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How Dehradun was Lost & Won

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

The decade from 1804 to 1815 was perhaps the most tumultuous in the history of Dehradun. In the space of ten years, three sovereign powers juggled the fortunes of the Valley. The dice of destiny finally came up trumps for none other than the British East India Company, which was glad and more relieved that the doughty khukri wielding Gorkhas had withdrawn beyond the Kaali River across the frontiers of Uttarakhand. But this did not happen without the British losing face after several bloody reverses in the mountain fastness of the Himalayan ranges.

For all the splendid isolation the Doon Valley had experienced for centuries, the start of the nineteenth century catapulted the region into the maelstrom of unbridled imperialistic pursuit by two adversaries, neither of whom was native to India. The East India Company juggernaut heading north westward from Bengal was ponderously moving across the Gangetic Plain, subduing by force or subterfuge the local chiefs and rajas. Their grip on the affairs of the subcontinent was matched by their greed for lucrative avenues, be it land revenue, trade concessions or tribute. Even outright extortion was a part of their agenda as the Nawabs and Begums of Awadh had realised with helplessness.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Pradyuman Shah was the ruler of the princely state of Garhwal, a vast territory that lay between the borders of the declining Mughal Empire and the Tibetan highlands to the north east. But ever since 1790, when neighbouring Kumaon had gone into self-destructive mode and created an excuse for the Gorkhali forces to invade and overwhelm it, the Raja of Garhwal, with his seat at Shrinagar, knew that the Gorkhas were eying Garhwal as the next stop before further movement to Sirmour, Kangra and possibly Kashmir.

The rise of imperialistic fervour in the nascent Gorkhali monarchy was finding its own compulsions to expand territory in all directions except the north where the Chinese empire was ever vigilant and ready to wield the sword to keep its southern neighbour in a state akin to subordination. Ever since Prithvi Narayan Shah, the fountain head of Gorkhali vision and dynamism, had embarked on a subjugation and unification agenda for the disparate Nepalese chiefdoms, the Gokha forces led by able commanders expanded the frontiers of the emerging Himalayan kingdom by several thousand square miles. The extended territories stretched along the outer Himalayas from Sikkim, through Kumaon and Garhwal to Sirmour to Kangra. At Kangra, in 1809, they encountered the ambitions of Ranjit Singh the unchallenged power of undivided Punjab, who managed to outmaneuver the Gorkhas and occupied the strategic Kangra Fort.

The Gorkhali aspirations and their
accomplishments on the ground alarmed the mandarins of the East India Company at Calcutta and its India Office in London’s Leadenhall Street, who had for the last four decades been finding ways and means to negotiate a trans-Himalayan trade route through Nepal to Tibet and China. But Nepal under Gorkha sovereigns had steadfastly ignored the British overtures to reach an understanding. They neither opened their markets to British goods nor allowed passage to Tibet.

Under pressure and desperate to make the Nepalese fall in line with the agenda of the East India Company, Lord Moira (aka Lord Rawdon- Hastings) the new Governor General, took charge of the East India Company establishment in Calcutta just a year prior to the hostilities. A strategist, Lord Moira, precipitated the inevitable war with Nepal. He put in action a four pronged military invasion of Nepal, mobilising immense resources in manpower and armament at Sirmour in Himachal, Dehradun in Garhwal, at the central portion of the Nepalese border in present day Uttar Pradesh and in the east in Bengal. The objective was to overstretch the outnumbered Nepalese forces and effect a quick surrender by pressuring Kathmandu. The first division was under the charge of Maj General Marley; the second under Maj General John Sullivan Wood; the third under Maj General Rollo Gillespie and the fourth was commanded by Col David Ochterlony.

Nothing could have been more surprising than the resistance the British faced from the Gorkhas, about whom they had no reliable assessment. They also had no prior experience of mountain warfare, which tested the logistic capabilities of the British. The worst was the shock their efforts met at Nalapani (Dehradun) October-November 1814, then again at Jaituk and Malaun in Himachal. At these places, the British reverses were in true sense a loss of face as the Gorkhas (along with locally recruited soldiers of Garhwal and Kumaon) stood their ground and gave a telling account of their sharp khukris, a weapon which has since become a byword of bloody retribution.

More than outright defeat of the Gorkhas by the British, it was more a case of the former abandoning their strongholds, albeit in face of greater numbers and modern artillery, in Kangra, Sirmour, Garhwal, Bihar and Bengal. The courageous conduct of the Gorkhas became legendary, appreciated most by their British opponents, the testimony of which stands in the shape of two obelisks, at Nalapani, recording the gallantry of both the late Major General Sir Rollo Gillespie and his nemesis, Balbhadra Kunwar, the young Gorkha commander of the four hundred odd Gorkhas who outshone the British on the bloodied hilltop of Nalapani. Less known is the fact that there were a significant number of Kumaonis and Garhwalis in the Gorkha regiments, especially once Nepal had stretched far beyond its original boundaries.

In December of 1814, the hostilities, known now as the Anglo Gorkha War, came to a halt but the terms dictated by the British to the Nepalese were not ratified by Kathmandu till March, 1816. This was the formal Treaty of Sagauli between the two non-Indian adversaries who campaigned on the sub- montane Himalayas and had far reaching political, economic and socio-cultural manifestations for Uttarakhand and Himachal. By virtue of a clause in the Treaty of Sagauli Dehradun (besides other tracts of land in Bihar, Uttarakhand and Himachal) was made an integral part of the dominions of the British. In a span of just ten years following the Battle of Khurbura in the heart of Dehradun (8 June,1804) that saw the Garhwali Raja, Pradyuman Shah, martyred defending his kingdom against the Gorkhas, and the defeat of the Gorkhali forces in 1814, the Doon Valley became alien territory governed by Nepal. A decade later, the Doon, with the addition of Jaunsar Bawur to it, became British dominion while the rightful Raja of Garhwal (now Sudarshan Shah) became sovereign of his truncated kingdom with his capital at Tehri. How Tehri flourished and disappeared from the map of Uttarakhand is another twist in the saga of Garhwal.

[For more on Battle of Nalapani see my earlier columns: Nalapani A Hill Once Red, Part 1 and 2 in Garhwal Post. Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the “Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun”(2011) and “Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun” (2017).]