Sacking the Subcontinent Part 4 Ahmed Shah Abdali

Ahmed Shah is crowned in 1747

Ahmed Shah Abdali is a hero to Afghanistan – and more broadly, to Pashtuns. He is rightly considered to be the founder of the country as we know it in its current geographical form. By force of will and a captivating personality, he united scattered, fragmented tribes into one nation that has endured for close to three centuries, while overcoming several mortal challenges. Before him there was no Afghanistan. Since him, there is an indefatigable nation that is here to stay no matter what great powers might plan.


However, he is not remembered quite as fondly elsewhere. The devastation of Punjab at his hands has been ingrained in the historical consciousness of its people as a great calamity. Nothing captures his deeds more than that evocative couplet by the immortal Waris Shah (1722 – 1798), which reads:


“khada peeta wahy da, 

baqi Ahmad Shahy da”

[“We have nothing except what we consume 

The rest is for Ahmad Shah.”]


Indeed for twenty long years, from his first stormy incursion in 1747-48 to his last abortive intrusion in 1769, Ahmed Shah repeatedly raided Punjab, depleting the treasuries, ravaging the land, impoverishing the people, depleting grain reserves and making people live in fear of being violated by the marauding barbaric Afghans. The creation of Afghanistan in a bleak landscape was financed by pillaged fields of fertile Punjab.


As a seventeen-year-old young man, Ahmed Shah had accompanied Nader Shah in the 1739 invasion of India as a protege and loyal general of the latter: commanding 4,000 horsemen. He had participated in plunder, rapine and slaughter, and had observed firsthand the revenue-generating potential of this productive land watered by numerous snow-fed rivers.


He had also acquired the Koh-i-Noor from a grandson of Nader Shah, in return for support for the latter’s claim to the Persian throne. This diamond, that now embellishes a British royal crown, was to fall to the Sikh court before the British – ever mindful of judicial niceties! – inveigled Prince Daleep Singh, teenage son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, to present it to Queen Victoria.


Ahmed Shah was present in close proximity when Nader Shah was murdered. The loyal protege regretted that he couldn’t intervene to help his benefactor, and rushed.


He immediately went to Kandahar to declare his independence and, through incessant warfare, established his state that ultimately included the whole of modern-day Afghanistan; as well as Mashhad and Nishapur; and the entire territory of modern-day Pakistan west of the River Indus.


Immediately after being declared King in July 1747, Ahmed Shah organised his army that was to consist primarily of horsemen provided by the tribes supporting him. The tribal elders were, in return, promised a regular payment that necessitated a constant need for Ahmed Shah to collect booty. He first demanded 5 Lakh (500,000) rupees from the Nader Shah-appointed governor of Ghazni and Kabul. On his refusal, Ahmed Shah left Kandahar to wrest away these provinces. He then proceeded to Peshawar, where he was welcomed by the public, who had turned against the Mughals since the days of Emperor Aurangzeb.


In December 1747, Ahmed Shah left Peshawar and crossing the Indus at Attock, occupied the fort of Rohtas. This was the first of his several forays into Punjab. On the way, the Afridi and Yousufzai tribes, long hostile to Mughal rule, joined him with their forces. Marching via Gujarat and Shahdara, the Afghan army, variously reported as numbering between 12,000 and 25,000, reached Lahore. Jamal Khan of Kasur, who had been asked by the Mughal court to join the defending army with 5,000 men, switched loyalties to Ahmed Shah on the eve of battle. This act is, of course, reminiscent of Mir Jaffar, who was similarly to switch loyalties from Siraj-ud-Daula to Lord Clive on the eve of the Battle of Plassey just ten years later.


Ahmed Shah occupied Lahore in January 1748 and ordered a general looting of the treasury and the residents. it was accompanied with a lot of bloodshed. Houses of the rich and poor were equally violated and vandalized for days. City elders, including Moman Khan, Lakhpat Rai and Surat Singh then collected and presented Ahmed Shah with three million rupees in return for ending the bloodshed and plunder.


Ahmed Shah stayed in the city for five weeks. He appointed Jamal Khan as governor and Lakhpat Rai as the Divan, so that he could collect revenue for him.


He then travelled to Amritsar, plundering the town and filling up the sacred Sikh water tank with earth. From here, he proceeded to Sirhind, a prominent and wealthy town between Ambala and Ludhiana, ravaging the countryside along the entire route. He plundered Sirhind of its entire wealth. Hearing of the approaching Mughal army, he decided to send the entire accumulated loot to Lahore.


In the ensuing battle at Manupur, the Afghan army lost heavily to the Mughal forces, even though the commander of the latter, Qamar-ud-din, was killed in the field. His son Mir Mannu, who was later to play a prominent part in the politics of Punjab as governor of Lahore, pursued the Afghans out of Punjab. Ahmed Shah tried to reach Lahore to save his plunder but couldn’t – a failure which he was to correct the next year.


In the latter part of 1748, Ahmed Shah launched another attack against Lahore. Unable to get any support from Delhi, Governor Mir Mannu sued for peace. Ahmed Shah plundered the treasury and the city. He agreed to peace on very harsh terms. He asked for the finances of Sialkot, Pasrur and Gujarat – to the tune of Rupees 14 lakhs (1,400,000) per annum – an amount far above the revenue-generating capacity of these districts.


He also asked that areas west of the Indus be ceded to him, as had been done by the Mughal court for Nader Shah ten years earlier. This pact is the earliest basis of the dispute about the boundary line between modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Sikhs rolled back the Afghan gains to the current border that was later formalised as Durand Line by the British.


Having collected his loot from Lahore, Ahmed Shah went back to Kandahar via D.G. Khan and Qalat instead of running the gauntlet of Sikh marauders. The tribal leaders in these areas recognised him as their overlord, an allegiance that they were to revoke when he started faring poorly in face of resurgent Sikhs. Those were, indeed, treacherous times.


Lahore’s treasury had been cleaned by Ahmed Shah. The indemnity levied by him was far higher than the revenue-generating capacity of the rulers of Lahore, who despite scavenging from the people could not collect the required 1.4 million rupees per year.


It must be remembered that the Afghan raids were very punishing for the general population along the route of the march. An army of 10-20,000 horsemen lived off the land for anywhere from six months to two years, depending upon the length of the raid. The men needed food and their horses required fodder three times a day. Such provisions were confiscated from the peasantry, who were already being robbed of all their savings by the Lahore tax collectors to accumulate the indemnity for the Afghan ruler. This happened year after year for 20 long years. We can, therefore, begin to understand the lamentations by Waris Shah, who belonged to Sheikhupura along the route of the Afghan marauders, and would have witnessed the ransacking firsthand.


In September 1751, Ahmed Shah departed Kabul yet again to raid Punjab and reached Peshawar a month later. Having no hope of help from Delhi, Mir Mannu sought assistance from his mortal enemy, the Sikhs.


Mir Mannu conveyed through emissaries that he had already paid the ‘tax’ for two years and was in arrears for one year only. Ahmed Shah sent one Raja Sukh Jeevan to Lahore to collect the indemnity. He was given 9 lakh (900,000) rupees with a pledge to pay the rest when the Afghans turned back to Afghanistan.


The Afghan king was not pleased and decided to continue his march to Lahore. In March 1752, after manoeuvring for a month and a half, Lahore’s forces fell back with heavy losses. Ahmed Shah besieged the city and Mir Mannu sued for peace.


The peace terms agreed were that Lahore would now be part of the Afghan empire and that Mir Mannu would pay Ahmed Shah 3 million rupees. The money was collected from the populace post haste. One can imagine the condition of the people, who had to give up whatever they had, on pain of forceful confiscation.


Ahmed Shah sent an envoy to the Delhi court for ratification of the agreement. He also wanted more indemnity. Fearful of the Afghans, the Emperor obliged and agreed to pay another 50 lakh (5,000,000) rupees.


Laden with cash, Ahmed Shah returned at the end of April. On the way, he learnt of civil strife in Kashmir and sent a force to annex the valley to his kingdom. This annexation was also reversed by Ranjit Singh fifty years later.


In Punjab, meanwhile, the Sikhs were constantly gaining strength and becoming better organised. They were not happy over the recurring demands by Lahore’s governor for revenue payments to the Afghans, and would frequently resist and revolt. In 1753, governor Mir Mannu was killed in a skirmish with a Sikh force. Punjab entered a period of strife that stopped the flow of funds to the Afghans. Ahmed Shah sent a force to quell the disturbances. He also appointed a new set of rulers, who stripped the people of whatever they had. Food prices rose and many citizens starved to death.


In the ensuing strife, when the Lahore governorship changed hands a few times, Ahmed Shah launched yet another attack and reached Lahore towards the end of November 1756. He could not collect the desired amount of plunder in the city and decided to continue to Delhi.


In January 1757, Ahmed Shah reached Panipat via Karnal, where the Mughal emissaries met him to try and make him return to Lahore. Ahmed Shah replied that it was difficult for him to return without visiting Delhi and meeting the Emperor Alamgir II. He then went on to present a list of outrageous demands including a payment of 20 million rupees, marriage to a daughter of the Emperor and the ceding to his realm of all areas northwest of Sirhind!


It was impossible for the Mughal court to pay such a large amount of money, a fact known to Ahmed Shah all along. He entered Delhi on the 20th of January 1756. The Emperor vacated the city with his household. When the Mughal minister came to Ahmed Shah to regret not paying the large indemnity that he had asked for, the Afghan asked him the amount he had in his house. The minister replied that he had 14 lakhs (1,400,000) and some jewellery. True to his ways, Ahmed Shah sent his forces to that home to confiscate his wealth.


On hearing of Ahmed Shah’s arrival, there was general commotion in the city, where the memory of Nader Shah’s massacre was still fresh. Citizens started deserting the city. On Friday, the 28th of January, the Emperor came to meet the Afghan Shah and conclude peace terms. It was agreed the life and honour of citizens will be respected, that Hindus would wear the tilak as a distinguishing mark and that no girl would be taken as a wife by Afghans except by her consent. However, it was not described how an Afghan soldier would meet an eligible girl to seek her consent – all girls were already hiding in their houses to escape being violated. The condition gave effectively free license to Afghan soldiers to take concubines in Delhi. On the 14th of February, a daughter of the Emperor was married to Ahmed Shah’s son.


Ahmed Shah then proceeded to plunder the countryside. He sent a contingent to the holy city of Mithra with instructions to kill everyone and to destroy all standing crops up to Agra. He declared that his soldiers were free to loot whatever they could. In Agra, the Afghans asked for a payment of 5 lakh (500,000) rupees in return for peace. When the elite of the city could not pay in time, the Afghans entered the city for plunder. Abdali sent emissaries to Bharatpur asking the ruler to pay an indemnity with the threat of destroying his towns.


Mercifully for North India, an epidemic of cholera spread in the Afghan army and 100-150 soldiers started dying every day. Ahmed Shah returned to Delhi and asked for a princess to be married to him. There were now 16 ladies of the Delhi harem with their forty slave girls in the Afghan camp. Ahmed Shah now decided to return to Kandahar. He was reported to have been carrying booty worth 120 million rupees, and 28,000 carts and animals laden with looted items. Many of the soldiers of his army had loaded their horses with the plundered goods and were walking on foot.


The Sikhs, however, were lying in wait for the overloaded Afghans. Their bands harassed and looted the returning army through hit-and-run tactics. Part of the plunder carried by the Afghans was carried away by the Sikh bands. Sardar Charat Singh, the grandfather of Ranjit Singh, chased the Afghans till the River Indus, freeing many of the slaves and girls, and depriving the slow-moving soldiers of whatever they were carrying back.


It was at this time that Lord Clive took advantage of the overall situation in northern India. He invaded Bengal and won the Battle of Plassey in June 1757, putting the East India Company on the path to supremacy in India. It will be seen ahead that as Ahmed Shah weakened the local Indian powers, the Company kept extending their rule.


In April 1758, Sikhs and Marathas occupied Lahore and expelled Afghan officials, an act that pitched the Afghans and the Marathas against each other. Ahmed Shah sent a force against the Marhattas that was defeated.


In October 1759, Ahmed Shah set off for Lahore via the Bolan Pass with 40,000 horsemen. He had sent another force of 15,000 via Peshawar. He faced stiff resistance near Lahore, losing some 2,000 men, but occupied the city. He then proceeded to chase the Marathas.


At this time, there were various armies of Marathas, Oudh and Afghans on the move, with the British keeping a prudent aloofness. Ahmed Shah marched up to Agra, plundering and slaughtering, while the Marathas were doing the same by looting Delhi and carrying out severe atrocities of their own.


The two armies finally met at Panipat in January 1761 in a major battle. The Marathas lost with a loss of nearly 100,000 killed whereas the Afghan losses were close to 20,000. This victory won him a huge amount of war booty.


Ahmed Shah stayed in Delhi for two months and reached Lahore in April, before departing back with the plunder to his Kandahar. He was, as usual, harassed by Sikh bands who took away part of the loot. They also took over Lahore and Punjab on his exit across the Indus. Fresh from his huge victory, Ahmed Shah was furious and decided to teach the Sikhs a bitter lesson.


He came back in early 1762 to deal with the Sikhs. Crossing Lahore, he ordered that everyone in the local dress be put to sword. In the battle at Malirkotla on the 5th of February – which the Sikhs remember as Wada Ghalughara, The Great Massacre – some 20,000 Sikhs were killed in a few hours. Ahmed Shah then returned to Kandahar in December 1762 via the Gomal Pass. To this day, the Sikhs commemorate this tragedy and have built a memorial at the site of the battle.


However, the Sikhs yet again rose in revolt and took over Punjab, occupying Lahore and depriving the Afghans of any further revenue.


Ahmed Shah once again launched a fresh raid in October 1764. This is the exact time when the British had won the battle of Buxar against the combined force of Mughals, Oudh and Bengal. The Company won the Divani (revenue) of Bengal and Bihar, making them the powerbrokers in the entire Ganges valley.


Ahmed Shah reached Lahore and chased the Sikh forces across Amritsar. In retaliation, the Sikhs sacked Sirhind, a town allied with Afghans. The two forces fought a long inconclusive battle at Roper. Failing to get the Sikhs to fight a pitched battle, Ahmed Shah returned to Afghanistan but suffered heavy losses while crossing the River Chenab, due to a flash flood.


In his absence, the Sikhs again occupied Lahore. Ahmed Shah came back in November 1766 and reached Lahore and Amritsar. In various battles, the two sides suffered heavy losses. The fighting again proved inconclusive. Ahmed Shah wanted to proceed to Delhi to seize more plunder but the British advised the Mughal Emperor and the Oudh rulers to resist him. Ahmed Shah realised that with his rear exposed to the powerful Sikhs, he couldn’t fight the British-backed forces and decided to return to Afghanistan.


Ahmed Shah’s last foray into Punjab was in winter of 1769 but he was stopped by the Sikhs at Gujarat. Correctly assessing that the Sikhs had become too strong for his forces, Ahmed Shah returned home – never to come back to this region that he had terrorised for twenty years.


Ahmed Shah’s exploits occurred at a time when the decaying carcass of the Mughal Empire was being contested by the Afghans, Marathas, Sikhs and British. The latter were superior in diplomacy, technology and discipline. Eventually, they won the whole of the Subcontinent after a century of dogged struggle by vanquishing their opponents piecemeal.


To read parts 1 to 3 of 'Sacking the Subcontinent' visit History section.


About Author: Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on historical and social issues.

This article was first published

Article and picture are courtesy and copyright has obtained written permission from the author to publish this article.

Also read

1. The Third Battle of Panipat 14th January 1761 

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