SIKH ARMY PANCHAYATS
SIKH ARMY PANCHAYATS, or regimental committees, were a singularly characteristic phenomenon of the post Ranjit Singh period of Sikh rule in the Punjab. Based on the Sikh principle of equality as well as of the supremacy of sangat or the sarbatt khalsa, they wielded great power during 1841-45. Like the rise of Soviets on the eve of the Russian revolution of 1917, panchayats in the Sikh army appeared spontaneously at a time of instability and declining administrative standards. The struggle of power between Mai, or dowager, Chand Kaur and Prince Sher Singh after the death of Maharaja Kharak Singh and his son, Nau Nihal Singh, ended in victory for the Prince, but at the expense of military discipline.
Sher Singh had won over the army with promises of monetary reward which he was not in a position to fulfil. Charging the government with bad faith, the soldiers whose pay had been in arrears for several months, went on the rampage in the city of Lahore, the trouble spreading also to the provinces. Unpopular senior officers and corrupt paymasters and regimental accountants were their special targets. Sher Singh and his prime minister, Dhian Singh called a meeting of the soldiers` representatives called panches to discuss their demands and end the mutiny which continued intermittently for about six months.
The troops had tasted power while the court had been weakened through jealousy and intrigue among sardars some of whom were also suspected of having links with the British. The soldiers, anxious to have their own voice heard in matters of state, introduced the familiar institution of panchayat. Each battalian, regiment and, in the case of artillery, dera had its own elected panchayat or committee of elders. Together the panchayats formed a council which called itself Sarbatt Khalsa or the Khalsa.
A contemporary witness of court events and diarist, Sohan Lal Suri,` Umdat utTwarikh, does not use the term panchayat, but refers to the representatives of the army variously as Singhs, Khalsa, panches, officers of the paltans or collectively as the Khalsa ji. Army panchayats after their first fit of fury in 1841 remained dormant for the rest of the rule of Maharaja Sher Singh. They reappeared, however, with redoubled vigour immediately after the assassination, on a single fateful day (15 September 1843), of Maharaja Sher Singh, the heir apparent, Kanvar Partap Singh, and the prime minister, Raja Dhian Singh. Raja Hira Singh, son of Dhian Singh, who emerged as a powerful person as the new Wazir had to propitiate the panchayats with promises of a rise in pay and ad hoc rewards.
Broadly speaking, the panchayats performed a fourfold role : they pressurized tlie government for more pay, helped to maintain discipline and morale in the ranks, assured sovereign authority in matters of state in the name of the people, the Sarbatt Khalsa, and they provided popular leadership to meet the British threat from across the southern borders. However sound in principle, the system could not have lasted for long. The panchayats lacked unity and tended towards contention and arbitrariness. With the defeat of the Sikhs in the first Anglo Sikh war (1845-46), they lapsed. The British drastically reduced the strength of the Khalsa army and disbanded units wherein they suspected the slightest indiscipline.
1. Bajwa, Fauja Singh, Military System of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1964
2. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol. II. London,1966
3. Hasrat, BikramaJit, Anglo-Sikh Relations, 1799-1849. Hoshiarpur, 1968
4. Chopra, Barkat Rai, Kingdom of the Punjab. Hoshiarpur, 1969