Researching Anglo Sikh HistoryDate: Friday, 20 November, 2009
By Priya Atwal
Working as a voluntary researcher for ASHT was a challenging and fascinating task, one that helped me learn a lot about Punjabi history, something that I have always been deeply interested in and am only just gaining the opportunity to investigate. My assignment was to look into the annexation of the Sikh State in the Punjab by the British government in India. There are several ways in which an assignment such as this one can be approached; for example, by looking at the military campaigns of the 1840s during the Anglo-Sikh Wars, or by comparing the state of the Lahore Durbar before and after the death of Ranjit Singh, to look at where the leaders of the Sikh empire seemed to go wrong. My approach was slightly different in that I looked into British foreign and domestic policy concerning the Sikh Empire, from the signing of the 1808 Sutlej Treaty to the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. I was based in the British Library's India Office, with its wealth of documents and resources on the subject, an invaluable experience for a History undergraduate!
While conducting my research, it struck me that it was quite tragic that, despite acknowledging the might of the British army, Ranjit Singh was so unaware of the strategic importance of his empire within British foreign policy calculations. I found that the British were actually quite keen to dismantle his hegemony in the Punjab as early as 1809, because they considered him a thorn in their side, both regarding their ambitions for eventual commercial and territorial expansion into northern India, and also as a potential security risk throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, because of the threat of collusion with Napoleonic France or the later Russo-Persian alliance.
I consulted a wide range of primary and secondary documents, but the most enlightening set of papers that I read was a collection of correspondence dating from 1847 -9. This included the communications conducted by successive Governor-Generals or their secretaries with the Lahore Resident, Sir Frederick Currie and his subordinates, and to the Maharani Jind Kaur and members of the Lahore Durbar. There were also minutes of the Secret Committee contained within these papers. When reading these documents, written by leading British officials in India, it became clear that the internal political turmoil that the Lahore Durbar became embroiled in after the death of Ranjit Singh (1839) was the ideal opportunity the British had been waiting for, to take over the Punjab. It became clear that they considered the Maharani to be a major threat to this plan and so desired to remove her from any position of influence over the young Duleep Singh as quickly as possible. She was subsequently made to leave Lahore and eventually was removed firstly from the Punjab and eventually from India altogether, as is well known. However, although she was labelled a "state prisoner" because she had supposedly been plotting to remove the British from Lahore before she was exiled; an important question that stuck with me was why she was never given a trial or even told the charges against her. As I was reading, it became evident that the British Government actually admitted that they had no concrete evidence with which to prosecute her for any "treasonable" activity committed before she left Lahore, casting a great deal of suspicion on the legitimacy of their actions towards the Maharani. It really makes one wonder how different Anglo-Sikh relations could have been if the Maharani had not been removed from Lahore or even if she had been put on trial and proven to be innocent...
Therefore, despite learning a lot from this experience, I still have a lot of unanswered questions and really feel that in the future, Anglo-Sikh history should be given a lot more of the attention it desperately needs and fully deserves.