On 15 May 1850,
A ship named Mohammad Shah left the shores of Calcutta for Singapore. It was transporting two Sikh prisoners fighting for the independence of Panjab. One Corporal and six Privates of HM’s 70th Regiment under one European Sergeant were the military security in charge on the ship. On the orders of the Governor General of India, the prisoners’ fetters were only to be removed when the ship entered the high seas. The prisoners were Bhai Maharaj Singh and his protégé Kharag Singh.
Birth in the House of the Guru
He was born as Nihal Singh in 1780 in Rabbon village of Ludhiana district of Panjab where the memory of 1762 Vadha Ghallulghara (Greater Genocide) was still fresh in Sikh minds. He was named Bhagvan Singh upon getting initiated by Khande-ki-Pahul to become the member of the Order of the Khalsa.
At that time, Baba Bir Singh instructed him thus:
By taking Amrit you are taking a vow that hereafter you will dedicate each breath of your life in the service of Satguru. In other words, you will live every moment of your life according to the injunctions of Satguru. If your mind always stays alert according to Guru’s instructions then your heart and thoughts will stay free from getting polluted. Gradually your mind will become immaculately clean and you will be able to perceive the presence of Akal Purakh within.
Bhagvan Singh was very humble; he started to address everyone as “Maharaj.” It is a term of great respect which implies Divine-like Sovereign present in all human beings. This soon became his trademark and gradually everyone started addressing him as “Maharaj” too. Before long the devoted Nihal (joyous) who had become Bhagvan (divine), began to be revered by all who started addressing him with the respectful epithet of “Maharaj.” In time, people forgot his earlier names Nihal and Bhagvan and he became known as Bhai Maharaj Singh (the Bhai).
State attacks the Sikhs
Bhai Maharaj Singh was mentored by Bhai Bir Singh of Naurangabad whose Dera (seminary-like space) was a theo-political training center where the culture of Nam prevailed. Miri-Piri (Politics-Spirituality) was taught and lived. The Dera had a force of 1,200 musket men and 3,000 horsemen. It was a sanctuary for political refugees and a center of the Sikh revolt against post Maharaja Ranjit Singh Dogra dominance in the Kingdom of Panjab.
In 1844, Hira Singh Dogra, the Prime Minister of Panjab, attacked the Dera with 20,000 troops and 50 cannons. Several hundred Sikhs, including General Attar Singh Sandhavalia, Prince Kashmira Singh and Bhai Bir Singh were killed. Bhagvan Singh became the head of the Dera.
The British wanted to crush the spirit of the Khalsa to maintain the Empire in South Asia. On 2 June 1847, the first British Resident at Lahore Henry Lawrence admits:
So great is their own pride of race, and of a long unchecked career of victories that if every Sirdar and Seikh in the Punjab were to avow himself satisfied with the humbled position of his country, it would be the extreme of infatuation to believe him, or to doubt for a moment that among the crowd who are loudest in our praise, there are many who cannot forgive our victory or even our forbearance and who chafe at their own loss of power in exact proportion as they submit to ours.
Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, a year later categorically instructed the then British Resident at Lahore Frederick Currie:
Every hostile demonstration against us in every portion of the Punjab must be met, encountered and utterly crushed as such a manifestation of the British power was essential not only for the British stay in the Punjab, but also necessary to its continuance throughout India.
In the aforesaid declared policy of darkness, the light of defiance by Bhai Maharaj Singh shines. A Khalsa came forward to lead the Panjabis against the British: freedom from foreign rule. He left his Naurangabad Dera under the command of Bhai Bir Singh, Jr. and moved to Sri Amritsar Jio. At the Sikh center of Miri-Piri Sovereignty, he set up his headquarters at Samdu Ka Talab. He joined forces with Baba Ram Singh, another protégé of Baba Bir Singh, and toured the Panjab to assess and recruit the Sikhs to save the sovereign kingdom of Sarkar Khalsaji.
Rebel with a Cause
Bhai Maharaj Singh moved about the Jalandhar Doab, a British territory and aroused the people against the British. He contacted Divan Mul Raj, the Nizam of Multan to raise a banner of revolt against the British administration of Lahore kingdom. He went to Hazara where Sardar Chattar Singh Atarivala was preparing to rebel and ignited a yearlong revolt. He attempted to extend the revolt by involving the Maharaja of Bikaner, Dost Mohammad, the Amir of Afghanistan and Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir.
When tensions arose between Maharani Jindan Kaur and the British in 1847 because they were depriving her of her power, it resulted in the Prema plot to assassinate Henry Lawrence, the British Resident. But the plot, and Bhai Maharaj Singh's role in it, were uncovered and the British confiscated his property and declared him an outlaw. The British governor, General Lord Dalhousie, put a bounty of Rs. 10,000 on the Bhai’s head. The Bhai with 600 Sikhs became the leader of the resistance against the British.
The Bhai now had a mass appeal. Raja Sher Singh and his companion Sardars invoked Bhai Maharaj Singh with his consent to recruit the Sikhs in Panjab:
On behalf of Baba Maharaj Singh Ji, the undersigned declare that time has arrived when we must get ready to fight the foreign invaders (the British) who with great cunning and deception are succeeding to usurp the Khalsa Raj. It is therefore the sacred duty of every citizen to join this holy struggle and get ready to sacrifice everything in order to free our motherland.
Incidentally, this very letter was later used to convict the Bhai when Lord Dalhousie, by then the Governor General of India. He wrote, “these battles (Chilianvala and Gujrat) were fought by the Sikhs directly against the English people. The purpose was to destroy the influence of the British from not only Punjab but the entire Indian sub-content.”
In 1848, Bhai Maharaj Singh fought in the Battle of Ramnagar, Chillianvala, and Ravalpindi. At Ravalpindi, Raja Sher Singh surrendered. The Bhai appealed to others and refused to surrender to the British:
You own large estates now which you want to save by surrendering to the British. But let me tell you, even by accepting all the conditions of the British you may not be able to save your estates because you will be on the mercy of the conquerors and will have to accept whatever crumbs they throw towards you. It would be better if you fight and get martyrdom rather than live a wretched life of a slave.
Only Baba Bikram Singh Bedi of Una and Colonel Richhpal Singh Purbia decided to stay with the Bhai and continue the rebellion. Henry Lawrence recorded:
Bhai Mahararaj Singh, a Sikh priest of reputed sanctity, and of great influence, the first man who raised the standards of rebellion beyond the confines of Multan in 1848, and the only leader of note who did not lay down his arms to Sir Walter Gilberts at Rawalpindi.
On 29 March 1849, the Panjab was annexed by the British.
After escaping from Ravalpindi, and on the run at Devi Batala, in the jungles and ravines of the Chumbi Valley, and finally at Sujoval, Bhai Maharaj Singh developed a five-point plan of action.
- To rescue Maharaja Dalip Singh from the Lahore Fort to the Panjab hills and to restart the freedom struggle in his name before the British removed him to a distant place as proposed.
- To organize a united front of all persons and interests who suffered at the hands of the British, the jagirdars, the ex-military men, the hill Rajput chiefs and others.
- To neutralize the British policy of using the local Muslims against the freedom fighters, by forging an alliance between the rebels in the Panjab, the Pathans of the North West and the Amir of Kabul.
- To approach all important Sikh and Hindu priests and saints (due to their extensive jagirs, resources and following) from Kandhar in Afghanistan to Malva in cis-Sutlej for lending their whole-hearted support to the freedom struggle.
- To organize disruption of the administrative machinery of the British government, by subversion and surprise attacks on their treasuries and cantonments and to win over the confidence of the Sikh soldiers who were retained by the British in the armed forces.
Bhai Maharaj Singh’s plans were uncovered and Maharaja Dalip Singh was transferred to a safer fort. The British tried to capture the Bhai, but they didn’t succeed because the people of Panjab were with him, helped him and joined him. He became known as Karnivala – The Wonder Worker – for he couldn’t be caught!
The Bhai sought help from Dost Mohammad (Amir of Kabul) and his brother Sultan Muhammad Khan, in Panjab’s struggle for freedom from foreign rule; they refused. The Bhai still attacked the British cantonments of Hoshiarpur, Hajipur and Jalandhar in guerilla-style and looted the Government treasury at Bajvara. Many influential people in the district of Hoshiarpur supported the Bhai, and in November of 1849 he was able to finish his preparations for attacking areas in the Jalandhar Doab. At a public gathering at Sham Chaurasi, Bhai Maharaj Singh proclaimed 3 January 1850 as the date for uprising by attacking Jalandhar Doab: "There will be another National War.”
But with help from an informant, the Bhai along with twenty-one Sikhs was arrested on 28 December 1849 by the British near Adampur. Henry Vansittart, the Deputy Commissioner of Jalandhar, who made the arrest, recorded:
The Guru is no ordinary man. He is to the natives what Jesus was to the most zealous of Christians. His miracles were seen by tens of thousands, and are more implicitly believed than those worked by the ancient prophets.
After due investigations Mr. McLeod, the commissioner, wrote his report on the Bhai as follows:
I am convinced that Bhai Maharaj Singh is a remarkable person. He has all the attributes of a saint. He has unusual self-control and self-confidence. He seems to have the power to foresee the coming events and has the qualities of a great leader whom people would like to obey.
The British were afraid of the popular outrage leading to another rebellion due to Bhai Maharaj Singh’s presence in Panjab. Thousands of Panjabis used to come to Jalandhar Civil Jail every day to pay their homage to the Bhai. Afraid, the District Magistrate transferred him to military authorities.
The British decided to move the Bhai out of Panjab. First, he was transferred to the Allahabad fort prison, then to Fort William in Calcutta. They deemed it was too risky to put the Bhai on trial in India. On 23 March 1850, the Governor General issued order to deport the Bhai and his companion Kharag Singh to Singapore with instructions that they were to be kept in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives.
On 15 May 1850, Muhammad Shah ship left Calcutta. On 9 July 1850, they arrived in Singapore and were taken to the New Jail on Outram Road. He was kept in solitary confinement in a cell where the walling up of the windows turned it into "further rendered dark, dinghy and absolutely unhealthy" (Secret Consultation Papers, 28 Feb 1851, #52-57).
In 1853, cataract blinded him. He developed cancer on the tongue, rheumatic swellings and pains in his feet and ankles. The Civil Surgeon’s recommendation for the Bhai to be allowed an occasional walk in the open was turned down by the Government of India. His health continued to deteriorate.
Martyrdom & Memorialization
Bhai Marahaj Singh breathed his last in the jail on 5 July 1856. The last written record on the Bhai was sent by G. M. Blundel, Governor of the Straits Settlements, to the colonial office in the British India. “I have the honour to report to you for the information of the Right Hon’ble the Governor General of India-in-Council, that the State Prisoner, “Bhaie Maharaj Singh” died on the 5th instant.” (Document # 86, 12 July 1856)
The Bhai was cremated outside the prison by Kharag Singh (Kharag Singh was transferred to Penang, Malaya, and he too died in prison later). Locals Hindu Tamils began to revere the spot, marking it with stones. Offerings of flowers found their way there, Sikhs and Muslims joined in. The Sikhs placed a structure on this spot, turning it into a small temple. In 1966, Samadh (tombstone) was relocated to the Silat Road Gurduara. In 1996, an official Memorial next to the Gurduara was erected. In 1999, it was designated a historical site by the National Heritage Board (Singapore). Large number of Sikhs and non-Sikhs continue to come to the Samadh and the Memorial to worship with offerings. I am very sure the Bhai wouldn’t approve of the aforesaid ritual for it is not within Gurmat – the Guru’s Wisdom.
Records, Artifacts & Legacy
“Documents Related to Bhai Maharaj Singh” in Rebels against British Raj series are of tremendous historical importance. In its preface, author Nahar Singh records:
The fact that Bhai (Gooroo) Maharaj Singh had played a leading role in organising an armed struggle for the overthrow of the British regime in the Punjab during the years 1846 to 1850, has been known to very few scholars. He beat (Gagan Damama) Dharm Dhaunsa or battle drum in the name of religion against the British and declared that the act of driving out the Malech Farangies from the holy land of five rivers was Dharm or sacred duty and a noble deed of piety and righteousness.
Bhai Maharaj Singh was and remains an inspiration to Panjabis. His power and revolutionary activities against the British prompted The Times of London to note:
It is well known in certain circles that the influence of this man is unbounded amongst the Sikh chieftains and the whole population of the Punjab; and there is little doubt but that he has generally been the prime mover in all the conspiracies and revolts which have lately caused so much of the Punjab expense and led to so much bloodshed.
Justice Choor Singh of Singapore in Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier of the Sikh Faith records the official narrative and locates the Bhai as follows:
[It] must not be forgotten that Bhai Maharaj Singh was also the Head of the Religious Order, now known as Hoti Mardan Vali Sant Khalsa Sampardai, which had been established by Bhai Daya Singh, one of the five Panj Piyaras of Guru Gobind Singh … Bhai Maharaj Singh was therefore not only revolutionary fighter who tried to save the Sikh Kingdom but also a recognized religious personage of high standing, true saint of the Sikh faith, who died the death of the martyr.
When I went to Singapore to speak on the Sikh spirit as part of SG50 (50-years of Singapore independence) celebrations, I revisited Bhai Maharaj Singh’s memorial. I asked several visitors what they knew about Bhai Maharaj Singh; overwhelming majority didn’t have a clue and were ritualistically visiting it as just another Gurduara.
Perhaps, the vanishing Sikhs are afraid of becoming the next Bhai of the ‘Culture of Nam’ who led the political resistance borne of rich spiritual heritage.
Note: I chose ‘Bhai’ for referring to Bhai Maharaj Singh because in Sikh tradition initiated by the Ten Guru Sahibs (Nanaks I-X), Bhai remains the historic standard as the honorific title among the Sikhs. Many documents, authored by both Sikhs and non-Sikhs, labelled Bhai Maharaj Singh as Sant, Baba, even Guru, and so on. In excerpts or direct quotes, I retained original titles or spellings; otherwise, for non-English words, linguistically accurate transcriptions are used for consistency without diacritical marks.
Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force