DAL KHĀLSĀ is the term used to describe the militia which came into being during the turbulent period of the second half of the eighteenth century and which became a formidable fighting force of the Sikhs in the northwestern part of India. The first Khālsā army formed and led by the creator of the Khālsā, Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (1666-1708), had broken up at the time of the evacuation of Anandpur in December 1705. Another force, at one time 40, 000 strong, raised by Bandā Siṅgh Bahādur (1670-1716) was scattered after the caputre and execution of its leader. The fierce persecution which overtook the Sikhs made the immediate re-formation of a similar force impossible, yet the Sikh warriors in small groups continued to challenge the State's might. Armed with whatever weapons they could lay their hands upon and living off the land, these highly mobile guerilla-bands or jathās remained active during the worst of times. It was not unusual however for the jathās to join together when the situation so demanded. Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū, Prachīn Panth Prakāsh, records an early instance of the warrior bands of the Bārī Doāb (land between the Rivers Beās and Rāvī) being organized into four tummans or squadrons of 200 each, with specified area of operation and provision for mutual assistance in time of need. Moreover, it was customary for most jathās to congregate at Amritsar to celebrate Baisākhī and Dīvālī. Dīvān Darbārā Siṅgh (d. 1734), an elderly Sikh, acted on such occasions as the common leader of the entire congregation.
In 1733, Zakarīyā Khān, the Mughal governor of Lahore, having failed to suppress the Sikhs by force, planned to make terms with them and offered them a jāgīr or fief, the title of Nawāb to their leader and unhindered access to and residence at Amritsar. Kapūr Siṅgh, a senior and dedicated warrior, was accepted by Sikhs as their leader and invested with the title of Nawāb. Sikh soldiers grouped themselves around their leaders most of whom were stationed at Amritsar. In consideration of administrative convenience, Nawāb Kapūr Siṅgh divided the entire body of troops into two camps called Buḍḍhā Dal (the elderly group) and Taruṇā Dal (the younger group), respectively. Taruṇā Dal was further divided into five jathās, each with its own flag and drum. The compact with the government broke down in 1735 and, under pressure of renewed persecution, the Khālsā was again forced to split into smaller groups and seek shelter in hills and forests. Nādir Shāh's invasion in 1739 gave a severe blow to the crumbling Mughal empire, and this gave the Sikhs a chance to consolidate themselves. At their meeting on the occasion of Dīvālī following the death on 1 July 1745 of Zakarīyā Khān, they reorganized themselves into 25 groups of about 100 persons each. The number of jathās multiplied further and by March 1748 there were as many as 65 groups operating independently of each other, although they still acknowledged the pre-eminence of Nawāb Kapūr Siṅgh. By this time a new claimant to power had appeared on the scene. Ahmad Shāh Durrānī had launched his first invasion of India and occupied Lahore on 12 January 1748. On the Baisākhī day, 29 March 1748, when the Sikh jathās gathered at Amritsar, Nawāb Kapūr Siṅgh impressed upon them the need for solidarity. Through a gurmatā or resolution, the entire fighting force of the Khālsā was unified into a single body, called the Dal Khālsā, under the supreme command of Sardār Jassā Siṅgh Āhlūvālīā. The 65 bands were merged into 11 units, misls, each under a prominent leader and having a separate name and banner. The Dal Khālsā was a kind of loose confederacy, without any strict constitution. All amritdhārī Sikhs were considered members of the Dal Khālsā which was mainly a cavalry force. Anyone who was an active horseman and proficient in the use of arms could join any one of the eleven misls, having the option to change membership whenever desired. The misls were subject to the control of the Sarbatt Khālsā, the bi-annual assembly of the Panth at Amritsar. Akāl Takht was the symbol of the unity of the Dal Khālsā which was in a way the Sikh State in the making. The Dal, with its total estimated strength of 70, 000, essentially consisted of cavalry; artillery and infantry elements were almost unknown to it.
The term Dal Khālsā, however, does not appear in any of the contemporary Indian chronicles before Browne. The title first appeared in James Browne's India Tracts published in 1788. He writes, "Since the Sicks [sic] became powerful and confederated for the purpose of conquest, they have called their confederacy Khalsa Gee, or the State, and their grand army Dull Khalsa Gee, or the Army of the State. " Among the Indian writers, Sohan Lāl Sūrī, 'Umdāt-ut-Twārīkh refers to it thus : "They [the Sikh Sardārs] named their conquering armies as the Dal Khālsā Jīo. "
The Dal Khālsā established its authority over most of the Punjab region in a short time. As early as 1749, the Mughal governor of the Punjab solicited its help in the suppression of a rebellion in Multān. In early 1758, the Dal Khālsā, in collaboration with the Marāṭhās, occupied Sirhind and Lahore. Within three months of the Vaḍḍā Ghallūghārā (q. v.) or the Greater Holocaust of 5 February 1762, the Dal Khālsā rose to defeat Ahmad Shāh's governor at Sirhind in April-May 1762 and the Shāh himself at Amritsar in October of the same year. Sirhind and its adjoining territories were occupied permanently in January 1764. The Khālsā thenceforward not only had the Punjab in their virtual possession, but also carried their victories right up to Delhi and beyond the Yamunā into the heart of the Gangetic plain. Although they failed to sustain or consolidate their gains in that direction, they had liberated the Punjab from foreign rule inch by inch and had sealed forever the northwestern route for foreign invaders.
Themselves victims of the worst kind of religious tyranny, the leaders of the Dal Khālsā established a just and humane rule in the Punjab. After the initial period of predatory raids aimed at undermining the authority of the Mughal government, they established, like the chauth of the Marāṭhās, a system of rākhī, lit. protection, to protect the life and property of the people. Rākhī was a levy of a portion, usually one-fifth, of the revenue assessment of a territory as a fee for the guarantee of peace and protection. After the conquest of Sirhind in January 1764 when Sikh sardārs started occupying territory, the misldārī system came into operation. Peace that returned to the Punjab after half a century of turbulence resulted in increased prosperity of the people.
The removal from among its midst by death of the towering personality of Jassā Siṅgh Āhlūvālīā in 1783, virtually meant the end of the Dal Khālsā. Writing prophetically in the same year, a foreign observer, George Forster, A Journey from Bengal to England, records : "The discordant interests which agitate the Sicque [sic] nation, and the constitutional genius of the people, must incapacitate them, during the existence of these causes, from becoming a formidable offensive power. . . . Should any future cause call forth the combined efforts of the Sicques [sic] to maintain the existence of empire and religion, we may see some ambitious chief led on by his genius and success, and, absorbing the power of his associates, display, from the ruins of their commonwealth, the standard of monarchy. . . " The observation became true seventeen years later when Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh occupied Lahore.
Harī Rām Gupta