Col J P Singh
Coronation of Maharaja Gulab Singh was the first step in the direction of consolidation of Jammu Kingdom and subsequent building of an empire. It happened at a turbulent time of history when the Rajputs of Rajputana, Marathas of Marathwara and Sikhs of Punjab had rebelled against tyrannical Aurangzeb. Rise of Maharaja Gulab Singh and formation of Jammu and Kashmir as an independent political entity and its indigenous State Force also happened in this turbulent period. As is well known Maharaja Gulab Singh is the founder of a dynasty which created a vast empire of its own in North India spanning over 74,000 sq miles which his descendents ruled brilliantly for over a century. While all other rulers such as Maharana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji are known to have fought their adversaries to defend their bastion but it was Maharaja Gulab Singh who extended frontiers of his empire outwards by adding far off principalities of Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan and part of Tibet thereby extending Indian boundaries upto Central Asian Republics which happened to provide great strategic depth not only to Jammu and Kashmir but most importantly to India. Since his empire was surrounded by nearly half the world population, it became strategically an important trade corridor of the world.
Gulab Singh was born on 21st October 1792 at Inderwah. Mian Kishore Singh was his father and Mian Zorawar Singh was his grandfather. Mian Mota who was Commander-in-Chief of Jammu Raja was Gualb Singh’s granduncle. Mian Surat Dev, the younger brother of Raja-e-Rajgan Ranjit Dev who ruled Jammu & Sialkot from 1728 to 1780 was Gulab Singh’s great-grandfather. Hence Gulab Singh was brought up in Mubarak Mandi under the care of Mian Mota.
At the tender age of 16, he distinguished himself in the battle of Gumat. He led a band of young Dogras who blunted the successes of invading Sikh Army. Impressed by his swordsmanship, the invading Sikh Chief narrated the story of his prowess to the emperor of Punjab emperor who rewarded him by enrolling him as cavalryman (Swariya Jamwal). Destiny saw it that Gulab Singh commands the same Sikh Army against whom he had fought at Gumat. Till death, emperor Ranjit Singh had no occasion or any reason to regret his dependence on Dogra General in all military campaigns he undertook to enlarge Sikh empire right upto Kabul & Kandhar.
By virtue of his competence, within 13 years, emperor of Punjab anointed him as Raja of Jammu on 17 June 1822 after which history of Jammu, as would be seen, took a new turn. It started as story of vision of one man. The vision was both economic and military motivation behind which was rich revenue generating Pashmina Trade. He needed finances which would come from Pashmina trade which was carried out over a vast Silk Route running from Lhasa to Europe. Hence he had to have the Silk route under his control. He succeeded in doing it brilliantly by the use of diplomacy and the military might. Finances accrued from Silk trade enabled further campaigns and conquests.
He was very ambitious and adventurist. Story of life and achievements of Gulab Singh flow like a sequel of a Bollywood hit movie. Starting as a sibling of a Jagirdar, by virtue of his military skills he became a General in Sikh empire and from there rose to be a founder of a vast empire of his own (Punjab empire to Dogra Empire) in the most contested and diverse geographical region of the Indian sub-continent. The other side of the story is very interesting. By his astute wisdom and diplomacy, Gulab Singh honourably regained the lost Jammu kingdom of his ancestors from the same emperor who had made it his Jagir militarily in 1808. The story carries on. His ambitions to add new territories made him conqueror of Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan and Western Tibet. His selection of Gen Zorawar Singh Kaluria for conquering these impregnable areas was another example of his foresightedness. Hence the political history of Jammu & Kashmir is a biography of Maharaja Gulab Singh.
Maharaja Gulab Singh’s prominence can be attributed to three factors which also apply to us. (i) Self. He was able, assiduous and robust, the qualities which made great warrior. (ii) Family. His illustrious father, and brothers Dhian Singh and Suchet Singh had acquired remarkable importance and patronage at Lahore Darbar. He had their unstinting support. (iii) God-father. Maharaja Ranjit Singh trusted him a lot. Hence he received tremendous patronage, lavish praise and rewards from the emperor. This is what made him a warrior & conqueror.
Above is the remarkable legacy of the founder of Dogra empire. But what he left is not seen in the political/geographical maps. Within month/year of accession, the new rulers of J&K lost Gilgit-Baltistan and POJK to just created Pakistan only to remember these regions when China started constructing CPEC over it. Later also slicing of the empire by Pakistan and China continued with impunity. Although Indian Parliament has exhorted GOI many times to get these areas back but as I understand only an apocalyptic event can bring them back to J&K and by extension to India to which it legally belongs. Whatever was left was further sliced into two by the same Parliament on 5th August 2019. Such shortsightedness gives an opportunity to the adversaries to lay claim over rest of the areas of the empire. Can we turn our faces away from these hard facts. If it were not the conquests of Maharaja Gulab Singh, Indo-Pak and Indo-China border probably would have been settled along River Chenab if not Ravi at the time of Partition. Hence J&K owes a lot to Maharaja Gulab Singh for giving it an identity of oneness. It is never too late to redeem our indebt to the founder ruler.
I am sure events such as Maharaja Gulab Singh Jyanti and Coronation Day every year, this year however at low key, will go a long way in stimulating young scholars to discover exploits of Maharaja Gulab Singh and display them to the world. It is hoped that story of successes of Maharaja Gulab Singh and Gen Zorawar Singh will find mention in the text books of school curriculum in J&K to keep his vision and successes alive.
Maharana Pratap Jyanti is a public holiday in Rajasthan. Since the erstwhile Dogra empire is under geo-political contestation, it is high time the UT govt declares a public holiday on his Jyanti to keep the spirit of J&K and its founder alive.
(The author is Co-Chairman of Raj Tilak Celebration Committee)
Col J P Singh