SHER SIṄGH, MAHĀRĀJĀ (1807-1843), Sikh sovereign of the Punjab from January 1841 until his death in September 1843, was the son of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh, born on 4 December 1807 to Mahitāb Kaur, the Mahārājā's first wife. Sher Siṅgh grew up into a handsome, broad-chested young man. His soldierly mien made him popular with the army. He loved hunting and hawking, and devoted attention to cultivating European interests and hobbies in the company of foreigners serving at the Sikh court. In 1820, Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh conferred upon him civil and military honours and the privilege of sitting on a chair in the Darbār. Sher Siṅgh took part in many of the campaigns undertaken by the Mahārājā for the expansion of his kingdom. In May 1831, he defeated at Bālākoṭ, in Hazārā district, the turbulent Sayyid Ahmad Barelvī who had started a Jihād against the Sikh rule. From 1831 to 1834 he acted as governor of the province of Kashmīr. He was one of the army commanders who led in 1834 forces in Peshāwar and who finally seized the city from the Afghāns.

         In the political vacuum created by the deaths in November 1840 successively of Mahārājā Khaṛak Siṅgh and his son Kaṅvar Nau Nihāl Siṅgh, Sher Siṅgh staked his claim to the throne of the Punjab. Another major contestant was Rāṇī Chand Kaur, Khaṛak Siṅgh's widow, who sent for Gulāb Siṅgh Ḍogrā from Jammū to counteract the influence of his brother, Rājā Dhiān Siṅgh, who had declared support for Sher Siṅgh. Dhiān Siṅgh suggested several compromises. Chand Kaur could marry Sher Siṅgh or, being childless could adopt Sher Siṅgh's son Partāp Siṅgh as her son. However, Chand Kaur asserted that Nau Nihāl Siṅgh's widow was pregnant and might give birth to a rightful successor. Ultimately an arrangement was arrived at under which Chand Kaur was to act as regent for her expected grandson, while Sher Siṅgh would function as vice-regent and head of the council of regency, and Dhiān Siṅgh as the principal minister. But the triumvirate failed to work in unison. A few days later, two powerful Sandhāṅvālīā Sardārs, Atar Siṅgh and Ajīt Siṅgh, collaterals of the royal contenders for the throne, arrived in Lahore and took over control. On 2 December 1840, Chand Kaur was proclaimed Mahārāṇī of the Punjab, with the title of Malikā Muqaddasā, empress immaculate. The next day Sher Siṅgh left Lahore for his estate in Baṭālā. A month later, Dhiān Siṅgh Ḍogrā too was compelled to quit the capital, and Chand Kaur and the Sandhāṅvālīās gained complete control of the administration.

        Sher Siṅgh still had the support of the army and most of the crack regiments had gone over to his side. The European officers were with him, too. In January 1841, he arrived in Lahore at the head of a considerable force. Chand Kaur appointed Gulāb Siṅgh Ḍogrā as commander-in-chief and charged him with the task of defending the city. She cleared the soldiers' arrears of pay for four months, and lavished presents of gold bangles, necklaces and shawls on the officers. She issued orders to the city's bankers forbidding them to lend money to Sher Siṅgh. But the situation turned decisively in favour of Sher Siṅgh, when regiments stationed outside the city-walls joined him in a body. He finally had with him 26,000 infantry, 8,000 horse, and 45 guns, whereas Chand Kaur was left with only 5,000 men, a few guns and a limited quantity of gunpowder.

        Sher Siṅgh forced his way into the city, and made a proclamation assuring safety of life and property to the citizens and offering pardon to those who would come over to him. The leading courtiers made their submission and forwarded a joint appeal to Chand Kaur and Gulāb Siṅgh Ḍogrā to lay down arms. The Mahārāṇī, however, chose to fight. For two days, Sher Siṅgh's artillery shelled the Fort, but with little effect. On the evening of 17 January 1841, Dhiān Siṅgh Ḍogrā arrived and secured a ceasefire. Chand Kaur was persuaded to accept a jāgīr and relinquish her claim to the throne. At midnight Gulāb Siṅgh and his soldiers evacuated the Fort, taking with them all the State's hoard of gold and jewels. From among the Sandhāṅvālīā supporters of Chand Kaur, Ajīt Siṅgh fled to seek help from Mr Clerk, British political agent in Ludhiāṇā, and, on his refusal to receive him, he proceeded to Calcutta to see the Governor-General. Ajīt Siṅgh's uncle, Atar Siṅgh, also sought asylum in the British territory.

        Sher Siṅgh occupied the fort and ascended the throne on 20 January 1841, though the formal tilak (anointment) ceremony was performed a week later on 27 January by Bābā Bikram Siṅgh Bedī of Ūnā. His son, Kaṅvar Partāp Siṅgh, received a Khill' at as heir apparent and Dhiān Siṅgh Ḍogrā as Wazīr or minister. In the second half of July, Sher Siṅgh married the daughter of the Rājā of Suket. Known in the palace as Rāṇī Dukno, she earned fame as one of the most beautiful women of her time. The match was made on the recommendation of Lahiṇā Siṅgh Majīṭhīā who conducted the preparatory negotiations.

        Sher Siṅgh forbore from taking any reprisals and treated generously even those who had opposed him. Through a proclamation by the beat of drum, he assured the people of Lahore peace and security. The army was warned not to molest the citizens in any manner, and the commanders were cautioned to exercise maximum vigilance to this end. But since the Mahārājā was not able to redeem his promises of rewards to the troops, they went berserk, killing regimental accountants and officers, who they suspected of having embezzled their wages or having dealings with the English, and plundering the city. As the prestige of the Darbār declined, the men of the army arose to have their voice heard in matters of state. The one institution with which they were familiar was the pañchāyat --- the council of elders which regulated the affairs in their villages. The system was imported into the army, and each regiment began to elect its own pañches whose duty was to deliberate on the orders of the commanding officer and then to make their recommendations to the men. This seriously affected discipline in the army.

        The British from across the border might have intervened in the affairs of Mahārājā Sher Siṅgh's administration, but were prevented from doing so by a sudden turn of events in Afghanistan which the British had occupied earlier with the active help of the Sikhs under the Tripartite Treaty of 1838, placing Shāh Shujā' on the throne of Kābul. In a bloody rising in Kābul in the autumn of 1841, Shāh Shujā' was murdered and the British army of occupation annihilated. For the recovery of Afghanistan, Lord Ellenborough, the governor-general, sought (spring 1842) the co-operation of the Sikhs. Reassured that the Sandhāṅvālīā refugees in the British territory would not be allowed to disturb his reign, Sher Siṅgh was persuaded to assist. The purchase of grain and hire of carriage cattle in the Punjab were facilitated, and a division of 5,000 Sikhs helped force the Khaibar Pass. Sher Siṅgh allowed Dost Muhammad Khān, with whom the Sikhs had crossed swords in many a battle and whom the British were escorting to Kābul for installation as the new king. The Lahore Darbār signed a separate treaty with Dost Muhammad Khān as the Amīr of Afghanistan.

        A notable event during Sher Siṅgh's reign was the conquest of the Ladākh valley which was strategically very important and which made the frontier secure against the expanding influence of China. A Sikh expedition under the Ḍogrā general, Zorāwar Siṅgh, marched towards Tibet. Garo and Rudok were occupied and the Lhāsā armies attacked. Although the expedition did not make much headway owing to premature snowfall and difficult and unfamiliar terrain, a treaty of peace was signed on 17 September 1842 between the representative of the Khālsā Darbār and the representative of the Chinese emperor. It was agreed that the traditional boundaries of Ladākh and Tibet would be considered inviolable by both parties and trade, particularly of tea and pashmīnā wool, would, as in the past, pass through Ladākh.

        In March 1842, Mr Clerk of the Ludhiāṇā political agency had led a diplomatic mission to Amritsar to condole with Mahārājā Sher Siṅgh on the death of his predecessor and congratulate him upon his accession. He also took the opportunity of interceding on behalf of the Sandhāṅvālīās, Atar Siṅgh and Ajīt Siṅgh, who had formally sought the Mahārājā's permission for returning to the Punjab. In September 1842 a letter was received from Ajīt Siṅgh announcing "his intention to come to Lahore for presenting himself before the Shāhzādā (Sher Siṅgh)." Sher Siṅgh gave his approval for the return of the fugitives. Bābā Bikram Siṅgh of Ūnā placed them under solemn oaths. On his standing surety for them, Sher Siṅgh pardoned them. Ajīt Siṅgh arrived in Lahore on 17 November 1842, followed by Atar Siṅgh. Amnesty was also extended to Lahiṇā Siṅgh Sandhāṅvālīā and Kehar Siṅgh Sandhāṅvālīā who were released from confinement in the Mukerian Fort.

        Although Sher Siṅgh had shown magnanimity in allowing Atar Siṅgh and Ajīt Siṅgh to return to the Punjab and to resume their accustomed positions at the court, they were not reconciled to him. Their original nominee for the throne of the Punjab, Māī Chand Kaur, whose cause they had persistently espoused even after crossing over to the British territory, was now dead (9 June 1842), yet they continued to nurture a feeling of hostility towards Sher Siṅgh. This culminated in a murderous plot. On 15 September 1843, the Mahārājā rode out of the city early in the morning, that being a saṅkrānt, the first day of the Bikramī month, there was no darbār for him to attend. He alighted near Tej Siṅgh's garden where tents were put up for his son, Kaṅvar Partāp Siṅgh. To fulfil the morning's engagement, he moved on the Shāh Balāval where sitting in the bārādarī or pleasure house, he witnessed wrestling bouts, with Dīwān Dīnā Nāth and Buddh Siṅgh, his armour-bearer, in attendance. After he had dismissed the wrestlers with due charity, the Sandhāṅvālīā Sardārs, who had followed him with 150 horse and 300 foot, requested him to inspect their troops. Totally without suspicion, Sher Siṅgh agreed and came out of the room. After the parade, Ajīt Siṅgh sought his permission to show him a carbine he had obtained from an Englishman in Calcutta. As the Mahārājā who was a great lover of weapons put forth his hands to take hold of the rifle; Ajīt Siṅgh pressed the triggers and emptied the loaded barrels into his chest. "Oh, Sardār, what deception?" was all the Mahārājā could say as he dropped to the ground dead. Ajīt Siṅgh rushed forward and cut off his head with a single blow of the sword. The shots that killed Sher Siṅgh were a signal for the elder Sandhāṅvālīā, Lahiṇā Siṅgh, to pounce upon his 12-years-old son, Partāp Siṅgh, in the nearby Tej Siṅgh garden, and hack off his head.

        Sher Siṅgh was survived by his son Sahdev Siṅgh, born to Rāṇī Dukno in 1843, who, after the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, accompanied the deported king, Duleep Siṅgh to Fatehgaṛh in Uttar Pradesh. Descendants of Sahdev Siṅgh, his son Bāsdev Siṅgh and daughter Harbaṅs Kaur (later married to the Rāṇā of Dhaulpur), lived at Rāe Bareli.


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B. J. Hasrat