Noblemen and Kinsmen

We, the Sandhawalias

Noblemen and Kinsmen: History of a Sikh Family

by Preminder Singh Sandhawalia.

Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi. Pages 108. Rs 250.

Review by Roopinder Singh

ALL families have history, in the case of certain prominent ones it is worth recording. Documentation of histories of families has largely been an oral tradition in which generations of family bards (marasis) recited family history on important occasions. Such accounts were, more often than not, hagiographic.

A family history demands a certain definition of family and also objectivity that history demands. As the author says, he faced problems in defining family, he settled for the root and the branches model of a family tree, and in presenting a credible account. He has traced the root of the Sandhawalia family tree to Didar Sigh who moved from Sukarchack village to Sandhawala village in 1780 to found his own lineage.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a Sukarchakia, who belonged to the same ancestral stock as the Sandhawalias, but did not share a direct line of descent with them.

Documenting 300 plus years of history of the Sandhawalias is a daunting task, the canvas is wide. When you look at the vicissitudes that families go through, the rise and fall theory, a la an Arnold Toynbee or a John Kennedy, has a powerful attraction. If we look at the Sandhawalias, you have Budh Singh who consolidated the presence of his family and “in defiance of the Mughal law enforcers, rode far and wide carrying off cattle and resorting to other predatory acts. He was baptized a Sikh and changed his name to a Budh Singh.”

It is this refreshing frankness that is quite attractive about the book. The writer manages to present various happenings about his ancestors in an objective way. Treating the history of the land as a backdrop, he touches on the advent of Sikhism, the dying days of the Mughal empire, the rise of the Sikh empire and its fall (1790-1839), Maharaja Dalip Singh’s abortive bid for the throne of the Sikh kingdom, the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy (1919), World War II, partition, and more contemporary events like the 1962 Indo-China War and the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars, as well as Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi in 1984.

The Sandhawalias either had a role to play in such events, or were affected by them and as we look at their changing fortunes, we see the rise of the family till 1844, its hour of glory for the next three years, and its decline till it rallied in 1908 by becoming “less feudal and more progressive and pragmatic”.

Many of the prominent family members had a larger than life presence in Punjabi polity, even though they were forever to stay in the shadow of their cousin Ranjit Singh and to be content with being his noblemen rather the rulers.

The Sandhawalia sardars, as they were called, were “an ambitious lot. Their competitive character, their past successes in the internecine warfare and the meteoric rise of their collaterals, the Sukarchakias fuelled in them an ambition, which when unbridled, cause the family a fair amount of distress.”

They were honoured and used in the court of Ranjit Singh, often as commanders who distinguished themselves. They included Amir Singh Sandhawalia Bud Singh Sandhawalia and Lehna Singh Sandhawalia who distinguished himself in Attock. At the same time, they were not able to consolidate their position because of various reasons, including erratic and even errant behaviour (Amir Singh Sandhawalia, unslung his gun and primed it when Maharaja Ranjit Singh was preparing to mount his horse (1803), Budh Singh Sandhawalia plotted to seize power while the Maharaja was ill (1825).

After the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, there was a tussle for the control of the Sikh kingdom that turned into a struggle between the Jammu Dogras and the Sandhawalia sardars. They lost the struggle, which carried its usual quota of intrigue and bloody assignations (Sandhawalia sardars killed Maharaja Sher Singh, his son Pratap Singh and his enemy Raja Dhian Singh). In becoming contenders for power after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sandhawalia sardars had a significant, though short-lived impact on Punjab polity.

A period of ignominy followed, in which they hunkered down and became feudal lords again. The Sandhawalias, however, gained prominence because of Thakur Singh Sandhawalia (who was also the first president of the Singh Sabha movement in Amritsar). He later played a role in reviving Maharaja Dalip Singh’s quest for his kingdom and was appointed Prime Minister by the latter. Thakur Singh Sandhawalia set up his headquarters in the French colony of Pondicherry and became a thorn on the side of the British Empire for a while.

The canvas is rather broad and condensing the hundreds of years of the history of the Sandhawalias into a 100-page book is quite a challenge, especially since the author says he had no precedent. He writes with remarkable brevity and gives us an overall picture of the rise, fall and recovery of the family. He says that the book was a journey in exploring his family history, which he was not acquainted with since he had not lived in Punjab till his retirement as an international civil servant.

Preminder Singh has engineered a readable family history. He has a nice turn of phrase and often says a lot between the lines. Some readers may want more details of various people who come on the stage of the Sandhawalia saga. Well, if it whets one’s appetite for more, the book has certainly done its job.

This review was published in The Tribune on December 10, 2000