ANNEXATION OF THE PUNJAB to British dominions in India in 1849 by Lord Dalhousie, the British governor-general, which finally put an end to the sovereignty of the Sikhs over northwestern India, was the sequel to a chain of events that had followed the death of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh ten years earlier. Internal dissensions and treachery had caused the defeat of the Sikh army at the hands of the British in the first Anglo-Sikh war (1845-46). When on 16 December 1846, the Lahore Darbār was forced to sign the treaty of Bhyrowāl (Bharovāl), the kingdom of the Punjab was made a virtual British protectorate. The Regent was pensioned off; the British assumed the guardianship of the young Mahārājā Duleep Siṅgh during his minority, and a British Resident was appointed to direct and control the entire civil and military administration of the State of Lahore with a council of ministers nominated by himself. For political, financial and military reasons, Lord Hardinge, the then Governor-General of India, had avoided annexation of the territory which was vaguely hinted at but not pressed upon him by Sir Robert Peel's government. The Whig opposition in British Parliament however strongly assailed the decision. Hardinge offered the plea that the arrangement of Bharovāl was in reality annexation, minus the disadvantages the direct acquisition would have entailed.
The Marquis of Dalhousie, the new governor-general, who arrived in India in January 1848 scarcely approved of Hardinge's "annexation without encumbrances. " In April 1848 Dīwān Mūl Rāj's revolt at Multān opened the prospect of a fresh war in the Punjab. On the very day (4 May) Dalhousie received Resident Frederick Currie's report of the incident at Multān, he wrote to the Home government : "I shall feel it my duty as the servant of the Company and Crown to exact national reparation from the State of Lahore. "
The Multān revolt in which two British officers, Vans Agnew and William Anderson, were murdered by Mūl Rāj's troops in their camp at the Īdgāh may, at the most, be described a local mutiny, which could have easily been suppressed by the despatch of a few British regiments. The whole incident was unpremeditated and Mūl Rāj had nothing to do with it. But Lord Hugh Gough, the British commander-in- chief, forbore from any immediate action with a view to letting the trouble spread. Lord Dalhousie accepted Gough's view of the situation, and pointed out to the Home government the advantages of temporary inaction, waiting meanwhile for a full scale invasion of the Punjab.
Meanwhile, in England, no one was convinced that the Multān affair would become a national rising of the Sikhs in the Punjab, and eyebrows were raised at the resolution by Government of India to have "a grand hunt in the cold season. " However nothing was done for full five months to quell the Multān revolt. In August, for the first time, Dalhousie signified to his friends in England that "the fight to annex the Punjab is beyond cavil. " In the interval of British inactivity, a dramatic move made by Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, the Resident's assistant at Bannū, shattered the deliberately created myth of the "invincibility" of Multān. He raised a crowd of Muslim levies and, crossing the Indus, took possession of the trans-Indus dependencies of Multān. On 18 June 1848, he inflicted a crushing defeat on Mūl Rāj's forces at Kinerī. Edwardes' action raised a storm at Fort William. In England, newspapers, which had begun commenting sarcastically at the "degeneration" of Gough's army which could act only in cold weather, hailed Edwardes' victory over Mūl Rāj. Dalhousie dubbed these "loud crowings" in England as "cock-a-hoop. " He sharply reprimanded Frederick Currie for allowing Edwardes to march on Multān, and ordered him to keep his reckless subaltern absolutely and utterly away from Multān.
Edwardes' march on Multān with 14, 500 Pāṭhan and Balūch mercenaries with cries of jihād for the extermination of Sikh infidels had alerted the Sikhs. The Khālsā war cry began to be heard again; priests and prophets proclaimed Mūl Rāj as their leader to restore Sikh supremacy in the land of the five rivers. British troops moved from Ambālā to Fīrozpur and from Meerut to Ambālā the fortress of Gobindgaṛh was taken possession of; "conspiracies" were unearthed and Mahārāṇī Jind Kaur was deported from the Punjab. The governor of Hazārā, Sardār Chatar Siṅgh Aṭārīvālā, was charged with leading a general rising of the Sikh nation against the British.
Lord Dalhousie had meantime prepared the case for the annexation of the Punjab. On 15 August 1848, he outlined his arguments in a private communication to the President of the Board of Control. Since the treaty of Bharovāl, he said, the British had given ample proof of their good faith by maintaining the Sikh Rāj. They had assumed the guardianship of the minor Mahārājā and had preserved the peace of the country by means of a British force, for which the Sikh Darbār had agreed to pay 22, 00, 000 rupees annually. A Council of Regency under the direct control of the British Resident had run their government, and had kept their army in a state of efficiency. On the other hand, the Lahore government, he added, had not given proof of its good faith. British debt had accumulated to 53, 00, 000 rupees, the Darbār had failed to punish the criminal who had murdered two British officers, and signs of a general conspiracy of the Sikhs for the expulsion of the British from the Punjab had become visible. "Even if the proof of a general conspiracy should fail, it is my opinion that, however contrary it may be to our past views and to our future wishes, the annexation of the Punjab is the most advantageous policy for us to pursue. The present policy of moderation has been carried on too far. "
Lord Dalhousie's indictment of the Sikh people, however, surprised British statesmen conversant with Punjab political affairs. Lord John Russell's Cabinet was not much impressed with the vigour and vehemence of the governor-general's arguments. It agreed to putting down the rebellion, but was not willing to hold the minor Mahārājā and the Sikh Darbār responsible for the turn events had taken. Lord Dalhousie was reminded that, since the entire control of the civil and military administration of the Punjab was vested with the Government of India through the British Resident, it could not escape the responsibility. Although the British Cabinet was averse to the governor-general's drastic policy, both India Board and the Secret Committee were not so certain. "I can assure you on the part of the Government, " wrote the President of the Board to the Governor-General, "that if you should feel yourself compelled by the urgency of the case to adopt that, or any other important change, without waiting for the sanction of the Home authorities, the most favourable construction would be put upon your proceedings. " This meant endorsement of the policy of Lord Dalhousie, yet he eschewed henceforth all direct reference to annexation in his despatches to the Secret Committee. In his private despatches to its president however he continued to emphasize that the insurrection in the Punjab was a general uprising of the Sikhs against British power, and that abolition of the Sikh dynasty had become essential to the security of India.
On 29 March 1849 after the second Anglo-Sikh war had ended, Dalhousie took the final step without any authority from the Home Government, declaring that the kingdom of the Punjab had ceased and that all the territories of Mahārājā Duleep Siṅgh had become part of the British dominions in India. The British Resident at Lahore, Sir Henry Lawrence, being strongly opposed to the annexation of the country, Lord Dalhousie selected his Foreign Secretary Henry M. Elliot as his agent for the final transaction. Under instructions from Dalhousie, Elliot saw the members of the Council of Regency privately, in the first instance, and made it clear to them on 28 March "that any reluctance on their part would be a great mistake, that the Mahārājā as well as they themselves would be sufferers from it, that the decision of the Governor-General would in any case be carried out, the only difference being that if they with the Maharaja gave their formal assent, the advantageous position they then held would be guaranteed to them, while if they refused they would lose everything which the British Government chose to resume. " With British troops in complete occupation of the Punjab, the members of the Regency Council had no choice but to sign the document which put an end to the independence of the Punjab. They then realized how the British Government had, throughout the past year, been acting in violation of the treaty of 16 December 1846 which provided for the protection of the Mahārājā and the preservation of the peace of the country during the minority of His Highness the Mahārājā Duleep Siṅgh up to his attaining majority on 4 September 1854. Sir Frederick Currie, the then Resident at Lahore, had proclaimed to the people of the Punjab on 18 November 1848, soon after the arrival of the British commander-in-chief with his army at Lahore, that British army "has entered the Lahore territories, not as an enemy to the constituted government, but to restore order and obedience. " The Lahore Darbār had placed all the available troops and resources at the disposal of the British Resident for the suppression of the Multān rebellion and had been, throughout, under the impression that the British army had been called in "for the preservation of the peace of the country and to restore order and obedience, " in fulfilment of the treaty of Bharovāl, 16 December 1846, and of the proclamation of 18 November 1848. They were completely disillusioned when they discovered that the British force had in fact entered the Punjab as an army of occupation. Early on the morning of 29 March 1849 a Darbār was held in the palace inside the Fort and the Mahārājā was called upon to affix his signature to the document of terms drawn up by the British divesting him of his crown and kingdom. Immediately after the document had been signed, Elliot read out in the darbār the Proclamation issued by Lord Dalhousie to justify his policy and action. It was a most artful statement which, inter alia, said that whereas the British had faithfully kept their word and had scrupulously observed every obligation under the treaties made with the Sikhs, the latter had, on their part, grossly and faithlessly violated the agreements. The claim of Lord Dalhousie and his accusations against the Sikh government were not sustainable factually. There was severe criticism in both India and England of his action. Even the British Resident at Lahore, Sir Henry Lawrence, described the annexation of the Punjab and the deposition of young Mahārājā Duleep Siṅgh as unjust and impolitic. John Sullivan, a member of the Madrās Council, commenting on the whole transaction in his
Are We Bound by Our Treaties? said :
This is perhaps the first instance on record in which a guardian has visited his own misdeeds upon his ward. The British Government was the self constituted guardian of the Rajah [Mahārājā Duleep Siṅgh], and the regent of his kingdom; a rebellion was provoked by the agents of the guardian; it was acknowledged by the guardian to be a rebellion against the government of his ward, and the guardian punished that ward by confiscating his dominions and his diamonds to his use.
B. J. Hasrat