Friday, August 15, 2014

Notes on Rohillas

Rohilla (روهیله) means the inhabitant of the 'Roh '. Muhabbat Khan,  an Afghan author and lexicographer (son of Hafiz Rahmat Khan), describes Roh as " the large tract of country belonging to, and inhabited by, the Afghans, the eastern  boundary of which extends to Kashmir, and the western to the River Hirmand, a  distance of two-and-a-half months’ journey ; and on the north its boundary extends to Kashkar, and its southern boundary to Baluchistan. It therefore lies between  Iran, Turan, and Hind; and its people are termed Rohilahs."

Mountstuart Elphinstone in 1815 notes ;
"I allude to the settlement of the Rohillas, whose wars with us have rendered their name so well known in England. An account of their establishment may be found in Hamilton's Rohilla Afghauns, and of their downfall in the Parliamentary Reports. Their constitution had nothing of the Afghaun democracy; the chiefs were the lords of the soil, and the other Afghauns their tenants, and generally their soldiers; but there, and every where, the common Afghauns showed an independence, and the chiefs a spirit of conciliation, peculiar to themselves. The turbulence and arrogance of these Eusofzye (Yousafzai) colonists, render them unpopular among the English gentlemen; who, on the other hand, are disliked by the Rohillas for the assistance they gave to the Nabob Vizier (Nawab Wazir i.e Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh), in conquering their country; but all admit that the Rohillas are the bravest soldiers we have ever contended with in India. Their kindness to their Hindoo subjects cannot be denied; and the state of improvement to which they had brought their country, excited the admiration of our troops, and has been displayed with enthusiastic eloquence by Burke. The coldest phrases express that "it was cultivated like a garden, without one neglected spot in it." Even now it is among the richest parts of the British provinces. It consists of vast plains, covered with fields of corn, or orchards of Mango trees, and filled with populous towns and flourishing villages. The city of Barelly is one of the largest and finest in India; and an agreeable little town called Nugeena, where I was encamped for some weeks, contains at least 18,000 inhabitants, although it is in no map, and is scarcely heard of beyond the limits of Rohilcund. The residence of the Nabob (Nawab) is at Rampoor, the manners of which 'place still resemble those of the Berdooraunees (Bar Durranis). Pushtoo is the principal language, and one sees in the square before the Nabob's palace, fair, strong, and handsome young men, sitting or lounging on beds, with that air of idleness and independence which distinguishes the Eusofzyes."

Major J.M.Trotter notes in 1880s;
 "The word Rohilla is little, if at all, used now in Pushtu, but i remember a line of an ode in that language, ' Sadik Rohilai yam pa Hundubar gad ', meaning , ' I am a simple mountaineer, compelled to live in Hindustan' ; i.e ' an honest man among knaves.'"
په امید د زلفو ونښتم په دام کي
 روهیله وم ساده دل په هندوبار ګډ
[رحمان بابا]

G.P.Tate in his book "Kingdom of Afghanistan, historical sketch" (1911) , notes ;
" Rohilla seems to be an Indian term. An "Afghan" must be able to prove or at least to state clearly his lineage. Members of the servile or less regarded tribes , provided they adopted a sufficiently martial air, disguised their less honourable origins under the name Rohilla or Ruhela , a hillman, and were accepted at their own valuation. Among the Rohillas, the distinction between the descendants of long domiciled colonists and new arrivals was carefully maintained. The term Desi, country-born, was applied to the former implying and probably correctly a taint of indigenous blood. The term Vilayati was applied to later immigrants of approved Afghan descent on both sides of the family. Both however were called generally , Rohilla Pathan. " (page-23)

According to Akhbar-i-Sanadeed (1918), Rohillas maintained a remarkable equality among themselves whenever they assembled. It was difficult to distinguish between a sardar and an ordinary soldier in their assembly. For a long time they also maintained their traditional tribal dress of their old country which consisted of long and loose kameez and tumbans (loose shalwar) of coarse cloth. They used broad long pieces of blue-colored cloth tied at the waist with large rumals, or handkerchiefs, thrown over the shoulder. Turbans were indispensable part of their dress which distinguished them from the Mughals by its 'oblique setting'. (Vol-II, p-503)

A 1822's description of Rohillas ;
"That part of the province of Delhi which lies to the east of the Ganges is called Rohilcund, being formerly possessed by a race called Rohillas, originally of the Yoosofzey Afghan tribe, who migrated hither about the beginning of the eighteenth century. They are a handsome and tall race, of a whiter complexion than the more southerly inhabitants of India, courageous and hardy, and conjoin the pursuits of agriculture with those of arms. They were united under a distinct leader. In 1774 the British defeated their combined forces at the battle of Cutterah." [Universal Geography, Or, a Description of All the Parts of the World: India and Oceanica, Conrad Malte-Brun, 1822, p-90]

Military value of the Ruhela army ; Ruhela character 

(Excerpt from "Fall of the Mughal empire" by Jadunath Sarkar, Vol-1, pp-51-55)

It was a force formidable in number, but it was rendered still more formidable by its military organization and the racial character of the men.  As an eye-witness of the campaign against Ali Muhammad in 1745 writes in his diary , "Every soldier in his army , whether horse or foot, carries a musket ; every commander of ten or a hundred infantry has his own small banner of particoloured cloth , and these are carried at the head of the cavalcade in marching , so that it looks as if a flower garden is traveling with them."  (Anandram, 26)

A revolution had taken place in the method of Indian warfare since the beginning of the 18th century. In the wars of Aurangzib's heirs artillery had been the decisive factor. The old tumultuous rush of a horde of Rajput desperadoes or regular charge by the heavy armour-clad Mughal cavalry, which formerly used to sweep away every obstacle from before them, was now a thing of the past ; its military value was gone except in very rare and accidental combinations of favorable circumstances. Then musketry made a rapid advance. Nadir Shah's success showed the irresistible power of mobile musketry, whether matchlocks in the hands of mounted men or long pieces (swivels) carried on camels. Alivardi Khan's campaign also demonstrated the value of musketry fire when properly directed. Even swift-rushing infantry, called barqandazes, firing their pieces and acting in concert , had proved victorious over superior bodies of extremely light cavalry armed with the old sword and lance. This fact came to dominate the history of India fully in the middle of the 18th century, and it gave peculiar importance to the Afghan race by reason of their special aptitude for this kind of warfare.

The Afghan soldiers even then displayed the qualities which have distinguished them later in Anglo-Indian warfare. They were cool, accurate shots, expert in taking every advantage of the ground , clever in executing night attacks and ambuscades , extremely mobile on foot, and yet capable of acting in concert and of controlling their fire at the direction of leaders. Their well-regulated volleys , delivered at right moment, had an electric effect in shaking their enemies 's nerves and deciding battles by one stroke. The Afghan clan-system turned their manhood into naturally disciplined war-bands , acting in cohesion and in submission to a single higher command, without any thought of self. No mercenary or conscript army could match such fighters, as Macaulay has illustrated in the parallel case of Scottish highlanders. Their fire-control, disciplined ardour of fight, and active working of the individual soldier's intelligence were unrivaled in India in that age no less than now.

Above the feud between clan and clan among the Afghans rises the consciousness of the one-ness of their race. They have united to oppose a common enemy more often and more effectively than the Rajputs are known in their long history to have done. An appeal to their general racial interest calls forth their co-operation most easily and speedily. They honour their women, and when a chieftain’s wife sent her veil round among the tribesmen in an appeal for the defence of her distressed husband or son, no Afghan was so unchivalrous as to shrink from taking up arms on her behalf. In addition, they were simple and hardy and not toned down by luxury like the Persians and Turks settled on the fertile soil of India, or ruined by addiction to drugs like the latter-day Rajputs.

The defect of the Afghan tribal levies was that they were unable to plan and conduct any long campaign and make the arrangements necessary for it. Away from the stricken field they were no better than brigands. Their failure in diplomacy and constructive statesmanship has always prevented them from confirming and extending the gains of their arms. This political weakness nullified their martial value in the long run. Hence, the Afghans have always been tough opponents, but never empire-builders.

Natural fortresses in Rohilkhand; Ruhela administration.

The Afghan settlers in Rohilkhand possessed two local advantages of great value. Their strong places were surrounded by dense bamboo hedges which were impenetrable to cavalry and artillery and through which even infantry could thread its way only where paths had been cut. These bamboo palisades lingered in that region till well after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Then, again, the skirt of the hills in their immediate north, with the thick sal forests and pestilential swamps called Tarai, afforded them a safe refuge after any defeat in the plains, because no enemy could pursue them across these natural obstacles or survive the climate long.

To individuals the Ruhelas, like others of the Afghan race, were not free from cruelty vindictiveness and treachery. But as rulers, they saw the unwisdom of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. They protected the peasants and traders in their lands from unauthorised oppression and were eager to drive away other robbers from their own preserves. In this they formed an honourable contrast to the Marathas, who extorted their chauth and then went away, without recognising any moral obligation to protect the people whom they had robbed or whose regular Government they had overthrown. The Rubela chieftains left the revenue collection in the hands of Hindu ministers ( diwans ) and their household accounts and correspondence in charge of Hindu secretaries ( munshis ), who were generally very capable men of business and faithfully devoted to their masters’ interests. The result was that both rulers and subjects prospered in their dominions when once the violent act of annexation was over

Portrait of a Rohilla with musket, 19th century