Ahmad Khan Kharral made preparations for his afternoon prayers (zuhr). He was surrounded by his supporters, who had taken up arms against the British colonial state in Punjab, inspired by their compatriots in northern India. Having united under his leadership the various tribes and clans of southern Punjab, Kharral had emerged as de facto leader of the insurrection.

Since the start of the rebellion in May 1857, as the fire of revolt spread across North India, various leaders of the movement wrote to sepoys and aristocrats in Punjab, urging them to raise arms against the British state. Only a few years ago, Punjab had fought a ferocious battle with the colonial state, remembered as the Second Anglo-Sikh War, and had done much damage to the colonial apparatus. After the war, with the annexation of Punjab in 1849, powerful Sikh aristocrats who were once members of the Lahore Durbar had been stripped of not just their political powers but also their economic resources, with their lands taken away by the new state. The proud Sikh soldiers with their modern weaponry, who had given the British Army a tough battle in two Anglo-Sikh Wars in the 1840s, had now been reduced to poverty after they had been discharged from service.

There were, therefore, powerful elements within Punjabi society who would have readily thrown their weight behind the rebel soldiers and fought against a common colonial enemy. After the capture of Delhi, the fall of Lahore would have been too powerful a blow to the prestige of the British empire. With Punjab up in arms against the British, and North India already seething, the British would have found it impossible to retain their hold over India.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, Nana Sahib and Azeemullah Khan, all of whom had emerged as prominent symbols of the rebellion, wrote to various regiments, members of the disempowered aristocrats and rajas of independent kingdoms in Punjab seeking their support for their cause. There were some successes, when an infantry stationed at Ferozepur rebelled and joined the soldiers in Delhi. Three native regiments in Jullundur too rebelled and headed to Delhi, while there were further acts of defiance in Sialkot, Jhelum and Rawalpindi. However, overall, the fire of rebellion did not burn Punjab, as the rebel soldiers had hoped.

British intervention in Punjab

There were a number of reasons why Punjab did not join the rebellion en masse. Primarily, the British colonial officers stationed in Punjab acted swiftly. Just as news of the rebellion reached officers in Lahore, the indigenous regiments across the province were disarmed. All posts coming in from North India for these soldiers were monitored, which meant that a lot of the letters written by the leaders of the rebellion fell in the hands of the British. Secondly, aware of the disgruntled aristocrats and soldiers, the colonial officers were quick to employ them on their side, promising them a chance to redeem their fortunes.

Thus, soldiers and aristocrats who could have posed a threat to the stability of the British state in Punjab, after this change of British policy became saviours of the colonial state. Recognising this pivotal role of Punjab during the war of 1857, Governor-General Lord Canning remarked that Punjab, from being a weakness, had become a source of strength for the British empire.

Ahmad Khan Kharral's tomb in Jhamra town. (Credit: YouTube)

Kharral’s rebellion, and capture

In these disheartening conditions, the short-lived rebellion of Ahmad Khan Kharral was the only major rebellion of any sort against the British state in Punjab. While most of the emissaries coming from Delhi were intercepted, it seems some managed to reach Kharral at the end of May. The leader of the Kharral clan – settled in an area that was later called Montgomery by the British, in honour of Robert Montgomery, one of the brains behind the colonial state’s policy in Punjab during the 1857 war – Ahmad Khan Kharral was not only able to unite his people but also bring together other prominent clans of the region, including the Wattoos, Joyas, Fatianas and Sials.

Even before an armed rebellion against the British state had begun, the newly appointed extra assistant commissioner of the district, Berkley, had preemptively jailed several members of the Kharral and other clans in a town called Gugera, on the eastern banks of the river Ravi, just north of the city of Sahiwal (formerly called Montgomery). Leading the charge, Kharral and his supporters attacked the police station and freed all sympathisers of the cause. The ensuing battle resulted in the death of about 400 police officials.

The British took Kharral’s family members into custody, pressuring him to present himself to the police. Kharral was arrested but had to be released soon after because of intense pressure from protestors. However, before his release, he was instructed to stay away from Gugera. Crossing the Ravi along with his band, Kharral now planned to rile up villagers on the other side of the river. Plans were drafted and it was decided that all police stations of Sahiwal district would be attacked simultaneously.

However, before the plan could be implemented, his position and strategy were disclosed to the police officers by two of his allies – Sardar Sarfraz Kharral and Sardar Nehan Singh Bedi. On September 21, after some ferocious battles, Berkley spotted Kharral, offering his afternoon prayers while in hiding with his forces. A bullet was shot and Kharral was killed. As a trophy, his decapitated head was taken to the Gugera police station. It was rumoured that the British would take the head to London where it was to be displayed.

The legend lives on

The date, according to the Islamic calendar, was the 10th of Muharram, when the grandson of the Prophet of Islam, Imam Hussain, was executed by the forces of Yazid. For decades to come, folk singers and poets would conjure up the pains of the 10th Muharram to describe the assassination of Kharral. For three consecutive nights after his killing, a sentry at the Gugera jail dreamt of the slain leader. He finally removed the head and buried it near the town of Jhamra.

For decades after his assassination, songs of his bravery were sung by bards, while the state continued to honour the British officials who had helped put down the rebellion. After the creation of Pakistan, the grandson of the fallen hero planned a mausoleum, over his headless grave. During the construction, a shovel hit a pitcher, which was later discovered to contain the head of Kharral. Tales abound about how the face of the folk hero was intact. The head was placed in a box and interred next to his grave.

The insurrection that Ahmad Khan Kharral had started continued for a few months after his death. His assassination was avenged by Murad Fatiana as Berkley, the person responsible for his death, was killed. However, the short-lived war, the only major story of rebellion from Punjab in 1857, too died not too long after its leader.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail