Banda Singh Bahadar
Every time I enter Delhi Gate – one of the 13 historical Gates of the ancient walled city of Lahore, Punjab – my thoughts are not on the splendid job done to conserve the Shahi Hamam, or even to the dilapidated mosque of Wazir Khan, but the mind’s eye goes back 270 years when the main gateway and beyond were witness to a slaughter of thousands.
If you go through the historical descriptions of the ‘Chhotta Ghallughara’ – the First Holocaust – that took place in Lahore, one is amazed at the sheer scale of barbarity that took place.
But this happening on the 10th of March, 1746 needs to be put in its historical context.
The span between the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and the founding of the Lahore Darbar of Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1799 has a bloody 92 years of history. For purely communal reasons this time period has been ignored, more so because the subcontinent has fragmented with amazing continuity over a 3,000-year cyclic pattern, only to come together from time to time because of some uniting catalyst, mostly in the form of a foreign invader.
The sole reason the entire subcontinent has imploded again and again is because of the way the poor of this huge landmass have been treated by successive rulers. In a way, this process continues even today on both sides of the communal ‘line of hate’ that divides the subcontinent today between the 1947 creations of India and Pakistan.
Divided they rule more easily.
Communal hatred created the Hindu caste system 3,500 years ago in our cities and villages. That wretched way of thinking remains part and parcel of our allegedly “pious” way of life. No one is able today to lump the fact that our historic ‘foreign liberators’ were in fact child slave traders.
Our leaders remain, essentially, traders of our products, our wealth, be it gold, children, women, spices, indigo, cotton, forced labour and cheap soldiers, and now the easily-convertible dollar. This wealth of our land has been taken to faraway places of ‘relative safety’ and ‘ease’.
That is why what happened in March 1746 inside the ancient walled city, in and around the Delhi Gate area needs to be remembered as a communal outrage. In the 92-year time period in the 18th century referred to above, a new religion had aggressively emerged, one that did not believe in castes or idols or superstitions or dogma, but rather rationalised the Almighty within each one of us.
Sikhism, a very simple concept that liberated the poor, had emerged over the course of the 15th to 18th centuries, and it was now being attacked by the rulers, who happened to be foreigners … and Muslims.
After the creation – for a seven-year period, of the first ‘Sikh State’ in the Punjab east of Lahore by the revolutionary Banda Singh Bahadar, the ‘zamindari’ (fiefdom) system was abolished and tillers given their lands.
True freedom had finally been given to the poor tillers of the land!
The Mughals, landowners that they had become, amassed armies from all over the subcontinent to tackle this freedom-loving revolutionary, and finally captured him.
He was brought to Lahore and outside the Delhi Gate he was chained and put in an iron cage, which was then mounted on an elephant. A procession started out, heading for the city of Delhi with 700 Sikh heads impaled on spikes carried by Mughal troops on both sides of the procession.
Once in Delhi, in the fort he was publicly skinned alive, and during the torture, forced to watch the slow death of his five-year old son, after which the latter’s heart and liver were stuffed in Banda Singh’s mouth.
Not a cry from him came forth.
Another Punjabi hero was born.
Before him at the same place outside Delhi Gate, less than two centuries earlier, the great folk hero, Dullah Bhatti, had been skinned alive centuries earlier for daring to challenge the Mughal, Akbar.
The issue then too was unfair taxation of peasants.
[His memory is honoured in Punjab even today during the end-of-winter festival ofLohri.]
Thus, over time, one cruelty followed another.
Banda Singh Bahadar was succeeded not long after by the founder of the second Sikh State, a leader by the name of Nawab Kapur Singh, who made a daring plan to capture the Mughal Governor of Lahore, Nawab Zakarya Khan.
Inside the walled city trickled in a force of 2,000 men, all of whom were in disguise. On that eventful Friday, they all went to pray at the Shahi Mosque. Their spies had informed them that Zakarya Khan always offered his Friday prayers at this huge mosque.
But then, it was a lucky day for Zakarya Khan as he did not visit the mosque.
Kapur Singh threw off his disguise, and brandishing his sword and with the full-throated war-cry of “Sat Sri Akal’, marched out of Lahore and vanished in the jungle beyond Mahmood Buti on the River Ravi.
This incident was one of several others that set the stage for Zakarya Khan and his chief minister, Lakhpat Rai, to launch a campaign to exterminate Sikhs, for as the ‘farmãns’ now tell us they had been declared as ‘kafirs’ and it was declared that it was the Islamic duty to exterminate them.
From the bush country and forests as far away as Kahnuwan, began the wholesale massacre of Sikhs.
Again, a procession in Lahore.
According to the historian S.M. Latif, over 7,000 men, women and children were massacred within a short period and another 3,000 brought in chains to Lahore and parked in the horse market outside Delhi Gate.
The scene outside Delhi Gate has been described by Latif thus:
“Lakhpat Rai separated over 1,000 Sikh men from the 3,000 prisoners. These men were bare-backed, faces blackened, sitting two astride, facing outwards, on donkeys. A huge procession went all the way through the bazaars of Lahore, returning to Delhi Gate.”
Along the way, frenzied mobs threw whatever they could at them. This was orchestrated communal hatred at its worst. When the bloody procession returned to Delhi Gate on that fateful day, all the butchers and the scavengers of the city were engaged to behead them, one at a time.
By late in the evening the entire area around the Delhi Gate and in the horse market outside, was littered with bodies in the thousands.
The women and children of Sikh families were also not spared, with many managing a less painful death by jumping into the ‘Shaheedi Khoo’ – the Well of Martyrs – outside the city, now known as Landa Bazaar.
This holocaust was the catalyst that led the ‘Misls’ (territories ruled by Sikh chieftains) to attack Afghans, ultimately expelling them from Punjab.
The Bhangi Misl took power in Lahore and set up the ‘Second Sikh State’.
But then the Afghans returned, only to be taken on by the Sukerchakia Misl, leading to the establishment of the third Sikh State by Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1799, which quickly became a far-flung empire.
Within 92 years of Aurangzeb’s passing away, power had passed on to the oppressed. Aurangzeb is said to have muttered on his deathbed: “I do not know who I am, why I am here, and what has happened.”
That is why Lahore’s Delhi Gate is not merely about old, decaying and neglected monuments. It is, I believe, more about the people of this neglected city and the way they have been treated by our rulers through history. Pious words mean nothing for communal hatred still rules our minds and ways.
Ironically, 250 years after this very massacre, the Afghans have trickled back into the old city, where they now form a substantial portion of the local population. In most ‘mohallahs’ (neighbourhoods), Pushto has replaced Lahori Punjabi. A lot of the newcomers are now traders, and their workers too are Afghan.
What this holds for the future is worth pondering over in a land where our Punjabi mother tongue is now frowned upon.
Surely an explosive communal mix once again.
The author is doing his PhD on the Ancient History of the Punjab at Cambridge University.
May 16, 2016