Sardar Hari Singh is regarded as one of the greatest of Sikh generals. During 1881, European newspapers wrote articles comparing him to the great European Generals such as Napoleon, Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, the Duke of Wellington, as well as Asian Generals such as Haluka Khan and Genghis Khan. The British concluded that Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa was the greatest of them all. With a limited force of men and materials, he freed not only Kashmir and Multan, but also Peshawar state and made them part of the empire of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Peshawar had been under Afghan control for more than eight centuries after Afghans murdered Raja Jaipal in a battle fought in 998 A.D.
Sardar Nalwa was a courageous, devoted and farsighted general. He impressed the Governor General of India with his statesmanship when he met him at Simla in 1831 as an emissary of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. When the question of a successor to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh was discussed among the top Sikhs, Nalwa opposed the opinion of the majority. He suggested that not Kharak Singh, but the Panj Pyaras should succeed Ranjeet Singh. Had his suggestion been listened to, the history of India would have been different today.
Hari Singh, born in 1791, was the son of Sardar Gurdial Singh of Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. His father died when he was only seven years old but his mother provided him a good religious education and trained him in martial arts. Hari Singh took Amrit at the age of ten. Observing his mastery in the use of arms, the Maharaja placed him in his army. When on a hunting mission with the Maharaja, Hari Singh was attacked by a tiger. He smartly defended himself and killed the tiger; this act gave him the title, Nalwa (tiger).
Sardar Hari Singh’s first major battle was fought against the Nawab of Kasoor (now in Pakistan) who was always a troublemaker for the Sikhs in Amritsar during the 18th century. Later he participated in the battle against Multan to free the people from the Nawab of the region. Nalwa demonstrated his superb fighting skills during these battles.
Releasing Shah Shuja
Hari Singh’s next expedition was to the state of Kashmir. He joined the other two famous commanders, Akali Phoola Singh and Sardar Sham Singh Attariwala, in obtaining the release of the imprisoned Shah Shuja, the king of Afghanistan. Shuja was ousted by his own brother and he had no alternative but to move to the Punjab and seek the protection of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Later, when Shuja attempted to take over Kabul, he was defeated, imprisoned, and detained in Kashmir. His begum (wife) requested that the Maharaja once again free her husband. In return, she offered him the greatest and most famous of all diamonds, the Kohinoor.
The success of the expedition to bring Shah Shuja safely from Kashmir to Lahore so enraged the ruler of Afghanistan, that he sent his army to take over the fort of Attock in 1813, and oust the Sikhs. Hari Singh Nalwa, however, led his army to victory against great odds and retained Sikh control over the area.
Annexation of Multan
The Nawab of Multan, who was governing that state on behalf of the Maharaja, refused to observe the agreements and promises made by him. Nalwa was deputed to bring him under control. The General fought bravely and took over the strong fort of Multan. Ranjeet Singh granted him the estate of Gujranwala as a reward for his accomplishment. In 1818, the Nawab again rebelled against Lahore. Nalwa had to fight a long bloody battle to annex Multan and make it a part of Punjab to resolve the problem forever.
Freedom for Kashmiris
In 1819, the Kashmiris sent a deputation to Lahore, asking Maharaja Ranjeet Singh to free them from four centuries of foreign rule. Three famous Sikh Generals, including Hari Singh Nalwa, were sent to Kashmir again. After defeating the ruler there, Sardar Nalwa was made the Administrator of Kashmir. He streamlined the whole administration and ensured justice for everyone, which made him very popular with the Kashmiri people. However, his stay there was short lived as he was recalled in 1821 to reassert Sikh control over the western regions.
Along with Nalwa, the Maharaja himself led the Sikh forces. Hazara was brought under the Lahore administration. Hari Singh Nalwa was appointed Governor of that area as the previous Governor died fighting against the rebels.
General Nalwa could never be free from fighting the Pathans and Mughals of Afghanistan. Yar Mohd Khan, who had been appointed Governor of Peshawar, was the brother of the king of Afghanistan. He became disloyal to the Sikh raj and joined his brother, which necessitated sending another Sikh expedition to Peshawar.
The Sikh army built a pontoon bridge over the river Attock and challenged the Pathans. At the height of the battle, a contingent of Pathans cut the bridge. When Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and Akali Phoola Singh reached the scene, they found the bridge washed away. They could hear the fighting on the other side of the river. They had no other choice but to take the great risk of crossing the flooded river on horseback. The battle, however, had been won by Nalwa by the time the Maharaja reached there.
The major battle for retaking Peshawar still lay ahead. Thousands of soldiers and Mujahideens (religious zealots) had gathered there to stop the Sikhs from reaching Peshawar. A bloody battle was fought, where both sides were determined to win at any cost. The Mughals and Pathans found the Sikh sword too strong and beat a hasty retreat to Kabul. The Sikhs again took over Peshawar, although they paid a very high price for it. They lost their general Akali Phoola Singh who was shot by a Pathan hiding behind a rock when he was forcing his opponents to retreat.
In another uprising of a local Nawab in 1824, Sardar Hari Singh was severely injured. One of the boulders, exploded by the retreating enemy, hit him and he rolled down the hill. However, an urgent and timely search saved his life.
The king of Kabul made yet another attempt to take over Peshawar. A Syad, after returning from Mecca, went to Kabul. He told the king that God had advised him to take over Peshawar. Another attack on Peshawar was therefore organized by them. The Sikhs proved to be too powerful to be ousted and Syad was defeated and killed in May of 1831. The remaining army returned to Kabul leaving the Khalsa to rule Peshawar. Sardar Nalwa was given an award of 50,000 rupees for winning the battle. Under an agreement with Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, a local Burkzace was appointed Governor. In 1834, the Maharaja decided to annex Peshawar and make it a part of Punjab, as every local Governor appointed there had rejoined Kabul once the Sikh army left. Nalwa was appointed as the Governor of Peshawar.
The annexation of Peshawar enraged Dost Mohd, the King of Kabul. He sent a very large, well equipped army to take Peshawar back from the Sikhs. General Hari Singh was the commander-in-chief of the defending Sikh army. Though fewer in numbers, the Sikhs organized a defense and counterattack so brilliantly that the larger Kabul army was disarrayed and defeated. Dost Mohd was able to save his life by running away at night.
The Khalsa Raj was thus established over all the areas of the present Pakistan, Kashmir, and Punjab up to the West of Satlej.
Nalwa as the Governor of Peshawar
Nalwa, as the Governor of Peshawar, relieved the Hindus of the tax which they had been paying since the 17th century. He managed the whole state effectively to bring peace, and stopped the looting of the people by Pathans and Afghans. To maintain order in the state, he established police stations all over the region and built forts at strategic places. The fort of Jamrud was the most famous and it blocked the Khyber Pass, not permitting any army to come from the Kabul side. The king of Kabul, finding himself controlled by the chain of forts built by Nalwa, was always devising plans to break the Sikh administration.
The last battle
The Dogras in the cabinet of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh were working secretly with the British and the King of Kabul to bring down the Khalsa Sarkar. These traitors, Gulab Singh and Dhyan Singh, finally succeeded. They obtained the rule of Kashmir and handed over the Punjab to the British in 1849. Kabul would have never dared to attack Peshawar during the lifetime of Hari Singh Nalwa. The mention of the name of the general would scare the Pathans. If they wanted to silence their crying children, they would say, “Be silent. Hari is coming.”
The Dogras knew every secret of the army and its deployment. Being in charge of the government, they were in a position to misinform the Maharaja.
In 1837, the Peshawar army was back at Lahore for the wedding of Kanwar Naunihal Singh, the son of the Maharaja. General Nalwa was tired and exhausted, lying sick in bed. No senior person was in Peshawar to guide the Sikh soldiers. All of this information was sent to Kabul by the Dogras and the Afghans were told to attack Peshawar. Such a message was very encouraging to the Afghans and the king of Kabul immediately sent his army to drive the Sikhs out of Peshawar.
After crossing the Khyber Pass, they attacked Jamrud. It was here that Bibi Harsharan Kaur (Sharnagat Kaur) played a heroic role by walking from Jamrud to Peshawar and reporting the attack on Jamrud. Nalwa, though sick, repulsed the attack, losing his own life due to the treachery of the Dogras. It was Nalwa’s presence which resulted in the Sikh victory; otherwise, the small Sikh army numbering only a few thousand, was no match for the 30,000 Afghan army supported by civilian fanatics.
During this time, Hari Singh Nalwa sent to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh three letters, all of which were kept by the Dogras. They did not let the Maharaja know of them. Recent research has shown that the Afghans and Dogras connived to murder the General. This is evidenced by the fact that the person who shot Nalwa from very close range, was wearing a Sikh soldier’s uniform.
By the time help arrived from Lahore, the battle had been won by the Sikhs. Peshawar was thus retained in the Khalsa raj, the credit for this going to Bibi Harsharan Kaur and General Nalwa’s bravery.
General Hari Singh Nalwa was an eloquent statesman and an able administrator. He was instrumental in bringing Kashmir under Sikh control and brought peace and prosperity to the people as the Governor of the state. Peshawar, a region of Punjab which had been partitioned from it for eight centuries, was again made a part of it due to the bravery of Nalwa. He has since been known as the “Hero of Peshawar” and was rated as the greatest general of his time. The forts he built there to stop invaders from looting Punjab and Delhi, were effective long after his death. A large part of his successes can be attributed to his being a kind and devoted Sikh, committed to his people and possessing a keen sense of duty and responsibility.
More on Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa on Page 2: