SĪTĀ RĀM KOHLĪ (1889-1962), the first Punjab historian to undertake research in historical documents relating to the Punjab, was born on 28 February 1889 at the ancient town of Bherā, now in Pakistan. He passed his matriculation examination from the local Government High School and went to Government College, Lahore, for his Master's degree in History.
In 1913 the University of the Pañjāb invited the eminent British historian, Ramsay Muir, from England as a visiting professor. He stayed at Lahore from October 1913 to March 1914. His lectures, discussions, and formal addresses created great interest in the study and research of Punjab history. This led to the establishment of Punjab Historical Society to serve as a forum for students and researchers of history, and of a journal for publication of such papers. A scholarship of the value of Rs. 100 per month named Alexandra Research Scholarship was also instituted. As Sītā Rām had shown an early talent for historical research, he was the first scholar to be awarded this scholarship in 1915.
Sītā Rām read closely the huge mass of material of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh's time lying tied up in red cloth bundles in the tomb of Anārkalī at Lahore. It fell to Kohlī's lot to resurrect the dead documents to tell their tale of past glory. These records were in Persian often in the fast running hand, called shikastā. Sītā Rām displayed remarkable perseverance and industry in dealing with more than three lakh folios covering the period of Lahore Darbār from 1811 to 1849 and in preparing a catalogue of these documents giving the name of the department, date and a brief reference to the subject-matter in each case. This was later on published by the Punjab Government in two volumes entitled Catalogue of Khālsā Darbar Records.
In appreciation of his outstanding talent, the Punjab Government gave him appointment as a lecture in History at Government College, Lahore, in the Punjab Educational Service in 1919. He stayed in that College for 14 years. During this period he not only lectured to undergraduate and postgraduate classes, but also retained his connection with the Punjab Government Record Office of which he held the additional charge as the Deputy Keeper of Records. There he spent most of his time after college hours in guiding M.A. students for writing dissertations and monographs which was a compulsory academic requirement in those days.
In 1933, he was transferred to Ludhiāṇā where he was the Vice-Principal under Principal Harvey. There he lived in a portion of the same house as was occupied a hundred years earlier by the ex-rulers of Afghanistan, Shāh Zamān and Shāh Shūjā'. In 1940 Professor Kohlī was appointed Principal at Government College, Hoshiārpur. In 1944 he was transferred to Government College, Rohtak, which then was the only Government College in present-day Haryāṇā. After his retirement from Punjab Government service in 1946, he was offered appointment as Principal, Raṇbīr College, Saṅgrūr, and was given the additional charge as Superintendent, Education Department, Jīnd state, and a little later that of Secretary, Education Department of the state. With the creation of PEPSU in 1948, he ceased to be Secretary, Education, but retained the post of the Principal up to November 1951, when he finally retired and settled at Rohtak in his newly built house named Retreat (Goshā-i-Afiyat). Towards the end of his life he fell victim to the pernicious disease of Asthma, which ultimately carried him off in July 1962.
Among his historical works, the earliest, Catalogue of Khalsa Darbar Records in two volumes is most famous. The first volume was published is 1919. It gives a summary of records of the military department (Daftar-i-Fauj). Based on these records he published a series of articles on the Army of Raṇjīt Siṅgh tracing its origin, growth and organization in the Journal of Indian History, Madrās.
The second volume came out in 1927. It mainly deals with revenue records. The manuscript of Dīwān Amar Nāth's Zafar Nāmāh-i-Raṇjīt Siṅgh was edited by him and published in 1928. In 1932 he published a monograph entitled Trial of Diwan Mul Raj, the Sikh governor of Multān province, held responsible by the British Government for his soldiers' mutiny leading to the second Sikh war in 1848-49. In 1933 Professor Kohlī brought out a short volume on Raṇjīt Siṅgh in Urdu for the Hindustānī Academy, Allāhābād. Its material was drawn from original records, in particular from Sohan Lāl's Diary called 'Umdat ut-Twārīkh. Another original source of Raṇjīt Siṅgh's period was Gurū Khālsā Jī Kā Fatah Nāmah by Ganesh Dās published in Hindi. In 1956 he brought out Shāh Muhammad's kissā in Punjabi on the first Anglo-Sikh war. He prepared a volume entitled The Last Phase, 1839-1849, which was edited and published by Khushwant Siṅgh after the death of the author under the new title, Sunset of the Sikh Empire.
Professor Kohlī's main field of historical research was the history of the Sikh empire, 1799 to 1849. All his writings betray maturity of judgement and balance. He has a simple and forceful style of writing. He possessed a highly analytical mind. He was a pioneer in the field of historical research in the Punjab. Professor Kohlī served on a number of historical organizations such as Indian Historical Records Commission, Indian History Congress and Punjab History Conference. Punjabi University, Paṭiālā, instituted an annual lecture series in his honour.
Professor Sītā Rām Kohlī was a handsome and impressive man to look at. He was married to the daughter of an eminent Professor of Chemistry of Government College, Lahore, Professor Ruchī Rām Sāhnī. He lived well and was fond of good food and good company. He rarely missed his club and was an extremely good host. He drove his own car and maintained a lavish table-spread. He spent his summers at Gulmarg, an attractive hill city. He would inspire his pupils to read more and more and write with exactness and brevity.
Sardār Siṅgh Bhāṭīā