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Taming the Afghans, plugging the invasion route: A forgotten contribution to Indian security

These heroes are not only battlefield martyrs but also the commanders whose reputation rests on attaining strategic goals

A painting of General Hari Singh Nalwa seated in full armor adopting a militant stance. Wikimedia commons

October 23, 2016: It is a rare country that remembers all its heroes, let alone recognises their contribution — even war heroes, otherwise lionised for political benefit and as a conveniently vicarious symbol of service and sacrifice.

These heroes are not only battlefield martyrs but also the commanders whose reputation rests on attaining strategic goals. Like this general in early 19th century north India who performed a feat that three of the world’s strongest powers would not be able to replicate in the next century-and-a-half but still is scarcely a known name.

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The Afghans made life difficult for the British for nearly a century since their first ill-advised meddling in Afghan affairs in the end-1830s, for the Soviets in the 1980s and then the Americans since 2001, but have never been totally invincible. Nor has their territory been off-limits to conquerors like Alexander, the Mauryas, Genghis Khan, Timur, Babur and even American adventurer Josiah Harlan, who briefly became King of Ghor. But this list is limited and the last successful name on it is that of Hari Singh Nalwa, the commander-in-chief of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Nalwa (1791-1837) helped expand the Sikh empire with his role in conquering Kasur, Sialkot, Multan and Kashmir but more significantly, taking Attock and crossing the Indus to take Peshawar and areas up to the Khyber Pass which would henceforth be its western boundary (and also of the British Raj and subsequently Pakistan) but also governed some of the most unstable regions before his mysterious and untimely death.

Though he figures in memoirs and traditions of his period as well as histories (there is still a Haripur district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), but given his historical impact, specific works on him are surprisingly limited.

Apart from an Amar Chitra Katha comic in the late 1970s (with its simplifications and biases), three biographies date from British India with even the most recent being almost eight decades old (Amar Singh’s “Chamakda Hira Ya Jiwan Britant Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa”, Anglo-Sanskrit Press, Lahore, 1903; Autar Singh Sandhu’s “General Hari Singh Nalwa”, Cunningham Historical Society, Lahore, 1935, and Prem Singh Hoti’s “Jivan-itihas Sardar Hari Singh-ji Nalua”, Lahore Book Shop, Amritsar (1937, revised reprint, 1950).

An Amar Chitra Katha illustration for the Krishna Comic series. Youtube
An Amar Chitra Katha illustration for the Krishna Comic series. Youtube

There is also Ganda Singh’s “Panjab Dian Waran (Ballads of the Panjab)”, Amritsar, 1946, which includes Ram Dayal’s “Jangnama Sardar Hari Singh”.

Post-Independence works include Ganda Singh’s “Si-harfian Hari Singh Nalwa by Missar Hari Chand ‘Kadiryar'”, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1965, on another ballad, Gulcharan Singh’s article in The Sikh Review’s October 1976 issue, P.S. Kapur’s “Perspectives on Hari Singh Nalwa”, ABS Publications, Jalandhar, 1993, and G.S. Nayyar’s “The Campaigns of General Hari Singh Nalwa”, also by the Punjabi University, 1993.

It was left to a descendant to do him justice and Vanit Nalwa delivers in her “Hari Singh Nalwa — Champion of the Khalsaji”, Manohar, 2009. Nalwa, a Delhi-based psychologist, notes that during an interview about her work in September 2001, she was asked about her surname and as she began to recount the story of her illustrious ancestor, “realised how little I knew about my ancestry”. Two days later came 9/11, soon Afghanistan was in focus, and thus “commenced my search for information on my ancestor who spent a lifetime subduing the Afghans in the first half of the nineteenth century”.

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She found much on him in Gurmukhi, Persian, Urdu, English and even Marathi, as well as in folk ballads, but the information was “fragmentary and scattered”. Organising these into a composite whole, her invaluable book also places his life and exploits in context of his times by beginning with an overview of the Sikh religion, their transmutation into a nation (or rather a nation in arms) and subsequently a kingdom under Ranjit Singh.

But even with celebrated generals, the expansion of his kingdom from his base in Gujranwala was not easy. As we learn, it took four attempts to capture Kasur, seven attempts were made in 16 years to win Multan, a similar period ensued between the first attempt and final taking of Peshawar, while Kashmir was only conquered from its Afghan rulers on the third attempt.

In most of these, Hari Singh Nalwa played a major role but we begin right from his birth to a Khattri family in Gujranwala, how he got his singular surname, entered imperial service and began his tryst with history. Sadly, there is also intrigue and treason but also associated legends like how his name inspired terror among the Pashtuns (women scared rebellious children by warning them he was coming – “Hari raghle”) and how he might have been behind the “Pathan suit”. One shortcoming, however, is the “Aryans came, Muslims invaded and British conquered India” view of history, and thus some lack of full objectivity.

Hari Singh Nalwa (1791-1837), Commander-in-chief of the Khalsa, the army of the Sikh Empire. Wikimedia commons
Hari Singh Nalwa (1791-1837), Commander-in-chief of the Khalsa, the army of the Sikh Empire. Wikimedia commons

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What, however, is needed is to probe (though counter-factual) what could have ensued if Nalwa had been around to guide the Sikh empire, which barely lasted an unstable decade after Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839. Would the British have been successful had the Khalsa remained staunch enemies rather than the loyal mainstay of the Raj’s armies, and what route would have India gone subsequently? We can only wonder. (IANS)

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Peace Visionary and a Man Who Believed in India’s Destiny and was Ready To Fight For It

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee -- one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it -- that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's peace visionary. Image: Flickr

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a man of moderation in a fraternity of jingoistic nationalists; a peace visionary in a region riven by religious animosity; and a man who believed in India’s destiny and was ready to fight for it.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (93), who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a person who tried to end years of hostility with Pakistan and put development on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full five-year term.

Even though he lived the last 13 years of his life in virtual isolation, dogged by debilitating illnesses and bedridden, he has left an enduring legacy for the nation and the region where he was much loved and respected across the political spectrum and national boundaries, including in Pakistan.

Vajpayee, former Indian Prime Minister
Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the tumultuous period he presided over the destiny of the world’s largest democracy, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace with it in the most dramatic fashion.
In the process, his popularity came to match that of Indira Gandhi, a woman he admired for her guts even as he hated her politics.

He also became the best-known national leader after Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru.

After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, L.K. Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.
His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach.

Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.

When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.

Vajpayee had gone into these elections riding a personality cult that projected him as a man who had brought glory to the nation in unprecedented ways. The BJP’s election strategy rested on seeking a renewed mandate over three broad pillars of achievement that the government claimed — political stability in spite of the pulls and pressures of running a multi-party coalition; a “shining” economy that saw a dizzying 10.4 percent growth in the last quarter of the previous year; and peace with Pakistan that changed the way the two countries looked at each other for over 50 years.

The results of the elections could not have come as a greater shock to a man who was hailed for his achievements and who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 influential men of the decade.

Success didn’t come easily to the charismatic politician, who was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, into a family of moderate means. His father was a school teacher and Vajpayee would later recall his early brush with poverty.

He did his Masters in Political Science, studying at the Victoria College in Gwalior and at the DAV College in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he first contested, and lost, elections. He began his professional career as a journalist, working with Rashtradharma, a Hindi monthly, Panchjanya, a Hindi weekly, and two Hindi dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. By then he had firmly embraced the ideals of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
But even as he struggled to win electoral battles, his command over Hindi, the lingua franca of the North Indian masses, his conciliatory politics and his riveting oratory brought him into public limelight.

Also read: For Modi, Road To 2019 Will Be Steeper

His first entry into Parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha election. He was elected to the lower house seven times and to the Rajya Sabha twice.

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975 and put her political opponents in jail. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, dethroning the Congress for the first time, he became the foreign minister.

The lowest point in his career came when he lost the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, that too from his birthplace Gwalior, after Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming majority following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP he led ended up with just two seats in
the 545-member Lok Sabha, in what looked like the end of the road for the right-wing party.

In no time, Vajpayee was replaced and “eclipsed” by his long-time friend L.K. Advani.
Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s and the assorted Hindu nationalist groups’ strident advocacy of Hindutva, an ideology ranged against the idea of secular India.

Often described as the right man in the wrong party, there were also those who belittled him as a moderate “mask” to a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology. Often he found his convictions and value systems at odds with the party, but the bachelor-politician never went against it.

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee — one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it — that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum. It was this trait that made him the Prime Minister when the BJP’s allies concluded they needed a moderate to steer a hardliner, pro-Hindu party.

He brought into governance measures that created for India a distinct international status on the diplomatic and economic fronts. In his third prime ministerial stint, Vajpayee launched a widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative by starting a bus service between New Delhi and Pakistan’s Lahore city.

Its inaugural run in February 1999 carried Vajpayee and was welcomed on the border by his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It was suspended only after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament that nearly led to a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The freeze between the two countries, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the border for nearly a year, was finally cracked in the spring of 2003 when Vajpayee, while in Kashmir, extended a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. That led to the historic summit in January 2004 with then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad — a remarkable U-turn after the failed summit in Agra of 2001. Despite the two men being so far apart in every way, Musharraf developed a strong liking for the Indian leader.

His unfinished task, one that he would probably rue, would be the peace process with Pakistan that he had vowed to pursue to its logical conclusion and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

He was not known as “Atal-Ji”, a name that translates into firmness, for nothing. He could go against the grain of his party if he saw it deviate from its path. When Hindu hardliners celebrated the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, he was full of personal remorse for the apocalyptic action and called it — in a landmark interview to IANS — the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure”. He even despaired that “moderates have no place — who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?”

In his full five-year term, he successively carried forward India’s economic reforms programme with initiatives to improve infrastructure, including flagging off a massive national highway project that has become associated with his vision, went for massive privatisation of unviable state undertakings despite opposition from even within his own party.

While his personal image remained unsullied despite his long innings in the murky politics of this country, his judgment was found wanting when his government was rocked by an arms bribery scandal that sought to expose alleged payoffs to some senior members of his cabinet. His failure to speak up when members of his party and its sister organisations, who are accused of killing more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat, was questioned by the liberal fraternity who wondered aloud about his secular proclamations. He wanted then Chief Minister — now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — to take responsibility for the riots and quit but was prevailed upon by others not to press his decision.

A day before his party lost power, Vajpayee was quoted as saying in a television interview that if and when he stepped down he would like to devote his time to writing and poetry. But fate ruled otherwise. The man who once rued that “I have waited too long to be Prime Minister” found his last days in a world far removed from the adulation and attention — though across the nation people prayed for his well-being — surrounded only by care-givers and close family whom he even failed to recognize. (IANS)