‘The Sikh Army’ by Ian Heath and Michael Perry

sikhsoldiersThis month the book club discussed the book named ‘The Sikh Army’ by Ian Heath and Michael Perry. The book can be found here.

Brief Summary of Discussion:

  • Context & style of the book
  • European and British opinion more predominant than Sikh opinions
  • Focus on modernisation of the army
  • How Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to power
  • The population and make-up of the state and the army
  • Recognition of the misconceptions we have about the soldiers who made up the army, and the battlestandards and uniforms used
  • Disciplinary procedures of the army and the financial system
  • The Akalis and their contribution to the army
  • The demise of the Khalsa state


In-depth Analysis:

The discussion started with recognition of the fact that this book is part of a wider series and that all of the books in the series were rather technically written. The book dissected each aspect of the army and explained its individual history, rather than following an overall chronological view of how the army developed. This is likely to be in keeping with the style of the whole series. It was commented that the book was written from a European perspective rather than a Sikh or Indian perspective, and therefore possibly did not provide the whole picture of the army at the time. There was some discussion about why this might be. For example, it is possible that more European references exist today rather than Sikh/Punjabi references. Similarly any references from the Khalsa Raj were likely to have been written in Persian or Farsi (the official language at the time) and therefore may not be readily available for a Western author to interpret.

The British opinions were more predominant, with writers describing the Sikhs as not really being much of a threat. At the time time, some British evidence e.g. by the Lord Auckland’s sister Emily Eden, suggested that the Sikhs or Sarkar-e-Khalsa  were viewed as quite a significant threat but that attempts were made by the British to hide this. Certainly we know that at times the British army was definitively defeated by the army of the Raj, and that the Sikhs had some particular skills which were intimidating to the British e.g. the way in which they attacked and fought in close combat.

The focus of the book was on the regularisation or modernisation of the army, possibly because this had such a strong influence on the persistent strength of the Sarkar-e-Khalsa. Prior to this time the Sikh’s strength lay in guerilla-type warfare and tactics, where the Khalsa were able to attack at will and retreat at will into the jungles. This type of warfare is effective to an extent, but the political climate was changing and Maharaj Ranjit Singh had the foresight to anticipate a war with the British. He recognised the limitations of this type of warfare and the need for a more formal structure to the army and a longer-term strategy. Moreover he sought advisors from the French King Louis to prepare for this.

The book began with a very brief outline of how Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to power and the author implied that it was done via a ruse or trickery of some kind. The discussion involved a debate as to whether the tactics employed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh were necessary to achieve unity and there was recognition of the fact that he was clearly a clever, far-sighted individual who used situations to his advantage in order to achieve a united nation. Prior to this, the misls were described as fighting amongst themselves. This was less than a hundred years after Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s time on earth and it took only that much to result in in-fighting amongst the Sikhs. Other native Indian rulers had tried to consolidate power as Maharaja Ranjit Singh did, but they had previously failed in their attempts. Along the same thread, the topic of Sarbat Khalsa came up and the fact that as Maharaja Ranjit Singh consolidated power, this medium was no longer used as a method for making decisions regarding the panth, with the last known assembly taking place in 1805 during this time period. The author did not comment upon this directly but indirectly stated that Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rise to power changed the face of the Sikh nation whereby decisions were no longer made by assembly but through the monarchy.

The author highlights that the population of the Khalsa State was 3 million and there was some queries as to whether this was an accurate figure. Regardless, it is clear that Sikhs were actually still a minority even during the time period covered by the book with the author making reference that Sikhs made up a sixth of the population. Sikhs were portrayed as reluctant to accept discipline or European way of doing things within the army, and this rang true which some of what we see in our communities today.

Later on in the book the author describes how the artillery wing of the army is predominantly made up of Muslim soldiers, and the army is depicted as being very multicultural with soldiers from all over the empire and beyond. Maharaja Ranjit Singh paid soldiers more than the East India Company and therefore European deserters were also part of the army. This highlighted that the traditional pre-conceived notion of the army being made up of purely Sikh warriors is flawed. The uniforms used were not in the so-called traditional Khalsa colours but were in red, yellow, white and blue. People generally found the descriptions of the different sections of the army illuminating and the pictures in the book added to the readers’ experience.

Amongst the pictures were references to the standards or Nishan Sahibs used during the time period. There was acknowledgement from members that the current Nishan Sahib which we associate with Sikhi is a modern creation, and that Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army used varying Nishan Sahibs, possibly to distinguish battalions, and sometimes incorporating other cultures such as the French tricolour. One of the flags from the time lies in Lichfield Cathedral, although apparently is rather faded now.

We discussed the disciplinary procedures used by the army, and reflected upon the brutality of removing soldiers’ hands or ears. The western or european armies of the time enforced this kind of discipline and this was perhaps a feature of the army’s adaptation to european ways. On the other hand, the financial system employed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh was outdated and very traditional (essentially the Mughal system was adopted and taken over) and so this wasn’t modernised at all, in contrary to the army.

The section on the Akalis was well-received by members. We discussed the fact that the Akalis didn’t necessarily agree with the way in which Maharaja Ranjit Singh went about things, but they did agree to fight with him on some occasions. We discussed the fact that Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s character may not have been in keeping with that of the Akalis which created tension, but that his overall aim in keeping the British at bay resulted in a love-hate relationship between him and the Akalis. Taking reference from outwith the book it was discussed that Maharaja Ranjit Singh employed tactics such as having female body-guards surrounding him to discourage men from throwing things or launching assassination attempts. The Akalis were not incorporated into the army but were kept at bay and only used when needed. Their bravery perhaps resulted in their numbers decreasing as they were used for the most desperate of battles, having an attitude that ‘bordered on insanity’ and resulted in no fear of death.

Each unit within the army was prevented from having a discreet identity in order to ensure that no one faction had the potential to dominate the army. Perhaps this was one reason why the Akalis were not fully integrated into the army. The ultimate rise of independent power sources within the state probably ultimately led to the downfall of the Raj, as these became dominant and exerted their influence.

The demise of the army was not fully covered within this book, and it was felt by members that this was disappointing as it is crucial for Sikhs to learn from this. Clearly Maharaja Ranjit Singh hadn’t fully planned for the future, or perhaps his heirs were simply unlucky in being betrayed, killed or forcibly removed from seats of power. The Raj was reliant upon a blood-relative being a successor, something which has never been the case before in Sikh history. Is this the best way to maintain a Sikh Kingdom? The end of the book left more questions than answers and highlighted the tragedy of the Sikh Raj.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s