BOOK EXCERPT

The indomitable queen: As the Sikh Empire crumbled, only one woman scared the British

Even in defeat and exile, the rebellious Maharani Jind Kaur refused to play the docile role that the British expected of her.

It is known despite the heavy precautions taken by [Major GH] Macgregor to vet the letters and information being passed to her that either through her servants or by secret communication Jind Kaur was aware of how the war in the Punjab was going. Not only that but she managed to slip out letters to her sympathisers. She also managed to send messages to Chutter Singh and Mulraj during the month of March 1849 at least once. These messages were, unfortunately for her, intercepted.

Two horsemen were seen one day crossing into the Punjab on March 1, 1849. Their eastern Indian features marking them out as different and their movements seen as suspicious, they were pursued. One managed to escape but one was captured and arrested. Papers were found on the man along with two amulets. A letter secreted inside jewellery was a common form of carrying confidential information. The amulets carried a letter each for Mulraj and Chutter Singh. They were dated two months to the date the horseman was captured, around the time it would take a horseman travelling from Benares, so the letters were presumably written early in January, prior to Chillianwala. Frederick Currie had no doubt the letters came from Jind Kaur. He had, he explained, shown them to Mr Bowring, his assistant, who had seen many of the Maharani’s letters she had sent to the previous Residents and knew her writing nuances. Bowring was positive these were genuine.

The letter, a diatribe rather than any discussion of plots and intrigue, allowed Jind Kaur to vent her anger and frustration at the British for her incarceration and encouraged Chutter Singh to humiliate the British prisoners already taken.

“By the grace of the holy Gooroo, written by the Maee Sahib to Chuttur Sing.


I am well and pray for your welfare also. A hundred praises on your bravery. I am unable to bestow sufficient commendation on it; as long as the earth and heavens exist, so long shall people continue to utter your praises. You have settled matters with the British, right well.


They quake and tremble through fear of you and have lost all their ascendancy. They have abandoned eating their food, and their tongues falter. Be confident and firm. The English have no troops, so exert yourself to the utmost.
Give the British, whom you have taken prisoners, one hundred blows each a day; blacken their faces; and placing them on donkeys, parade them through your camp; cut off their noses also; by these means, in a short time, not one of the British will be left in the land. Do not interfere with the Hindostanees, but proclaim, by beat of tom-tom, that all who will enter the Maharajah’s service shall be rewarded.

Collect together 1000 or 2000 able bodied men, and having disguised them as fakeers, send them across [to Calcutta]. Instruct them to watch the British during the day and to kill them at night. The British have no troops in this part of the country, certainly not more than 1000 or 2000 men, and at night are accustomed to sleep with no one near them. Be confident. The British do not molest me at all, being afraid to do so...”

The other letter being addressed to Moolraj was a copy of the above. The intervening time between her writing the letters and the horsemen messengers being captured had seen the fall of Multan and the battles of Chillianwala and Gujrat, bringing an end to the war and making the message redundant. A further letter from her to Shere Singh was also intercepted. In this she informed Shere Singh there was a crore of rupees hidden at Sheikhupura which he could use to pay his troops. This money was shortly confiscated by the British. These intercepted letters, sent to the government on March 19, ten days before annexation ended any little chance of leniency by the British government and in fact provided the excuse for further drastic action against her. The decision was taken to put the Maharani under official incarceration.

The immediate pretext though would be an incident relating to one of her servants who managed to escape the strict guard and disappear. This, it was decided, was a trial run for the Maharani herself to escape British custody and Macgregor immediately sanctioned the transfer of Jind Kaur to the fortress of Chunar, the usual jail for state prisoners, the move taking place on 6 April.

Realising she would probably spend the rest of her days in the prison, and with no expectations of release despite the legal efforts of Newmarch, Jind Kaur looked to other means of escaping British custody. The ladies of the time normally were in purdah (face veils), and thus the Maharani was never asked to show her face on arrival at Chunar and the days after. Occasionally her voice was heard, but in recent days the guards had noticed it had taken on a different tone, attributed by the person under the veil to a cold she had contracted.

In fact Jind Kaur had escaped. One of her servants, known by the name Seenawallee, meaning seamstress, who was allowed in and out of the prison had exchanged clothes (and face veils) and taken her place while the Maharani in her servant’s clothes had walked out of the fortress. The plan had nearly come to grief; one of the guards had initially challenged the “seamstress” and refused to allow her to leave the fortress but had been convinced by her other servants that she had always had the right to enter and exit the fortress to visit her mistress. She was challenged again by the guards on the outer gate but the Havildar had shouted out all was fine. The next day Seenawallee (or what appeared to her but was another servant) appeared again asking for entry to the fort so that the guards’ suspicions were put to rest. As the real seamstress took the place of the Maharani in her cell, Jind Kaur was already well on her way north to Nepal. The charade continued till the 19th, when her servants, confident that her royal mistress had a good start, made public their ruse.

The escape prompted much speculation in the papers. Some, refusing to believe in the servants’ accounts, speculated she had escaped even earlier during the preparation for her removal to Chunar. According to the story written by the Benares Recorder, she had escaped the same afternoon as her arrival on the 6th and that she had very definitely reached Chunar. Others speculated she had escaped several days after being transferred. The matter would prove unresolvable due to the face veils she and her accomplices had always worn. Jind Kaur had coolly left a note in her cell:

“You put me in the cage and locked me up. For all your locks and your sentries, I got out by my magic...I had told you plainly not to push me too hard – but don’t think I ran away, understand well, that I escape by myself unaided...When I quit the Fort of Chunar I threw down two papers on my gaddi and one I threw on the European charpoy now don’t imagine, I got out like a thief.”

Jind Kaur travelled rapidly under the disguise of a pilgrim, crossing 480 km and the border and reaching Kathmandu by the 29th of the same month, where she applied for sanctuary.

Excerpted with permission from The Second Anglo-Sikh War, Amarpal Singh, Harper Collins.

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