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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Explained: Why is Malerkotla special for Punjab, and Sikhs?

A history of Malerkotla and why the town occupies a special place in Sikh history and the social milieu of present day Punjab.

Written by Man Aman Singh Chhina , Edited by Explained Desk | Chandigarh |
Updated: May 22, 2021 9:51:27 am
The Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan Institute of Advanced Studies in Malerkotla. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The only Muslim-dominated town of Punjab, Malerkotla, has been in the news recently after Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh announced on Eid (May 14) that the former princely state would be the 23rd district of the state. The announcement was commented upon by the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who tweeted that the formation of the new district was a “reflection of the divisive policy of the Congress”. The Punjab CM hit back saying the UP CM was unaware of the long-standing relations between Sikhs and Muslims in Malerkotla and that it was the UP CM who was actually sowing communal discord.

Here is a history of Malerkotla and why the town occupies a special place in Sikh history and the social milieu of present day Punjab.

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How did the Malerkotla princely state come into being?

Historically, Malerkotla owes its foundations in the 15th century to Sufi saint Sheikh Sadrauddin Sadar-i-Jahan, also known as Haider Sheikh. The initial beginnings were humble with the settlement being called ‘Maler’ which was bestowed by the Behlol Lodhi to the Sheikh whose lineage too was Afghan, as was Lodhi’s, and they were said to be distantly related. ‘Kotla’, meaning Fortress, was added later in 17th century with a collection of villages which formed a jagir which was awarded to Bayzid Khan, a descendant of Haider Sheikh, by Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan. Bayzid Khan supported Aurangzeb against his brother Dara Shikoh and thus gained favour with the emperor and added permanency to the rule of his family. A hereditary succession began thereafter. After the decline of the Mughal empire, Malerkotla’s rulers exercised greater independence and at the time of the invasion of India by Ahmad Shah Abdali from Afghanistan, they aligned with him.

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How were the relations of Malerkotla with neighbouring states?

According to historian Anna Bigelow’s work, ‘Punjab’s Muslims’, after Maharaja Ranjit Singh consolidated his rule in Northern Punjab in the early 19th century, Malerkotla aligned itself with the neighbouring Sikh states like Patiala, Nabha and Jind which too were feeling threatened by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s consolidation of the Sikh empire. These cis-Sutlej states accepted British protection in 1809 and were free from interference from the Sikh Maharaja.

Malerkotla continued under the British protection and the alliance with the neighbouring Sikh states till 1947 when it became the only Muslim majority Sikh state in East Punjab. After the dissolution of the princely states in 1948, Malerkotla joined the new state of PEPSU or Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU). PEPSU itself was dissolved in 1954 and Malerkotla became a part of Punjab.

What is the background of the special status of Malerkotla with the Sikh community?

The special relationship between Sikhs and Malerkotla goes back to the period when the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, was engaged in a series of battles with the oppressive Mughal rules of the region. Sher Mohammad Khan was the Nawab of Malerkotla at the time and though a supporter of Aurangzeb and his lieutenants who governed Punjab at the time, he is said to have expressed his anguish at the bricking alive of two young sons of Guru Gobind Singh, Zorawar Singh (aged nine years) and Fateh Singh (aged seven years), by the Subedar of Sirhind Wazir Khan in 1705. The ‘Haa da Naara’ or cry for justice was made by Sher Mohammad Khan before Wazir Khan when the order to brick the two young boys was pronounced. This incident has been narrated over the years and has attained an image of tolerance of the Nawab towards the two young Sahibzadas and given placed Malerkotla a special place in the Sikh narrative.

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After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, when his follower Banda Singh Bahadur sacked Sirhind and razed it to the ground, he spared Malerkotla. Anna Bigelow says while there could be many reasons for this act of Banda Bahadur, Iftikhar Khan, the last Nawab of Malerkotla, has declared in his history of the kingdom, as do many others believe, that Malerkotla was spared because of ‘Haa Da Naara’. “Alternate explanations for Banda Singh Bahadur’s avoidance of Malerkotla are not necessary and are not sought,’ says Bigelow. In popular sentiments, Malerkotla is believed to blessed by Guru Gobind Singh for the ‘Haa da Naara’.

How were the relations of Malerkotla rulers with Sikhs after the ‘Haa Da Naara’ episode?

It is documented that even after this episode, the Malerkotla rulers continued their affinity with the Mughal rulers and once the suzerainty of the Mughals was on the decline, they aligned with the Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali. However, who the rulers of the various states of Punjab, Malerkotla included, side with in the conflicts often depended upon a number of factors including money gains, temporary alliances and survival instinct. For example, Nawab Jamal Khan of Malerkotla fought against rulers of Patiala and also against Abdali before joining hands with him. His successor Nawab Bhikam Shah is said to have fought on the side of Abdali’s forces in a battle against the Sikhs in 1762 which is known as ‘Wadda Ghallugara’ or the Great Holocaust where tens and thousands of Sikhs were killed. In 1769, a treaty of friendship was signed with Raja Amar Singh of Patiala by the then Nawab of Malerkotla and thereafter the Patiala princely state was often to the aid of Malerkotla especially in 1795 when Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev, attacked Malerkotla over the issue of cow slaughter.

However, the Namdhari (a sect of Sikhs) massacre of 1872 in Malerkotla is an important incident in the historical annals of the town. The Namdhari followers — some accounts say there were rogue followers — attacked the town. Certain accounts say the attack was to cause loot and plunder while others say a Namdhari woman had been raped in Malerkotla. It is believed that the British Agent who administered Malerkotla at the time, as the Nawab was a minor, was merciless in exacting revenge and killed 69 Namdharis, including women and children, after tying them to barrels of cannons.

How did Malerkotla escape the killings and riots of partition in 1947?

Despite the odd communal trouble in the town, like in 1935 over Hindu Katha happening before a mosque, the general atmosphere in Malerkotla remained congenial. Communal tension in the days leading to Partition remained under control despite there being a general breakdown of law and order in the neighbouring princely states. While Patiala, Nabha and Jind territories saw large scale killings, Malerkotla remained free from it.

According to Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed, in his book, “Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed”, eyewitnesses and participants of the violence against Muslims told him that they did not touch any Muslim refugee who entered the state of Malerkotla. Many did so because they believed that they were honouring the wishes of Guru Gobind Singh who had blessed Malerkotla. “Road to edhar kisse nu chhaddeya nahin, road to odhar kisse nu hath nayi laaya” (We did not spare anyone this side of the road (Malerkotla border), we did not touch anyone on the other side of it), one participant in violence told Prof Ahmad.

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