ANGLO-SIKH RELATIONS need to be traced to the transformation of the British East India Company, a commercial organization, into a political power in India. Victory at Plassey (23 June 1757) brought Bengal under the de facto control of the British, and that at Buxar (22 October 1764) made Oudh a British protectorate. By August 1765, the grant of the dīwānī rights to the Company by the Mughal Emperor Shāh 'Ālam made them the virtual rulers of Bengal, Bihār and Oṛissā. Robert Clive (1725-74), the victor of Plassey and governor of Bengal during 1765-67, watched with interest the repeated invasions of India by Ahmad Shāh Durrānī and rejoiced at his final repulse at the hands of the Sikhs in 1766-67. Expressing his happiness over Ahmad Shāh's failure to advance towards the Indian heartland, he wrote to Nawāb Wazīr of Oudh on 19 February 1767, ". . . extremely glad to know that the Shāh's progress has been impeded by the Sikhs. . . As long as he does not defeat the Sikhs or come to terms with them, he cannot penetrate into India. And neither of these events seems probable since the Sikhs have adopted such effective tactics, and since they hate the Shāh on account of his destruction of the Chak [Gurū Chakk, i. e. Amritsar]. " At the same time, in another despatch to Shāh Walī Khān, Ahmad Shāh's prime minister, Clive offered congratulations on the Shāh's victory over the Sikhs for whom he uses such epithets as "perfidious" and "tyrannous. "
Since the fall of Sirhind to them in January 1764, the Sikhs had extended their area of operations to Gaṅgā-Yamunā Doāb and Ruhīlkhaṇḍ bordering on the territories of the Nawāb of Oudh. Jhaṇḍā Siṅgh Bhaṅgī (d. 1775), a powerful Sikh sardār, in a letter dated 19 August 1771 addressed to General Robert Barker (1729-89) sought friendly relations with the British. Warren Hastings (1732-1818), governor of Bengal since 1772 and made governor-general in 1773, was however deeply perturbed at the increasing power of the Sikhs. He wanted to know all about them. At his request Major Antoine Louis Henri Polier (1741-95), a Swiss Engineer in the company's military service but then employed by Emperor Shāh 'Ālam II, submitted to him, in 1776, a detailed account of the Sikhs. This paper was never published, but it was quoted by George Forster (d. 1792), a civil servant of the company who under Warren Hastings' order journeyed through the Punjab, Kashmīr and Afghanistan disguised as a Turkish traveller and wrote A Journey from Bengal to England, published in 1798. Two articles on Sikh history by Polier also appeared in the Asiatic Annual Register for 1800 and 1802.
Meanwhile, the Sikhs audaciously continued their raids into the Doāb and Ruhīlkhaṇḍ. The latter territory had been conquered by the Nawāb of Oudh with British help in 1774, and thus formed part of the British protectorate. In December 1778, the entry of the Sikhs into Ruhīlkhaṇḍ was resisted by British troops who, by their superior discipline and training as well as by their artillery, were able to force the Sikhs to retire. In January 1783, Sardār Beghel Siṅgh (d. 1802), at the head of a large force, approached Anūpshahr on the western bank of the Gaṅgā and was contemplating to cross the river into Ruhīlkhṇḍ when the force of the Nawāb of Oudh appeared on the opposite bank. Some British battalions also arrived on the scene. The Sikhs retreated, changed direction and plundered, during February 1783, the southern districts of the Doāb up to Shikohābād and Farrukhābād, pillaging Āgrā on their way back. In the following month they raided the northern parts of Delhi itself. Warren Hastings directed Major James Browne, the British Agent at the Mughal court, to organize a confederacy against the Sikhs consisting of the Emperor Shāh 'Ālam, the Marāṭhās, the Ruhīlās and the Nawāb of Oudh, and also to collect more information about the Sikhs. Browne's attempt to form a confederacy failed but he did get in touch with several Sikh sardārs including Baghel Siṅgh's vakīl, Lakhpat Rāi, and compiled an account under the title History of the Origin and Progress of the Sicks [sic] for the information of the governor-general. It was later published, in 1788, in the Indian Tracts series.
In response to Browne's overtures leading Sikh sardārs expressed their willingness to form a friendly alliance with the British, but the latter were too apprehensive of their power. In January 1784, a body of 30, 000 Sikh horse and foot crossed the Yamunā. The British government was alarmed and strengthened their garrisons at Bareilly and Fatehgaṛh. James Browne informed Warren Hastings about the threatening attitude of the Sikhs, but said that Karam Siṅgh, the leader of the expedition, had, out of regard for British friendship, persuaded the other Sikh sardārs not to cross the Gaṅgā into the territories of the Nawāb of Oudh, an ally of the English. Warren Hastings prepared, in December 1784, his own plan to checkmate the Sikh influence at Delhi. According to it Jahāṅdār Shāh, the rebel son of the Emperor Shāh 'Ālam, was to be instigated to organize opposition to the Sikhs at the imperial court while the Emperor was to receive military help from the British and the Nawāb of Oudh. This plan, however, also failed partly because Māhādjī Scindīā, the Marāṭhā chief, would not allow a passage to British troops to reach Delhi through his trans-Yamunā territory. On 30 March 1785, Ambājī Iṅgle, one of Scindīā's generals, made a provisional treaty of peace and friendship with the Sikhs. But during April 1785, Sikhs' emissaries waited upon British commanders at Farrukhābād and Lucknow offering to form an alliance with them against the Marāṭhās. Nothing came out of either set of parleys.
Warren Hastings left India on 1 February 1785. John Macpherson, the acting governor-general, deputed on 19 June 1786 George Forster, who had already travelled through the Sikh territories, to establish contacts with the Sikhs and collect intelligence about their future designs. The new governor-general, Lord Cornwallis (September 1786 to October 1793), favoured a policy of caution and persuasion in dealing with the Sikhs and instructed the British Resident at Lucknow to please the Sikh vakīl or agent posted there. At the same time he cautioned the Nawāb of Oudh to ensure stricter vigilance at Anūpshahr and Dārānagar ferries and assured him of British reinforcements as and when needed.
In December 1790, a Sikh band of 300 men attacked Longcroft, an Englishman in indigo business, at village Jalaulī in 'Alīgaṛh district, but retired as their leader was killed by the villagers. Soon after, Bhaṅgā Siṅgh of Thānesar assuming the leadership advanced on Anūpshahr where he collected rākhī and captured, on 3 January 1791, the local British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Stuart, whom he brought to Thānesar and demanded 2, 00, 000 rupees as ransom for his release. Many Englishmen offered to collect this amount but Lord Cornwallis did not agree. Ultimately a sum of Rs 60, 000 was paid through Begam Samrū and the Colonel was set free on 24 October 1791.
With their conquest of Delhi on 11 September 1803, the British had established their supremacy in the region. Meanwhile, Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh had emerged as the ruler of the Sikhs, overpowering the misl chiefs. The Sikh raids into the Doāb and the region north of Delhi came to an end. The cis-Sutlej Sikh chiefs accepted the suzerainty of the British who now entered into direct relationship with the Sikh monarch, Raṇjīt Siṅgh.
Harī Rām Gupta