One of the great tragedies that befell Lahore was when over 7,000 Sikh men and over 3,000 women and children, all chained, were slaughtered outside Delhi Gate. It is known in history as the Choota Ghalughara – the Lesser Holocaust.

We have mentioned this event in Lahore’s history in these columns from time to time, but many readers have asked that it be explained in its ‘proper’ context. To explain the slaughter of such a large number of innocent humans is a difficult proposition, let alone the details of women and children being thrown into a well after their throats were slit by the Muslim butchers of Mohallah Qabasan, inside Delhi Gate.

There is no doubt that the events of 1947, which led to the greatest exodus in human history, would be Lahore’s greatest tragedy. Sadly we refuse to learn lesson from this event by sticking to a disastrous communal path, let alone learn from the ‘Lesser Holocaust’. Lahore had seen slaughters in battle before, among them that by Mahmood Ghanzi, the Mughal emperor Babar and then Mongol forces of Taimur Lung. But the deliberate slaughters of the Sikhs in 1746 is one that is gruesome in its details. Its ultimate consequence was that the Sikhs took over in 1765 and their rule was to last till 1849.

The background to this slaughter lies in the events of 1739 with the Mughal Empire in rapid decline after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707. Taking advantage of a weakening Mughal India, the Afghan ruler Nadir Shah invaded the land and after plundering Lahore and Delhi he moved to return to his country laden with plunder. Such was the scale of the loot that each and every soldier carried more than he could manage. The Punjabi poet Waris Shah was to write about the Afghan marauders: “What is in your mouth is yours, the rest belongs to Ahmed Shah”. It was in this period that the Punjabi peasantry, more notably led by the militant Sikh ‘misls’, were rising against foreign invaders.

As the invaders headed back the Sikhs lay in wait. Small ‘misls’ of Punjabi horsemen attacked and withdrew quickly, in each scoop they took with them part of the loot. Then they suddenly collected and attacked the rear of the ‘Afghan loot train’ and rescued thousands of young Punjabi girls that the Afghans were taking with them as slaves. The Sikhs returned each and every girl back to their families. By the time the Afghans crossed the Indus they had been deprived of a major part of their plunder.

Nadir Shah was incensed and ordered his ‘subedar’ in Lahore, Zakaria Khan, to launch a sustained manhunt for each and every Sikh in Punjab. People were offered a handsome award of Rs50 for each Sikh head deposited and Rs10 for informing their whereabouts. To further humiliate the Sikhs the Harmandir at Amritsar was taken over and its ‘holy pond’ filled with cow entrails.

To seek revenge the Sikhs, led by Kapur Singh Virk, planned to assassinate Zakaria Khan. So a force of about 2,000 Sikhs disguised as Muslim pilgrims slowly entered Lahore in small groups to attend the Friday prayers at the Badshahi Mosque. Their intelligence had told them that Zakaria Khan regularly attended Friday prayers at the mosque. As fate would have it that Friday Zakaria Khan did not attend. The Sikh left the prayers shouting their slogan ‘Sat Sri Akal’ and marched out of Lahore and rode into the jungles to the north.

Zakaria Khan died in 1745 and he was replaced by Yahya Khan, who was assisted by his revenue minister Lakpat Rai. They launched a huge campaign to eliminate all Sikhs and chased most of them into the hills to the north. During the clashes the military commander Jaspat Rai, who was Lakpat Rai’s brother, was killed. The Afghan rulers ordered an even more vicious campaign. They put troops in advance in the hills and then launched a sweeping campaign. In this manner they managed to trap every escaping Sikh as well as their families. According to the historian, Syed Muhammad Latif, thousands of Sikhs were butchered and left to rot. When their crying families came they were also massacred.

The ‘Choota Ghalughara’ had started. Once this action was over the Afghans summoned more troops from Afghanistan and the dependent rulers of the smaller Himalayan kingdoms were ordered to bring out their entire population to participate in a massive manhunt. Thousands were killed in the process, and those captured were brought to Lahore for a massive ‘conversion ceremony’. Various accounts tell us that over 7,000 Sikhs and well over 4,000 women and children were brought with blackened faces to collect outside Lahore’s Delhi Gate.

All the Sikh inhabitants of Lahore were also rounded up and the first lot was executed by dozens of Muslim butchers forcibly made to slaughter Sikhs if they refused to convert to Islam. The first lot were butchered on the 10th of March, 1746 after not a single Sikh volunteered to convert. This says a lot about their beliefs and value system.

As more and more Sikhs were being brought in on foot, some from as far as Gurdaspur, which is over 82 miles from Lahore, they were collected outside Lahore and tied like animals. The Sikhs that managed to escape, most by crossing the Ravi, were surrounded in the forests by the hill rajas who slaughtered them.

Many Sikhs jumped into the torrents of the Beas and Sutlej after breaking through Afghan lines, only to be swept away by the rapid currents near the hills. The final count of Sikhs brought to Lahore, and this is the average of four different accounts, comes to 7,325 Sikhs and 4,100 women and children. The stage was set for the final act of the ‘Choota Ghalughara’, of which considerable details exist.

But as the massacre was about to start, the Subedar Yahya Khan issued a decree that anyone using the word ‘Guru’ would be executed without a trial. Further an order was issued that even those using the word ‘Gur’ (the sweet) would be beheaded as it resembled in sound like guru. In such an environment, from the 10th of March, 1746, on wards, the prisoners were paraded through the streets of Lahore, their faces blackened. A lot of ‘pious’ Muslims, so an account states, stoned them and threw excreta on them as they were paraded through every lane and street of the old walled city.

Every day over 1,500 Sikh men, women and children were moved in a long procession, finally arriving outside Delhi Gate, where they were asked to convert to Islam. It is amazing that not a single Sikh converted, but instead shouted their slogan ‘Sat Sri Akal’. They were immediately put before waiting butchers to be slaughtered. For seven days and seven nights this nightmare continued, only then were the vengeful Afghan rulers happy that they had overcome the Sikhs. It was a fatal mistake which they had to repent once the Sikh Misls regrouped and finally took over power in Lahore and the Punjab.

If you ever venture to visit the walled city of Lahore, spare a thought for all those thrown into pits at what is now known as ‘Shaheed Ganj’. If you walk through Landa Bazaar ask the way to the Shaheed Ganj Gurdwara. Next to it is a huge well. In this were thrown over 3,500 women and children. If it is possible to think outside our communal mind-set, these people of our land paid a massive price for expelling foreign forces interested only stealing and looting our people and wealth. Before communal differences took hold, they were part of us.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2018