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Vadda Ghallughara estimates of 20,000 to 50,000 deaths

Last Sunday marked the anniversary of the second Ghallughara called the Vadda (major) Ghallughara (Holocaust), which occurred on 5th February 1762 at a place named Kup Rahira, located approximately 12 Km north of Malerkotla in the Punjab state of India.

On receiving information from his informer Akal Das of Jandiala Ahmad Shah Durrani (also known as Ahmad Shah Abdali) during his sixth invasion of India came to attack and destroy Sikhi down to its roots. Ahmed Shah Durani reached Lahore on 3rd February 1762 with a large army, huge armaments and artillery. Recognising the danger, Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Sardar Charat Singh Sukarchakiya, the Sikh Chiefs, left Lahore and proceeded towards Malwa and after crossing the River Satluj. Singhs were 40,000 in number with an additional 10,000 women, children and elderly folk by that time. The Singhs wanted to move the women and children to Bikaner for safety. Ahmed Shah instructed Zain Khan his Subahdar (Governor) of Sirhand to keep the Singhs engaged till his arrival. They intended to kill them altogether the next day, with Bhikhan Khan of Malerkotla also joining Zain Khan.

The reason for Ahmad Shah’s hatred

As Ahmad Shah was returning home after his historic victory over the Marathas in the third battle of Panipat in 1761, the Sikhs had harassed him all the way from the River Sutlej right up to the Indus Valley. When the Sikhs returned to central Punjab, they ravaged the country all around, annihilated the Afghan force in Char Mahal, drove away the Faujdar (General) of Jalandhar, plundered Sirhind and Malerkotia, defeated a force which was 12,000 strong, sent by Ahmad Shah from Afghanistan to punish them and another led personally by the Afghan governor of Lahore, and even captured Lahore, all within a short period, June-September 1761.

At a general assembly (Sarbat Khalsa) of the Dal at Amritsar convened on the occasion of Bandi Chhor Divas, 27 October 1761, it was resolved to punish the agents, informers and collaborators of the Afghans, beginning with Aqil Das of Jandiala, head of the heretical Niranjania sect and an inveterate enemy of the Sikhs.

Aqil Das dispatched messengers hastily to Ahmad Shah Durrani, who had in fact already entered India at the head of a large army. Meanwhile, the Sikhs had besieged Jandiala, 18km east of Amritsar. Aqil Das’s messengers met the Shah at Rohtas. The latter advanced at a quick pace but before he reached Jandiala, the Sikhs had lifted the siege and retired beyond the River Sutlej with the object of sending their families to the safety of the wastelands of Malwa before confronting the invader.

Shah determined to punish Sikhs

Ahmad Shah, on the other hand, determined to teach the Sikhs a lesson, sent messages to Zain Khan, Faujdar (General) of Sirhind, and Bhikhan Khan, Chief of Malerkotia, directing them immediately to check and halt the Sikhs’ advance, while he himself taking a light cavalry force set out at once, covering a distance of 200 km including two river crossings in fewer than 48 hours, caught up with the Sikhs who were encamped at Kup Rahira, 12km north of Malerkotia, at dawn on the 5th of February 1762.

The Dal Khalsa, comprising all of the 11 Misls and representatives of the Sikh Chiefs of Malwa, was taken by surprise. The attacks of Zain Khan and Bhikhan Khan were easily repulsed, but the main body of Ahmad Shah, much larger and better equipped, soon overtook them. Having to protect the slow moving baggage train comprising of belongings, women, children, old men and other noncombatants, the Sikhs could not resort to their usual hit and run tactics, and a stationary battle against such superior numbers was inadvisable.

On the day of the attack (February 5th ,1762) Zain Khan attacked with his 20,000 men and artillery. Ahmad Shah also joined the attack with 30,000 horsemen. Sardar Jassa Singh and Sardar Charat Singh ordered the Khalsa Army to encircle the women, children and elders and keep proceeding towards Barnala as a war strategy. The Khalsa Army’s only aim was to save the Sangat somehow and fight with enemy to inflict maximum losses on their end. In this process the Khalsa Army suffered heavy casualties.

Many Sikhs killed

Nearly 25,000 to 30,000 of Singhs lost their lives. Sardar Jassa Singh was inflicted with 22 wounds and Sardar Charat Singh with 19. Every one of Sikh warriors had been wounded in this fight. Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha writes that the Damdama Sahib Wali Bir of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji could not be saved in the battle. But the Khalsa Army never lost morale, even after such a massacre in which more than 70 percent of them lost their lives. They reorganised themselves very soon and during July 1762 were once again able to surround and besiege Lahore.

Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, the commander-in-chief of the Dal, therefore, turning down a suggestion by Sardar Charhat Singh Sukkarchakkia to form a solid square of four Misls to face the enemy with two Misls each protecting either flank of the baggage train and balance in reserve, decided that all the Misls combining to form a single force should make a cordon round the baggage train and start moving towards Barnala, 40km to the southwest, with the agents of the Malwa chiefs acting as guides.

Thus “Fighting while moving and moving while fighting,” says Ratan Singh Bhangu, Pracham Panth Prakash, on the authority of his father and an uncle who had taken part in this battle, “they kept the Vahir marching, covering it as a hen covers its chickens under its wings.” On several occasions, the Shah’s troops broke the cordon and butchered the helpless noncombatants, but every time the Sikh warriors reformed and pushed back the attackers.

The Sikhs march towards Barnala

By early afternoon they reached a big pond, the first they had come across since the morning. The fighting stopped automatically as the two forces fell pell-mell, man and animal, upon the water to quench their thirst and relax their tired limbs. The battle was not resumed. The Sikhs marched off towards Barnala and Ahmad Shah thought it prudent not to pursue them in the little known semi-desert with an army that had had no rest during the past two days and had suffered considerable loss of life in the daylong battle.

Estimates of the Sikhs’ loss of life vary from 20,000 to 50,000. The more credible figures are those of Miskin, a contemporary Muslim chronicler, who estimated 25,000, and Ratan Singh Bhangu, who gave the toll at 30,000. This could have been a crippling blow to the Sikhs, but such was the state of their morale that, to quote the Pracham Panth Prakash again, as the Sikhs gathered in the evening that day, a Sikh stood up and proclaimed aloud, “… the fake has been shed; the true Khalsa remains intact.”

The Sikhs rose again within three months to attack Zain Khan of Sirhind, who bought peace by paying them Rs 50,000 in May, and they were ravaging the neighbourhood of Lahore during July-August 1762, Ahmad Shah, who was still in the Punjab, watched helplessly the devastation of the Jalandhar Doab at their hands.

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