Sat Parkash Suri
Gulab Singh’s meteoric rise to prominence in the Sikh Durbar is marked by numerous salient features. Firstly, he was assiduous, handsome and robust-the qualities which earned him the admiration of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Secondly, he possessed a character which could both charm and retaliate. Although, generally soft spoken, gracious and affable, he could if the occasion demanded would transform himself into a cold-blooded schemer or a savage tormentor. It may be argued that he ought to be judged by the ethical standards of his time. Thirdly for his phenomenal rise to power, Raja Gulab Singh received the solid backing of his younger brother, Raja Dhian Singh who through his administrative qualities and political acumen acquired remarkable strength and patronage at Lahore Durbar. Finally, the Jammu Chief, Gulab Singh and his brothers were lavishly rewarded by the Sikh emperor for their loyalty and unstinted selfless services. The Sikh ruler’s fatherly infatuation for Dhain Singh’s son, Hira Singh further elevated the Dogra brother’s fortunes. But such flagrant favouritism weakened the position of the Sikh ruler’s legal heirs.
Jammu and Kashmir State, the crown of India as it stood on the map of India on 15 August 1947, the day the Indian Sub-Continent was partitioned into two dominions, was founded by Maharaja Gulab Singh by virtue of the Amritsar Treaty concluded on 16 March 1846 between the representatives of the Governor General Lord Hardinge and Gulab Singh in person. By his ceaseless and untiring efforts, political manipulations and shrewd strategies, Gulab Singh was able to carve out an independent and composite state of his own which produced four rulers including himself, Maharaja Ranbir Singh, Maharaja Pratap Singh and Maharaja Hari Singh who contributed tremendously for its stability, consolidation and above all purged the administration of all corrupt practices and modernized it with innovative measures and the flagship projects and schemes. The successive rulers of Dogra Dynasty of the Jammu and Kashmir State including the Maharaja Gulab Singh remained plagued by the British displomatic squabblings and contrivances which the British employed from time to time on one or another pretext to malign the rulers and did not let the rulers to implement the pro-people policies for the betterment of their subjects.
The all regions of the composite state namely Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and Balwaristan which Gulab Singh integrated together with a single political entity in view of the diversity of population and distinct cultures, had nearer been united earlier by anyone in the past.
It was to the great credit of Maharaja Gulab Singh that at fifty-four, he became the sovereign ruler of a vast state and retained complete control over it which was ethnically, culturally, linguistically and geographically different from one region to another. Gulab Singh’s cherished dream of becoming the independent ruler of a vast state was realized as predicted by his mentor Baba Prem Das of village Sui Simbly situated in the vicinity of Kanachak in Jammu. After assuming the reins of the state, Gulab Singh built a Ram Temple in his memory at Sui which till now stands there. Gulab Singh was fully aware of the British manoeuvres being made to annex Kashmir but he adopted several measures in his internal administration to prevent such an unpleasant eventuality.He took additional steps to keep the British Government in good humour and periodically despatched expensive gifts to queen Victoria. Gulab Singh kept a close tap on the Anglo-Iranian Conflict over Herat which flared up in 1856 and as soon as the news of the Iranian retreat reached Kashmir, Gulab Singh sent his felicitations to the British Government.
The marked improvement in Anglo-Dogra relations which took place between 1849 and 1857 must be attributed to the changed attitude of Lord Dalhousie towards Gulab Singh at their meeting in Wazirabad. Had Lord Dalhousie wished, he had the required military strength necessary to occupy the Dogra State but he chose otherwise and rebuffed Charles Napier who had asked Lord Dalhousie to invade Kashmir State. Gulab Singh was aware, of the increased danger to his Kingdom from the British in the wake of Punjab’s occupation.
The Afghan annexation of Kashmir during the 18th Century had reduced the socio-economic conditions of the Kashmiris to a deplorable plight. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh defeated the Afghans in 1819, he did little to uplift their miseries and eventually their lot worsened under the Sikh Rule. While visiting Kashmir in 1824, Moorcraft observed that more than one-sixteenth of the cultivable land was lying barren because the agricultural community was unable to tolerate the exorbitant tax rate levied by the Government. Moorcraft noted that butchers, bakers, boatmen, fuel vendors, public notaries and even prostitutes paid a corporation tax. The Kashmiris hated Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din only a few months after he was appointed the Governor of Kashmir in 1841. They petitioned to Maharaja Sher Singh to remove him contending that if Sheikh Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din remained incharge of Kashmir, it would certainly be ruined.
After assuming the rulership of Jammu and Kashmir, the affairs of the administration required the calibre of Gulab Singh’s statesman qualities to set them in proper shape which had been neglected by the Sikh Governors. He provided a relief to Kashmiris who were passing through a most turbulent phase in their own land.
The training and efficiency of his forces was always uppermost in his mind and he devoted his attention to those matters after he had firmly settled down on the throne of Jammu and Kashmir State. foundries and arsenals were established in the state and a code of military instructions were coined. The military efficiency of his forces was recognized when the difficult expedition undertaken by his esteemed General Zorawar Singh to annex Ladakh and Baltistan, had stood the test of time more than once.
The all powerful ageing Raja Dashrath who had subdued all the four corners of India, decided during his life time to abdicate the Rajgaddi and to apply the royal saffron paste on the forehead of his elder son Lord Rama in order to hand over the reins of Ayodhya. Similarly, Maharaja Gulab Singh like Raja Dashrath and Emperor Ashoka installed his only surviving son Raja Ranbir Singh on the throne of Jammu and Kashmir State on 20 February 1856, because Gulab Singh’s health had deteriorated due to dropsy he was suffering from. Gulab Singh’s friendly and diplomatic relations with the British weighed in his favour and at twenty-six Raja Ranbir Singh with sufficient experience in State craft and rigorous training under his father’s turbulent years assumed the onerous responsibility of a ruler of the longest princely state of Jammu and Kashmir on 20 February, 1856.
Gulab Singh was one of that great grand personalities that India produced during the 19th Century and his successful career of military campaigns to expand Sikh emperor’s territories invokes admiration. It was definitely his diplomacy combined with his sharp wit and remarkable level headedness that helped him to survive in the very bloody and turbulent times in which he lived. Gulab Singh was the first person to perceive that anarchy and turmoil that engulfed Lahore Darbar, the extension of the company rule across the Sutlej was inevitable and according to his calculations, his future could only be ensured by collaborating with the British authorities. Gulab Singh succeeded establishing peace and settled government in an area which had never known it from the beginning of the history. Jammu comprised of numerous petty principalities, each ruled by a Raja, he united all these under a single government, was a brilliant accomplishment of Gulab Singh.
Gulab Singh was no saint and where his interest clashed, he would not hesitate to resort to shrewd stratagem which would in ordinary life be considered deceitful because he was trained in a hard school where intrigue and treachery were all considered an ingredient of politics. He was willing to yield with grace where there was no other option open to negotiate when that suited his interest and even to part with money when that would serve his purpose.
Gulab Singh’s justice was prompt and simple but it was expeditious and on the spot. He made a whirlwind tour of the state and cleaned the corrupt and despot officials from the administration. His summary method in dealing with them made him a terror to the tribe of petty functionaries who indulged in malpractices.
Gulab Singh was one of the most remarkable men that India produced in the 18th Century. There were others in the 18th Century such as Haidar Ali and Maharaja Scindia who began their life in obscurity, founded kingdoms and dynasties. But Gulab Singh’s case was entirely different where a man started his career as a petty official in Lahore Durbar, conquered Kingdoms and territories and established himself as a sovereign ruler of a composite state of Jammu and Kashmir. In a century devoid of historical achievements in India, Gulab Singh stands out as the solitary figure of political eminence. No previous Indian ruler not even Samadra Gupta or Akbar had ever dreamed of invading Tibet.
Tribute to Maharaja Gulab Singh
Sat Parkash Suri