Saturday, 8 October 2016

Punjabi Ruler Ranjit Singh Battles in Afghanistan.

Not all the armies that invaded Afghanistan were defeated. Around 180 years ago a Punjabi ruler Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) and his brilliant commander Hari Singh Nalwa defeated the Afghans and the tribes of the Khyber Pass area, in the process securing Punjab's northwest border. Had it not been for Ranjit Singh, Peshawar and the northwest frontier provinces of Punjab would have been part of Afghanistan today.

But first a flashback: Eastern Afghanistan had always been a part of Punjab; it was called Gandhar (modern Kandahar), a vibrant province that gave us excellent art, architecture, literature and scientific knowledge. It was a Punjab province until 1735 when Nadir Shah of Iran, emboldened by the lack of strong central authority in Punjab, ransacked Delhi and everything on the way.

This was a highly opportunistic and reckless act because, for the past 25 centuries, 
Punjab and Iran had respected each other’s borders, and though always a bit nervous of each other, the two empires never tried to subvert each other. Nadir Shah annexed the Eastern Afghanistan and asked the Punjabis to forget about ever getting it back.

However, Ranjit Singh was not prepared to play according to the Persian script. Nadir Shah’s successor, Ahmad Shah Abdali, had been launched repeated raids into 
Punjab and Delhi. To check this Ranjit Singh decided to build a modern and powerful army with the employment of Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Germans and Austrians. Two of the foreign officers who entered the Maharaja’s service, Ventura, and Allard, had served under Napoleon. Says historian Shiv Kumar Gupta: “All these officers were basically engaged by Ranjit Singh for modernization of his troops. He never put them in supreme command.”

After conquering 
Multan, Punjab, in 1818 and Kashmir in 1819, Ranjit Singh led his legions across the Indus and took the Afghan strongholds of Dera Ghazi Khan in 1820 and Dera Ismail Khan in 1821. Alarmed, the Afghans called for a jihad under the leadership of Azim Khan Burkazi, the ruler of Kabul. A big Afghan army collected on the banks of the Kabul River but Ranjit Singh won a decisive victory in 1823. Peshawar was subdued in 1834.

The Afghans, especially the Pathans, considered themselves superior to the Punjabis. They even looked down upon Punjabi Muslims and contemptuously referred to them as Hindko. According to historian Kirpal Singh, the reason for this was that the pride of the Afghans and Pathans were pricked for the first time as they had been defeated by people whom they considered infidels.

So how did Ranjit Singh manage to conquer such fierce mountain people? Mainly by using a blend of sustained aggression latter smoothened by Punjabi magnanimity. His biggest weapon was the scourge of the Afghans – Nalwa, who in one battle defeated 20,000 Pathans. To defeat the cunning and fierce Pathans on their treacherous home terrain was no small feat, but to do that with only 7000 men was the stuff of legend.

Indeed, Nalwa had become a legend. He realized that to dominate the warlike tribes, the Punjabis had to give them the same treatment the Afghans had given the Punjabis in the past. Says Kirpal Singh, “Nalwa set up a very strong administration in the 
Peshawar valley. Because the Yusafzais were the most violent tribe, he levied a cess on every Yusafzai household. This cess was to be collected in cash or in kind. For its realization, the personal household property could be appropriated. There was scarcely a village that was not burnt. Part of the city of Peshawar was burnt and the residence of the governor near Kabul was razed to the ground. In such awe were his visitations held that Nalwa’s name was used by Afghan mothers as a term of fright to hush their unruly children.”

Though the spell of Afghan supremacy was broken, the region predominantly populated by turbulent Pathan tribes could not be securely held unless a large army was permanently stationed there. A force of 12,000 men was posted with Nalwa to quell any sign of turbulence and to realize the revenue.

Ranjit Singh ensured that the Afghans never again became a threat to Punjab. The wild tribes of Swat and Khyber were also tamed.