The great Sikh General, Jathedar Akali Phoola Singh, was born in 1761. His father Ishar Singh was fatally wounded during the great massacre of Sikhs (Wada Ghalughara) in 1762. Before his death he charged Bhai Narain Singh of Misl Shaheedan with the responsibility of raising his infant son.
Akali Ji, by the age of ten, could recite Nitnem and other Gurbani hymns. At Anandpur Sahib, he always kept himself busy doing sewa or reading Gurbani, and he became very popular with the sangat. Because of his scholastic attitude and commitment to Panthic welfare, he was made the leader (Jathedar) of the Misl after the death of Bhai Narain Singh. In 1800, he came to Amritsar and made the Mahants improve the management of the Gurdwaras. The major credit for extending the boundaries of the Sikh Raj goes to Akali Ji, the legendary general of the Sikhs.
Respected by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh
In 1802, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh sent his army to take over Amritsar and annex it to his kingdom. On the advice of Akali Phoola Singh, the Maharaja agreed to give an estate to the Bhangi Misl, then ruling Amritsar. He also ordered the army not to loot the inhabitants of the city.
In 1807, Phoola Singh was, for the first time, involved in a major battle against the Nawab of Kasoor, who had the protection of a strong fort. The Sikhs fought bravely and were finally able to demolish a section of the wall. The Nawab was arrested. The Sikhs took pity on him and allotted him an estate near the Satlej river. The bravery of Akali Ji during the battle very much impressed the Maharaja.
In 1808, a British representative was sent to Amritsar for talks for developing better relations between the two governments. A Muslim platoon with the British emissary organized a procession to celebrate their festival chanting loud slogans. When passing near the Akal Takhat, they were advised not to create noise, because it disturbed the Sikh congregation. However, the leaders of the procession insulted the Sikhs instead of listening to their suggestion. On hearing this disturbing news, Akali Ji himself went to settle the matter with the British platoon. The soldiers apologized and behaved respectfully in the future. No more noisy processions were taken near the Gurdwara again.
Loss of faith in the Maharaja
The internal political policy pursued by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh went against Sikh interests. Major points of differences were that the Maharaja had:
1. Delegated too much authority of the government to Dogras who were insincere and disloyal to the Sikhs.
2. Appointed relatives of his cronies to important posts instead of selecting competent persons.
3. Developed misunderstanding with his sons by listening to the misinformation given by the Dogras.
Note: Later, it was found that Akali Ji was right and justified in asking the Maharaja not to place all his confidence in the Dogras alone. The Dogras had a secret understanding with the British, who had already taken control over much of India. The Dogras caused the downfall of the Sikh Raj. They were made the rajas of Kashmir as a reward for helping the British infiltrate the Sikh raj. The Dogras also informed the Kabul regime about the Sikh army and they planned the murder of the hero of the Sikh raj, Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa, who was considered a terror by the Afghans and Pathans.
When Akali Phoola Singh Ji went to discuss domestic policies of the government with Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the Dogras did not allow the meeting to take place. Akali Ji forced his entry into the palace and was warmly received by the Maharaja. Showing his hospitality, the Maharaja offered Akali Ji a splendid meal. Akali Ji declined his offer stating that unless the Maharaja changed his policies, and realized his own entrapment by the Dogras, this was to be their last meeting. After delivering this message to the Maharaja, Akali Ji left for Anandpur Sahib.
The Prince of Jind state (Jind was then part of the British Raj, now a part of the Haryana state of India.) developed differences with the British raj. He moved to Anandpur Sahib and took protection under Akali Ji. The British desired the Prince to be handed over to them. They approached the Maharaja when Akali Ji refused to surrender him to them. The Dogras misinformed and misguided the Maharaja and accused Akali Ji of creating enmity between the British and the Sikh raj. The army at Phillaur was, therefore, instructed to arrest Akali Phoola Singh. The army, however, declined to obey the Maharaja recognizing that Akali Ji was the holiest man amongst the Sikhs.
The British also tried to capture Akali Ji by ordering the Nawab of Malerkotla and Raja Jaswant to attack Anandpur Sahib and arrest Akali Ji along with the Prince of Jind. Both of them knew of Phoola Singh’s goodness and greatness. They also endorsed his stand and refused to cooperate with the British. Finally, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh thought of another plan to get Akali Ji on his side. He sent Baba Sahib Singh Bedi, a close friend of Akali Phoola Singh, to escort him with honor to Amritsar where a spectacular welcome was arranged by the Maharaja. The two were finally reconciled. Unfortunately, the Maharaja did not take advantage of his advice to keep the Dogras away from the helm of administration.
Protector of the Sikh Faith
Some administrators of the Kashmir area broke their agreement. Akali Phoola Singh and General Hari Singh were sent to punish them. In 1816, Akali Ji lead his forces against the rebels in the west and south of Punjab, including the Nawab of Multan who had not paid his taxes. In 1817, Phoola Singh was sent to Hazara to recover the taxes. The administrator paid his dues and was, therefore, allowed to continue in his position by Akali Ji.
The Nawab of Multan again declined to pay his taxes to the state. When the army was sent to collect the dues, he defeated the Lahore army. The Maharaja then sent his son with a strong force who pushed the Nawab into the fort, but could not achieve his mission. At last, the Maharaja came to Amritsar and humbly requested Akali Phoola Singh to help the Khalsa Panth. Akali Ji angrily asked: “O supporter of the disloyal Dogras, why did you not tell me earlier?” Akali Ji took his men to Multan. They demolished the wall of the fort. A bloody hand to hand battle followed. The brave Nawab, his five sons and 12,000 soldiers lost their lives in the battle. Akali Ji was wounded. On his return to Amritsar, Akali Ji was honored and given the title “Protector of the Sikh Faith.”
Battles for Peshawar
In 1818, the Maharaja himself led the expedition to bring the rebellious Pathans under control. A pontoon bridge was constructed across the river Attock and a small Jatha was sent to assess the situation, but it was attacked. This enraged the Maharaja. He sent Akali Phoola Singh and general Hari Singh Nalwa against the rebels. As soon as the Sikh army was within firing range, they were showered with a rain of bullets. Akali Ji ordered a tactical retreat. This made the rebels come out of their bunkers to follow the retreating Sikhs and push them out of their area. When the enemy was in the open battlefield, Akali Ji ordered a severe attack and then encircled them. Their commander Feroze Khan accepted his defeat and requested the Sikhs to end the battle.
The next target of the Sikh army was to retrieve the control of Peshawar. The rebels decided to obstruct their path to the city. When Akali Ji was informed about this he immediately attacked them before they could gather and organize a coordinated resistance to his advance to Peshawar. This strategy proved useful. The Ghazis (Muslim fighters) did not dare to face the Sikhs and ran for their lives. The road was left open for the Sikhs to proceed to the city where they raised their flag on the fort. After the Sikhs took control of Peshawar, Yar Mohammed Khan sent gifts to Maharaja Ranjeet Singh to express his loyalty. The Maharaja accepted the gifts and made him the Governor of Peshawar. But Khan, too, proved disloyal to the Sikh raj.
Battles for Kashmir
In 1819 Akali Ji was deputed to discipline the ruler of Kashmir who had broken the agreement made with the Maharaja. Unable to proceed through the Pass protected by the army, the Sikhs were instructed to follow footpaths through hilly terrain. By this tactical move they took over all the outer defense posts without much difficulty. After heavy fighting, they captured the strong fort as well.
The Sikh army was unable to make further progress, as the route to Pir Panchal Pass was blocked by the Pathans. The Pathans, occupying the sides of the path, rained bullets on the Sikh army. Akali Ji directed his soldiers to get on the mountains, instead of moving through the Pass. The Sikhs fought the Pathans hand-to-hand and continued their journey through the Pass.
The next battle took place with Jabar Khan, who had built a strong army with thousands of Afghans. Diwan Chand ordered the Sikh army to open gun fire on Afghan positions, but it did little harm to them. He then directed his men to advance their guns to get closer to the defenses for effective firing. As soon as the Sikhs stopped firing in order to move their guns, the Afghans came out of their bunkers and attacked them, capturing several Sikh guns.
Finding the Afghans in the open battlefield, Akali Ji responded with a lightning attack by his men, who were considered the best swordsmen. Jabar Khan was wounded and he fled. The Khalsa won the battle and took control of the Kashmir state.
Defeating Kabul forces
In 1823, Mohammed Azim Khan, the ruler of Kabul, made plans to take over Peshawar. Yar Mohd Khan, the Governor of Peshawar, appointed by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh was his brother. He agreed to help the Kabul regime by withdrawing from the city and leaving it unoccupied. The Khan’s army came and occupied the city without firing a single bullet. Local administrators and communities were instigated to rebel against the Sikh raj. They occupied all the routes to Peshawar making it very dangerous for the Sikh army to go there.
When this news reached Lahore, the Maharaja called General Hari Singh Nalwa and sought his advice. He suggested that Akali Phoola Singh must join him to recover the state from Khan. Nalwa immediately left for Peshawar, with the Maharaja and Akali Ji following him. When they reached Attock, they found that the pontoon bridge had been destroyed to stop the Sikhs from crossing the river and helping Nalwa.
General Nalwa and his forces were engaged in a bloody battle on the western side of the river while the Maharaja and the main Sikh army were delayed on the eastern bank. Hearing the fight across the river, the Sikhs became more worried and distressed at their situation. A messenger, who swam across the river, informed Akali Phoola Singh and the Maharaja that unless Nalwa and his soldiers received help, he would most likely lose the battle. Hearing this, Akali Phoola Singh got on his horse and crossed the river followed by the Maharaja and the rest of the forces. The news of the arrival of the Maharaja demoralized the opponents and they lost all hope of winning the battle. They ran to save their lives and took shelter behind their second defense line, Nawshehra fort, to prepare a strong defense.
After reorganizing their forces, the Sikhs decided to move forward to take over the fort. Having said their prayers, the Jathas started marching, when a scout brought the news that a new army of 10,000 men with forty guns had arrived to support the rebels. The Maharaja wanted to wait for their own guns to arrive but Akali Ji said, “The Khalsa has started its march after prayer, now no one can stop them!”
When the Sikh army was within their range, the Ghazis opened fire on the Sikhs. Akali Ji ordered them to move forward suddenly and engage them in hand to hand combat, an art in which no army could match the Khalsa. Bullets were coming from all sides, but Akali Ji was moving forward with his men. His horse was killed by a bullet. He immediately boarded an elephant to continue his advance on the Ghazis. Watching the daring deeds of the Akali platoons, the Maharaja could not resist joining them. Meanwhile the Akali men had reached the firing lines and started fighting with their swords. The Afghans were no match for the quick swords of the Sikhs. Fresh Sikh army and gunmen also reached the battlefield by that time and the Sikhs claimed another victory.
The Sikh Nation bereaved
Unfortunately, the Sikhs sustained a grievous wound: the death of Akali Phoola Singh. A Pathan, hiding behind a boulder, shot Akali Ji from close range as he was pressing the Pathans to retreat.
Thus, the Sikhs lost their great General, a true Sikh. He was a fearless and skilled commander. He maintained the Sant-Sipahi (Saint-Soldier) tradition of the Khalsa. Akali Phoola Singh Ji remains a role model for all Sikhs.