Maharaja Gulab Singh Born To Build An Empire

By Th. K P Singh
Maharaja Gulab Singh was born on 21st October 1792, corresponding to 5th Kartik 1849 at Anderwah near Samailpur of Samba district. When 16, he distinguished himself in the ‘Battle of Gumat’ whereby he blunted the successes of 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 Cavalryman (Swarian Jamwal). Later as General, he commanded the same army which he fought against in the Battle of Gumat. Within a decade plus he was ruler of Jammu. Impressed with his strategic acumen, Punjab Emperor anointed him as Raja of Jammu on 17 June 1822 at Jeo Pota Akhnoor. With Jammu as spring board, he turned out to be a legendary architect of a vast empire in North India.
The first half of 19th century had witnessed fall of Marathas, Gurkhas and Mughals while battling against the supremacy of the British. At this time Sikhs gained tremendous power in Lahore and made Punjab an impregnable fortress. Ironically downfall of Sikhs as was swift as their rise. By 1846 Sikhs were no more the ruler of Punjab. From among the left over dispensation, rose the Dogra Chieftain Gulab Singh who shaped the destiny of Indian sub-continent. With Jammu as foothold, he proceeded to build up an empire, by conquering Ladakh in 1830s, Gilgit-Baltistan in 1840s and Western Tibet in 1841. His empire spanned over 84 thousand sq miles, largest in India, which his descendents ruled for a century. His empire stretched out as far as the borders of Tibet, China, Central Asian Republics & NWFPs. He is the only ruler who extended Indian boundaries up to Karakoram & Central Asia. (his son Maharaja Ranbir Singh extended it across Karakoram to Aksai Chin). It provided great strategic depth to British India, infact a barrier from the much feared Russian expansionism. While the other renowned Indian rulers fought their adversaries bravely to defend their own bastion, it was Maharaja Gulab Singh who extended boundary of his empire outwards. His empire was surrounded by nearly half the world population and hence became a trade corridor of the world. This is what it means most to India even today but the nation doesn’t seem to be wary of it.
He was descendent of a famous Dogra clan, 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 of Raja Jit Singh of Jammu, was elder brother of Mian Zorawar Singh. Mian Gulab Singh was brought up under Mian 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. At no occasion, till death, Maharaja Ranjit Singh ever had any occasion or reason to regret his dependence on Dogra Chieftain in all the military campaigns he undertook to enlarge Sikh empire upto Kabul and Kandahar. If we go into the other side of the story, by his astute wisdom and diplomacy, he honorably regained the lost Jammu Raj of his ancestors, from the same Emperor, who had made it part of Sikh empire militarily in 1808. He wasn’t to stop there and then. Once firm in Jammu, he goes on adding to Jammu Raj to ultimately create a vast empire of Jammu & Kashmir. Therefore political history of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh is the biography of one man ie Maharaja Gulab Singh.
In 1846, as a result 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 in 1819. After the defeat in Anglo-Sikh War, Sikhs ceded Kashmir to 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. J&K thus created was of considerable complexity. Moreover in the context of broad sweep of Indian history, it was totally a new polity, quite without a precedent. Jammu heartland was predominantly Hindu Dogras, Kashmir overwhelmingly Muslim with a small but extremely influential Pandits, Ladakh mainly Buddhist whereas Gilgit-Baltistan predominantly Shia. All these regions were diverse in geography, religion, culture and languages.
Maharaja Gulab Singh was a visionary ruler. He needed finances and finances would come from Pashmina Trade. 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 & Lhasa-Gilgit trade routes. Leh township was the nerve centre of flourishing Pashmina trade from Lhasa, Sinkiang and Kashmir. (Pashmina was the raw material for rich Shawl industry of Kashmir and its source was undercoat wool of Northwestern Tibet). To get finances from Silk route he had to have control over it. Ambitious but cautious, he launched military expeditions 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 more conquests.
Maharaja Gulab Singh’s conquests and legendary Dogra General Zorawar Singh are inseparable. They began with annexation of Ladakh in 1835 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. Legendary General’s martyrdom, biting winter and heavy snowfall halted Dogra conquests. Yet whatever had been conquered 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.
Ironically with India becoming independent, systematic dismantling of Maharaja Gulab Singh’s legacy began. First phase began when strategic Gilgit-Baltistan was surreptitiously given over to Pakistan through British engineered coup of Gilgit Scouts and in the second phase POJK was lost. Historians are yet to explain why Indian army which marched from Srinagar, crossed Zojila, reached Kargil and marched East towards Leh instead of taking the Kargil-Skardu route where the State Forces had held out till 15 August 1948 and declared ceasefire when it was chasing the retreating enemy.
The last, though not the least phase, began on 5th August 2019 when the erstwhile Princely State was split in two parts, both as Union Territories. Ladakh got what it wanted. Despite persistent demand for a ‘separate Jammu state’, it was kept appended to Kashmir. This division, if not revoked, the glorious achievements of Dogra Dynasty will slowly recede into the pages of history. Since there is a promise of restoration of Statehood, it is hoped that delayed bi-centenary of Coronation of the visionary ruler on 17 June 2022, will be celebrated as J&K state and in the manner that it showcases the ruthless march of history which fails to glorify the founder of the largest empire in India.
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 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 and his place of birth not even known. Jammu has statues of Netaji, Shivaji, Pt Prem Nath Dogra, Mian Dido, Shaheed Bhagat Singh 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. Least the govt should do is to install his statue, which is lying ready, 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 celebrated in every nook and corner of the UT, as is done in Rajasthan for Maharana Partap. Under the BJP rule, neglected history of J&K is expected to get due attention which will be a befitting tribute to the founder of J&K.
(Author is Chairman of Raj Tilak Celebration Committee)