The year was 1796. Punjab was fragmented among the 12 sovereign clans of the Sikh Confederacy called misl and two Pathan fiefdoms. Across the Indus on Punjab’s western border, Shah Zaman was threatening to invade again. After acquiring the Afghan throne, he had vowed to regain the lost empire of his grandfather, Ahmad Shah Abdali. In two previous incursions into the region, Zaman had captured several cities from the Sikh chieftains without much resistance, only to lose them as soon as he returned to Kabul, his capital. These cities were far in the west, though. This time, Zaman was threatening to march deep into Punjab, and possibly onto Delhi.
The majority of the Sikh chieftains who assembled to assess the lurking threat were of the opinion that they should abandon their people and flee to the mountains, to return when the Afghan tide receded. Observing the situation from the east, the British felt that Punjab was too divided to be able to ward off the Afghan army.
One Sikh chieftain disagreed. Sada Kaur had become the leader of the Kanahaya misl after her husband, Gurbaksh Singh, died fighting the rival Sukerchakia misl, headed by Maha Singh. Since Gurbaksh Singh was the clan’s only male heir, his father thought it best to wed his son’s daughter, Mehtab Kaur, to his killer’s son, a boy named Ranjit Singh. The marriage served to unite the two most powerful misl. After Maha Singh’s death, Ranjit Singh became the head of the Sukerchakia misl. He was all of 10 years.
Sada Kaur, with help from Ranjit Singh’s uncle Dal Singh, soon started exerting considerable influence over her young son-in-law. In time, her guidance played a pivotal role in transforming Ranjit Singh from the chief of a fiefdom to the Maharaja of Punjab.
So when, at the meeting of the chieftains, she argued for confronting Zaman, she was supported by her son-in-law. Inspired by their courage, the other chiefs decided to stand and fight. They mustered a combined force and made Ranjit Singh its leader. The force promptly launched raids to harass the Afghan army. Zaman was soon forced to return to Kabul as his brother attempted to usurp his throne. He was to return a year later.
Again, the Sikh chiefs felt it was prudent to take refuge in the mountains. But Sada Kaur, supported by her son-in-law, insisted that she would fight and not run away. Again, her resolve swayed the chiefs and they assembled a force and appointed Ranjit Singh its commander. The force’s guerrilla war denied Zaman a victory until his brother’s renewed attempt on the throne forced him to withdraw. Ranjit Singh’s reputation soared.
Making of an empire
The young chieftain now nursed a new dream: to create a pan-Punjab empire. However, the unity among the Sikh misls created by Zaman’s invasion was history. So, he went to his chief patron, his mother-in-law. He combined her forces with his own and marched triumphantly into Lahore, which was to become the capital of his empire, with Sada Kaur by his side. She was with him also when he took Amritsar from the Bhangi misl a few years later, and supported him fully when he declared himself the Maharaja of Punjab.
During the complicated negotiations with the British that resulted in the Treaty of Amritsar in 1809, Sada Kaur, going against popular opinion, suggested making peace with the colonial power, advice that Ranjit Singh eventually heeded. While the treaty severely limited Ranjit Singh’s ability to expand his empire, it also ensured its longevity. It is likely that the fate of the Khalsa empire would have been similar to that of the Marathas had they engaged in an open conflict with the British.
Perhaps, the talented Ranjit Singh would have established the Punjab empire without Sada Kaur’s support, but it cannot be denied that her military support and tactical advice expedited the process. At the age of 18, Ranjit Singh conquered Lahore. At 20, he was anointed the Maharaja of Punjab.
The marriage of convenience did not last long, however. Ironically, what eventually ended it was another marriage. While Ranjit Singh was close to his mother-in-law, his relationship with his wife, Mehtab Kaur, was far from perfect. In 1798, two years after his first marriage, he had married Raj Kaur, the sister of the chief of the Nakkai misl. It was Raj Kaur and not Mehtab who bore Ranjit his first son and, thus, successor to the throne, Kharrak Singh. Mehtab Kaur did eventually bear Ranjit Singh sons, one of whom, Sher Singh, briefly became the Maharaja after the death of Kharrak Singh and his son Nau Nihal Singh.
Ranjit Singh’s relationship with Sada Kaur eventually soured when she began to complain that the Maharaja was bestowing all his wealth on his eldest son and leaving nothing to her grandchildren. Agitated by her constant protests, Ranjit Singh took away her property and gave it to Sher Singh. Sada Kaur, knowing there was no turning back, decided to make a run to the British territory, to garner their support against her former ally, but she was caught and thrown in prison, where she remained until her death in 1832. Ranjit Singh died seven years later, on June 27, 1839. His empire soon disintegrated.
Haroon Khalid is the author of 3 books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.