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How relevant are Ranjit Singh’s ideas today
By Surjit Hans

MAHARAJA Ranjit Singh patronised writing on politics. The posterity is beholden to him for his gift of Rajniti Buddhi Baridh (The ocean of political wisdom). It is a manual of training for the courtier.Rajniti by Tansukh is short but great. Another Rajniti by Devi Das was extensively used.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh issuing instructions; opaque water colour on paper, Pahari-Sikh; c. 1830 These works are important to us in that they are embodiments of pre-modern ideas of politics. They are indispensable for the understanding of our history, past and present, and the world today.

Why do we call a patriot desh bhagat? You will not find an answer unless you go to these works. Tansukh says that devotion to God is of doubtful value, devotion to a prince is more rewarding and honourable.

Ram bhagti kathin bahu aahe/jog-ishar nahi pawe tahe/tan te serva raj ki kije/karaj karke jag jas liye.

The contrariness between raj bhagti and Ram bhagti is accepted by the Sikh Granth. According to Guru Ramdas, men serve the potentate for money. The potentate may imprison his subject or impose a fine on him. He may die without making a payment. Glory to the service of God. The king imposes forced labour (begar); "only God does not mulct even by a grain from the toil of man," according to Guru Arjan. He continues further that the service of man is "painful", the service of God "fortunate". Kabir opposes "loving devotion" to "ruling habits".

In the either/or world of pre-modern times, more would choose raj bhagti and only a few Ram bhagti. The idea at once explains one or two things. Our fascination with Maharaja Ranjit Singh carries a lode of raj-bhagti.

Secondly, after the British conquest of Punjab (or India) the idea of want of devotion to the ruler was beyond the mental horizon of the common man. On the one hand, it explains acceptance of the British rule. On the other hand, one can visualise the psychological barrier the nationalists were up against.


In my school days we were hard put to counter the argument that we should be ‘true to the salt of the British’, i.e. namak halal. The idea that the rulers should be namak halal of the people was not around.

Thirdly, the mixing of religion and politics by the nationalists, particularly by the Extremists and Mahatma Gandhi, though unfortunate, is yet understandable as a sociological compulsion.

The idea gets another twist in communal politics when the leaders want to encash Ram bhagti into raj bhagti of their own.

The character of dada and the institution of dadagiri are not modern inventions but come from pre-modern times. Tansukh has given a vivid portrait of a dada. "He serves the king for his own sake, and to help his friends and kin. Throughout the creation living beings take care of their own stomachs. One should be considered to have made a success of his life if he share the bounty with the many."

According to Budh Singh, the ruler is always right; the people wrong. A king lays the people under obligation by ruling over them. If the king does not overlook the fault of the people, the world would stop. In developing countries leaders, coming to power through the modern institutions of electoral democracy, soon revert to pre-modern mentality when faced with a crisis.

A constellation of virtues marks the courtier — wisdom, bravery, mercifulness, wealth, goodness, justice, birth, knowledge and cleverness.

Political writing is quite cynical about the idea of redemption. "He who works to give happiness to many, his friends, brothers, kin, Brahmins, servants and followers, leaves the world full of praises to go to heaven." (Ek purakh jag aise bhai jai jay chhad surag te gae).

The lower orders are ‘dead’. The beggarly know not of the pleasures of the world. They are ‘living dead.’ This is the anthropological basis for the institution of begar or forced labour. The ‘dead’ cannot receive wages.

The ruled are like children and fools — mean and without honour. The dark world of the wretched of the earth contrasts with the resplendent glory of the rulers. In our country the absence of human rights is more obvious in the country-side than anywhere else. Citizens live in the towns; subjects in the villages.

Pre-modern political thought has the merit of advocating something completely ignored today. Medieval statesmanship was to protect the weak from the strong, though it never succeeded. In passing, I may refer to Nishat-ul-Mulk, attributed wrongly to Al-Ghazali published as Mirror of Princes. At one place, it discusses virtue in relation to (administrative) power, thus combining ethics and public administration.He says," An ordinary man has one unit of good or evil. A well-off person has two. The village headman four. Sufaid posh, eight; zaildar, sixteen; tehsildar, thirtytwo..." It goes on increasing geometrically until it reaches a figure of lakhs of units in the person of a ruler. The good or evil a monarch does is far, far greater than the good or evil of an ordinary man. The author quietly remarks that is why the ruler never goes to heaven. The argument is relevant in the discussion on corruption in high places.

Budh Singh portrays a medieval world in which God is the maker of a universal economy in which men, animals, kings, saints and bhagts have their wherewithal. Fate rules over society and its history. Interestingly, the fall of empires is visualised in the image of an immoral woman — an arch symbol of the oppressed. Social mobility is a hazardous endeavour. It is conceded that the attempt to leave the world of the ‘dead’ requires intelligence and enterprise. What is true of the individuals may well hold in the case of countries, as well.

Despite the palpable presence of the westerners in the ruling class of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Budh Singh has no idea of external danger from the West, despite the encroaching advance from the British India. The lacuna is symbolic of the fact that the Sikh movement reached its climax on the point of its being snuffed out by the West.

Rajniti Buddhi Baridh is a Sikh and non-Sikh work. It is Sikh in the sense of being representative of the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It is non-Sikh because its inspiration does not lie in the Adi Granth or Sikh history. It has a kind of medieval worldliness, shared equally by the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim segments of the ruling class. It is their outlook as well. Thus, it has a ring of so to speak Punjabiat in the 19th century.