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Durrani Ambitions and the Agony of the Punjab.

Lahore: This is a tale of ruin in the Punjab - a time when its peace, prosperity and social fabric came under immense strain. It is a tragic story of two decades of terrible suffering and untold misery from the first invasion of Ahmad Shah Durrani (Abdali) in late December 1747 till his eighth invasion in December 1766. The devastation in this period was caused by the rise of a twin menace: plundering raids by the Afghans under Ahmad Shah, and the continuous ransacking carried out by the lawless Sikh war-bands.

Durrani's punishing incursions came at the rate of one raid every two-and-a-half years. The norm of the Afghans was to head out from Peshawar in the cooler climate at the end of a year, aiming to enter the Punjab in winter and return by March of the following year. Military activity was to be wrapped up by the onset of summer because their troops couldn't endure heat. Five of these raids, from Durrani's third to seventh, were particularly painful for the province.

Depiction of the Bazaar at Kandahar

The history of these times is recorded in, among other books, A comprehensive history of India, volume 9 (from 1712 to 1772); Fall of the Mughal Empire, volume II by Jadunath Sarkar; Rise of the Sikh Power by Narendra Krishna Sinha (1936) and Advanced study in the history of modern India, volume 1, by Dr. G.S. Chhabra. Beyond these, too, there are a number of other books and articles on the subject.

To be sure, Punjab had undergone terrible destruction - including wholesale massacre and the razing of Lahore itself in 1241 - by the Mongol invasions during much of the 13th century. But that had become a distant memory because, in the larger scheme of things, it is a poorly recorded sideshow in a wider episode of destruction of Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Middle East. Moreover, there were only a few population centres at that time and that, too, in the well watered upper Rachna (Ravi-Chenab) and Jalandhar (Beas-Sutlej) Doabs.

In contrast with the forgotten Mongol invasions, the severe tribulations that the Punjab region went through under Durrani's raids is still very much living memory. This period left a deep impression upon the psyche of its people, altered their outlook on life and created fissures between communities that had sanguinary effects as late as the Partition of Punjab in August 1947. These two decades witnessed Mughals, Afghans, Rohillas, Sikhs and Marathas continuously battle for supremacy in the Punjab - heaping indignity of every kind on its population. In the process, Mughals were disempowered, Marathas were effectively routed, Rohillas faded out and Afghans were ousted, leaving the Sikhs power to hold sway till their own defeat at the hands of the British East India Company in 1849.

The terrifying Mongol invasion of Punjab had become a distant memory because, in the larger scheme of things, it is a poorly recorded sideshow in a wider episode of destruction of Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Middle East

Durrani's Afghanistan lacked the resources to function as an effective state. The only viable agricultural area was the northern plain between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus River. But that productive region was not part of Durrani Empire till 1752. The central highlands, the northern high mountains and the southern desert of Kandahar accounted for 90 percent of the Durrani Empire's land area. It could sustain neither agriculture nor any industry beyond a meagre level.

Nevertheless, like earlier warlords of the region, Durrani had gathered a large army attracted by the prospect of plunder - consisting of Afghans, Qizilbash, Tajiks and Uzbeks. Without any permanent reliable resource to maintain this force, he resorted to pillaging the surrounding regions, and there was no land more promising for this purpose than the Punjab.

After all, he had limited strategic range.

Though he once marched along the Yamuna beyond Delhi and up to Agra - enslaving, plundering and massacring all along - it was the Punjab that he could rob and return within one winter season.

Durrani troops plate and mail armour

His raids served another purpose. Durrani had at best a tenuous hold on his fractious soldiers. He had to keep them engaged in profitable raids to satisfy their expectations. As long as they saw a courageous and ruthless leader, they would obey him. Durrani knew that any weakness on his part would encourage his soldiers to replace him, probably in a brutal coup.

Despite a painful carbuncle in his nose, Ahmed Shah Durrani did not rest his entire life. His raids into Punjab only ceased when he found the Sikh opposition too strong to overcome. Only certain highlights of his raids are given below to indicate the nature of suffering experienced by the Punjab at his hands.

Ahmed Shah Durrani made his first incursion into the Punjab in December 1747. He marched his 18,000-strong force across the Indus and devastated the route to Lahore. His soldiers lived off the land and looted villages without regard for religion.

The notables of Lahore tried to buy off Durrani forces for as long as possible, in an effort to prevent a sacking of the city - Image by Sajjad Ahmad

He then crossed the Ravi and camped near the Shalamar gardens. The Afghans devastated the countryside around Lahore. However, the city itself was spared on the deputation of the notables for a payment of 2.2 million rupees and a promise of further payment of 0.8 million. Durrani returned after he was defeated at Sirhind by a Mughal army.

The third invasion in 1751-2 was particularly gruesome for the people of Punjab. After plundering all the way from Attock to Shahdara, the Durrani forces besieged Lahore. The Mughal governor held them off for four months in the Walled City. In order to secure provisions, Afghan troops ravaged the area around the city, for a radius of 80 km. All grain and cattle were confiscated and women were violated. Anyone offering resistance was put to the sword instantly.

Artillery duel between Ahmed Shah Durrani's forces and the Maratha Confederacy at the Third Battle of Panipat

The writer Haroon Khalid has catalogued some of the villages that bore the brunt of the Durrani incursion. Old villages like Mian Mir, Hinjarwal, Niaz Beg, Guru Mangat, Ichchra, Sanda, Mughalpura and many others hosted a mix of religious communities. However, the Durrani forces spared none as they regarded all local people as either non-Muslims or lesser Muslims - the kind of attitude that persists to this day among various populations.

Some of these villages were abandoned by the residents. Most habitations, like village Maraka 30 km south of Lahore, were razed to ground and all their inhabitants killed on suspicion of being troublesome Sikhs. The population of Lahore was reduced to starvation. Ultimately the Mughal garrison in Lahore was defeated and the victorious Afghans entered the city, which they were allowed to pillage. Having come close to a defeat but finding themselves masters of the defying city, Durrani's troops extracted a heavy toll on the citizens.

Durrani's fourth invasion in 1756 was directed at Delhi, though he did traverse the whole of Punjab living off the land and plunder of people. He left the Punjab under the care of his 11-year-old son Timur and his trusted general Jahan Khan. It was under them that people of Lahore were deprived of their copper and brass cooking utensils to manufacture two massive artillery guns. One of these was Zamzama aka "Kim's Gun" that now adorns a road island in front of the Lahore Museum on the Mall Road.

Well within the range of armies invading from the north-west, Lahore and its environs remained a promising target for centuries

Durrani's fifth invasion in 1759 lasted till 1761, when he decimated the large Maratha army at the Third battle of Panipat. He set off on the journey back with much booty, but was continuously vandalized by Sikh war-bands.

He came back later in the same year for his sixth invasion - this time to punish the Sikhs who had tormented his return.

Durrani made his seventh invasion in December 1764 to counter the rising Sikh power but this time he suffered serious reversals at their hands and extricated his army across the Chenab with great difficulty - after continuous skirmishes for seven days. He came back for the eighth time in December 1764. Though he defeated a large Sikh force across the Indus, he didn't move ahead, fearing the strong Sikh presence. He mustered force in December 1768 and December 1769 to attack the Punjab but did not undertake any invasion for various reasons.

Armour such as this was adopted in Punjab after Sikh warriors suffered immense losses at the hands of better armoured Durrani troops

This marked the end of the Durrani incursions. With the Afghans gone, the Sikhs were left masters of the Punjab.

It is pertinent to note the steady rise in Sikh power during this time.

They operated in the form of lawless bands and were no less a terror for the people than armed invaders from outside. For two decades, the Sikhs pursued and tormented Ahmed Shah Durrani on each of his raids. They suffered appalling losses in men and materiel at his hands but didn't succumb to his superior forces and finally overcame the Afghans to rule Punjab: first in the form of small mutually hostile principalities called misls and then as a unified empire under Ranjit Singh.

The Sikh war-bands and their determined resistance to the Afghans in the Punjab remain a historical lesson for oppressed or outgunned peoples fighting irregular wars against superior forces.
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jan 25, 2020
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