A brief history of us (1836-1838)

BY SINDHYAR TALPUR: The period after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and the first war of independence in 1857 is a tumultuous one, a period of change in South Asia. This phase is however lost from our history books underneath the vast misinformation and retelling of history to suit a certain narrative.

The area known as Pakistan today was particularly at the center of all this tumultuousness. While the British East India Company was absorbing Mughal India from the east, the Persian King Nadir Shah and later Afghan King Ahmed Shah Abdali were busy capturing regions in the west. As these empires also waned and retreated, there was a period of our history when both Punjab and Sindh co-existed as independent states.

The compilation ‘Correspondence relative to Sinde 1836-1838’ provides a snapshot from that period through the officers of the East India Company. These correspondences are of the chief British imperial officer, the governor general’s, report to the secret committee of the British parliament. They are not meant for propaganda but are verbatim correspondences with political agents to the governor general in Fort William, Bengal. These correspondences are pre-Napier and, therefore, more candid since they lack his attempts at deceit.

In this period, the Sikh Empire was ruled by its founder Maharaja Ranjeet Singh from his capital in Lahore. The empire covered not only both Indian and Pakistani Punjab but also covered areas of north-east Pakistan and Kashmir. Ranjeet Singh’s empire only stopped where the British began and he was no longer interested in harming their interests. A good relationship had developed between the British and Singh, which played a vital role in subsequent events.

Sindh was ruled by Talpur Amirs. Unlike Singh, the Talpurs ruled Sindh as an emirate, with Hyderabad as its capital. Hyderabad’s territory was ruled by four Amirs, known as Chauyari. These were Mir Naseer, Mir Mir Mohammad, Mir Sobdar and, the head of Chauyari, Mir Noor Mohammad. There were two other domestically independent smaller territories ruled from their respective capitals in Khairpur and Mirpurkhas by other amirs. On foreign affairs, these territories followed Hyderabad’s lead and treated Mir Noor Mohammad as the head of the whole of Sindh.

The correspondences begin with a report sent to the secret committee that Ranjeet Singh is advancing towards Sindh. He has complaints against the Mazari tribe that lives on the Sindh-Punjab border. He claims that the Mazaris have been crossing over to his land and plundering villages there. As retribution, Singh invades Rojhan, the capital of the Mazaris. The Mazaris live under the protection of Sindh and and the Amir of Khairpur, Mir Rustam is expected to keep them in check. Because the Amirs have failed to check the Mazaris, Singh is now planning to invade Shikarpur, the commercial hub of the region with an annual revenue of sixteen lakhs. He demands twelve lakhs as a tribute for suspension of his march.

The British see an opportunity in Ranjeet’s plan of invasion. For them, Sindh is a geographically vital area for Indus, Afghanistan and Punjab. It is vital for trade through River Indus down to their territories in Kutch and Bombay, allowing the Indian merchants access to central Asia and vice versa. However, Sindh has remained fiercely aloof and, until 1830s, the British were not allowed access to it without invitation. Now is the opportunity to change that and open up Indus and have a permanent base in Sindh.

The British offer their services to the Amirs of Sindh. They will ask Singh to stop his march towards Shikarpur and offer to mediate between the parties. Any future correspondence between Punjab and Sindh from then onwards will be exclusively through the British. They will do this only if the Amirs allow the British access to the Indus river without any checks and a British agent will be allowed to be stationed in the capital, Hyderabad. If the Amirs agree to British conditions, but Singh continues with his march, then the British offer their troops.

Consequently an attack on Shikarpur will constitute an attack on a British protectorate and the British will fight back. However, a proportion of the cost of the troops will be incurred by the Amirs. The British will also consider making Sindh a permanent protectorate against all external threats, if they so request.

The governor general is confident that Ranjeet Singh will not disobey their request and it is very likely that he will suspend his march. In essence, the British are confident that they will get access to the Indus river and have an agent stationed in the capital merely for being an independent mediator between Punjab and Sindh.

Captain Wade is assigned by the governor general to negotiate with Ranjeet Singh to get him to suspend his march. Colonel Pottinger is assigned the job of finalising commercial and political agreements with the Amirs.

As the British had expected, Captain Wade confirms that Ranjeet Singh is willing to suspend his march; he is even willing to retreat from Rojhan and accept British mediation. However, he wants his retreat to be on honourable and face-saving terms.

Colonel Pottinger confirms that the Amirs are willing to sign the commercial treaty to allow access to Indus. They will also allow a commercial fair to be held in Sindh, and offer Shikarpur as a more suitable place for it, instead of Thatta as proposed. However, they are reluctant to allow an agent to be stationed in Hyderabad as this will not be acceptable to the Baloch tribes, including their own tribe of Talpurs. Instead the Amirs offer the agent a station in Shikarpur to oversee trade and also offer one-fourth of the revenues of the city for garrison of troops and upkeep of the agent. They, however, refuse to become a permanent protectorate.

The governor general refuses to allow British involvement unless there is total acceptance of their demands, including stationing of an agent in Hyderabad. In the meanwhile, the Amirs of Mirpurkhas approach Ranjeet Singh directly to negotiate the issue. The British inform the Amirs that even if they directly get Singh to retreat, permanent peace can only come through their intervention. This was exhibited by his suspension of the march, merely on their request. After much back and forth, the Amirs agree to the full terms.

The correspondences end with a final brief correspondence from August 1838 to the secret committee. It confirms that everything the British set out to achieve has been achieved – and more. The commercial agreement, the control of Indus, a British agent in Hyderabad and more, a British agent in Shikarpur and one-quarter of the revenues of the city, have all been accepted. They will now begin to mediate between the two sides, ‘independently’.

The writer is a PhD student in Legal and Political Theory at the University of Glasgow and co-editor of South Asia Jurist. Email: sindhyar@msn.com Twitter: @sindhyar The article first appeared in The News International

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