Gem of a Maharaja

Patwant Singh and Jyoti M. Rai’s book on Maharaja Ranjit Singh reveals different facets of the charismatic founder of the powerful Sikh empire. Excerpts:

THE administration of Lahore was a model that Ranjit Singh replicated throughout his extensive territories. He was determined to create an administrative system undiluted by religious prejudices, political affiliations, preference for family connections, regional and caste loyalties or countless other pulls and pressures that made a mockery of just governance. Despite the disparate and potentially destructive elements he had to keep in control, he was determined to strengthen his rule not through intimidation or state terror but by providing good governance.

In contrast to the merciless treatment fanatical rulers usually meted out to people of other faiths in those times, Ranjit Singh was determined to create a cohesive society out of erstwhile enemies. And in his own cabinet of ministers and in all positions of the highest responsibility, Hindus, Muslims and Dogras (hill Rajputs from the Jammu area) predominated.

Secular ruler

The Prime Minister’s portfolio was given to a Hindu Dogra, Dhian Singh. Three of the most important portfolios were held by Muslims: Fakir Azizuddin was the foreign minister, Fakir Nuruddin the home minister and Fakir Imamuddin the custodian of the Treasury at Amritsar.

That merit and suitability rather than caste and creed were the criteria for selection for government service is also evident from the representation of Hindus as compared to Sikhs; one study of an early cabinet under Ranjit Singh lists 15 Hindu ministers and top officials as to seven Sikhs. The former included the ministers of finance and revenue, besides the paymaster general, the accountant general, and the governors of Multan and Kashmir, while the Sikhs were almost entirely generals, some of whom sometimes held additional posts as governors.

The Koh-i-Noor, which was worn by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in an armlet
PRIZED POSSESSION: The Koh-i-Noor, which was worn by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in an armlet

‘Even Akbar who was the most liberal of the Mughal Emperors... did not go as far as Ranjit Singh did. Whereas Ranjit Singh gave the highest positions, such as prime ministership, foreign ministership, etc., to members of other communities, Akbar could not go beyond associating one or two non-Muslim ministers with his court which thus predominantly remained Muslim in character and composition.’

In a number of ‘democracies’ around the world today, just representation in upper echelons of government is a rare thing; religious, caste and class considerations matter more. Ranjit Singh’s monarchical practice was more in keeping with democratic principles than democratic functioning in India today.

Neither were non-Punjabis discriminated against in Punjab. More significantly, even though in 1606 Chandu Shah, an influential Brahmin in the service of the Mughals (along with a Brahmin lobby, deeply resentful of the independent ways of the Sikhs), had influenced the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to cruelly put to death Guru Arjan Dev, builder of the Harmandir Sahib and compiler of the Guru Granth, Ranjit Singh appointed Khushal Singh, a Brahmin, as the chamberlain of his court.

Some of the men Ranjit Singh rewarded with senior positions were to betray the Sikh state after his death. But in his lifetime, this worldly-wise ruler, well aware of the inborn human tendency towards treason and religious bigotry, was well able to deal with such people and their propensities and, instinctively, to use their abilities for the good. He could thus afford not to deviate from the secular principle in the governance of his state, the even-handedness that in such large part underlies his achievements.

The steadfastness of his own beliefs helped him provide a model of good governance to the heterogeneous population of the Sikh nation and to give its constituents the freedom to practise their own faiths. He showed them the way himself by his regular visits to Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, towards which he expressed the same reverence as he did towards Sikh gurdwaras.

Even more convincing was his munificence towards different places of worship. This again was even-handed as between Hindu and Muslim shrines. After he annexed Lahore in 1799, the Sunahri Masjid, which the city’s previous misl rulers had taken over, was restored to the Muslims, while huge sums were spent on the restoration of the buildings of two Mughal emperors — Jahangir and Shah Jahan — in Lahore. Nor were any funds denied for the upkeep of the tombs of various distinguished Muslims.

In the case of the Hindu temple at Jawalamukhi, apart from various other donations in cash and kind, he had the roofs of the two main temple buildings — one large and the other smaller — covered with gold as a token of his esteem for the shrine. He also donated 14 quintals of pure gold for gilding the Vishwanath temple at Benaras, which Emperor Aurangzeb had converted into a mosque.

Ranjit Singh’s impartiality towards all religions is acknowledged not only by past and present historians but also by British and European observers of the time. There is an account of one Wolff Joseph, who came to Lahore in 1832 and set about putting up posters everywhere propagating Christianity and running down other religions while urging people to look towards Christ as the true saviour. He soon received this message from Ranjit Singh: In sakhun nabayad guft — such words must not be said. That his own respect for different faiths raised him in the estimation of his people came through convincingly during his entry into Peshawar in 1818.

When a victorious Ranjit Singh rode into this city after wresting it from the Afghans, he provided a striking contrast to Mohammad Ghori, Timur, Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Abdali and all the other blood-shedding armies down the centuries. Ranjit Singh made it an ironclad rule that his armies would not indulge in carnage, nor burn holy books, nor destroy mosques. The civilian population could, with confidence, continue its daily activities as usual and no women would be molested, nor men flayed alive. The people of Peshawar acknowledged this rare quality in this leader, and when Ranjit Singh rode through the streets of the city, the holy men of the town blessed the conqueror and prayed for his long life.

The rebellious tribesmen saw the spectacle and exclaimed: Khuda Hum Khalsa Shud (the almighty is on the side of the Khalsa). He appointed many Christian officers to his army Italians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Greeks, Spaniards, Russians, Americans, a German and an Austrian, and he even made some of them senior army commanders and governors of provinces. Their numbers have been put between 39 and 42.


Shrewd statesman

What greatly helped Ranjit Singh strengthen the nation he had just founded was his statesmanship in dealing with the British. It is astonishing that someone so young and unversed in the ways of colonial powers should have risen with such aplomb to the challenge of dealing with the British, with their suave ways, boundless ambition and experienced and efficient army equipped with sophisticated weapons.

When in 1801 Ranjit Singh became head of the Punjab state, the British were already firmly ensconced in Delhi. Even though the Mughals still existed in name, they counted for very little by that time. It was Britain’s writ that prevailed over most of India up to Delhi. Beyond Delhi, Ranjit Singh was the man to reckon with. Even at that early stage, when he was barely 22, his designs for the future were of a grand scale.

He wanted to exercise his writ over North India, the North-Western Provinces, the hill states and the mountain ranges up to the Khyber Pass. This vast territory was outside British control. Nor was it under the control of any single authority, although the Sikh nation was the most powerful in that part of the subcontinent. But the Afghans possessed the most prosperous cities and towns and controlled major trade routes. They also had sizeable armies. Then there were many Hindu and Muslim chiefs, aside from the tribes in the northwest who were a law unto themselves.

The only obstacle left between the British and their dominance of the whole of India was the land of the five rivers under Sikh rule. They had shrewdly observed the fighting qualities of the Sikhs, fuelled by their religious beliefs and certainties and sustained by their amazing self-confidence. So it was clearly not in the British self-interest to get involved in any military showdown with them at this stage. Ranjit Singh, too, was canny enough to appreciate the importance of creating a well-defined boundary between British possessions and the Sikh state.

When contact was established between the British Governor-General Lord Richard Wellesley and Ranjit Singh at the beginning of the 19th century, it coincided with developments that favoured the latter. Wellesley, who had taken office in May 1798 at the age of 38, was the paterfamilias of the colonial expansionists. Aggressive and ambitious as they come, he publicly proclaimed that British rule was undoubtedly in the best interests of the ruled. "I can declare my conscientious conviction," he wrote, "that no greater blessing can be conferred on the `85 inhabitants of India than the extension of the British authority, influence and power." True to form, Wellesley set about adding Mysore (Karnataka), Tanjore (Tamil Nadu), Surat (Gujarat) and Oudh (Uttar Pradesh) to the increasing number of British holdings in India. Because these territories lay in southern, western and central India, no attempt was made to show the flag in northern India, or to the ruler of the new Sikh kingdom.

But Wellesley’s enthusiasm for expansionism was not received well by the directors of the East India Company in London. After watching their stocks falling steadily with no dividends coming in, the company decided to eliminate the cause of their problem. Wellesley was accordingly recalled in July 1805.

His successor, Marquess Cornwallis, died within months of taking over his post. It was when the next Governor-General, Lord Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmond Minto, assumed office in July 1807 that Ranjit Singh’s awareness of the English and their designs on India took on a keener edge. He now realised that though their initial aim in India was to build up their trade, an aim which they had pursued with considerable success, they were now moving on towards outright conquest.

General Gerard Lake, who in 1803 had defeated the Marathas at Delhi, had been persuaded by the Sikh chieftains of that area, jealous of Ranjit Singh’s growing power, of the danger he could pose to the East India Company. But young Ranjit Singh had not been idle. Through his intelligence network, which he had begun to assemble early on in his rule, combined with his common sense, he assessed far more accurately than most the threat the British would eventually pose to the Sikh kingdom. Taking advantage of the presence of General Lake’s troops on the Beas, he paid a secret visit to the English camp, and noted "the machine-like drill of the sepoy battalions, the mobility of the Company’s artillery, and the solidity of the British regiments, horse and foot". It was this secret visit to the British army camp that convinced Ranjit Singh of the need to introduce into his own military formations those weapons, battle tactics, training methods and innovative ideas that had given the Europeans a lead over the armies of Asia, and even, in due course, to recruit European officers to help achieve this objective.

Excerpted with permission from Empire Of The Sikhs — The Life And Times Of Maharaja Ranjit Singh by Patwant Singh & Jyoti M. Rai. Hay House India. Pages 370. Rs 500