For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April in 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-Fi communications, I hope you will like them.

Read part 1 of this blog here.

The Fort of Multan was known for its strength. The sand-filled layered structures of the outer walls lent it the much-required invincibility. The Khalsa Army had attacked the Fort several times but could not claim any success. Since the Maharaja was not accustomed to failures, unsullied efforts of a 25000-strong army was dispatched to Multan in 1818. The campaign had listed men like Divaan Misar Chand, Sham Sing Atari wala, Jaffar Jang and Desa Singh Majethia alongside the seasoned General, Hari Singh Nalwa.

Upon its arrival, the Khalsa Army cordoned off the city and this siege continued for three months. With no victory in sight, Ranjeet Singh summoned the battle-hardened Akalis from Amritsar and the famous Jogi Beeram Singh from Naurangabad. On the other hand, Nawab Muzaffar Khan also started preparing for jihad and gathered men in the name of Islam. Religions that valued the life and property of every human being were exploited to prey upon the lives and property of others. The Khalsa Army attacked the city, once again, with full might in June 1818. The cannons of Zamzama and Jang- Bijli fired death and destruction all over the city till it surrendered to the Sikh rule. Loot and plunder awaited Multan and for quite some time it lived through the misfortunes of a defeated city. The Sikh army ransacked the Dargaahs, religious places and palaces of the nobles. Like every old city, Multan was living through the vicious cycle of destruction and construction.

The Death of Ranjeet Singh was the beginning of the Sikh downfall. His headstrong army found itself enslaved in the triumvirate of Rani Jindan, Sikh princes and British agent. Like many other local chieftains, Mool Raj also cashed in on the opportunity and secured Multan on a lease of rupees 2 Million per annum.

It was either due to the manipulation of Rani Jindan or the military’s over-confidence that one day, the Sikh Army crossed the Sutlej. Once they were on the other side of this Rubicon, nothing could save the war. With the first Sikh defeat, an agent was posted to every Sikh dominion. Once in the court, this resident officer closely inspected the revenues on pre-text of effective governance. When Mool Raj was first asked for an audit by the agent, he took it as an insult and relinquished the charge of Multan. His resignation was at once admitted and Kahan Singh was nominated to replace him.

On 19th April 1848, Patrick Alexander Van Agnew of Bengal Civil Service and Lieutenant William Anderson of 1st Bombay Fusilier Regiment accompanied Kahan Singh to Multan as the envoys of Lahore Darbar. The party was supported with 1400 Sikh soldiers, a 700-strong cavalry, a Gorkha Regiment and an Artillery battery. Mool Raj received them with his traditional hospitality and a reception was arranged at the site of Islamia High School, Daulat Gate. Within hours of their arrival, these officers were attacked by unknown men and were wounded, fatally. They were taken to the safe refuge of the Eid Gah, a building made by Multani ruler Abdul Samad Khan, two and half centuries ago. In this sorry state of displacement, the British officers were told that their entire escort had defected to Mool Raj. It discouraged them to the point of death. By the evening, Pax Britannica had gained two more reasons to attack Multan. Initially the deceased officers were buried in the Northern part of the Eid Gah, but hours later, the rebels dug their bodies out and buried them at another place.

A monument was made in Multan for the Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew after Siege of Multan.
A monument was made in Multan for the Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew after Siege of Multan.

While Mool Raj started rallying force in the name of Punjab, the country whose farmers he had drained hard in revenues, the British mustered the Sikh rulers of Hazara, the Pathan Sardars of Dera Jaat and the Muslim nawabs of Bahawalpur to develop a non-formidable force for the final battle for Punjab.

In September 1848, this army halted at Sooraj Kund after passing through Shuja Abad. It took them another three months to wage the war. Aam Khaas, the official residence of Mool Raj, was finally attacked on the 27th day of December. As the British artillery spewed fire, Mool Raj’s forces withdrew, one after the other. An artillery round also landed on the armory, blowing away 5000 mounds of stored explosives. The blast damaged the mosque of the fortress and the dome of Baha-ud-Din Zakariya’s tomb.

Multan was so heavily bombarded that not a single wall stood undamaged. Every street presented a scene of death and destruction and smelled of the corpses of Sikh soldiers. When rations ran out, every soldier was told to manage food on his own. In one of these evenings, Mool Raj’s ministers advised him to either surrender or order suicide, en masse.

The next morning, Mool Raj donned his best dress and rode his favorite horse out of the fort. He approached General Wash and threw his sword on ground. That was how, on the 22nd day of January 1849, history wrote the Sikhs off of Multan.

After the fall of Multan, the defeated ruler was taken to Lahore where he was tried in the court of law. It is pertinent to mention that during the course of his trial, a point was raised by the British lawyer of Mool Raj. He brought to the court’s consideration that at the time of occurrence, Mool Raj was an independent ruler of a non-vassal state, hence not under the jurisdiction of the British Law. It does not, however, attract the attention of his Lordship since the law belonged to the rulers, rather the defeated monarchs.

In June of 1849, Mool Raj was accused of homicide, abetment of crime and inciting violence and was sentenced to death. Governor General Dalhousie was appealed for mercy and he changed the punishment to that of exile. However, before the commencement of the sentence, this last ruler of Multan died in Banaras in the August of 1850.

After the victory, the British found the remains of the two officers, whose murder had caused thousands of deaths and had raised the gallows where many innocents were sentenced. Their remains were buried in Qila Kuhna, where a monument was constructed in 1864. Taking the form of a dagger drawn into the earth, the lower part of this obelisk mentions all those who were heroes on one side of history and oppressors on the other. This, probably is what tells the East apart from the West.

[To be continued…]

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