Saluting the Martyrs of Tibet Debacle

Col J P Singh
In the nineteenth century, otherwise bereft of any achievements in Indian History, Gen Zorawar Singh stands out as a great conqueror. A vast Dogra Empire of Jammu & Kashmir in the Northwest of India was his and Maharaja Gulab Singh’s monumental creation. For as long as there are wars, there will be discussions and debate to highlight accounts of the soldiers who fight, the officers who lead, the Generals who strategize and the conquerors who leave their foot prints on the sands of time. Duggarland has many legendary accounts of emperors, conquerors, generals and soldiers. Many of them worth commemorating are of Gen Zorawar Singh. When a soldier wields a pen, it provides an insight into fundamental complexities of warfare for the benefit of society who never otherwise get exposures to the challenges of the military profession. Hence Dogra General known as ‘Napoleon of the East’ world over, can’t go unsung from a soldier columnist.
12th December commemorates his successes in the integration of Jammu, Ladakh, Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan and Western part of Tibet in the Dogra kingdom. It is on this fateful day of 1841 that the Dogra Warrior laid down his life fighting against the combined Tibetan and Chinese forces ahead of Taklakot in Tibet. That ended the saga of continuous military successes of the Dogra soldiery under the able command of Gen Zorawar Singh. Even though he is lesser remembered in the areas he traversed through during his military adventures but for certain he is celebrated in the Indian Army, the neighboring Punjab & Himachal as well as in the Common-Wealth of Nations for his role in extending the boundaries of Dogra Kingdom up to Central Asia. JAK RIF, proudly adores the heritage of the J&K State Forces, which never ever carried the Union Jack, and celebrates General’s birthday as Zorawar Day and 12th December as ‘Martyr Day’.
At the age of 16, Zorawar Singh was spotted at Hardwar by Raja Jaswant Singh of Marmat (Doda) who trained him as soldier. Having learnt of Gulab Singh’s rise in Jammu, he met him and got appointed as Sepoy in Reasi Fort. After the occupation of Kishtwar in 1821, Gulab Singh appointed him the ‘Hakim of Kishtwar’.
Snow clad high mountains East of Kishtwar and the valleys/meadows invariably attracted Zorawar Singh’s attention. Several principalities of this region were tributaries of Tshe-Pal, the Gyalpo (king) of Ladakh. In 1834, one of these, the Raja of Timbus, sought Raja Gulab Singh’s help against Gyalpo. Raja Gulab Singh ordered Zorawar Singh to invest Ladakh. Dogra commander had been waiting for an opportunity to excel himself in the warfare. He led 5000 Dogras into Ladakh in April 1834 and by mid August had established Dogra rule over Western Ladakh. After a brief pause, the Dogra General marched towards Leh. Gyalpo sent Gen Banko Kahlon to face the Dogras. By various tactical maneuvers, he defeated the 22,000 strong army of Gen Kahlon and led his victorious troops into Leh. The panic stricken Gyalpo sued for peace. As per the agreement, he was retained as Gyalpo of Ladakh. Soon after the two sides had signed the agreement, the Chief of Sod rose in arms against the Dogras. The revolt was quickly suppressed. Having restored order in Sod, the Zorawar Singh triumphantly returned to Jammu. This is known as one of the greatest victories of the legendary warrior. He was received by Emperor Ranjit Singh on 16 March 1836 where Dogra Warrior put forth his plan to carry Sikh Empire Flag into China and Tibet. Though startled, emperor gave his approval which bolstered his confidence. In 1837, on the instigation of Sikh Governor Mahan Singh, Gyalpo revolted against Jammu’s authority. This forced Gen Zorawar Singh’s speedy return to Ladakh. Moment Zorawar Singh reached Leh, the Gyalpo begged for forgiveness. Having imposed additional indemnity, Dogra General exploited internal feuds to his advantage. He forced Gyalpo to abdicate in favour of a noble Ngorub Stabzin. Appointing Ngorub as Gyalpo, he returned to Jammu. In 1838 Ngorub also revolted. Zorawar Singh marched again to Leh via Zanskar. Tse-Pal Gyalpo was reinstated as ruler. Zorawar Singh had to march into Ladakh yet again to face a challenge from deposed Ngorub. Dogras promptly suppressed the rebellion, arrested the leading insurgents and returned to Jammu. His challenges from Ladakh were not yet over. In 1840, Sukamir of Purig raised the banner of rebellion. Zorawar Singh reappeared in Ladakh 5th time and this time brutally suppressed the rebellion. Majestic Zorawar Fort at Leh tells it all.
With Ladakh firmly under control, the challenges lay to the Northwest. The region was principalities of Baltistan. It was predominantly Muslim. Decision to invest it was influenced by various favorable developments. Mohammad Shah son of Balti Ruler Ahmed Shah had been bitterly estranged with his father. In 1835 he had approached Zorawar Singh to help usurp his father’s throne. Death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 gave Raja Gulab Singh a free rein in Himalayas. Encouraged by the prevailing conditions, Gulab Singh ordered his military commander to occupy Baltistan. With an army of 15,000 Dogras & Ladakhis, Dogra General marched into Baltistan ending 1840. His bold speed march in winters, crossing frozen Indus, caught the Baltis off-guard. Baltis were decisively beaten. Ahmed Shah surrendered and was replaced by his son Mohammad Shah. Having consolidated his reign in the Northwest, Raja Gulab Singh revived an ancient Ladakhi claim over Western Tibet.
In May 1841, Gen Zorawar Singh entered unknown lands of Tibet with 5000 men comprising of Dogras, Ladakhis and Baltis to invest the claimed territory. Sweeping all the resistance on the way, he passed the Mansarovar Lake and converged at Gartok where he defeated the Tibetan Force. Tibetan commander fled to Taklakot. Zorawar Singh stormed Taklakot Fort on 6 September and captured the strategic city. Envoys of Tibet and agents of Maharaja of Nepal, whose Kingdom was 15 miles away, came and negotiated with the Dogra General. British feared presence of Dogra troops on Nepalese frontiers. They suspected emergence of an alliance between Jammu and Nepal. They saw this alliance a danger to Kumaon Hills which British had annexed from Nepal in 1816. By 1841 British trepidations had reached such a feverish pitch that they ordered Maharaja Sher Singh to command the Dogras to vacate Tibet by 10 December 1841. But at the same time, the military situation in Tibet underwent a drastic change. In November, Lhasa sent a composite army of ten thousand Chinese and Tibetans to drive Dogras from Tibet.
The adversaries finally met face to face on 10 December, ironically the date set by British for Dogras withdrawal. The fierce battle began. Dogras fought under great disadvantage at height of 15000 ft amidst severe winter. Many lost their fingers and toes with more or less everyone frost bitten. On 12 December 1841, the Dogra General was fatally wounded. The death of the Dogra General decided the outcome of the battle. Living up to their bravery, Dogras executed the enemy General to avenge their commander’s martyrdom and forced the adversary into a peace treaty. 12 December 1841 ended the saga of military adventures of the legendary Dogra Warrior. Tibetans admit that they owe their victory to heavy snowfall (Antiquities of Indian Tibet by AH Franke). Nation should pay tributes to the great warrior and his soldiers on 12th December every year to commemorate their military achievements and sacrifices they made for our pride in the comity of nations. Let’s remember the famous quote, ‘A martyr dies not when shot, But when he is Forgotten’.
Those who have seen, ‘Kashmir: the Story’, on Amazon Prime and read ‘Footprints in the Snow’ by Maj Gen G D Bakshi would appreciate the role of the Dogra General in the expansion of J&K. Tibetan’s worship the Dogra General despite being the enemy commander. Tibetans constructed a memorial in the shape of ‘Chorten’ (Samadhi) where the remains of Dogra Warrior rest. It is few kms from Purang in Tibet, which is frequented by the Tibetans.
Legendary warriors, Hari Singh Nalwa and Gen Zorawar Singh died while leading their armies in the battle. Their resting places are far off from their motherland. A small room exists in Jamrud Fort to mark the resting place of the Sikh warrior who had himself constructed this fort at the entrance of the Khyber Pass. Memories of Dogra Warrior lie in Zorawar Fort Leh. Let us celebrate the common heritage which we, the Dogras & Sikhs, share.