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Every time I pass by Qila Gujjar Singh, from the McLeod Road or the Empress Road side, I am reminded of an immensely brave Punjabi warrior who built his own mud fortress here and invited people to inhabit it.

The original gate of that old fortress can still be seen at the place where it once stood, and now owned by one of the families that migrated to Lahore in 1947. Only the wooden gate remains of this pre-Ranjit Singh era, but one that shaped history as it open and shut. If you are a student of the history of your own land, more so your own city, then the pre-1799 period when Punjabi nationalism rose to fill in the gap left by foreign rulers is a period worth reading, researching and understanding. In a way it resembles our modern-day politicians minus the violence, or so we think.

We have written a lot in this column about the glorious 40-year reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh with some mention of the chaotic ten years after his death till 1849. This period saw financial greed, intrigue, betrayal to the powers in the East, coupled with the sheer incompetence of the family of Maharajah Ranjit Singh at its height. British trading ambition skilfully used all these attributes to complete their conquest of the sub-continent.

Our story today is about one of a triumvirate, a gallant warrior by the name of Sardar Gujjar Singh Bhangi. The other two were Sardar Sobha Singh Kanhiya and Sardar Lahina Singh Bhangi, a close relative of Gujjar Singh. The spectacular capture in 1765 of Lahore Fort and the Walled City of Lahore by the forces of the three Sikh sardars, each with their own separate forces, from Kabuli Maal and his nephew Amir Singh, nominees of Ahmed Shah Durrani, for the first time saw the emergence of Punjabi rulers after a gap of almost 744 years.

The three rulers in 1765 divided Lahore among themselves, with Lahnia Singh getting control of the Lahore Fort and the city, Gujjar Singh getting control of the eastern portions of the city and Sobha Singh getting control of the western portions, including Shahdara. A year later the Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Durrani returned in force. The three Sikhs tactfully withdrew to their areas of influence only to start attacking in a unique guerrilla tactic the Afghan forces.

They divided into groups of 20 horsemen each covering a very large area. They would rush and stop within firing range, unload their guns, kill a few and then gallop away. For two whole months this went on day and night without break. Ahmad Shah realised that he could no longer hold Lahore and, on the behest of the people of the Walled City, he invited Lahina Singh to take over Lahore as his Governor and pay him an annual tribute.

The Afghan ruler sent baskets of fruit to the three rulers, which Lahina Singh returned saying this was the food of royalty. In return he sent a basket of parched gram (bhonay channay) with the message: “We can live and fight with these ‘channay’ all the year round”. The message was loud and clear. Ahmed Shah decided to retire to Kabul and the three Sikh rulers returned.

So it was that Sardar Gujjar Singh Bhangi decided to build his mud fortress just two miles to the east of Lahore. It was called Qila Gujjar Singh, a name that has endured. But who exactly was Gujjar Singh and how come this son of a small cultivator by the name of Nattha Singh, rose to such heights is what we are interested in today.

Gujjar Singh was a very well-built handsome young man when his grandfather, Gurbukhsh Singh Rowanwala, introduced him to the Sikh faith. On his taking of religious vows, the aging Gurbakhsh Singh presented him with a horse and introduced him to his band of warriors, making him head of the band. The first move Gujjar Singh made was to join hands with Sardar Hari Singh, the head of the Bhangi Misl. In this new grouping he met Lahina Singh, an adopted son of Hari Singh.

Very soon Gujjar Singh was heading an army of over 2,000 horsemen. It was Gujjar Singh who introduced to the Bhangi Misl the tactic of attacking in multiples of 20 on fast horses, inflicting maximum damage and escaping with maximum booty. The Afghans just had no answer to such tactics. They came to the Punjab to loot, only to be plundered and decimated by Gujjar Singh. It was an exercise of diminishing returns.

But then the new 100 bands of 20 armed horsemen operating in perfect co-ordination achieved dramatic results. It was a guerrilla tactic honed to perfection keeping in mind local conditions. It was Gujjar Singh who effectively cut off Afghan forces from their base in Delhi, and once they were not able to reach Kabul safely they were stranded.

Mind you when Qila Gujjar Singh was built, it was in the middle of a forest. He immediately brought in experts who dug several wells so that they never ran out of water. He also built a small hillock and beneath it stored a lot of wheat and rice and other dry food items. The very first building built in the fortress was a mosque for the Muslims of the area.

The capture of the Lahore Fort was a daring action most experts maintain remains unrivalled. At night the men of Gujjar Singh scaled the outer walls wearing black garments from every direction at the same time and butchered everyone. He then opened the main gateway and Lahina Singh and his Bhangi Misl entered the fort. It was brilliant dare and dash of the sort seldom seen in the city.

Once he was secure, the forces of Gujjar Singh set off to capture the maximum area of the Punjab. His fast-expanding army of over 2,000 horsemen, all of whom lived off just parched gram, a few ‘keshmish’ and water carried in leather pouches (small ‘mashqs’), he moved with immense speed. Very soon they had captured Eminabad, then going on to Wazirabad, Sodhra and then a vast tract containing over 150 villages. It was time to take Gujrat and its formidable fort.

In December 1765 he attacked Gujrat then under Sultan Maqarrab Khan. Within a few hours he had scaled the fort walls and defeated the ruler. He immediately consolidated, collecting the finest horses and expanded his force and concentrated on rigorous training of his soldiers. The weak were asked to go home.

Once his forces were in prime condition, he attacked Jammu, moving with immense speed to capture Islamgarh, Poonch, Dev Batala and then heading towards the Bhimber hills to the north and the entire Majha countryside to the south. His success set off the alarm bells and Ahmad Shah Durrani returned with a massive army. Gujjar Singh was ready. He sucked them in with vast empty villages and space. The Afghans were puzzled.

Ahmed Shah reached Amritsar with 15,000 troops, only for Gujjar Singh to lead a consolidated Sikh Army attack in their classic guerrilla 20-horse combination. Within two relentless days of multiple attacks, the invaders were decimated.

Gujjar Singh wasted no time and attacked their support base at Rohtas where the Ghakkars were in an alliance with Ahmad Shah. He wanted to end constant invasions. He laid a unique siege, managed an alliance with Charat Singh of the Sukkarchakia Misl. The Ghakkars were routed and Gujjar Singh moved swiftly north-west to capture Rawalpindi, the entire Potohar and Hasan Abdal.

In a way this mastermind had created a huge security ring around Lahore and the Punjab. The future belonged to the Sikhs. He returned to Lahore and in 1788 died in his fortress in Qila Gujjar Singh. It is said that over 50,000 people collected at his cremation, most of them Muslims who felt secure in his rule. That the name of this amazing man still lives on is no surprise. We need to learn more about him. Lahore owes him something in return.

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2015

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