SINGH BAHADUR SARDAR JASSA SINGH RAMGARHIA (1723 -1803)
By Mrs. Charanjit Ajit Singh, M.A.
The eighteenth century in the history of Punjab is synonymous with political and social unrest, confusion and complete chaos, following the decline of the Mughal Empire. There were quick changes of authority in the region, and Punjab became the battleground of a triangular struggle for power among the Mughal rulers of Punjab, the Afghan invaders and the emerging power of the Sikhs. To this struggle was also added the Maratha threat from the south. It is truly a dark period in Punjab history, in which the Sikhs fought formidable battles initially for survival and later on in the century for gaining territory and political power.
Yet in this long struggle some fundamental principles were at stake – the principles enunciated by the Sikh Gurus and nourished by martyrdom and sacrifice to become salient features of a way of life that is respected all over the world as representing high moral values, unbound courage, equality, justice, democracy and freedom – the rights we take for granted today, the right to practise one’s own faith, fight against depression and repression and treat all on equal grounds as members of the same human race.
The rulers of the times considered the teachings of the Sikhs as threatening their privileged position, as teaching people to oppose the administration which in Guru Nanak’s own words had become corrupt and oppressive. The fence eating up crops it was supposed to protect. There was no choice left to the Sikhs but to fight for survival or die.
This period of unrest produced great leaders among the Sikhs, one of the most important being Singh Bahadur Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia whose own life spanned the last three quarters of the eighteenth century and led the Sikhs through the most difficult phase of their history, when there was a price on their heads, when becoming a Sikh was taken as courting death, in so many ways Punjab presented a picture of an eighteenth century Vietnam. The Sikhs survived two holocausts and emerged as leaders of the Punjab, thanks to the brilliant leadership provided by Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia and other Misaldars (chieftains).
Jassa Singh was born in 1723 in the village of Ichogil, son of Giani Bhagwan Singh whose father S. Hardas Singh had been baptised by the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Himself. He stayed on with Guru Gobind Singh till the Guru moved to the South, and when Banda Bahadur came to Punjab, joined him in his battles against the Mughals. It is also said that Guru Gobind Singh was so pleased with the devotion and humility of Bhai Hardas Singh that he gave him his blessing that one day his descendants would rule. In 1716, he met his death in the Battle of Bijwara.
Giani Bhagwan Singh went along with Guru Gobind Singh to the South, stayed at Sri Hazur Sahib and fought in many battles under the command of Guru Gobind Singh and later on Banda Bahadur. Some time after Banda Bahadur’s death, Sube Khan Bahadur of Lahore found his military position very weak compared to that of his adversaries. He requested the Khalsa for assistance of some Sikh troops. At this request, Giani Bhagwan Singh went to Lahore and became the leader of a hundred cavalryman. Later on in 1838, when Nadir Shah invaded Lahore, he lost his life fighting against the invader.
Thus Jassa Singh inherited a glorious legacy of bravery, courage, spirit of adventure and love for the Sikh faith.
Nadir Shah proceeded to Delhi, conquered the city and plundered its wealth before moving back. The Sikhs tackled him on his way back and managed to take away from his army a considerable portion of the booty. Nadir Shah was surprised at the courage of these people and decided to get rid of them. He asked Zakaria Khan, then governor of Lahore, who these people were and where they lived, to which Zakaria Khan replied, ‘They are a group of Hindu faqirs who come to Amritsar twice a year for a dip in the tank, which they consider holy and live on horse back. Nadir decided not to pursue them and made this remark, ‘They will rule one day’.
This provided the pretext to Zakaria Khan to start a campaign aimed at eliminating the Sikhs. He sent orders to all his administrators to hunt for the Sikhs, imprison them and send them to Lahore. Hundreds were brought to Lahore to be slain everyday.
According to Dr. H. R. Gupta, an eminent historian of 18th century Punjab, the result of these atrocities was that the Sikhs moved out of Bari Doab into Jallandhar Doab. The nawab of Lahore also sent an experienced officer, Adina Beg, with a large force to crush the Sikhs and bring about peace in the area. Initially Adina Beg turned a blind eye to the activities of the Sikhs but was forced to take stronger action by the Nawab. The result was that he sent a message to the Sikhs to leave his area voluntarily otherwise he would have to force them out himself. The Sikhs on bearing this news sent Jassa Singh Thoka (who later on became famous as Jassa Singh Ramgarhia) as their envoy to Adina Beg in 1740 when he was only 17 years of age. It was a task needing considerable tact, responsibility and statesmanship in a budding young man. Baba Prem Singh Hoti in his book ‘Builders of the Khalsa Raj’, mentions that Jassa Singh performed his task with such a great sense of responsibility and tact that Adina Beg became highly impressed with his statesmanship and wisdom and offered him a major position in his army with a jagir to cover his expenses. Jassa Singh consulted the Dal Khalsa about the offer. The Dal Khalsa approved of Jassa Singh joining Adina Beg’s service on the grounds that it would be ultimately beneficial to the Sikhs. They would be able to live in peace in Jallandhar Doab, particularly when Zakaria Khan was murdering them in thousands everyday in Bari Doab. The Sikhs could also strengthen their power and gain military and administrative experience.
Thus Jassa Singh became an important general in the army of Adina Beg commanding a platoon of a hundred Sikhs and sixty Hindus and an administrator of jagirs given to him as a source of income. It is said that he administered the area under his control so efficiently that people were very happy and enjoyed benefits of peace in his area, so much so that after Adina Beg’s death when Jassa Singh tried to conquer these areas independently, he had no difficulty in getting them. Jassa Singh also managed to get many Sikhs appointed as Thanedars (police officers) in Jallandhar Doab, and developed contact with Diwan Kaura Mal, the finance minister of Mir Mannu. This friendship stood hint in good stead particularly in getting the siege lifted from Ram Rauni later on in 1749.
Jassa Singh remained in the employment of Adina Beg for about eight years. During this period the Sikhs suffered endless repression. Yahya Khan, son of Zakaria Khan became the ruler of Punjab and carried on his father’s policy of exterminating the Sikhs. His period witnessed what is known in Sikh history as the First Ghalughara, the first holocaust. Lakhpat Rai, whose brother Jaspat Rai was killed in a battle against the Sikhs, decided to avenge the death of his brother by putting an end to all the Sikhs, by whatever means possible. Thousands were killed and those who managed to reach Jallandhar Doab were treated with great respect and hospitality by Jassa Singh.
Shah Nawaz’s gaining the governorship of Lahore on 30th March 1747 provided the Sikhs with the needed respite. They decided in a Gurmata to build a fort for the defence of the town of Amritsar and the Harimandir Sahib, now the Golden Temple. A small fortress was built and named ‘Ram Rauni’ after the fourth Guru. Ram Das.
In 1748, at the time of Diwali, the Sikhs came from all over Punjab to celebrate Diwali and join in the illuminations at Harimandir Sahib. They also stored food, water and ammunition in the Ram Rauni for future use, for Mir Mannu had become the new governor of Punjab and his intentions were well-known as anti-Sikh.
As expected Mir Mannu ordered all Sikhs to evacuate Punjab and laid siege to Ram Rauni. He also asked Adina Beg to send forces to help with the siege and also to obey instructions about clearing his area of the Sikhs. The siege continued from October 1748 to January 1749 by the Mughal army, about two hundred Sikhs were killed within the fort and there was no more food or ammunition left in store. Jassa Singh, noticing the plight of his fellow brethren and finding his inability to get the siege lifted by changing Adina Beg’s mind, decided to leave Adina Beg and in the darkness of the night went into the fortress along with his forces and stores and took up the responsibility of defending the fortress himself. Such was the result of his deed that the besieged gained new confidence and hope. He also succeeded, through the offices of Diwan Kaura Mal in getting the siege lifted after some-time. Diwan Kaura Mal, called by Sikhs, with affection as Mitha Mal, impressed upon Mir Mannu the need of enlisting the help of Sikhs in curbing Shah Nawaz at Multan and defending Punjab from the imminent Abdali invasion.
The result was that Jassa Singh not only managed to save the lives of three hundred Sikhs besieged in the fortress which was also saved, but also gained for the maintenance of the fortress one fourth revenue of the pargana of Patti as well as twelve villages of Gur Chak from Mir Mannu. This was no mean achievement. It shows his courage, statesmanship, tact and devotion to his faith. The Way the siege was brought to an end displays his mastery over diplomacy.
Soon after ‘Ram Rauni’ was renamed ‘Ram Garh’, Jassa Singh was appointed its first commander (kiledar). From 1748 onwards Jassa Singh made the preservation and defence of ‘Ram Garh’ his main aim in life. Many a time it was razed to the ground by the Mughals and Pathans, thousands of lives were lost in its defence but every time Jassa Singh rebuilt it with greater devotion and constant perseverance. That is why Jassa Singh and his followers came to be known as ‘Ramgarhia’ and his ‘misal’ became famous with this name.
Most of the members of this misal came from similar technical professions, that is, they could erect buildings, make weapons themselves and fight the enemy. These were no mean assets to a group of people fighting for survival. They all felt pride in being called ‘Ramgarhias’ because they earned it by maintaining the existence and honour of the one and only symbol of Sikh power at the most critical period in Sikh history.
But the Sikhs could not enjoy favours from Mir Mannu for long. After Abdali’s third invasion, Mir Mannu was defeated, Diwan Kaura Mal was Killed in battle and Punjab became a part of the Afghan Empire. Mir Mannu accepted the suzerainty of Abdali, took back the jagir assigned to ‘Ramgarh’ and started for the second time the campaign of exterminating the Sikhs by sending Adina Beg and Sadiq Beg with a large force. The Sikhs were hunted, caught, brought to Lahore and then murdered with the most cruel methods known to Mir Mannu and his assistants. Mir Mannu is described in the Sikh legends in this way:
Mannu is our scythe, we are his hay,
The more he cuts us, the more we grow.
Mannu’s most obvious object of attack was ‘Ramgarh’, which was besieged. There were nine hundred Sikhs in it, under Jassa Singh’s command. He defended it bravely but realising that the struggle would prove very costly in lives lost against Mughal hordes, decided to vacate the fortress. He and the remaining soldiers fought their way out to seek shelter in their old haunts, the hills and forests till the right opportunity presented itself to rebuild Ramgarh, which was razed to the ground by the Mughals soon after it was vacated.
The opportunity presented itself on the death of Mir Mannu on 3rd November 1753, Jassa Singh marched straight to Amritsar and rebuilt Ramgarh with the help of fellow Ramgarhias, stronger than before, a standing proof of that indefatigable will and unbending spirit of Jassa Singh and his comrades.