The humiliating defeat of Hari Singh Nalwa at the hands of Mashwanis and Saidkhanis

The following account of the humiliating defeat of Hari Singh Nalwa at the hands of Mashwanis and Said Khanis is drawn from (1) an eyewitness account “Tawarikh-i-Hazara” by Lala Mehtab Singh (written in 1846); the extracts from which are translated into Urdu by Sher Bahadur Khan Panni in his book “Tarikh-i-Hazara” (pp.56-59). Mehtab Singh was in the service of Hari Singh Nalwa in 1824. [2] Hazara district Gazetteer, published in 1907, p-128.

Charles Masson, who travelled through Pakhtunkhwa in 1830s, writes that Hari Singh Nalwa underestimated his Pashtun opponents and had frequently been in critical situations even before the battle of Jamrud (1837) in which he suffered defeat and bit the dust. History has not preserved all the instances of his critical situations in his wars with rag tag lashkars of Pashtun villages but one instance did not escape the notice of historians as the entire 8000-strong Khalsa Army suffered a defeat at the hands of a small Pashtun lashkar in 1824 in the present-day Haripur district. The news even reached the officials of British East India Company.

Hari Singh Nalwa had the reputation of being an anti-Muslim bigot and he unnecessarily oppressed and terrorized the peaceable and meek Muslims of Kashmir valley when he governed that province briefly. Ranjit Singh realized that Nalwa had no talent for administration so he removed him from the governorship of Kashmir and decided to use him as a punishing sword against the warlike and turbulent tribes of Hazara. In 1822 Hari Singh Nalwa became governor Hazara and had to face the insurrection of a small Pashtun tribe of Mashwanis in the same year. He first endeavour to reduce Srikot hills (located in present-day Haripur district) in 1822, resulted in failure. In 1824 A.D he made another attempt to clean the Gandghar hills of the insurgents and conquer the Srikot village of Mashwanis. He set out from Haripur town with 8000-strong army which was equipped with artillery. At Nara which stands at the mouth of a path leading up to Srikot, the Sikh army halted and encamped in the empty houses of the village. The fighters belonging to the Mashwani and Saidkhani branch of Utmanzai Yousafzais reached Nara, took positions on the hill and started firing upon Sikh encampment from the hill. Sikh officers were hesitant to recklessly ascend the hill and attack the Pashtun tribesmen and suggested to their superior Hari Singh that they should retreat for now and try some other time. The hesitancy shown by his officers greatly infuriated Hari Singh who interpreted it to be their cowardice.

At evening, Mashwanis and Saidkhanis descended from the hill and attacked the Sikh encampment with guns, swords and stones. Sikh army was not prepared for the daring attack and disorder ensued. When Hari Singh, Mahan Singh (after whom Mansehra district is named) and others came out of the room they were staying in, they were attacked by Pashtun tribesmen with swords and stones. They slew Kishan Singh, brother of Mahan Singh. A stone hit Hari Singh and he rolled into the ravine below where he lay for a long time senseless and undiscovered. When he recovered his senses, he succeeded in reaching back to Kishangarh fort (located within Haripur town). Sikhs suffered losses of more than 500 men and abandoned large quantity of arms and camp equipage.

The news of the disaster reached across Hazara and rumour spread that Hari Singh was dead. The latter recovered from his wounds at Kishangarh fort after few weeks of rest. He wanted to dispel the rumour that he was dead so he made a surprise attack on the village of Bagra (located about eight miles from Haripur town) at dawn and put to sword every armed Pashtun there.

When Ranjeet Singh was informed of the humiliating defeat of Hari Singh Nalwa at Nara, he hastened up to Hazara with large enforcements to clear up the mess caused by the failure of his general. He reduced the Srikot village and built a fort there which was garrisoned with 500 men. He also made a raid into the other side of river Indus. Then he departed to Lahore. Later Mashwanis rose up and besieged the Srikot fort. Due to previous defeat at Nara, Hari Singh was showing reluctance to attack Mashwanis so Ranjit Singh deputed General Jean-Baptiste Ventura to help him. The Mashwanis got defeated. Hari Singh Nalwa blew away three Mashwani headmen from guns and evicted the Mashwani tribe from the Srikot village to prevent the recurrence of the insurgency. Mashwanis were forced live in exile on the other side of river Indus till 1830 when they were allowed to return to Srikot.

A white pillar erected at later date by Major Abbot commemorates the scene of the victory of Mahswanis and Saidkhanis over Hari Singh Nalwa. Mashwanis and Saidkhanis were not numerous as ants and locusts as wishfully imagined by some modern Sikh writers. One Sikh writer fantasizes that there was one Sikh to ten Pashtuns in that battle (i.e. there were around 80,000 Pashtuns against 8,000 Sikh soldiers). Mashwanis of Srikot numbered only 3,992 souls in 1901 census and Utmanzis (of which Saidkhani is just one of the three branches) of Hazara district numbered only 2,564 souls in 1901 census. A small lashkar of rag tag Pashtuns, not more than a few hundreds, succeeded in routing 8,000-strong regular and European-trained army of the Sikh empire.

Hari Singh Nalwa
Portrait of Hari Singh Nalwah Bahadur Jang, followed in Persian by: ‘He has a turban on his head, tied a black shawl around his waist with a hanging dagger and with a soldier standing behind him prepared for action’. Made in circa 1850. Source

Hari Singh Nalwa

Hari Singh Nalwa
Maharaja Ranjit Singh inspecting horses with General Hari Singh Nalwa, Amritsar or Lahore, Punjab, c 1830-32, Toor Collection
Hari Singh Nalwa
Portrait of Hari Singh Nalwa, made by Hasan al-Din in 1845 (c) in Lahore.

4 thoughts on “The humiliating defeat of Hari Singh Nalwa at the hands of Mashwanis and Saidkhanis”

  1. It is stated that Britisher General Jean-Baptiste Ventura helped Hari Sing against Mashwanies in the besiege of Srikot village Fort. This mean British army was evidently supportive to Sikh regime.
    The question arises;
    How can Major Abbott become so sympathetic to Mashwanies at later stage that he erected a white pillar of commemoration for a previous victory of Mashwanies and Saidkhanis over Hari Sing?

  2. Divide and Rule, brother. History is written by the victors. In this case, the British, who had a hard time winning Punjab unlike the journey till Lahore. They knew they had to sow the seeds of discord amongst various communities in the north-west to succeed. Otherwise, why would the British commemorate something that occured before they even came to Punjab?

  3. Jean-Baptiste Ventura was not a British officer but an Italian mercenary and a military advisor to Ranjit Singh. He was a freelance soldier who fought for money and riches, not for prestige and glory.


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