For half a century until 1849, Punjab was an independent nation – the Sikh Empire – in defiance of Delhi and large parts of what is currently India, then controlled by the British. A decade after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, the British crossed the River Sutlej and occupied Lahore and Multan, only after which was their sovereignty complete. The reason for this reversal of fate is a one-liner every Sikh child grows up learning: our armies were great but our leaders betrayed us. Amarpal Singh, a self-trained historian probes this one line and fleshes out two brilliant volumes on the Anglo-Sikh Wars: First (1845–46) and Second (1848–49).

The volumes are a revelation at many levels, but primarily in seeing how they mark the author’s growth as a historian – right from his sense of purpose, content, style, facts and presentation. The volumes are well referenced but not littered with footnotes, easy to read, neutral in tone when it is so easy to fall prey to Sikh rhetoric, and factually objective.

Facts and factors

Volume 1 is slimmer and mostly factual. An account of the five battles of which in the first two – Mudki and Feroze Shah – the Sikh armies seemed to have the advantage. The course of the war turned in the battle of Bhudowal and then Ailwal, to conclude with the British win at Sabraon and the British crossing over the River Sutlej the boundary between the two kingdoms. It is true that leaders like Lal Singh, Ranjodh Singh were reluctant to fight, Gulab Singh stayed away, but a true hero like Sham Singh Attariwala also emerged from the debris of the last battle.

The fast-paced narrative is a detailed blow by blow account of each campaign, military formation, and battle formations. Amarpal Singh’s sources are the British accounts and a lopsided one titled Waqai Jang-i-Sikhan , by Dewan Ajudhia Parshad, a high-ranking gentleman from Lahore. He uses them interestingly to demonstrate the British pretence of upholding the law while furthering their interest. I did wonder though why Amarpal Singh did not use perhaps the best-known requiem on the war, Shah Mohammad’s Jangnamah.

Volume 2 is a huge step forward in terms of facts, diction and storytelling. It breaks the pattern of focussing on the battles. Instead, it starts with the last Lahore durbar and Duleep Singh signing away the kingdom to the British. After which comes a very helpful extensive introduction to the battles and the timeline. The volume is structured in preludes that sketches the various treaties, insurrections, wars, dissolution and description of battlefields. It is replete with conspiracies and intrigues such as the role of Maharani Jind Kaur and Bhai Maharaj Singh in the Prema Plot to murder Henry Lawrence, the first British Resident at Lahore; the ambiguous and shifting loyalties of the courtiers; the court intrigues like the Gulaba plot, the efforts to buy off influential players on both sides. It provides back stories for example of Multan, its siege, and Lord Dalhousie of the Doctrine of Lapse and much more. No wonder the volume is double the size and an absolute pleasure to read.

Travelling history

While the books are a valuable contribution to both military and Sikh lore, what I found fascinating was another aspect: how they can serve as excellent travel guides, especially in the Malwa. A relatively small state geographically, Punjab (India) is so rich and replete with history and legends that it is possible every second village would have multiple stories of heroism and courage. Yet, the abject neglect of this history is galling, whether in state sponsored museums or public markers such as statues, obelisks, commemorative stones or even Gurdwaras.

While statues remain dusty and dirty, obelisks and commemorative stones are devoid of even bare minimum plaques, Gurdwaras are suffused with history of the SGPC variety – exalted pro-Sikh narratives extremely patchy in facts. Amarpal Singh’s work challenges this symbolic celebration with a real, human history of the times. It presents the face of a deeply fractured Sikh society in the time of immense historical change and realignment.

Of late the Punjab government has sought to develop tourism in the state. Manpreet Badal has sought a resurgence of the pre-colonial history. Navjot Sidhu has sought to restore forts and havelis. These volumes are a ready guide, with GPS coordinates, current site details, and other geo-physical markers. It would be lovely if the Punjab government could use them – at least, Volume 1 – which played out east of River Sutlej, in the Malwa region of Punjab.

The books left one lingering question in my mind. It is a question on what has haunted Punjab ever since the wars – for the last 170 years. What explains the Sikh disdain for the Purbis – the eastern armies from Bengal and Bihar – whom the British used to fight their wars in Punjab? More specifically, why did the Sikhs denounce the Purbis and not their masters, the British? Amarpal Singh is working on a book on the 1857 Mutiny and may answer the query there, but I would have liked it answered in these volumes.

These volumes offer an immense sense of déjà vu for someone trying to understand present-day Punjab. All that was happening back then – betrayal by leaders, recklessness of armed forces, lack of direction on the part of the people – is going on until date. History serves its purpose if it teaches us lessons from the past. Sadly, the volumes show me that Punjab has learnt nothing.

That is exactly why we need to read the effort of a Sikh to own our history and let it not be always told from the point of view of the conquerors. It will be a step forward in reclaiming Punjab, past and present. A huge plus would be if the volumes translate into the state’s developing its tourism circuits based on these blueprints.

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on current Punjab.

Disclaimer: Amarpal Singh is a distant relative of the reviewer’s.