We know so much about the rise of the Mughals but little about their fall. We know a lot about the rise of the Bhangi Triumvirate but little about their fall. The same is true of Maharajah Ranjit Singh but little about the fall of his descendants.
In the same way we know little about the betraying Sikh generals and the traders of Lahore who encouraged and communicated with the East India Company to capture Lahore. The fact is that our historians are fixated on events and personalities, not on the processes of the rise and fall of our rulers. In an earlier piece we had described just how these Bhangi Misl Sikhs captured Lahore. From 1767 right up to 1799 these three ruled, except for when the Afghans invaded and drove them away, only to face continuous guerrilla attacks by the highly mobile Sikhs horsemen.
The Bhangi trio consisted of Lehna Singh who controlled Lahore Fort and the walled city, Gujjar Singh from outer city right up to Shalimar Gardens and Sobha Singh lower Lahore right up to Niaz Beg. It was the rivalry between the Bhangi and Sukerchakia ‘misls’ that led to Lahore’s fall and rise.
After the fall of the Mughals, the Afghans under Ahmed Shah Durrani time and again plundered the Punjab. They appointed their own Afghan governors to collect revenue, grain, gold and slaves. After the brutal massacre of Sikhs by Afghans outside Lahore’s Delhi Gate, an urge for revenge ran through all Sikhs. It was in that context that these Afghans wreaked terror on the people and traders of Lahore. The Bhangi Misl were contacted by the Arain traders and farmers of Lahore, who managed through gardeners working in the fort to dig a hole in the wall to let the fierce Sikhs in. Thus the first Sikh rulers took control with the active assistance of Lahore’s traders.
In between the Afghans kept returning, only to see the Sikhs flee, and in return to attack them all the way to and from Afghanistan. These attacks progressively weakened the Afghans. Unlike the popular perception that these Bhangi rulers merely drank and smoked ‘bhang’, the fact is that they were very sensible rulers. But then given their expenditures, especially on arms and soldiers, they were increasingly short of money. That is why they started looting the Arain traders, and planned to completely empty their coffers and food stocks.
Here was a situation where the ones who had brought in the Bhangis were now being robbed by them. The strength of the trading classes has always been, and still is, under-estimated. They undermined the Mughals and invited the Afghans, then they invited the Bhangis to remove the Afghans. Now was the time for them to invite a new force to stop the Bhangis. History was repeating itself yet again. If you read Chris Bayly’s classic: ‘Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire’, you will see a completely different way of analysing the past.
But then their first choice was the ruler of Kasur, Nawab Nizamuddin Khan. The Arains of Baghbanpura - led by Mian Ashiq Muhammad and Mian Mokkam Din – set the trap. With them were Mir Shadi Katarband and Ahmad Khan Bhandara of Choona Mandi and Hakeem Hakim Rai of Lohari Gate.
The ruler of Kasur was himself of Afghan origin and this did not sit well with many. As his troops approached Lahore, suddenly the gates of the fort and the walled city opened and out rushed the Bhangi Army. It was a swift battle in which Kasuri soldiers fell in large numbers and eventually fled. It was a bitter blow to the aspirations of the traders and zamindars of Lahore. The Bhangis stepped up their repression in search of traitors.
This got the traders quickly approaching Ranjit Singh of the Sukerchakia Misl who was camped at Rasoolnagar. The young Ranjit with immense caution sent into Lahore a pious man known as Qavi Khan Ghulam to meet traders and people to gauge the level of opposition to the Bhangi rulers.
By this time an important development had taken place. The forces of Shah Zaman, the last of the Durrani rulers of Lahore, started retreating back to Afghanistan. On the way the combined Sikh Misls, including the Sukerchakias, started decimating them. As the Afghans finally retreated across the flooded Jhelum, their artillery pieces sank in the river. Ranjit Singh immediately sent a message that he would retrieve the cannons if in return he was handed over sovereignty of Lahore. The Afghan had no cards left to play and agreed in writing. Eight of the 12 cannons were actually returned. So Ranjit Singh had created a moral justification of sorts for capturing Lahore.
Ranjit Singh’s envoy informed him that on their own the traders were powerless, but that the people were all fed up with the desperate Bhangis. So Ranjit Singh firmed up assistance inside the city. Mian Mohammad Azim, an Arain of Baghbanpura, assured him that once he approached Lahore they would open Lohari Gate. At the last minute the Arains changed their mind and decided to dig a hole like they had for the Bhangi Misl.
Amazingly Ranjit Singh did not know of this development and the Bhangis forced him to retreat. The bruised Sukerchakia Misl retreated to Chah Miran. The Arains of Baghbanpura were quick to approach Ranjit again and reassured him that on the next night Lohari Gate would be opened.
So Ranjit Singh moved his spearhead troops to the gardens surrounding the Baradari of Wazir Khan, behind the Lahore Museum. At night his scouts informed him that the gates were opening. The Sukerchakia storm troopers moved in with lightning speed, fanned out to open Shahalami Gate, Mori Darwaza and Bhati Gate. In a four-pronged movement within half an hour Lahore and its fort were taken. On the 7thof July, 1799, Lahore fell to Ranjit Singh.
Mehr Mokkam and other Arain farmers were richly rewarded. The most interesting thing is that Ranjit Singh did not immediately move to live in the Lahore Fort. He resided in the house of Mai Moran, his favourite courtesan, in Pappar Mandi in Mohallah Chiri Maran near Shahalami Gate. Every morning he would ride on his horse towards the fort with Mai Moran behind him. Such was her influence that coins were minted in the Sikh era in her name. You can find ‘Moran Shahi Sikka’ in the Lahore Museum.
The Arains tried to hoodwink Ranjit Singh by not paying fines imposed. The new young ruler jailed all offenders, including Mehr Mokkam, who immediately paid up. This brought home the message that while he was kind and considerate, his rural common sense was cutting. The Kasur ruler tried a few times to overthrow Ranjit, only to fail.
By this time the new ruler faced grave financial difficulties. As luck would have it a massive treasure was found in Buddu da Awa. This helped him considerably as he set about taxing people in moderation. Now the only way out was to expand. This set on track of a long career as a conqueror. By 1806 he had taken Kasur.
By the time he died on the 27thof June, 1839, his empire stretched from Kashmir to Multan and from the edges of the Sutlej to Peshawar and beyond. lSadly within ten years the East India Company had defeated his successors, thanks mainly to assistance from Lahore’s traders and betraying Sikh generals. Amazingly almost all Muslims serving him stood loyally by his side.
The role of traders in history is seldom investigated enough, for invariably they prove to be the catalysts of change of rulers who do not suit them. They represent the true status quo. That process can still be seen in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2020