Maharaja Gulab Singh: The Architect of a Dismantled Empire

"By his astute wisdom and diplomacy, Gulab Singh, honourably regained the lost Jammu Raj of his ancestors, from the same Emperor, who had made it a part of the Sikh empire militarily in 1808. The story does not end there...."

Maharaja Gulab Singh: The Architect of a Dismantled Empire

Gulab Singh was born on 21 October 1792 to Mian Kishore Singh, a Jagirdar of Anderwah near Samailpur of Samba district. At the tender age of 16, he distinguished himself in the ‘Battle of Gumat’. He led young Dogras and blunted the successes of the Sikh Army. Impressed by his swordsmanship, Sardar Hukam Singh, the invading Sikh Chief, narrated the story of his prowess to Maharaja Ranjit Singh for which the emperor rewarded him by appointing him as a cavalryman.

Later as a General, he commanded the same army which he fought against in the Battle of Gumat. Within 12/13 years, Emperor of Punjab anointed him as Raja of Jammu on 17 June 1822 at Jeo Pota Akhnoor. From Jammu as a steppingstone, hebecome a legendary architect of a vast empire of his own in North India.

The first half of 19thcentury had witnessed the fall of Marathas, Gurkhas and Mughals whilst battling the supremacy of the British. At this time Sikhs gained tremendous power in Lahore and made Punjab an impregnable fortress. Ironically, the downfall of the Sikhs was as swift as its rise. By 1846 the Sikhs were no more the ruler of Punjab. From among the remaining, rose a soldier warrior who shaped the destiny of the sub-continent.

The State of Jammu & Kashmir, now Union Territory (UT), was a unique creation of the first half of the nineteenth century by the Dogra Chieftain Gulab Singh. From Jammu as a foothold, he rapidly proceeded to build up an empire, by conquering Ladakh in 1830s, Gilgit-Baltistan in 1840s and Western Tibet in 1841.

It spanned over 86 thousand sq miles, largest in India, which his descendants ruled for a century. His empire touched the borders of Tibet, China, Central Asian Republics, and the North Western Frontier Provinces (NWFP). He is the only ruler who extended Indian boundaries up to Karakoram and Central Asia (his son extended it to Aksai Chin across Karakoram).

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It provided great strategic depth to Delhi. His empire was surrounded by nearly half the world population and hence became a trade corridor of the world. While the other renowned Indian rulers such as Maharana Partap and Shivaji are known to have fought their adversaries bravely to defend their bastion, it was Maharaja Gulab Singh who extended the boundary of his empire outwards. This is what he means most to India even today, but the nation doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

He was a descendent of one of the most famous Dogra clans, which ruled Jammu in the 18th century during the decline of Mughal rule. His grandfather, Mian Zorawar Singh, was son of Mian Surat Dev, the younger brother of Raja-e-Rajgan Ranjit Dev who ruled Jammu and Sialkot from 1728 to 1780. Mian Mota, who was Wazir-e-Azam of Raja Jit Singh of Jammu, was elder brother of Mian Zorawar Singh. Gulab Singh was brought up under Main Mota’s care in Mubarak Mandi Palaces where he learnt soldiery, diplomacy, and courtier ship.

That is how he became the most trusted military commander and strategist of Emperor Ranjit Singh. On no occasion, till death, did Maharaja Ranjit Singh ever have any occasion or reason to regret his dependence on a Dogra General in all the military campaigns he undertook to enlarge the Sikh empire right up to Kabul and Kandhar. Now, look at the other side of the story.

By his astute wisdom and diplomacy, Gulab Singh, honourably regained the lost Jammu Raj of his ancestors, from the same Emperor, who had made it a part of the Sikh empire militarily in 1808. The story doesn’t end there. Once firm in Jammu, he goes on adding to the Jammu Raj to ultimately create the vast empire of Jammu & Kashmir. Therefore, the political history of Jammu and Kashmir is the biography of one man i.e. Maharaja Gulab Singh.

"If it were not the conquests of Maharaja Gulab Singh to the North, Indo-Pak & Sino-Indo borders probably would have been settled along River Chenab, if not Ravi, at the time of partition. Hence Indian nation owes a lot to him."
Kashmir Valley; File Photo

In 1846, because of his neutrality during the first Anglo-Sikh War, Raja Gulab Singh was granted full control over Kashmir. Kashmir had been conquered by the Sikhs from Afghans rulers in 1819. After the defeat in the Anglo-Sikh War, Sikhs ceded Kashmir to the British against war indemnity. Governor Henry Hardinge was reluctant to stretch British direct rule into what was then an extremely exposed flank. He immediately transferred it to the ruler of Jammu through the Treaty of Amritsar of 16 March 1846 for a sum of Rs 75 lakh.

The State of J&K thus assembled was of considerable complexity. Moreover, it was in the context of the broad sweep of Indian history totally a new polity quite without a precedent. The original heartland Jammu was predominantly of Dogra Hindu population. Kashmir was overwhelmingly Muslim with a small but extremely influential Hindu minority. Ladakh had a Buddhist majority whereas Gilgit-Baltistan was predominantly Shia. All these regions were diverse in geography, religions, culture, and languages.

Maharaja Gulab Singh was a visionary ruler. He needed finances and finances would come from Pashmina Trade (Pashmina was the raw material for rich Shawl industry of Kashmir and its source was undercoat wool of Northwestern Tibet). Pashmina trade was carried out over the vast Silk Route running from Lhasa to Europe. He had understood that occupation of Himalayan Kingdoms would give him monopoly over Lhasa-Kashmir and Lhasa-Gilgit trade routes. Leh Town was the nerve centre of flourishing Pashmina trade from Lhasa, Sinkiang, and Kashmir.

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To get finances from the Silk Route he had to have control over it. Ambitious but cautious, he undertook his ambitious campaigns across snow bound Himalayas. One must give full credit to his vision that he managed to have entire Silk Route pass through his empire. He used diplomacy and military might to do so. It made the Dogra Empire rich to enable further campaigns and conquests.

This adventure began in 1834 under the legendary Dogra General Zorawar Singh and ended with the signing of ‘Treaty of Chushul’ on 16 September 1842 between Jammu, China, and Tibet. Thousands of Dogras died in the trans-Himalayan campaigns including Gen Zorawar Singh. The legendary General’s martyrdom, biting winter and heavy snowfall halted Dogras march into Lhasa. Yet the conquests formed the geo-strategic pivot in the Northern region of India. Had India not been partitioned, India would have been a major player in the politics of the region spanning two continents.

With the Indian independence, began the dismantling of Maharaja Gulab Singh’s legacy. Initial phase began when strategic Gilgit-Baltistan was surreptitiously given over to Pakistan through British engineered coup of Gilgit Scouts. What followed is wrapped in mystery. Historians are yet to explain why the Indian Army which marched from Srinagar, crossed Zojila, reached Kargil and marched East towards Leh instead of taking the Kargil-Skardu road where the State Forces had held out till 15 August 1948.

The final phase began on 5 August 2019 when the Princely State was split in two parts, both as Union Territories. Ladakh acquired a separate entity as UT. Despite a persistent demand for a separate Jammu state, it was kept appended to Kashmir as another UT of J&K. With this division of the state, the glorious achievements of Dogra Dynasty will slowly recede into the pages of the history.

Since there is a promise of restoration of Statehood to J&K, it is hoped that bi-centenary of Coronation of a visionary Dogra ruler on 17 June 2022 will be celebrated in the manner that it showcases the ruthless march of history which glorified the founder of the largest empire in India and at the same time reduced him to the pages of history after independence and finally removed him from there also after the re-organisation of J&K.

If it were not the conquests of Maharaja Gulab Singh to the North, Indo-Pak & Sino-Indian borders probably would have been settled along River Chenab, if not Ravi, at the time of partition. Hence Indian nation owes a lot to him. Moreover, the strong economy of Kashmir, based on cottage industry and flourishing trade, is his gift to Kashmiris.

Ironically, there is no historic monument attributed to him. Jammu has statues of Netaji, Shivaji, Pt Prem Nath Dogra, Mian Dido but not of the builder of the State. Rather than be grateful to illustrious founder of J&K and celebrating its structure and pluralism, the govt in Delhi has dismantled it.

This is not fair and just whatever the compulsions be. Nevertheless, to keep his achievements and name alive, various monumental edifice of erstwhile state be named after him. NH44 or just started Zojila Tunnel can be one of them. His statue, which is lying ready, must be installed at Kunjwani Chowk, the entry point of Jammu or at Lakhanpur, the entry point of J&K.

In addition, events such as founder ruler’s birthday and coronation day should be widely celebrated every year. It will go a long way in commemorating the builder of a vast empire as well as challenging young scholars and historians to discover the exploits of the visionary ruler from security, strategic and economic angles and display them to the world community. Under the central rule, neglected history of J&K should get due attention and founder of J&K must be given his due.

(Col JP Singh (Retd) was commissioned in 4 Bihar on 13th June 1971 from the ACC entry scheme from IMA, Dehradun. He served in the Poonch sector during the 71 war and has since held several prestigious appointments. Views expressed by the author are personal and do not necessarily reflect the view of Mission Victory India)

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