Sikh Confederacy

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The Sikh Confederacy (from 1716-1799) was a collection of small to medium sized political Sikh states, which were governed by barons, in Punjab[1]. They were loosely politically linked but strongly bound in the cultural and religious spheres. Guru Gobind Singh before leaving for Nanded had divided responsibility of Punjab into separate regions (with borders). The records for these were kept at Amritsar and Lahore. As the Sikh Army (Dal Khalsa) grew new regions where administered and new Sikh barons came to the fore and the number of large misls eventually increased to 12 (~70000 Cavalry).

Historical Introduction

The period from 1716 to 1799 in Punjab was a highly turbulent time politically and militarily. This was caused by the overall decline of the Mughal Empire, particularly in Punjab caused by Sikh military action against it. This left a power vacuum that was eventually filled by the Sikh Confederacy. The Sikh Confederacy would eventually in the 19th century be superseded by the Sikh Empire but its influence would still remain strong throughout the Empire's history. See Definition: Confederacy.

The Barons

All the Sikh barons who were affiliated with the Sikh Confederacy were nobility with usually long and prestigious family histories in the Sikh religion and Punjab's history in general. Their military exploits outside their kingdoms were legendary & famous in Sikh history. The barons in the early stages of the Sikh Confederacy were very cordial and hospitable with each other. However, during the later stages of the Sikh Confederacy, they had lost most of idealism and great rivalry & friendships emerged between the later barons (+1780 AD). This is one of the reasons given by scholars why such a powerful military force never conquered and governed large parts of India outside Punjab. Constant warfare between the later barons meant time, energy and resources were spent on feuds rather than large expansion. However, even in the later stages of the Confederacy the barons still held great affection for the Sikh cause and the Sikh religion. This is highlighted by them stamping coinage in their Kingdoms, not in their individual name but usually in the name of Guru Gobind Singh or the Sikh religion in general.

Political structure

The Sikh barons were subject to the control of the Sarbat Khalsa, the biannual assembly of the Panth at Amritsar. The frequent use made of the Sarbat Khalsa converted it into a central forum of the panth. It had to elect leader of the Dal Khalsa, and to lay down its political goal and plans of its military strategy. It had also to set out plans for strengthening the Khalsa faith and body politic, besides adjudicating disputes about property and succession. The Akalis were in charge of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, but they did not infringe the sovereignty of the Barons' kingdoms.

The military head of the Sikh confederacy was democratically elected at Amritsar, in a council by the head of each kingdom.

Past elected Supreme Commanders Nawab Kapur Singh. Sultan ul Quam Jassa Singh Ahluwalia.

Once every year the head's of each region of Punjab would convene at Amritsar or Lahore. The misl structure is primarily used to describe the military configuration. The misl name structure is often confused with the political structure within each Sikh confederate Kingdom and how they interacted with each other. The name used to describe the military structure is the Misl system. However, (the political system) how each Sikh confederate Kingdom interacted with each other is called the Sikh Confederacy.


Agriculture was the main input to the economy. For each Sikh baron land revenue became the major source of his income. As a rule, the Sikh barons followed the baiai system. 20% of the gross produce was deducted before the division for expenses of cultivation. The remaining four fifths, the baron share varied from one half to one quarter. The general proportion was 55% cultivator's share, 7.5% proprietor's share and 37.5% government share. Producers of a few crops such as cotton, sugarcane, poppy and indigo were required to pay revenue in cash. The Khalsa or crown lands remained under the direct control of the Sikh barons.

According to James Browne, a contemporary East India Company employee, the barons collected a very moderate rent, and that mostly in kind. The baron never levied the whole of his share; and in the country, perhaps, never was a cultivator treated with more indulgence.

Moreover, the baron did not interfere with old and hereditary land tenures. The rules of haq shufd did not permit land to be sold to an outsider. New fields, or residential sites could be broken out of wasteland as such land was available in plenty. Duties on traders and merchants also brought some revenue. The Sikh barons gave full protection to traders passing through their territories.

George Forster, who travelled to northern India in 1783, observed that extensive and valuable commerce was maintained in their territories, which was extended to distant quarters of India, after the British withdrew from India.

Confederate Power

The military power levels of the Sikh Confederacy increased dramatically after 1762, this led to rapid increase in territory. Although the political structure of the Sikh Confederacy was still in place, the increase in power saw the introduction of new features, more often seen with empires, such as military treaties with other powers that desired military protection from it e.g. in December 1768, Najib-ud-Daulla entered into a military treaty with the Sikh Confederacy. Rai Mal Gujar and Walter Leuhardt (Samroo) too wanted to join in.


There was strong collaboration together in defence against foreign incursions initiated by the foreign invaders such as, Ahmed Shah Abdali and Nadir Shah. Amritsar was attacked numerous times, with the intention of ethnic cleansing and the destruction of the Sikh faith.

The time is remembered by Sikh historians as the "Heroic Century". This is mainly to describe the rise of Sikhs to political power against massive odds. The circumstances were hostile religious environment against Sikhs, a tiny Sikh population compared to other religious and political powers, which were much larger and stronger in the region than the Sikhs. The military power levels of the Sikh Confederacy increased dramatically after 1762, this led to rapid increase in territory.

These Sikh confederate states were disbanded following the Coronation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Lahore, 1801 AD, and the creation of the Sikh Empire.

Sikh Empire (Unification)

The Sikh Empire (from 1801-1849) was formed on the foundations of the Sikh Confederacy by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Empire extended from the Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north (touching) the border's of Tibet, to the Indus River in the south and in the east to Himachal Pradesh. The main geographical footprint of the empire was Punjab (historical Punjab region). The religious population demography of the Sikh Empire was Muslim (80%), Hindu (10%) and Sikh (10%) Reference: Ranjit Singh: A Secular Sikh Sovereign by K.S. Duggal. (Date:1989. ISBN:8170172446) & [1]. The once strong empire was severely weakened after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839. The story of the Empire ends, with the British Empire annexing its territory in 1849, after the Second Anglo-Sikh War.

The foundations of the Sikh Empire, during the Sikh Confederacy, could be defined as early as 1707, starting from the death of Aurangzeb and the downfall of the Mughal Empire. The fall of the Mughal Empire provided opportunities for the Sikh army, known as the Dal Khalsa, to lead expeditions against the Mughals and Afghans. This led to a growth of the army, which was split into different confederations and then independent kingdoms. Each of these component armies were known as a misl, each controlling different areas and cities. However, in the period from 1762-1799 Sikh rulers of their kingdoms appeared to be coming into their own. The formal start of the Sikh Empire began with the disbandment of the Sikh Confederacy by the Coronation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1801, creating the one unified political Empire.

End of Empire

After the Maharaja's death the empire was severely weakened by internal divisions and political mismanagement. This opportunity was used by the British Empire to launch the first series of Anglo-Sikh Wars. The Sikh Empire was finally annexed by the British Empire at the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849, and so the take over of India was complete. Many argue that had the empire not fallen into political mis-management it would still exist today.


1707-1716, Creation of Sikh Confederacy begins to influence the political structure of the Punjab region.

1762-1767, Ahmed Shah Abdali and the Sikhs battle for control.

1763-1774, Charat Singh, baron of Sukerchakia Army established himself in Gujranwala.

1773, Ahmed Shah Abdali dies and his son Timur Shah is unable to suppress the Sikhs.

1774-1790, Maha Singh, becomes baron of the Sukerchakia Army.

1762-1801, Sikh Confederacy military power rating increases rapidly.

1790-1801, Ranjit Singh becomes baron of the Sukerchakia Army.

1799-1801, transistion period neither Confederacy or Empire.

1801 April 12th, Coronation of Ranjit Singh as Maharaja, formal beginning of the Sikh Empire.

1801 - 27th June 1839, Reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, whose coronation took place in 1801.

1801 - 1839, large expansion of the Sikh Empire in land mass spearheaded by the Sikh Khalsa Army.

27th June 1839 - 5th November 1840, Reign of Maharaja Kharak Singh

5th November 1840 - 18th January 1841, Chand Kaur was briefly Regent

18th January 1841 - 15th September 1843, Reign of Maharaja Sher Singh

15th September 1843 - 31st March 1849, Reign of Maharaja Duleep Singh