritsar. It would seem too that the project had been initiated as early as 1843, and initially managed by Jind Kaur’s brothers, Jawahir Singh and Hira Singh (no relation to the assassinated vazir).

Lawrence’s akhbars (Persian intelligence/news reports) note that, in late March 1846, as the peace was concluded, the Maharani’s ‘favourite slave girl’ had been given charge of Duleepgurh as a jagir and dispatched there ‘in order to see what condition it was in’. This right-hand woman, called Mangla, was handed turbans and shawls to present to the local zamindars and headmen as khi’lats—ceremonial gifts that would honorifically bind them as the Maharajah’s loyal and respected subjects—and she was instructed to ‘transact the affairs of all that part of the country’. Within a few days, Mangla sent an inspection report back to the durbar, urging that ‘unless the Bankers and men of wealth now in the city of Umritsir [Amritsar] choose to go and live in Duleepgurh it is impossible that it can ever thrive.’ Jind Kaur responded swiftly to this and ‘directed that orders should be sent to the Bankers of Umritsir to build themselves houses in Duleep Gurh and set trade and commerce afloat.’ The fact that she sent her ‘favourite slave girl’ to carry out such work, rather than a sardar or another male courtier, is intriguing. It perhaps suggests that the Maharani was keen above all to maintain direct control over the estate and was only prepared to send someone she personally trusted.

This excerpt from Priya Atwal’s Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire has been published with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.

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