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Akali Phula Singh

Akali Phula Singh, a prominent Nihang
Sikh general (Jathedar) and mukh
sewadar of Sri Akal Takht.

There were many warriors who kept high the symbol of unflinching will of Khalsa. There were yet many who were went to Khalsa for personal glory, to win estates, etc. An example whose only and only purpose was to serve Khalsa and to keep the Nishan Sahib flying high was Nihang Akali Phula Singh.

Nihang, the word is derived from Persian which means 'crocodile'. Nihangs, were created by Dasam Pita Guru Gobind Singh Ji, to serve the Khalsa Community. Nihangs do not marry, and their only purpose is to live and die for Khalsa.

Many historians call Nihangs as "Suicide squads", this is utterly wrong, suicide is a sin in Sikhism. Nihangs only purpose is to fight for the Khalsa's defense. Akali Phula Singh was born January 14th 1761 in a Village named Shinh, in Amritsar.

Akali Phula Singh joined an order of Nihangs at Sri Harmandir Sahib at an early age where he got all the martial training. Later, when he was 18 years old he shifted to the fort of Gobindgarh became a leader of one of the band of fighters who formed a squad of Sikh army.

When Maharaja Ranjit Singh consolidated Amritsar into his empire by defeating number of families who were ruling this city, Akali Phula Singh, joined Maharaja Ranjit Singh in this noble cause. Due to this very reason he was made the mukh sewadar of the Akal Takht in 1807.

Akali Phula Singh was a born leader, outspoken such that he would even spoke to Ranjit Singh of his problems. When Ranjit Singh married to a Muslim woman, named Moran of Lahore, Akali Phula Singh, as he was the mukh sewadar of Akal Takht declared that Maharaja Ranjit Singh is not a Sikh anymore and is a Tankhaiya which means out of Sikhism.

Akali Phula Singh ordered the defendant to be at Golden temple before the community. Ranjit Singh came and admitted that he had made a mistake. Akali Phula Singh ordered him 50 lashes for Maharaja Ranjit Singh right there. Ranjit Singh took off his shirt and bowed down to receive his punishment, at such Akali Phula Singh asked Community (Sadh Sangat) to forgive the Maharaja who has bowed down in front of the Sadh Sangat for this mistake. And thus Maharaja was pardoned, but not before he promised that he will not marry again.

There is another interesting incident of this times, reason which made Maharaja to upgrade his forces to European style. On the day of Muharram on February 25, 1809 A.D., Shia Muslims of British army under Metcaulf, a British general who was visiting Amritsar along with his forces, decided to take out a procession in the streets of Amritsar, even though in Amritsar among Muslims, majority were Sunni Muslims.

Akali Phula Singh

Akali Phula Singh

It also happened to be the day of Holi, when Nihangs were celebrating Hola Mohalla along with their celebrated leader and mukh sewadar of Akal Takht, Akali Phula Singh. The Shia procession wended its way through the streets of Amritsar, beating their breasts to the chants of "Hasan, Hussein, Ali" They came in front of Sri Harmandir Sahib, where the Akalis were in prayer.

The Akalis remonstrated with the processionists to go elsewhere. Arguments led to scuffle and Shia Seopys under General Metcaulfe came to a head on collision with Akalis. It is not known who were the aggressors. Even Metcalfe was doubtful and conceded that the first shot was probably fired by one of his Shia escorts (Metcalfe No. 72, of 7.3.1809).

There were about 50 casualties on both sides. In the end this riot stopped when Ranjit Singh who happened to be in the city personally came forwarded and helped to quell the riot. He also went to Metcalfe and apologized for this riot.

Ranjit Singh was impressed by the discipline shown by the Shia Sepoys under Metcalfe and Ranjit Singh promptly decided to Europeanize his Army.

Akali Phula Singh was against Europeanizing the Khalsa Forces, he believe more in the fighting qualities of Khalsa blessed by Guru Gobind Singh.

Ranjit Singh was a statesman who foresaw that he could utilize a well disciplined army to subdue the whole of Punjab and to face British.

In the same year 1809, at Ropar, Maharaja Ranjit Singh signed a treaty with British to make Satluj a permanent border between the Sarkar Khalsa and British. Akali Phula Singh wanted Maharaja to tear up the treaty, he even threat to quit.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh explained him that first they will subdue whole of Punjab, and then later they will confront British. This treaty was to make the permanent boundries between Sarkar Khalsa and British territory. Satluj was made a border.

Akali Phula Singh and his command helped Maharaja in the campaigns of Kasur, Multan, and all over Punjab. Nihangs under his command at Multan surpass all bravery when they bowed down one by one to support one side of a Gun to be used to break through the fort and attained martyrdom. By 1822 all the regiments of Sarkar Khalsa were Europeanized. Akali Phula Singh was given new arms as well as trained of new tactics by the French General Ventura.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh decided to turn towards North West Frontier province. In 1815 AD, Maharaja attacked NWFP and levied tribute on number of principalities. Since 10 centuries Pathans and tribesman had plundered Punjab and India, this was the first time that any Punjabi took the battle to their homes. Then in 1823, the Governor of Peshawar did not give tribute to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sarkar Khalsa forces led by Akali Phula Singh, General Hari Singh Nalua, Fateh Singh Attariwala, and other General of Sarkar Khalsa marched towards Peshawar.

Battle of Naushera in 1823 AD, in which thousands were killed was fought with the tribes of Yusufzais, Khattaks and Afridi tribes of Pathans. Prince Sher Singh and Hari Singh Nalua led the advance columns early in 1823. They spanned the river Attock by the means of a pontoon bridge and occupied the fort of Jehangiria. Then Maharaja Ranjit Singh along with Akali Phula Singh led the rest of forces upto the Eastern bank of River Attock, but by this time. Tribals had destroyed the pontoon bridge and had besieged Prince Sher Singh and Hari Singh Nalua in the fort. Hastingly, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who had crossed this river umpteen number of times, decided to cross it and came to the rescue of his son and Hari Singh Nalua just in time. Khattaks and Yusufzais were pushed back and they entrenched themselves one an eminence called Pir Sabak or Tibbi Tiri on the plains between Jehangiria and Peshawar. The main Afghan force under Azim Khan's brother was separated from the tribal ghazis by a small but swift-running stream, the Landai.

Akali Phula Singh

Akali Phula Singh

The Khalsa Artillery, led by Mian Ghausa bypassed the tribesmen, and reached the bank of Landai, and trained its heavy guns on the opposite bank. Azim Khan made a dash from Peshawar and joined the forces of Afghans on the opposite Bank of Landai. He could not cross the stream due to the heavy bombardment by Khalsa forces from this side of Landai. On the other front of war, Sarkar Khalsa launched an offensive at Pir Sabak Hill. This war was not evenly matched, but Khalsa was outnumbered by the sheer number of Afghans, Khalsa forces made up this by their disciplined and well trained army.

Tribal forces fought desperately but were overcome by Sarkar Khalsa's Gurkhas and Mussalman Najibs. Then Akali Phula Singh and his nihangs moved up to give them the coup de grace . They drove the Khattaks and Yusufzais before them, four thousand Afghans were left dead on the field. Sarkar Khalsa's fatalities were in hundreds, but still this was too much, because in those 500 or so soldiers there was one who equaled 125,000, Akali Phula Singh. While pursuing Afghanis, Akali Phula Singh's horse was shot under him. He took an elephant and pressed on. The error cost him his life. Afghanis saw the man who has so often humbled them, and trained their muskets on him. Phula Singh was riddled with bullets. He collapsed in his howdah, exhorting nihangs with the last breath of his body not to give way. Mohammed Azim Khan retreated to Peshawar but was too ashamed to face his people and thus he returned to Afghanistan and died soon.

Even though the Sarkar Khalsa paid a heavy price in losing a great warrior like Akali Phula Singh, it was a crushing defeat for the Afghans, and it convinced the Pathan tribesmen of the superiority of Punjabi soldiers. Three days later Maharaja entered Peshawar at the head of his victorious troops. The citizens welcomed him and paid homage with nazaranas.

Excerpts taken from these books.
"The Heritage of the Sikhs" by Sardar Harbans Singh, ISBN 81-7304-064-8
"Umdat-ut-twarikh" by Sohan Lal Suri
"History of Sikhs" Part 1 and Part 2 by Khushwant Singh

More on Akali Phula Singh

The great Sikh General, Jathedar Akali Phula Singh, was born in 1761. His father Ishar Singh was fatally wounded during the great massacre of Sikhs (Wada Ghalughara) in 1762. Before his death he charged Bhai Narain Singh of Misl Shaheedan with the responsibility of raising his infant son.

Akali Ji, by the age of ten, could recite Nitnem and other Gurbani hymns from memory. At Anandpur Sahib, he always kept himself busy doing sewa or reading Gurbani, and he became very popular with the sangat. Because of his scholastic attitude and commitment to Panthic welfare, he was made the leader (Jathedar) of the Misl after the death of Bhai Narain Singh. In 1800, he came to Amritsar and made the Mahants improve the management of the Gurdwaras. The major credit for extending the boundaries of the Sikh Raj goes to Akali Ji, the legendary general of the Sikhs.

Respected by Maharaja RanJit Singh

In 1802, Maharaja RanJit Singh sent his army to take over Amritsar and annex it to his kingdom. On the advice of Akali Phula Singh, the Maharaja agreed to give an estate to the Bhangi Misl, then ruling Amritsar. He also ordered the army not to loot the inhabitants of the city.

In 1807, Phula Singh was, for the first time, involved in a major battle against the Nawab of Kasoor, who had the protection of a strong fort. The Sikhs fought bravely and were finally able to demolish a section of the wall. The Nawab was arrested. The Sikhs took pity on him and allotted him an estate near the Satlej river. The bravery of Akali Ji during the battle very much impressed the Maharaja.

In 1808, a British representative was sent to Amritsar for talks for developing better relations between the two governments. A Muslim platoon with the British emissary organized a procession to celebrate their festival chanting loud slogans. When passing near the Akal Takhat, they were advised not to create noise, because it disturbed the Sikh congregation. However, the leaders of the procession insulted the Sikhs instead of listening to their suggestion. On hearing this disturbing news, Akali Ji himself went to settle the matter with the British platoon. The soldiers apologized and behaved respectfully in the future. No more noisy processions were taken near the Gurdwara again.

Loss of Faith in the Maharaja

The internal political policy pursued by Maharaja RanJit Singh went against Sikh interests. Major points of differences were that the Maharaja had:

1. Delegated too much authority of the government to Dogras who were insincere and disloyal to the Sikhs.

2. Appointed relatives of his cronies to important posts instead of selecting competent persons.

3. Developed misunderstanding with his sons by listening to the misinformation given by the Dogras.

Note: Later, it was found that Akali Ji was right and justified in asking the Maharaja not to place all his confidence in the Dogras alone. The Dogras had a secret understanding with the British, who had already taken control over much of India. The Dogras caused the downfall of the Sikh Raj. They were made the rajas of Kashmir as a reward for helping the British infiltrate the Sikh raj. The Dogras also informed the Kabul regime about the Sikh army and they planned the murder of the hero of the Sikh raj, Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa, who was considered a terror by the Afghans and Pathans.

Akali Phula Singh

Akali Phula Singh

When Akali Phula Singh Ji went to discuss domestic policies of the government with Maharaja RanJit Singh, the Dogras did not allow the meeting to take place. Akali Ji forced his entry into the palace and was warmly received by the Maharaja.

Showing his hospitality, the Maharaja offered Akali Ji a splendid meal. Akali Ji declined his offer stating that unless the Maharaja changed his policies, and realized his own entrapment by the Dogras, this was to be their last meeting. After delivering this message to the Maharaja, Akali Ji left for Anandpur Sahib.

The Prince of Jind state (Jind was then part of the British Raj, now a part of the Haryana state of India.) developed differences with the British raj. He moved to Anandpur Sahib and took protection under Akali Ji. The British desired the Prince to be handed over to them. They approached the Maharaja when Akali Ji refused to surrender him to them.

The Dogras misinformed and misguided the Maharaja and accused Akali Ji of creating enmity between the British and the Sikh raj. The army at Phillaur was, therefore, instructed to arrest Akali Phula Singh. The army, however, declined to obey the Maharaja recognizing that Akali Ji was the holiest man amongst the Sikhs.

The British also tried to capture Akali Ji by ordering the Nawab of Malerkotla and Raja Jaswant to attack Anandpur Sahib and arrest Akali Ji along with the Prince of Jind. Both of them knew of Phula Singh's goodness and greatness. They also endorsed his stand and refused to cooperate with the British. Finally, Maharaja RanJit Singh thought of another plan to get Akali Ji on his side. He sent Baba Sahib Singh Bedi, a close friend of Akali Phula Singh, to escort him with honor to Amritsar where a spectacular welcome was arranged by the Maharaja. The two were finally reconciled. Unfortunately, the Maharaja did not take advantage of his advice to keep the Dogras away from the helm of administration.

Protector of the Sikh Faith

Some administrators of the Kashmir area broke their agreement. Akali Phula Singh and General Hari Singh were sent to punish them. In 1816, Akali Ji lead his forces against the rebels in the west and south of Punjab, including the Nawab of Multan who had not paid his taxes. In 1817, Phula Singh was sent to Hazara to recover the taxes. The administrator paid his dues and was, therefore, allowed to continue in his position by Akali Ji.

The Nawab of Multan again declined to pay his taxes to the state. When the army was sent to collect the dues, he defeated the Lahore army. The Maharaja then sent his son with a strong force who pushed the Nawab into the fort, but could not achieve his mission. At last, the Maharaja came to Amritsar and humbly requested Akali Phula Singh to help the Khalsa Panth. Akali Ji angrily asked: "O supporter of the disloyal Dogras, why did you not tell me earlier?" Akali Ji took his men to Multan. They demolished the wall of the fort. A bloody hand to hand battle followed. The brave Nawab, his five sons and 12,000 soldiers lost their lives in the battle. Akali Ji was wounded. On his return to Amritsar, Akali Ji was honored and given the title "Protector of the Sikh Faith."

Battles for Peshawar

In 1818, the Maharaja himself led the expedition to bring the rebellious Pathans under control. A pontoon bridge was constructed across the river Attock and a small Jatha was sent to assess the situation, but it was attacked. This enraged the Maharaja. He sent Akali Phula Singh and general Hari Singh Nalwa against the rebels. As soon as the Sikh army was within firing range, they were showered with a rain of bullets. Akali Ji ordered a tactical retreat. This made the rebels come out of their bunkers to follow the retreating Sikhs and push them out of their area. When the enemy was in the open battlefield, Akali Ji ordered a severe attack and then encircled them. Their commander Feroze Khan accepted his defeat and requested the Sikhs to end the battle.

The next target of the Sikh army was to retrieve the control of Peshawar. The rebels decided to obstruct their path to the city. When Akali Ji was informed about this he immediately attacked them before they could gather and organize a coordinated resistance to his advance to Peshawar. This strategy proved useful. The Ghazis (Muslim fighters) did not dare to face the Sikhs and ran for their lives. The road was left open for the Sikhs to proceed to the city where they raised their flag on the fort. After the Sikhs took control of Peshawar, Yar Mohammed Khan sent gifts to Maharaja RanJit Singh to express his loyalty. The Maharaja accepted the gifts and made him the Governor of Peshawar. But Khan, too, proved disloyal to the Sikh raj.

Battles for Kashmir

In 1819 Akali Ji was deputed to discipline the ruler of Kashmir who had broken the agreement made with the Maharaja. Unable to proceed through the Pass protected by the army, the Sikhs were instructed to follow footpaths through hilly terrain. By this tactical move they took over all the outer defense posts without much difficulty. After heavy fighting, they captured the strong fort as well.

The Sikh army was unable to make further progress, as the route to Pir Panchal Pass was blocked by the Pathans. The Pathans, occupying the sides of the path, rained bullets on the Sikh army. Akali Ji directed his soldiers to get on the mountains, instead of moving through the Pass. The Sikhs fought the Pathans hand-to-hand and continued their journey through the Pass.

The next battle took place with Jabar Khan, who had built a strong army with thousands of Afghans. Diwan Chand ordered the Sikh army to open gun fire on Afghan positions, but it did little harm to them. He then directed his men to advance their guns to get closer to the defenses for effective firing. As soon as the Sikhs stopped firing in order to move their guns, the Afghans came out of their bunkers and attacked them, capturing several Sikh guns.

Finding the Afghans in the open battlefield, Akali Ji responded with a lightning attack by his men, who were considered the best swordsmen. Jabar Khan was wounded and he fled. The Khalsa won the battle and took control of the Kashmir state.

Defeating Kabul Forces

In 1823, Mohammed Azim Khan, the ruler of Kabul, made plans to take over Peshawar. Yar Mohd Khan, the Governor of Peshawar, appointed by Maharaja RanJit Singh was his brother. He agreed to help the Kabul regime by withdrawing from the city and leaving it unoccupied. The Khan's army came and occupied the city without firing a single bullet. Local administrators and communities were instigated to rebel against the Sikh raj. They occupied all the routes to Peshawar making it very dangerous for the Sikh army to go there.

When this news reached Lahore, the Maharaja called General Hari Singh Nalwa and sought his advice. He suggested that Akali Phula Singh must join him to recover the state from Khan. Nalwa immediately left for Peshawar, with the Maharaja and Akali Ji following him. When they reached Attock, they found that the pontoon bridge had been destroyed to stop the Sikhs from crossing the river and helping Nalwa.

Picture of Sikh nobles

Picture of Sikh nobles, from the right, Faqir Azizudeen, Hari Singh Nalwa,
Akali Phula Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Prince Sher Singh.

General Nalwa and his forces were engaged in a bloody battle on the western side of the river while the Maharaja and the main Sikh army were delayed on the eastern bank. Hearing the fight across the river, the Sikhs became more worried and distressed at their situation.

A messenger, who swam across the river, informed Akali Phula Singh and the Maharaja that unless Nalwa and his soldiers received help, he would most likely lose the battle. Hearing this, Akali Phula Singh got on his horse and crossed the river followed by the Maharaja and the rest of the forces. The news of the arrival of the Maharaja demoralized the opponents and they lost all hope of winning the battle. They ran to save their lives and took shelter behind their second defense line, Nawshehra fort, to prepare a strong defense.

After reorganizing their forces, the Sikhs decided to move forward to take over the fort. Having said their prayers, the Jathas started marching, when a scout brought the news that a new army of 10,000 men with forty guns had arrived to support the rebels. The Maharaja wanted to wait for their own guns to arrive but Akali Ji said, "The Khalsa has started its march after prayer, now no one can stop them!"

When the Sikh army was within their range, the Ghazis opened fire on the Sikhs. Akali Ji ordered them to move forward suddenly and engage them in hand to hand combat, an art in which no army could match the Khalsa. Bullets were coming from all sides, but Akali Ji was moving forward with his men. His horse was killed by a bullet. He immediately boarded an elephant to continue his advance on the Ghazis. Watching the daring deeds of the Akali platoons, the Maharaja could not resist joining them. Meanwhile the Akali men had reached the firing lines and started fighting with their swords. The Afghans were no match for the quick swords of the Sikhs. Fresh Sikh army and gunmen also reached the battlefield by that time and the Sikhs claimed another victory.

The Sikh Nation Bereaved

Unfortunately, the Sikhs sustained a grievous wound: the death of Akali Phula Singh. A Pathan, hiding behind a boulder, shot Akali Ji from close range as he was pressing the Pathans to retreat.

Thus, the Sikhs lost their great General, a true Sikh. He was a fearless and skilled commander. He maintained the Sant-Sipahi (Saint-Soldier) tradition of the Khalsa. Akali Phula Singh Ji remains a role model for all Sikhs.

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