Dr. Mathra Singh

Martyr of Ghadar Party   ਗ਼ਦਰੀ ਜੋਧਾ

Great Game and Ghadar

Excerpted from the book

Therefore, as the British fears (unfounded in hindsight) arose over Russian expansion that may extend to India, they had to assert control on Afghanistan as that was the entry point for any invasion of India. To achieve that end they had to choose between Maharaja Ranjit Singh or Emir of Afghanistan Dost Mohammed as an ally. The British were not yet confident of winning a war with the well organized army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. His army included such brave sons of the soil like Chattar Singh Attariwalla, Desa Singh Majithia, Hari Singh Nalwa, Lehna Singh Majithia, Misr Diwan Chand, Mokham Chand, Sham Singh Attariwala and Zorawar Singh among others. In addition, he had access to modern (at that time) war techniques from Europe through his foreign generals; Jean-François Allard – French, Paolo Di Avitabile – Italian (Naples), Claude August Court – French, Jean-Baptiste Ventura – Italian (Modena), Alexander Gardner – American (Wisconsin) and Josiah Harlan – American (Pennsylvania). Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army at the time was among the early adopters of laying more emphasis on infantry rather than cavalry (as the British were doing already) which yielded victories after victories over the outdated armies of other Indian kingdoms. In addition, when Governor General of India Lord Auckland sent Captain Alexander Burnes to Kabul to make an alliance, Dost Muhammad laid the condition of ceding the province of Peshawer back to Afghanistan that Maharaja Ranjit Singh had won after five hard fought battles with the Afghans, emerging victorious each time.

As a war with the Sikh Kingdom was not advisable at that time, therefore the British chose to ally with Maharaja Ranjit Singh against Dost Muhammad with a purpose to install Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan. A tripartite argreement was thus signed between Lord Auckland, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Shah Shuja, the ousted Afghan ruler who was already under the protection of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was willing to do anything to claim back his throne. The treaty confirmed control of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, in perpetuity, over the former Afghan possessions of Kashmir, Attock, Hazara, Peshawer, Khyber, Banno, Tonk, Kalabagh, and other dependent Waziri districts like Derajat and the rich and fertile plains of Multan. For relinquishing the Sikh Kingdom’s claims on Shikarpur in Sindh, the kingdom would receive a sum of Rs. 15,00,000 from the Amir of Sindh. Shah Shuja also renounced all his claims on Sindh and the territories of the Sikh Kingdom and in addition he was obliged to pay an annual payment of Rs. 2,00,000 to the Sikh Kingdom for the maintenance of a Mohammedan auxillary force of over 5,000 men to be used for Shah Shuja’s help whenever needed. Shah Shuja was also required to have a British envoy.

The agreement was a masterstroke for Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the maximum extent and to the British to a lesser extent. Maharaja Ranjit Singh with that stroke of the pen ensured a well defined territorial integrity and to keep the very strong force of the British army at bay, never to attack them unless the agreement was breached. All military maneouvers were being paid for by the payment from Sindh and annual payments assured from Shah Shuja as he was weak and under direct control of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. The British gained an indirect control over the throne of Afghanistan (under the watchful eyes of the Sikh army) to ensure thwarting of any advances the Russians might make towards Afghanistan. In addition, the Sikh army was only to contribute a few thousand soldiers to aid the British army, which actually took the major brunt of the war. The Afghans were no match for the combined forces of British and Sikh armies and surrendered meekly in the summer of 1839 with hardly a few battles at Ghazni and outside Kabul. Dost Mohammad fled with his loyal followers to Bukhara.

At this point however, fate turned adverse for the Sikh kingdom when shortly afterwards, Maharaja Ranjit Singh died and a bitter and feudal succession battle arose with many a bloodshed and conspiracies. Due to the internal strife in Lahore, the British no longer had the support of the Sikh army and hence gradually lost their firm control on Afghanistan, gradually leading to Afghans attacking the British forces, killed their envoy Alexander Burnes and slaughtered the British population, numbering about 4,500 which were under retreat. These to-and-fro skirmishes were named the first Anglo Afghan War from 1839 to 1842. The British licked their wounds and turned away and did not attack Afghanistan again for the next 30-40 years.

The intrigues in Lahore for a bloody succession battle finally weakened the Sikh kingdom to the extent that by 1845 the British felt brave enough to launch the first Anglo Sikh war at Sobraon in 1845. British taking advantage of the situation breached the agreement they had signed (just like they did earlier over the last 50-70 years showing their moral poverty and underhanded nature of deceiving their opponents) and under the pretense of the Sikhs having crossed the Sutlej river, launched the first Anglo Sikh war. Some territorial gains were won by the British inspite having lost most of the battles fought with an inspired Sikh army but out-maneuvered by political game playing. The Sikh kingdom remained in Lahore but lost major territories by having to cede them to the British including Kashmir, Jalandhar Doab area, Hazara and hill countries. Maharaja Duleep Singh was anointed king of Panjab under his mother Maharani Jindan Kaur as Regent. This last stand was also however to not last long and by 1848 battles were already beginning to be waged with the battle of Chillianwala stands out as a battle in which the British failed to defeat their Sikh opponents despite having the advantages of numbers, ideal weather and terrain and superior logistics. However subsequent treacherous defection of some key generals and lack of leadership due to loss of authority at Lahore, worked against the Sikh army which was finally defeated in the battle of Gujerat as the final battle of the Second Anglo Sikh War and the kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was finally merged into British India in 1849.

By the middle of the 19th century therefore, the British were resigned to the fate that their northernmost boundary of the Indian empire would end at Khyber and not include Afghanistan. Therefore their unfounded anxiety of Russian invasion of India was never laid to rest and kept on simmering over the years. Meanwhile Russia kept on expanding over the vast swathes of central Asia, Tashkent was annexed in 1865, Samarkand and Bukhara in 1868, so that Russian influence now extended right upto Amu Darya, the river delineating the northern boundary of Afghanistan (which remains to date). It seems Russia itself never realized its true capabilities and never planned to invade India at all during all these years.

While Britain was feverishly trying to analyze the ‘true’ intentions of Russia, Germany, another rapidly growing European power was keeping a very close watch on the situation. Around 1890 or thereabouts, Rogalla Von Bieberstein made a very deep and analytical study of the possibilities of Russian invasion of India and infact projected a number of possible routes that the Russian army could take to attack India (published in The North American Review in March 1898). This study was shown to Otto von Bismarck, who had already developed an aggressive expansion of German colonies, but also his successor Leo von Caprivi. While the British already ruled the south of Asia Minor via the sea routes, and Russia was rapidly expanding and consolidating in the north, Germany saw its opportunity to carve a path for itself in the middle, through the Ottoman empire.

The condition of debt-ridden, ailing Ottoman Empire of Sultan Abdul Hamid II had become so extreme that the Sultan had been forced by his French and British creditors to put the finances of the realm under the control of a banker-run agency in 1881. A European-controlled organization, the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (OPDA), was set up to collect the payments and as an intermediary with European companies seeking investment opportunities. The Germans set about to change that dependency of Ottoman Turkey on the British and French. For his part, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was all too pleased to open his door to growing German influence as a welcome counterweight and a source of new capital to solve the economic problems of the empire.

In 1888, the Oriental Railway from Austria, across the Balkans via Romania and Bulgaria to Constantinople, was opened. This put Constantinople in direct contact with Berlin. A few years down the line, Sultan Abdul Hamid II proposed to extend the railway line eastwards (prodded on by Germany) to reach Baghdad. By 1898, the Ottoman Ministry of Public Works had offers from an Austro-Russian syndicate, the French, British bankers, and the German Deutsche Bank. The Turks shot down any Russian presence because of its designs for access for its navy through the Dardanelles. The British proposal was withdrawn after the outbreak of Boer War in 1899. On November 27, 1899, the Deutsche Bank, headed by Georg von Siemens, was awarded a concession for a railway from Konya to Baghdad and to the Persian Gulf. The Anatolian Railway Company had already conducted surveys of the proposed line and based on that information, Deutsche Bank negotiated subsurface mineral rights (including the sole rights to any petroleum which might be found twenty kilometers to either side of the proposed Berlin-Baghdad Railway). When completed, Germany would have access (and control) through the Ottoman empire of a large portion of Asia Minor including the Balkans, the Dardanelles straits, Aleppo to Sinai peninsula next to Suez Canal and territory upto Shat-el-Arab at the Persian Gulf, and to Aden at the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. In 1900 the German Reichstag also approved the huge naval construction program of Admiral von Tirpitz to build 19 new battleships and 23 battle cruisers over the coming 20 years, challenging Britain’s rule of the seas.

The British were decidedly rattled by these events and put their response into high gear almost immediately. By 1899, Britain had secured a 99-year exclusive agreement between Britain and Kuwait, and by 1907 had it converted to a lease in perpetuity. In 1905, Lord Strathcona secured exclusive rights to potential Persian oil resources and after discovery of oil there in 1908, became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909. The company negotiated an agreement with Winston Churchill for major financial backing by the British Government in return for secure oil for the Royal Navy. In 1912 the government, at Churchill’s urging, bought controlling interest secretly in Anglo-Persian Oil Company. She had negotiated with the Sheikh of Muhammerah to also build an oil refinery, depot and port on Abadan Island adjacent to the Shat-el-Arab.

The European powers were increasingly feeling threatened by the growing power of Germany and in order to ensure they had some allies in times of war, they went on an agreement signing spree in the beginning of the twentieth century. The Russian leadership entered into the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894. In 1904, Britain and France signed a series of agreements called the Entente cordiale. These agreements directly concerned colonies. In 1907 Britain and Russia signed an agreement called the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were solely under British control and agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory. Persia was divided into three zones: a British zone in the south, a Russian zone in the north, and a narrow neutral zone serving as buffer in between. Similar to Afghanistan, China and Tibet were also classified as buffer states.

On the other hand, by 1913 a German-Turkish Military Agreement was signed under which German General Liman von Sanders, member of the German Supreme War Council, with personal approval of the Kaiser, was sent to Constantinople to reorganize the Turkish army on the lines of the German General Staff. In a letter to Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, dated April 26, 1913, Freiherr von Wangenheim, the German Ambassador to Constantinople declared, “The Power which controls the Army will always be the strongest one in Turkey. No Government hostile to Germany will be able to hold on to power if the Army is controlled by us…”. German intelligence, led by Baron Max von Oppenheim, had already made extensive surveys of Mesopotamia beginning 1899 to explore the proposed route of the Baghdad Railway, confirming the expectations of Ottoman officials that the region held oil. In 1914 shortly before outbreak of war, Oppenheim reportedly told Kaiser Wilhelm, “When the Turks invade Egypt, and India is set ablaze with the flames of revolt, only then will England crumble.”

This was the flashpoint waiting to be erupted when German and British empires’ path to India would converge and the juggernaught of the final climax of the great game would be set rolling, leaving a path of destruction and death of the Great War in its wake, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was merely the ignition point that lit up a long drawn line of dynamite already built by the German and British empires.

The Ghadar Party however was up against Britain who had brought Russia to its side and hence no help was forthcoming. Europe was already on fire, Russian economy and internal affairs were in a mess, coupled with a weak Tsar and Rasputin’s antics in the palace ensured that Russia could not offer anything to the Indian revolutionaries at that stage. Therefore it happened to be bad timing for the Ghadar Party revolutionaries. Dr. Mathra Singh also was not able to escape a second time from the Russians and was handed over to the British, to be brought back to India where he attained martyrdom in 1917. The situation however changed drastically by the beginning of the Russian Revolution, ironically the day he wrote the letter to the viceroy of India asking him to leave India. The Tsarist policies were discarded and newer more interactive international policies were put in place. The new Soviet regime gave active support to the remanants of the Ghadar Party and the era in fact led to the evolution of the Ghadar Party into a communist idealogy party after a few years. But the time to defeat the British had passed by then and the golden opportunity to attain freedom for India was lost with the end of the great game and the Great War.

The great game is widely acknowledged to have started in early 1800s as a race of expansion and consolidation of two great nations of that time; England and Russia. While England was clearly ahead in the race having started much earlier and having built up the world’s best naval fleet at the time, Russia was also fast catching up, though from a different direction. They expanded over Central Asia and were simultaneously building the Trans Siberian Railway to keep the conquered territories well connected for military purpose as well as for trade.

Of all the territories conquered by the British around the world, India was the most prized possession and a commonly used term to describe India for the British was a Golden Sparrow, Sone ki Chiriya. The whole British empire was geared to protect this prized possession from the (perceived) greedy eyes of competitors (Russia). Towards that end the British had already devised a master plan to take their empire northwards to include Afghanistan into it so as to ensure stopping the Russian advance towards India. However, the Sikh empire at that time remained the last stumbling block towards their aspirations and it seemed unsurmountable.

The astute Maharaja Ranjit Singh had carved out a very strong and well organized kingdom in a relatively short period of time and by 1838, his empire extended from Kashmir, Gilgit and Leh in the North East to Peshawer, Attock, Khyber, Hazara, Jamrud and Bannu in the North West to Ferozepur, Ludhiana and Hoshiarpur inSouth East and all area before Sutluj river including Multan and Dera Ghazi Khan. Britain had already signed an agreement with Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1806, where he agreed to expel a Maratha force that had sought refuge in the Punjab. The British subsequently managed to throttle his ambition to bring together all of the Sikh territories extending up to the vicinity of Delhi. In 1809 Maharaja Ranjit Singh signed the Treaty of Amritsar, which fixed the Sutlej River as the eastern boundary of his territories.