BOOK REVIEW: Lahore Durbar in free fall —by Afrah Jamal
The Last Sunset — The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar
By Amarinder Singh
Roli Books; Pp 344; Rs 1,395
After the Mughals exited, but before the British arrived, the Lahore Durbar was presided over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Bahadur, affectionately known as the ‘Lion of Lahore’, who makes a brief appearance in Amarinder Singh’s narrative, but leaves a lasting impression on his history.
Ranjit Singh, who has been described in the book as a great man and an outstanding military commander, was a mass of contradictions. For instance, he was against the death penalty but not averse to robbing widows, believed treaties were meant to be broken but treated the vanquished with kindness, and thought nothing of inviting guests only to divest them of their most prized possession — like the Kohinoor diamond. He may have spent the better part of the day leading military campaigns, yet he did not always harbour territorial designs and is said to have waged a war on his own governor for a horse. A beautiful Persian horse, but still a horse.
The Lahore Durbar, in Ranjit Singh’s time, constituted what is now Pakistan (minus Sindh and Balochistan). He is perhaps best known for putting the Sikh army on the map and, of course, his love for empire building. The Last Sunset… studies the rapid deterioration of the empire forged by a ruler who combined “cunning, treachery, ruthlessness with diplomacy and military might” to carve out a glorious kingdom, a formidable army and a reputation to match. In the brief but dramatic portion devoted to his life, the writer manages to capture the grandeur of his court (decadent lifestyle and all) and the fickle nature of alliances from multiple perspectives.
It would take just 10 short years for this Durbar to fall apart. The principal portion of the book focuses on major military campaigns between the Sikh and British troops in the post-Ranjit era, as the empire he had so painstakingly built with the help of the much admired Sikh Khalsa Army, raised on European lines, began to fray around the edges. Soon the soldiers, considered to be “the finest material in the world for forming an army” by W G Osborne, military secretary to the governor general of India, would be pitted against the British (1845-46 and1848-49), the court was to become the epicentre of political intrigues (led by a royal) and Punjab would finally be annexed to the British territory.
Amarinder Singh is from the royal family of Patiala. He was general officer commanding-in-chief, Western Command, in the 1965 war between Pakistan and India and later served as a member of the Parliamentary Defence Committee. His previous books include Lest we Forget: The History of Indian Army from 1947-65 and A Ridge Too Far: War in the Kargil Heights 1999. This Maharaja-turned-soldier-turned-politician records the glorious beginning and not so glorious ending of Ranjit’s Lahore in this meticulously detailed account, cramming maps, order of battles with military strategies and tallying British accounts with what little is known of the Sikh side. He also examines Ranjit’s army that had become the de facto ruler of his state after his death and the conspiracy hatched from within to cut it down to size.
He exposes the cold-blooded role played by the regent — Her Highness Maharani Jinda Kaur (Queen Mother) — as she sent her soldiers into battle ostensibly to defend the kingdom. Faked intelligence was used (which works every time) to rile up the unsuspecting troops, who became convinced that the British Army was coming after them. It was a dangerous gamble but the Maharani hoped to come out as a winner. The Sikhs lose, she gets to stay on as regent; they win, she becomes even more powerful. According to the writer, this was a calculated move designed to clip the wings of a powerful army (a familiar complaint in this part of the world) and strengthen her tenuous hold in the bargain. He notes that though the Sikhs were decisively beaten in the four battles of the war, “but for the regent, her wazir, C-in-C and a mad British officer, Lord Gough’s defeat was near certain”. While the Maharani courted the British and connived against her state in the first war, the blame for the next major conflict is placed at the British doorstep. The author asserts that the Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie simply used the Multan revolt as a pretext to carry out his expansionist plans and intended to “do away” with the Lahore state long before the second Sikh war.
The story concludes with the annexation of Punjab in 1849 and the epilogue continues the story of the exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh and his mother, the resourceful Maharani. The Last Sunset… is the tragic saga of a Durbar in free fall, starting from the first Anglo-Sikh war, where Lahore escaped annexation by the British but came under their supervision, to the second, where the British found themselves in the untenable position of both governing and attacking the Durbar.