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Zorawar Singh & the Valiant Dogras

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By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

In his Foreword to Col Ajay K Raina’s book, ‘Beyond the Frozen Frontier: General Zorawar Singh’s Life & His Forays into the Himalayan Mountains’, military historian and filmmaker Shiv Kumal Verma asserts that, if one looked at the challenge of the terrain and the logistics of warfare, Zorawar was miles ahead of the contemporary French General, Napoleon who, like him, added many a principality to his domain, but finally lost to an adversary called ‘General Winter’. Like Napoleon, Zorawar also extended his battle zone well beyond his established supply lines – a lesson which historians have reinforced from Gibbon’s narrative in the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.

‘Beyond the Frozen Frontier’ is not only very well researched; its strength also lies in opening newer avenues for younger scholars to track hitherto unassessed manuscripts and folios, not just in the Bharat Kala Bhawan in the BHU at Kashi, but also the many  unexplored bundles of historical records in the Mubarak Mandi Complex in Jammu. Reading the book also gives us an idea of the very complex times in which Zorawar was born. Though he was born into the  Kahluria Hindu Rajput family in the princely state of Kahlur (Bilaspur) in the  present-day Himachal Pradesh in September 1784, he was named  ‘Zorawar’,  a Persian word which means victory. And victorious he was in all but his last campaign. Raina also shows how the late eighteenth century was an amalgam of so many influences in the region of the present-day Punjab, Himachal, J&K and Ladakh. From the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries  there had been a keen ‘spiritual’ as well as ‘temporal’ contest between Shia Islam and Buddhists, but by the early seventeenth century, Leh saw the resurgence of Buddhism, while in the rest of the areas the Noorbakshia Islam became the norm. This was also an arena of multiple contests: the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh, the remnants of the Afghans, the growing power and influence of the British in the cis Sutlej areas of Punjab and hill states, the Tibetan Gyalpos in Ladakh with the Chinese and Nepalese also trying to protect their turf at Taklakot on the Manasarovar route. And though both Jammu and Kashmir were under the Sikh Durbar of Lahore, their respective governors were often at loggerheads with each other over the control of the extremely profitable Pashmina trade.

Zorawar was just a lad of fifteen when Ranjeet Singh took over the Lahore Kingdom and expanded it towards Afghanistan and Kashmir because the Sutlej River to the East was his settled boundary with the British. But Zorawar was not a direct recruit of the Khalsa Army. He had taken up service under Raja Jaswant Singh of Marmathi (modern Doda district) and placed under the commandant of the Reasi Fort (Bhimgarh fort). According to GC Smyth, ‘While delivering a routine message to Gulab Singh, Zorawar told him of the financial waste occurring in the fort administration and boldly presented his own scheme to effect savings by making a provision for cooked meals, instead of dry rations for the soldiers.’  Gulab Singh was impressed by Zorawar’s sincerity and appointed him commandant of Reasi.

Zorawar Singh fulfilled his task and his grateful ruler made him commissariat officer of all forts north of Jammu. He was later made Governor of Kishtwar and was given the title of Wazir (minister). Thus, by his mid-thirties, he had gained the confidence of Gulab Singh, who in turn was the rising star of the Lahore Durbar. Soon, thereafter, he was appointed as the Governor of Kishtwar, whose boundaries touched principalities of Kargil and Leh, which paid tributes to the Gyalpo of Ladakh (King). In 1834, one of these, the Raja of Timbus, sought Zorawar’s help against the Gyalpo. This was just the opportune moment Zorawar was looking for, although the hagiographic account, Gulab Nama, in honour of Gulab Singh mentions the drought in Kishtwar, which led Zorawar to extract food reserves, ponies and treasures through war. In the spring of 1835, he defeated the large Ladakhi army of Banko Kahlon and marched his victorious troops towards Leh. The Gyalpo now agreed to pay 50,000 rupees as war-indemnity and 20,000 rupees as an annual tribute to the Lahore Durbar.

After winning Ladakh, Zorawar Singh was presented to Ranjit Singh and, together with Gulab Singh, they sought permission to invade Tibet which would have extended the borders of the Sikh kingdom with the Hindu kingdom of Nepal – a possibility which sent shivers down the spine of the British. However, Ranjit Singh advised, both, Gulab Singh and Zorawar to exercise restraint. But this fiat did not apply to Baltistan, which was taken by the Dogra troops supplemented with Ladakhi contingents who had been recruited by Zorawar, and by the winter of 1839/40, the   fort of Skardu was captured, followed by that of Astor. After the death of Ranjit Singh, Gulab Singh left Lahore for Jammu, and was virtually ‘independent’ of the Durbar. This is when Zorawar mounted his Tibet campaign achieving victories right up to Taklakot. In hindsight, it appears that this where he ought to have stopped and consolidated. But, when he left for his pilgrimage to Mansarovar, his flanks were exposed, and he died a fighter’s death in the peak winter of 1841 (December 12, 1842). Such was the terror that the  Tibetans waited for a while before approaching him, after which they severed his head from his body and cut his ears: they feared that his body may have some ‘magical  powers’ of resurrection. But he had fought so bravely that even the Tibetan adversaries decided to honour him with a chortem (memorial). Within a few weeks of his death, the famous treaty of Chushul was signed  which proclaimed ‘the relationship  between Maharaja Gulab Singh of J&K and the Lama Guru of Lhasa (Dalai Lama) is now established’ and that both promise to ‘recognise ancient boundaries which should be looked after by each side without resorting to warfare.’

But though Zorawar was dead, his legend lived on, and the Dogra troops have always looked up to him for inspiration. This heritage was acknowledged by Field Marshal William Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, who wrote: The Dogra proved themselves yet again a hardened and courageous fighter. Like his predecessors, he has been proud of his military heritage and has shown himself well versed in the art of war. Nor did he fail to live up to his age-old reputation of combining courage with modesty and good manners as a gentleman should. I know from personal experience that in an army with many fine battalions, the Dogras have not merely upheld their brilliant reputation, but have added lustre to the pages of history of, both, their own regiment and of the Indian Army.

(Dr Sanjeev Chopra superannuated as the Director of the LBS National Academy of Administration after thirty-six years in the IAS. He is now the Festival Director of Valley of Words (VoW) and a Visiting Professor of History, Public Policy and Knowledge Management at the Swami Rama Himalayan University, Dehradun. He has held the Hubert H Humphrey, Robert S McNamara, Twenty First Century Trust and the Royal Asiatic Society Fellowships.)