THAKUR SINGH SANDHANWALIA (1837-1887), one of the founders of the Singh Sabha and a scion of the Bhatti Jat Dynasty (Sandhanwalia title), who masterminded the campaign for the restoration of Maharaja Duleep Singh to the throne of the Punjab, was son of Sardar Lehna Singh Sandhanwalia of Raja Sansi and a daughter of Raja Sansar Chand Katoch of Kangra. His father in the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh enjoyed the title of Ujjal-Didar Nirmal-buddh Sardar-i-bawaqar (Resplendent presence, pure of intellect, the Sardar with prestige marked) Sardar Lehna Singh, Sandhanwalia, Hizbar ijang;Bahadur. Hailing from Raja Sansi, Thakur Singh was born in 1837, and was only child of six at the time of his father’s death. Thakur Singh was brought up and restored to his Jagirs of 1,45,000 Rs by Maharani Jind Kaur. Apart from Sandhanwalia Jagirdari troops, Thakur Singh being the Chief by right, was the head of Derah Sandhanwalia, Derah Pindiwala and Regiments of Partap Singh and Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia. These Derahs and Regiments took part in the First Anglo Sikh War.

Kunwar Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia and Maharaja Duleep Singh’s (Last King of Punjab) ancestors descended from Maharajah Salvahan, Great King of India who had his capitol at Sialkot and 27th in descent from Salvahan was Budha Singh (common ancestor of both the cousins), who partook Khande-bate-da Amrit from the very hands of the tenth master, Guru Gobind Singh. A strong Sikh Empire was established by Maharajah Ranjit Singh Sandhanwalia with the capitol at Lahore. Griffin states: The two most principle families in the Panjab proper, highest in rank and possessing the widest influence, are the Ahluwalia and the Sindhanwalia. The possession of the Ahluwalia Chief are almost entirely situated in the Jalandhar Doab; whilst of all Sikh Families, between the Beas and the Indus, the Sindhanwalia Chief is the acknowledged head.

When Thakur Singh was of about 20 years of age first war of Indian Independence broke out in 1857. His in-laws, Raja Nahar Singh of Ballabhgarh took active part in it and Thakur Singh also helped him in his efforts in this war. When the British gained an upper hand they captured and hanged Raja Nahar Singh and annexed his state. However Kunwar Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia somehow escaped to the Punjab enthused with spirit. Being from reputed Family with wide authority, in 1865 he was appointed an Extra-Assistant Commissioner of District Amritsar and was also nominated a member of the General Committee for the administration of the Golden Temple. In this capacity, he observed how Sikh religion had been corrupted by the accretion of customs and rituals contrary to the teachings of the Gurus. He also felt concerned about the general state of the Sikh community. In 1873, occurred an event which gave a decisive turn to his career. Four Sikh pupils of the Mission High School in Amritsar declared their intention of abjuring their faith in favor of Christianity. Thakur Singh called in Amritsar a meeting of some of the leading Sikhs of the day, including Baba Sir Khem Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak, Kunwar Bikram Singh of Kapurthala, and Giani Gian Singh of Amritsar. This Sikh meeting laid the foundation of a society called the Sri Guru Singh Sabha on October 1, 1873. Singh Sabha proved élan vital in the regeneration of Sikh society. He was the moving spirit of the body and became its first President. Singh Sabha undertook to (i) restore Sikhism to its pristine purity; (ii) edit and publish historical and religious books; (iii) propagate current knowledge, using Punjabi as the medium, and to start magazines and newspapers in Punjabi; (iv) reform and bring back into the Sikh fold the apostates; and (v) interest the highly placed Englishmen, in and ensure their association with, the educational programme of Sikhs. A vigorous campaign was set afoot. For the Sikhs the Singh Sabha was a great regenerating force. Apart from religious reform among the Sikhs, the Singh Sabha ushered in a new cultural consciousness in the Punjab. It aimed especially at the development of modern education. Thakur Singh remained at the helm of affairs of the new society for a whole decade. Kunwar Thakur Singh was a man of learning and at that time one of the few persons in the Punjab who knew both the classical language of the East – Sanskrit and Arabic. He was also a distinguished Persian and Punjabi scholar. He was also called upon to be the President of the Khalsa Diwan, a new society constituted at a joint meeting on April 1, 1880, of the Amritsar and Lahore Singh Sabhas. Thakur Singh was in consistent contact with Maharaja Duleep Singh during this time, he had brought his attention to the illegal disposition of the young prince from the royal throne and the annexation of the Sikh Empire. He drew the attention of Maharaja towards his ancestral property in India which belonged to him. Because of his independent views, Thakur Singh was deprived of his position as Extra Assistant Commissioner. Magisterial powers within the limits of Raja Sansi were withdrawn from him in 1877. In 1883, his estate was placed under court of wards. The same year he received from his brother Maharaja Duleep Singh a wire requesting him to provide a list of his ancestral estates and properties in the Punjab.

In his letter of November 11, 1883, he provided a list of Duleep Singh’s ancestral estates and later left for England upon Duleep Singh’s call. The Government was averse to Thakur Singh’s leaving India. Before his departure, Thakur Singh visited the four Takhts, i.e. the principal seats of Sikh authority and legislature, at Amritsar, Anandpur, Patna and Nanded to pray for the prosperity of Duleep Singh’s cause. Accompanied by two of his sons, Narinder Singh and Gurdit Singh, a granthi or Scripture reader Partap Singh, and three servants, he reached London in 1884 and stayed at Holland Park as the guest of Maharaja Duleep Singh. He daily read out from the holy Guru Granth Sahib to the Maharaja, and instructed him in the tenets of Sikhism. Thakur Singh had brought with him a document signed by the custodians of the Sikh Takhts (the highest ecclesiastical seats) in India confirming the prophecies about Duleep Singh`s restoration to the throne of the Punjab. These prophecies, attributed to Guru Gobind Singh himself, announced in crisp, aphoristic Punjabi: ‘He [Duleep Singh] will drive his elephant throughout the world … Dissensions will arise at Calcutta and quarrels will be in every home. Nothing will be known for 12 years. Then will rise the Khalsa whom the people of four castes will like …. Fighting will take place near Delhi…. When Delhi remains 15 kos away, the King will cease. Duleep Singh will sit on the throne and all people will pay him homage.’ He had implanted the seeds of rebellion in the mind of Maharaja Duleep Singh, living as a ranked British noble in England, told him about the Guru’s Prophesy and as a result the Maharaja resolved to renounce Christianity and re-join the faith of his forefathers. He imbued him with zeal to return to India to wrest back his lost empire. ‘Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia had carried with him to England something much more potent than a list of lost property. He bore the keys to the whole kingdom in the form of a prophecy’.

In August 1885, Thakur Singh returned to the Punjab. ‘May the Maharajah Dalip Singh, who has sent presents, money and Karah Prashad, enjoy good health and Sikhidan’ was the Ardas performed at Shri Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar when Maharaja had Rs. 1000 sent as an offering through his cousin, as cited by the letter of 6th October, 1885 from C.P. Tupper ESQ, to H.M. Durand. British were creating all odds in Duleep Singh’s ‘receiving powhl which I trust my cousin Thakur Singh Sindhawalia will administer to me.’ Furthering the cause of Duleep Singh was now Thakur Singh’s sole absorption. C.L. Tupper on 12th December, 1885 writes to His Majesty Durand, stating, ‘From Hyderabad Sardar Thakur Singh went to Indore, with the same object in view…. afterwards he proceeds to Ajmer… and a movement of the Sikhs was being organized in the Punjab and all over India to support the Maharajah’. He further adds that ‘Sardar went on from Indore to Rewari and proceeded thence to Dadri in Jind State….he would proceed thence to Bombay’. Duleep Singh himself decided to return to his motherland and left England on 31 March 1886. He invited Thakur Singh to meet him at Bombay and arrange for his reinitiation into Sikhism. As the government was reluctant to permit Thakur Singh to receive him, Duleep Singh wrote to the Secretary of State: ‘As my cousin, Sardar Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia, informs me that he fears permission will not be accorded to him to go to Bombay by the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, and as I particularly desire to be rebaptized into the faith of my ancestors by some relative of my own, may I therefore beg your Lordship kindly to request His Excellency by telegraph on my behalf or permit me to do so, that the Sardar be allowed to meet me on reaching India’. The news of Duleep Singh`s likely return sent a thrill of expectation across the Punjab. The government warily stopped him at Aden. This was the advice it had from one of its leading Sikh supporters Mahamahopadhyaya Sardar Sir Attar Singh of Bahadaur. Upon arrest in Aden, Duleep Singh got baptized and was re-initiated into the Sikh Faith on 25th May, 1886. In intelligence reports and other government papers, Thakur Singh was described as ‘a troublesome person … the friend and inciter of Duleep Singh’. ‘Yet he made good his escape into Pondicherry on 6 November 1886’. His home, 10 rue Law de Lauristan, Pondicherry, French India had become the seat of Duleep Singh’s Government-in-exile. Thakur Singh received correspondence from Duleep Singh through the French post office.

Reports were studiously kept in circulation by Kunwar Thakur Singh that Maharaja Duleep Singh would lead a Russian invasion into India to overthrow the British. There were desertions from Indian regiments upon the news of Maharaja coming to Punjab. A network of secret communication was established. Proclamations, secret missives and letters were sent to win support for the Maharaja, he also secretly visited the Indian princely states and the Sikh shrines to strengthen the cause. The princes generally implicated in the cause of Duleep Singh were Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot, Raja Hira Singh of Nabha, the Maharaja of Kashmir and Raja Moti Singh of Punchh. Kukas were also actively involved due to the efforts of Thakur Singh. He started circulating the Maharaja’s correspondence in Indian newspapers like The Times of India and Modern Times. Major Evans Bell’s book, The Annexation of the Punjab and the Maharaja Duleep Singh, exhibiting the illegality and immorality of British occupation of the Punjab, was widely circulated. Thakur Singh had the book translated into Punjabi by his friend Partap Singh, the granthi and published by another supporter, Diwan Buta Singh, of Aftabi Punjab Press. Covert contacts were formed with individuals in foreign lands. He laid out a fairly extensive system of communication in the Punjab, and had a continuous stream of visitors in Pondicherry including soldiers from the Indian Army. Envoys came from Duleep Singh as well. The brain behind this entire movement was that of Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia. As per the special report of Deputy Commissioner Andrew Bernard, the plan of the ‘Duleep Singh’s party’ was that ‘as soon as the Russians have completed the railway through Central Asia, a Russian Army is to invade India, the native soldiers who will be sent to the front with the British Army on reaching the neighbourhood of the Russians, are to desert and to place under the command of Duleep Singh. Whilst the native soldiers on their way back to the front are suddenly to mutiny, loot the stores and attack the British Regiments; at the same time arrangements will be made to destroy the railway and telegraph lines all over the country; and to enable the people, in certain places, to rise against the British rule; the native states at this time to declare themselves for Duleep Singh, and to attack the British with their army.’ It was also informed regarding the sections of the Army ready for the cause, that ‘ these men leave their regiments on the plea of visiting the shrines of Rameshwar in the south of India, but they leave the train at Arconum and drift slowly down to Pondicherry, avoiding railway station bordering on the French Territory; two men of the Corps of Guides are said to have been with Thakur Singh at the beginning of August, and 40,000 Sikh and Rajput Soldiers are said to have taken the oath of allegiance through representatives from their regiments sent to the Pondicherry in this manner.’ Regarding the Native States ‘ several chiefs have taken the oath of allegiance… The Sikh Soldiers of Hyderabad have sworn allegiance. 120,000 Kukas in the Punjab are reckoned on to rise at the critical movement.’ And as per the after plans ‘Duleep Singh is to be installed as Ruler of India, and is to be helped by a Supreme Council, the country to be governed on liberal principles and the people to be allowed to have local self-government and freedom of speech.’

From Russia, ‘Duleep Singh, Sovereign of the Sikh Nation and Implacable foe of the British Government’ sent to Kunwar Thakur Singh a seal and letter in token of his appointment to the office of Prime Minister of the Government in Exile: ‘I appoint you my Prime Minister, should Sri Satguru Ji one day replace me on the throne of the Punjab.’ Indeed another war of Independence was on the brink of start. But the Sardar had not long to live. The office of ‘His Excellency, Prime Minister of the State of Lahore’ had been penetrated by a British agent. Maharaja received a terrible news through the telegram from Pondicherry that Kunwar Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia was dead. According to Duleep Singh, ‘it is a very great loss to me. It is like my right arm being cut off. I do not know what I shall do without him in India now’. The British had penetrated the Government-inExile and Thakur Singh ‘was poisoned by the English’ and died on 18th August, 1887. Queen Victoria later (8th December) received a personal intelligence report of Pondicherry Operation summarized by Sir Henry Ponsonby, informing about death of Kunwar Thakur Singh and briefing about the treasonable letters being found and the covert operations being carried out in India by Duleep Singh’s adherents. His sons Gurbachan Singh, Narinder Singh and Gurdit Singh were adopted by Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1889. Another son Bakshish Singh was adopted by Sardar Shamsher Singh. Kunwar Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia, henceforth died for a great cause of liberating his motherland from foreign yoke and re-establishing the Sikh Empire, he died a heroic death. His ashes were brought to his ancestral village Raja Sansi.

References :-

  • Griffin, Lepel, The Punjab Chiefs. Lahore, 1890
  • Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983
  • Ganda Singh, ed., History of the Freedom Movement in the Panjab (Maharaja Duleep Singh Correspondence). Patiala, 1972
  • Jagjit Singh, Singh Sabha Lahir. Ludhiana, 1974
  • Campbell, Christy, The Maharajah’s Box, Harper Collins, 2002.
  • India Office Records, British Library, London

Acknowledgement :-

  • Kunwar Damandeep Singh Sandhawalia
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