Military & Aerospace

Zorawar Singh as Military Governor of Kishtwar
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The Phenomenon of Mentorship

The relationship between Gulab Singh and his ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, clearly expresses the phenomenon of military mentorship. This is not a facet peculiar to Indian military history but is the common strand that runs through the life histories of most great commanders. Thus the famous Colonel TE Lawrence (of Arabia) was the protégé of General Allenby. General MacArthur (of Philippines and Korea fame) was mentored by General Pershing of the US Army. Field Marshals Guderian, Rommel and Manstein were the protégés of the Nazi warlord, Hitter. He was their political and military mentor. Winston Churchill was the mentor of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and the maverick Major General Charles Orde Wingate (of Burma fame). The list is endless. As stated earlier, the British and the Indian armies have tried to institutionalise this phenomenon of military mentorship through the institution of the Colonels of Regiments. These senior officers informally oversee the professional careers and growth of talented officers in their regiments. The US Army does not have this institution but American military writings clearly highlight their awareness of this phenomenon of mentorship and its importance in the grooming of great commanders.

This mentorship phenomenon is most clearly highlighted in the relationship between Gulab Singh and his trusted General Zorawar Singh.

Zorawar Singh: The Man

We have outlined the brief history of those turbulent times by recounting the rise of Maharaja Gulab Singh. We have set the backdrop to this study by a detailed organisational and sociological description of the Jammu and Kashmir State Forces raised by Gulab Singh from 1822 onwards. These provide the essential historical backdrop for recounting the exploits of that intrepid Indian General Zorawar Singh.

Zorawar Singh Khaluria was born in 1786 in a Rajput family of Khalur. Khalur now forms a part of the picturesque district of Bilaspur in the State of Himachal Pradesh. This region has produced a large number of illustrious soldiers for the Indian Army.

It is said that Zorawar Singh left home at the early age of 16. He had been involved in a serious land dispute. Arguments grew heated and swords were drawn. In the duel he killed one of his cousins. This forced him to leave home. He went off first to Haridwar. Raja Jaswant Singh, the ruler of Marmat (in Doda district) had come to Haridwar on a pilgrimage. He took him in his employ and brought him along to Marmat. It was here that he was taught the martial arts. He learnt fencing, archery and became an expert marksman. He used to exercise with a heavy mace, which is still said to be available at the fort of Jaswant Singh in Marmat. In Marmat, Zorawar Singh met a Yogi and learnt from him the various yogic “asans”. This further improved his physique and gave him acute powers of concentration. He was put in charge of protocol (looking after the safety and comfort of the palace guests). The famous deposed ruler of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, came as a guest of the Marmat Raja and was so deeply impressed by Zorawar Singh that he presented him a sword whose hilt was embellished with precious stones. This sword is still a family heirloom with Zorawar Singh’s descendants. Another guest of the Marmat Raja was Mian Dido, the famous guerrilla leader of the Dogras (whom Maharaja Gulab Singh had to subdue some years later). Dido was a fugitive from the Sikh Army and hence was inordinately suspicious. Even though Zorawar went out of his way to look after the state guest, Mian Dido suspected some treachery when he heard the drums of a local religious celebration at night. In fear and panic, his men attacked the King’s men at Khilani and burnt the outpost. This made Jaswant Singh very angry. He uttered harsh words and Zorawar Singh left his service in a huff. It was a providential decision. He left for Jammu. Legend has it that Zorawar Singh met Gulab Singh on the banks of the Tawi where he used to go for bathing. One look at his physique impressed Gulab Singh. He accosted him and asked him his name. “Zorawar Singh”, he replied with dignity. “That is a martial name – I do hope you can live up to it”, said the Dogra Raja. Zorawar Singh replied gravely, “Only time and opportunity can give an answer to that question”.

Gulab Singh was struck by the answer and took him in his service. He was sent to Reasi to serve with the Killedar. Reasi had just been allotted to Gulab Singh as a Jagir and there was a lot of resentment amongst its previous rulers. They instigated a rebellion. The young Zorawar Singh played a significant role in the defence of the Reasi Fort. He led a counter attack that lifted its siege. The Killedar of Reasi was deeply impressed by this brave, energetic and intelligent young man. He often employed him as a messenger for delivering important documents to his Jagirdar. The relationship between the two men deepened over the years.

We now get a clear indication of the initiative and enterprise of the young Zorawar. He energetically strove to be noticed by the King. One day he highlighted to him the waste that was occurring in his supply department due to faulty planning. He then proceeded to outline a scheme by which considerable savings of rations could be affected. The existing scale of rations for each soldier was 2 pounds of Atta (wheat flour) a day. Zorawar Singh pointed out that this was excessive and could not be consumed by the men. Most of them were selling off a part of it in the market. He suggested that the daily scale of flour be reduced to one and half pounds per man. This itself could cause a saving of one lakh rupees to the State exchequer annually. Gulab Singh had a keen eye for military talent and merit. He was deeply impressed by the intelligent and energetic young man. His administrative reforms were accepted and put into practice. These yielded substantial savings to the State. Zorawar Singh was immediately promoted to the post of Inspector of the Commissariat for all forts north of Jammu. Zorawar, therefore, made his early mark as a logistician. It is critical to remember that the science of logistics is the basis of the “art of war”. Most great generals and commanders themselves have been excellent logisticians. Zorawar Singh fitted this mould of greatness. Operations in the mountains and in specific, operations in high altitude areas are totally governed and constrained by logistical parameters. These define what is possible and how far a military campaign can proceed.

In 1820, Gulab Singh was appointed the Jagirdar of Jammu. Keeping in view Zorawar’s legendary administrative capabilities, he appointed him as his Wazir. In 1821, Gulab Singh launched a brilliant disinformation operation that led to the capitulation of Kishtwar without firing a shot.

Military Governor of Kishtwar

Kishtwar finds mention in the Mahabharata as the “Lohit Mandal”. “Lohit” means Saffron and Mandal means region (Canton). Thus Kishtwar was even then famous as a saffron growing area. It still is, the purple saffron that grows here is amongst the best in the world. The Kishtwar saffron is considered superior to the Kashmir saffron because of the technique of detaching the red carpels / from the flower. Kishtwar is an ancient region hallowed by history. The sacred Chandra Bhaga (Chenab) river flows through this region and neatly bisects it into two segments. The Chenab initially flows in an east-westerly direction from Padar and Gulabgarh. At Dul it takes a sharp southward turn, flows past the Kishtwar plateau and descends to Thatri. There it turns westward again to flow through the Doda district. One of the prominent tributaries of the Chandra Bhaga is the Maru river that flows from Marwah and Dachin and joins the Chenab at Bhandarkut (near Kishtwar). It is an ancient stream that finds mention in the “Nadi Sukta” of the Rig Veda as the Marud Vridha river. The Sukta say:–

“Attend to this my song of praise, O Ganga,
Yamuna, Saraswati, Sutudre, Purushri
together with Asikini, O Marud Vridha and
with Vistas; O Arjikeya, listen with Sushoma.”

…Rig Veda 10/75/5

This is an important verse and mentions all the major rivers known to the Rig Vedic civilisation. Apart from the well-known Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati it mentions the Asikini (Chenab) and Vistas or Vyath (Jhelum). It is surprising though to find a mention of the Marud Vridha (the present day River Maru) in this list of major rivers. The Maru river flows through a lush valley carpeted with dense forests of Pine, Birch and Fir. Many medicinal plants and herbs grow in these forests. Marwah itself is a wide bowl where nice and “Rajmah” beans grow in plenty. It is said that large tracts of the Atharva Veda (in specific the portions dealing with medicinal plants and herbs) were composed on the banks of the Marud Vridha river. Hence its importance to the ancient Vedic civilisation in India.

The Padar or Padyarna region of Kishtwar is famous for its historic links with the Buddhist culture. In Padar is a village called ‘Nagseni’. It is said that Nagsena, the famous Buddhist monk who had converted the Indo-Bactrian King Menander (aka Milinda) to Buddhism, was born here. Nagsena and Menander had a great philosophical dialogue that lasted many days at his court at Sakala (present day Sialkot). Nagsena succeeded in satisfying Menander’s quest for knowledge; Menander became a Buddhist. This great philosophical dialogue is recorded in a famous Buddhist philosophical text called “Milinda Panha” (Milinda comes to the faith). The Nagseni Pargana of Kishtwar is named after that famous Buddhist monk of the 2nd century BC. Some Buddhists still live in that area. At Village Bhattu there is a stone image of the Buddha and a big Ashoka Chakra inscribed on stone. There are a few flights of stairs that once possibly led to a monastery. Buddhist rock inscriptions have also been found at Sayya Draman in Kishtwar.

Kishtwar, therefore, is a historic region. The main morphological feature here is the Chenab river, which has carved a deep gorge. The plateau of Kishtwar itself is 7 to 8 kilometre in length and four to five kilometre in breadth. It is situated at an altitude of 1,634 metre, (5,300 feet above sea level). The current area of the Kishtwar sub division is 7,737 sq km. It is bound in the north by the Zanskar mountains; in the east, the Seoj Dhar (Trishul Dhar) range separates it from Himachal Pradesh. Towards the south lie Bhadharwah and Doda. In the west the Pir Panjal ranges separate it from Anantnag and Banihal. Kishtwar nestles in the shadow of the Great Himalayas. In the Dachin-Marwah area one can see the lofty peaks of the Sickle Moon (6,575 metre). Brahma One (6,416 metre) and Brahma Two (6,110 metre). There is also the Arjuna peak (6,200 metre). On the outriders of the Zanskar mountains is the famous Nun Khun peak which towers above the mountain-scape at a dizzy 7,135 metre above sea level. Sapphire mines are found near Machel (on the route taken by Zorawar for his second invasion of Ladakh).

Kishtwar had been annexed to Jammu Raj in 1821. Initially one Chain Singh was appointed as the Wazir of the province. He was cruel and incompetent. His misrule caused a great deal of resentment amongst the local people and many complaints were sent to Gulab Singh at Jammu. Ultimately in June 1823, Gulab Singh appointed his trusted aide Zorawar Singh as the Wazir / Military Governor of Kashmir. Zorawar Singh immediately carried out a detailed appraisal of the situation in Kishtwar. One of the greatest causes of local grievances/resentment was the behaviour of the “kirdars” or traditional revenue collectors. Zorawar Singh streamlined the procedure of revenue collection. He conducted a detailed assessment of the land under cultivation in each village and the quantum of crops produced each year. He then levied a tax of one fourth of the produce to be given as land revenue to the State. The revenue was collected in kind and the total value per year was stated to be 23,800 Harisinghia Rupees (Equal to half the value of the Rupee in British India). With this resource mobilisation, Zorawar Singh established an arms factory at Kishtwar and set about to raise and train the Dogra Army with which he was to carry out his subsequent trans-Himalayan conquests. Kishtwar, with the adjoining mountain ranges of Zanskar, the Great Himalayas, the Pir Panjal and the Nagin Shur close at hand was the ideal and most excellent training ground for such campaigns. Zorawar Singh was a deeply religious person. He renovated the important temple of the Ashtadashbhuja (18 armed) Sristhal Devi (Sarthal Devi). This is a beautiful shrine and till today a sacred spot for pilgrimage. Thousands of pilgrims throng to this shrine in the Navratras. It is set amidst beautiful natural surroundings of lush pine forests. Zorawar was also a devotee of the Sithla Devi whose shrine at Sarkut was one of his favourite spots for prayer. He had all the hallmarks of a traditional soldier-saint, the kind that the Indian troops deeply revere.

Fateh Shibji: Colonel Basti Ram’s Unit

One of the regular components of Zorawar Singh’s “Jangi Fauj” was a unit under the command of Colonel Basti Ram – a legendary soldier of Kishtwar itself. In 1837 this unit was formally organised as a Sikh style Infantry Battalion. It was called the Fateh Shibji (some records mention it as the 8 Shibji Paltan, which was later reorganised into a seven company battalion called 7 Shibji). The Fateh Shibji had taken part in all the trans-Himalayan campaigns of General Zorawar Singh under its legendary founder and first commandant Colonel Basti Ram of Kishtwar. The Fateh Shibji still exists as one of the oldest units of the Indian Army – Regiment of the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles. In its current incarnation it is called the 4th Battalion the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles. This unit is today 175 years old and still retains its historic title of the Fateh Shibji.

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The Fateh Shibji made up the core of the Dogra force of regulars and irregular local levies raised by Zorawar Singh in Kishtwar. Systematically, the man had raised and trained his forces for the forthcoming trans-Himalayan campaigns of conquest. Kishtwar was an excellent training ground for high altitude warfare and he made the most excellent use of it. Zorawar Singh was a man with a mission. Kishtwar was the springboard for any invasion of Ladakh and the territories beyond. It is not clear whether the foresighted Gulab Singh had placed him there with that vision at the back of his mind. However, Zorawar Singh began carrying out detailed reconnaissance and tough, task oriented training. He then began to pester his sovereign for permission to essay forth on his trans-Himalayan campaigns of conquest.

The Treaty of Amritsar with the British, had foreclosed Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s option of attacking and expanding his empire towards the South. With Kashmir conquered and Punjab pacified, the only avenue for expansion left was towards Ladakh. Within a decade, Zorawar Singh had forged the instrument for this conquest. He had raised a Dogra force of some 4-5,000 warriors and imbued them with a sense of mission. By end 1833 and early 1834 he began to badger his ruler for permission to commence operations.

Gulab Singh in turn sought permission from the court of his mentor, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. The Lahore Court gave its assent and Gulab Singh instructed his general to commence preparations for the invasion of Ladakh.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen GD Bakshi, (Retd)

is a war Veteran and Strategic Analyst.

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