Hari Singh Nalwa was born into the Uppal family to Sardar Gurdial Singh and Dharam Kaur in Gujranwala, Punjab’s Majha District. His father, Sardar Gurdial Singh, followed the profession of his father and took part in various campaigns of Sukarchakia Sardars – Charat Singh and Mahan Singh – in the capacity of Deradar. He expired in 1798 when Hari Singh was only seven years old. He was thus looked after by his maternal uncle.
Hari Singh joined Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Khalsa army at the tender age of 13 and at the age of 18, led the first victory. He subsequently became the right hand of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
An incident took place in Hari Sing’s early days of service in the Khalsa army. During a hunting expedition, Hari Singh was attacked by a tiger. The attack was so subtle and unexpected that he did not have enough time to pull out his sword. Young Hari Singh faced the crucial situation with such boldness that he managed to catch hold of the jaw of the beast with his hands, forcefully pushing it away before killing it with his sword. Noted historian Baron Charles Hugel says, he was called Nalwa for ‘having cloven the head of a tiger who had already seized him as its pray’.
Hari Singh fought 22 battles in his carrier, without losing one. He was the longest serving Great Commander in Chief of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army.
Between 1804 and 1837, Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa fought many battles against the Afghans, quickly earning himself the reputation of the only man who struck terror in their hearts.
Legend has it that Afghan mothers used to quieten their children by taking Nalwa’s name and for young Afghans, his name was a terror spoken in hush hush. Even American Generals used to tell Nalwa’s story to motivate their troops when US-Afghan war was in its thick.
Hari Singh Nalwa is almost entirely credited for the Sikh empire’s expansion beyond the Indus Valley and up to the Khyber Pass.
Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa is considered to be one of the few men to have ever totally dominated the Khyber Pass, starting with the battle of Kasur in 1807 and ending with the capture of Jamrud in 1836. Despite the fact that the odds were stacked against him in each fight, it was his wit and superior knowledge of fighting tactics that won him his victories.
Hari Singh Nalwa’s first significant military campaign was that of Kasur in 1807. Along with his fellow commanders, Hari Singh Nalwa marched on to Kasur to subjugate its Afghani owner Kutab-ud-din Khan. Sikhs laid siege for three months after which Kutab-ud-din Khan surrendered. Hari Singh Nalwa was the first to march inside the city gate of Kasur with his division.
Battle of Mankera in 1822, battle of Nowshera in 1823, battle of Sirikot in 1824, battle of Saidu in 1827 and the seizure of Peshawar in 1834 are major battles fought and won by Nalwa.
In 1836, soon after Dussehra, Hari Singh Nalwa conquered Jamrud, a fort at the mouth of the Khyber Pass. This victory meant that the Sikhs could launch offensive against Kabul anytime. Dost Mohammed Khan of Kabul was alarmed with this victory. But the marriage of Nau Nihal Singh, the Maharaja’s grandson in 1837, changed the equation and troops were withdrawn from all over Punjab to put up a show of strength for the British Commander-in-chief who was invited to the wedding.
Dost Mohammed Khan was also invited to the great celebration, but he did not go. Instead, he chose to take this opportunity to seize Jamrud. Hari Singh Nalwa anticipated this and did not go to Amritsar, stationing himself in Peshawar.
Dost Mohammed ordered his army to march towards Jamrud together with his five sons and his chief advisors, with orders not to engage with the Sikhs. Instead, it was more of a show of strength to try and wrest the forts of Shabqadar, Jamrud and Peshawar. Hari Singh was also told not to engage with the Afghans till reinforcements arrived from Lahore.
Hari Singh’s lieutenant, Mahan Singh, was in the fortress of Jamrud with 600 men and limited supplies. Hari Singh, who was in Peshawar, moved to rescue his men who were surrounded from every side by the Afghan forces, without water in the small fortress. Though the Sikhs were totally outnumbered, the sudden arrival of Hari Singh Nalwa put the Afghans in total panic. In the melee, Hari Singh Nalwa was accidentally grievously wounded.
Before he died, he told his lieutenant not to let the news of his death out till the arrival of reinforcements, which is what he did. While the Afghans knew that Hari Singh had been wounded, they waited for over a week doing nothing, till the news of his death was confirmed. By this time, the Lahore troops had arrived and merely witnessed the Afghans fleeing back to Kabul.
Hari Singh Nalwa had not only defended Jamrud and Peshawar, but had prevented the Afghans from ravaging the entire north-west frontier.