Prince of Pindaris.
Amir Khan was a fearless and fearsome man and terrorised the areas of Rajputana and Northern India at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. His ancestors belonged to the southern foothills of the Hindukush mountains in Laghman province of Afghanistan, to the north of the modern Jalalabad-Kabul highway. They first migrated east to the Kunar Province. Then they moved further east, crossing the Kunar River to the Bajaur cum Lower Dir area. Some of these people then moved to the more fertile valley of Buner. From here Amir Khan's grandfather Taleh Khan migrated to India, probably as a soldier of fortune, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (reigned from 1719 - 1748), and settled at Surai Turina - now called Sarai Tareen? - near Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, where Amir Khan's father Hayat Khan was born. By then the Mughals had become weak, a situation giving rise to roving and pillaging war bands. Some external players, from the British in Madras to the Persians and Afghans in the west, were casting rapacious eyes on the rich carcass of the decaying Empire.
Another time, rebel soldiers put a turban around the Nawab's neck and tried to strangle him. At times, he was forced to sit on the hot barrel of a cannon and held there until he promised to pay
Amir Khan was born in 1769 but not much is known about his early life, education or vocation. His name first appears as part of Pathan tribal formations that worked as mercenaries and hired soldiers.
The second half of the eighteenth century was a troubled and fratricidal time for the Subcontinent. Advancing from the east, the British had become masters of Bengal, Oudh and Bihar. The Delhi court of the Mughals was at the mercy of the stronger armed group at any given time and the Emperor had lost authority completely. The Marathas, despite having been defeated by Ahmed Shah Abdali at Panipat in 1761, continued to be strong in Central India. Rohilla war bands were ravaging the areas now comprising Haryana and UP. In central Punjab, meanwhile, armed misls of the Sikhs were in control. The Subcontinent was fragmented into states of various sizes that were continuously at war with each other and had constantly shifting boundaries.
These circumstances were opportune for the rise of armed groups that were available for hire. Most of these armed groups can now be classified as 'Pindaris' and 'Pathans'; the former tended to concentrate in the Deccan while the latter operated in Oudh. In reality, both these groups - mostly led by Muslims but recruited from all communities and classes - did the same sort of work and had no qualms about renting their sword or gun to the higher bidder in a feud. They were either paid for a particular assignment or were given the right of plunder in the town that they occupied on behalf of their client. Some of the notorious Pindari leaders were Karim Khan, Shahbaz Khan and his sons Hiru and Barun, Chitu and some others.
Villagers burning themselves to avoid Pindaris
The name of Amir Khan often appears with the suffix of 'Pindari', while some regard him as a 'Pathan' plunderer. Both labels, however, are true because he operated in Oudh as well as in Rajputana at different times of his active life. The prefix of 'Nawab' comes from his later life as the hereditary ruler of the State of Tonk. He rose to be one of the strongest and most influential of armed leaders. Sometimes, he would 'refrain from plunder' on payment of large financial indemnities from his intended prey. He allied himself most closely with the Maratha ruler Holkar of Indore but sometimes worked for the rival Scindia of Gwalior too. At the height of his power, he is said to have controlled a personal following of 12,000 cavalry, 10,000 infantry and up to 200 guns, making it the largest contingent amongst the Pathan or Pindari chiefs. By the middle of the first decade of the 19th century, he was the most powerful man in Central India. For his valuable services, he was granted the town and pargana of Tonk and the title of Nawab by Yashwantrao Holkar in 1806 - and this area, together with some other scattered parganas that he held, was stitched into a new principality called the State of Tonk. It was the only Muslim state in Rajputana.
As an independent leader he made deals and signed peace treaties with the rulers of petty states. He had complete authority over his soldiers, who were hired and dismissed as he pleased. When he offered his services to a ruler, he joined on his own terms and his soldiers followed him obediently. Some of the towns that he plundered in Central India included Pune, Kasur, Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur. In 1810, he forced the ruler of Udaipur to poison his daughter Krishna Kumari to settle the disputes arising out of her marriage.
Amir Khan of Tonk on a grey mount, with his retainers
The reach of activities can be gauged by the fact that in 1805, he raided and plundered the holy city of Gokul in Mathura, crossed into Rohilkhand looting the town of Kashipur, and after an active pursuit and defeat by General Smith, headed south to recross the Ganges to reach Rajasthan. In the early years of the 19th century, his yearly revenue is reported to have been between one and two million rupees - about a billion rupees in current value.
A crucial problem for him was to pay his soldiers regularly. As he had no regular income, the payment was sometimes delayed. In case of non-payment, soldiers besieged his house or tent, holding him captive until he paid at least a part of the dues. Sometimes more ruthless methods were adopted to force payment. Once he was thrown off a roof and was seriously injured. At another time, rebel soldiers put a turban around his neck and tried to strangle him. At times, he was forced to sit on the hot barrel of a cannon and held there until he promised to pay.
Amir Khan tolerated the misbehaviour of his soldiers and treated them with respect, which is understandable because they were the chief tool of his trade. As soon as he got money, he immediately paid them. One of the reasons behind his success was that he kept his soldiers on his payroll even during the lean periods that his army faced from time to time. His soldiers relied on his promises and remained loyal to him. This also necessitated the need for regular plundering, whether commissioned by a client or without it - which meant that a former client could readily become a future target if he appeared to hold cash or jewels.
The British had to launch a massive operation to curb the 'Pindari' and 'Pathan' raiders
The British Indian territorial holdings were also a regular target for Afghan and Pindari attacks. It has been noted above how Amir Khan was raiding British areas of interest in Northern India. The Pindari raids, too, were occurring far and wide, as they infamously plundered Masulipatam on the east coast, Gujarat on the west coast and Mirzapur in Utter Pradesh.
In 1812, the Marquess of Hastings was appointed the Governor General of India. He determined that the Pindaris and Pathans posed a great threat to British interests and resolved to eliminate them. He was aware that the Marathas and the twin marauders were interlinked and that both would have to be neutralised together, preferably by peace treaties or else by war.
In late 1817, Hastings assembled the largest force ever formed by the British in India. He committed 120,000 men and 300 artillery pieces, divided between the army of the Deccan from the south and the army of Bengal from the north. The contest is now called the Third Anglo-Maratha War, in which the latter were comprehensively defeated, conceding their sovereignty to the British rule. It was also the time that Pindaris and Pathan armed groups would either be eliminated or come to terms.
By the early years of the 20th century, all vestiges of Tonk's warlike past had disappeared
Amir Khan had seen plenty of war and was astute enough to perceive that the British meant business. When offered favorable terms, he bowed to the inevitable and accepted a British protectorate. He disbanded his troops, sold his guns to the British and promised not to offer shelter to any plunderer. In return, he was permitted to pay no tribute to the British Raj and was recognised as a hereditary Nawab of Tonk with a 17-gun salute, one of the few states to be given this honour. He quietly settled down to consolidating his little state consisting of six isolated tracts. He remained a faithful friend to the British till his death in 1834.
His son Nawab Wazir Khan ruled from 1834 to 1864, including the fateful years of the 1857 uprising, during which he supported the British. In return, he received more territories as a reward. His court also became a refuge for those writers, artists and musicians who fled Delhi after the revolt. Several members of the former imperial family took service with or received refuge with the Nawab. In the years that followed, the court at Tonk emerged as an important cultural and artistic centre, preserving the best of the old Mughal world.
Nawab Amir Khan
By the early years of the 20th century, all vestiges of Tonk's warlike past had disappeared. It had a library that boasted one of the best collections of Muslim learning in India, with ancient Qurans and other texts. It was a centre of Urdu, attracting scholars from around the Empire. Virtually every ruler of the state, and many of the princes of the house, were learned men and Hafiz-e-Quran.
On the other hand, Tonk now had an army of about fifty old soldiers with rusting guns that they had not used in their lifetime. The total area of the princely state was 2,553 square miles, with a population in 1901 of 270,000 - of which 40,000 lived in the town of Tonk, the capital of the state.
Amir Khan's descendents continued to rule their state till 1947, when it was integrated into the Indian Union. They had taken a complete turn around and transformed themseves from being hired mercenaries to men of culture.