As you walk through the area known as ‘Paniwala Talab’, you will come across what is known as the Chuna Mandi set of ‘havelis’. They are today known as the Government Fatima Jinnah College for Women.
Most people mistake this to be the ‘Haveli’ of Raja Dhian Singh Dogra, which it is not. This is a collective set of ‘havelis’ which mainly belonged to Jamadar Khushal Singh and his family, with smaller portions added later by his nephew Tej Singh. Khushal Singh was a simple soldier who ultimately became the Royal Chamberlain of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, only to be replaced by the Dogra, Raja Dhian Singh, who was to become the Chief Minister of the Sikh Empire.
But the ‘haveli’ of Khushal Singh has a story attached to it, and that being that he built his ‘haveli’ on the remains of a beautiful Mughal building that was damaged in the war and strife that followed the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. One account states that “this could be the famous palace of Asaf Khan, brother of Empress Noor Jahan and father-in-law of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan”. Another description by historian Sohan Lal Suri states that Khushal Singh spent Rs 20 lakh to build the magnificent ‘haveli’.
Alongside the ‘haveli’ of Khushal Singh was a smaller ‘haveli’, but one which joined the main one, built by Tej Singh, nephew of Jamadar Khushal Singh. The third structure, located on the east of the cluster, is a much later addition. After 1849 once the British had annexed Lahore, this side building was done up to house a church for British soldiers stationed in Lahore’s walled city, which was used till 1851 when the new cantonment was being planned at Mian Mir.
Our interest in this piece is centred on Raja Tej Singh, a Gaur Brahman of Meerut and son of Mesr Niddha. As fate would have it he proved to be the biggest traitor of the Lahore Darbar, and his betrayals were mainly responsible for many a critical defeats at the hands of the British, quite a few in circumstances when the Punjabis had clearly defeated their enemy.
Born to Tej Ram in 1799, the year Maharajah Ranjit Singh ceased power in Lahore, at the age of 13 he was introduced to the maharajah and took up service in the Lahore Darbar. At the age of 17 he received the Khalsa rites and was named Tej Singh. He was a tall and brave soldier and soon won the admiration of the maharajah, which meant that he rapidly moved up in the army command. At the age of 19 he was made a general in 1818.
In those times the Sikh Empire was expanding rapidly and almost in every campaign he was to prove his worth as a commander. In the Khalsa Army a belief rose that “if Teja is there, victory cannot be far behind”. In all three Kashmir campaigns, they being in 1813, in 1814 and in 1819, he produced electrifying results. These victories he followed by major campaigns in Leiah, Mankera and the Derajats.
At the age of 24 years he was commanding a whole division in the famous Peshawar Campaign, where he fought with a rare ferocity. This was a major breakthrough for Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s forces. As General Tej Singh’s star rose and rose, at the age of a mere 32 he was commanding 22 battalions of the regular Sikh Army.
This was a time in history when the British interest in Afghanistan was increasing, as also their belief that ultimately the real glory of the British Empire would be realised once Punjab was conquered. In such circumstances the British contacted General Tej Singh. What promises were made of this we are not aware, but history tells us that the Sikh general had been unashamedly won over.
When the Expeditionary Force under Colonel Wade was sent by the British up the Khyber Pass in 1839, along with other Sikh generals, Tej Singh was foremost in assisting them. In this campaign, bloody that it was, he made friends with Prince Nau Nihal Singh, grandson of the maharajah and a daredevil fighter in his own right. Nau Nihal was marked out as a brilliant and daring general destined to be the future maharajah.
As fate would have it Maharajah Ranjit Singh died the same year in 1839 and in the bloody events that followed he was among the principal actors who influenced the fast-moving events that followed. He assisted Nau Nihal Singh to imprison his father Maharajah Kharrak Singh. One account even suggests that along with Raja Dhian Singh, he was instrumental in the poisoning of the maharajah, pushing forward Nau Nihal as the new ruler of Punjab.
But then the mysterious collapse of Roshnai Gate ended the life of the fiery prince Nau Nihal. General Tej Singh was among the leaders of the Punjab Army that, on Nov 27, 1840, proclaimed Nau Nihal’s mother, Chand Kaur, an equally fiery woman on her own, as the Maharani Muqadasa, or Ruling Regent. However, Raja Dhian Singh had other ideas and he backed a force of the Punjab Army to surround the Lahore Fort and took over power for Maharajah Sher Singh, the youngest son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh.
In such circumstances Gen. Tej Singh promptly changed sides and joined Raja Dhian Singh in the power struggle. The result was that by the time the 1845-46 first Anglo-Sikh War broke out he was appointed the commander-in-chief of the entire Sikh Army. In this time period Tej Singh established a firm liaison with British agents as they, in violation of past treaties, established a cantonment in Ferozepur. The Lahore Darbar protested. The British ignored the protest.
On British instigation, and against the firm advice of Raja Dhian Singh, he crossed the Sutlej River in violation of treaties which the British had already violated. The British promptly declared war. Amazingly his two divisions rode aimlessly around Ferozepur, where a very small British garrison was entrenched. He refused to engage with the enemy. A few angry Sikh fighters took on the British and almost destroyed the British outpost. In a mysterious move he charged through the battlefield and did not even use his guns. A bewildered Sikh Army watched in disbelief as he took the road to Lahore.
The very same strategy was used in the Battle of Ferozeshah when the British Army, almost shattered by daring cavalry charges by the Fauj-e-Khas, suddenly saw the commander-in-chief appear and ride through a bewildered British Army only to again head towards Lahore without firing a shot.
In the Battle of Sobhraon in February 1846, he advised General Sham Singh Attariwala to leave the battlefield. The brave general refused and the battle was almost won by the Sikhs. In a move that has confounded historians since, General Tej Singh and his fellow-conspirator General Lal Singh left the battlefield and while leaving destroyed the boat bridge that ensured the safe return of the Punjab Army across the Sutlej. The result was that the entire Punjab Army was mercilessly butchered.
To the shock of everyone in the Lahore Darbar just as Gulab Singh Dogra managed to purchase Kashmir and Jammu through the Amritsar Treaty, Tej Singh managed to become the Raja of Sialkot for a sum of Rs 2.5 million, a sum he had stolen, like Gulab Singh, from the Lahore Fort’s ‘toshakhana’.
It was in those circumstances that the popular term, ‘Sialkoti, haraam ke booti’ came about for the first time. Even today when people of the walled city pass his ‘haveli’ they love reciting this saying. Other sayings regarding ‘Teja’ are beyond the pall of this column.
Once the British took over in 1849, “for services of outstanding loyalty” they guaranteed General Tej Singh retain all his past privileges. In 1857 he raised several Sikh cavalry regiments to assist the British, who in return made him Raja Tej Singh of Batala, one he remained till his death in 1862.
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2016