OFf the shelf
The magnificent Sikh kingdom

Reviewed by V. N. Datta

The Last Sunset: The Rise and Fall of the Lahore Durbar
By Amarinder Singh.
Roli Books. Pages XIX + 347. Rs 695.

IT is indeed a fascinating theme for a practising historian to study and write on the rise and fall of a kingdom. The subject of "fallen greatness" has an immense imaginative appeal, and strikes instinctively a pliant chord with the reader. The sight of a broken monument, a deserted village or an antique piece of pottery stir a chain of varied thoughts too deep for tears. Many books have been written on the life and achievements of Napolean Bonaparte, but it was his shattering and blighted defeat at the ill-fated Waterloo that has aroused the widest interest and kindled some of the rarefield philosophic thoughts on the frailties of human nature, and the fleeting nature of human existence.

Amarinder Singh is not a professional historian, nor is he trained in the austerities of historical discipline which does not in any case disqualify him to produce a historical work. Some of the finest and most learned historical works have been written by non-professional historians. A former Chief Minster of Punjab (2002-2007), Amarinder Singh is an established author of two military studies: Lest We Forget, The History of Indian Army (1947-65) and on Ridge too Far in the Kargil Heights (1999).

Disenchanted with the type of histories and biographies written by Indian and British historians and biographers which suffer from biases either in favour or against, Amarinder Singh claims that his object is "to write about the military aspect of a fascinating period (from the rise of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to ruination of the Sikh kingdom and aftermath) factual in every respect, I believe, and without prejudice, to produce a story—a human story—to which, I hope, lay reader, too, will be attracted".

In his introductory chapter as a background, the author shows how through his passionate zeal, his single-mindedness, his strong fighting power and tactical skills, Ranjit Singh destroyed the frightful menace of the hordes of savage Afghans who pillaged, ravaged, killed and looted in Punjab.

Endowed with extraordinary commonsense and intuitive perceptions, constantly learning and assimilating from the flowing tide of human experiences, and continual verbal discussions with various people, Ranjit Singh emerges from this study a shrewd pragmatist, a realist in statecraft, a brilliant administrator, and a military genius of a tearing spirit, who would never, never, give up. By his several conquests and military expeditions, he carved out an independent sovereign kingdom of Punjab, a power to reckon with.

Quoting from several foreign travellers visiting Punjab, especially Victory Jacquement and Emily Eden known for their accurate observations, the author highlights Ranjit Singh’s fertility of mind and insatiable spirit of enquiry. Jacquement observed that "his (Ranjit Singh’s) conversation is a nightmare". And further, he found in Ranjit Singh the "first Indian whose curiosity balances the apathy of the whole nation".

Ranjit Singh was one of the few statesmen of India who made a concerted effort to conduct his foreign policy on calculations of the balance of power. He considered success in result the only legitimate standard. His mind was congested with alternatives.

The author emphasises that Ranjit Singh gave primacy to the building of his armed forces, which he modelled on the Franco-British system, while making the best use of the indigenous mode of warfare.

The author pries into the Maharaja’s private chambers and exposes with some relish Ranjit Singh’s human foibles , which contributed to his death in 1839 at the age of 59.

The author presents a painful and gloomy picture of the post-Ranjit Singh period. Within seven years (from 1839 to 1846), three Maharajas, four Prime Ministers, and 29 leading figures were killed owing to internecine warfare among the Sikh chiefs. Because of his special interest in military history, in this study, Amarinder Singh focuses on the first and second Sikh wars and the political consequences flowing there from. He avers that fired by religious fervour generated by the life and example of Guru Gobind Singh, the soldiers fought bravely and resolutely like daredevils, marching up to the cannons’ mouth, and flirting with death; but the treacherous ruling chiefs dithered and collaborated with the British and thereby forfeited the independence of the Punjab kingdom.

This study explores the duplicitous part that Raja Lal Singh, the Prime Minister; Tej Singh, the commander-in-chief; and Ranjodh Singh and Rani Jindan played as British agents. Amarinder Singh’s interpretation that some chiefs and Rani Jindan were collaborating with the British to destroy their own army is not startlingly new as some of the leading historians such took a similar view. But the question arises why did the soldiery not overthrow these traitors when it knew their dubious role?

The book closes with the banishment of Maharani Jindan and Duleep Singh. Punjab was annexed on March 29, 1849.

Rani Jindan still awaits a biography. Perhaps the Cleopatra-like Jindan’s magic charm may attract Capt. Singh to take her as his own subject of biography.

Some misprints in the book need to be corrected, for example, Edwardes is printed for Edwards, and Macnaughten for Mcnaughton. A glossary for a study of this type is necessary. The unfortunate story of Duleep Singh does not fit in with the spirit of this work.

With his insights and sensitivity, Amarinder Singh has presented a masterly survey of one of the gloomiest and most traumatic periods in Indian history. His analysis of war operations is clear, bold and cogent; and his narrative is concise and lucid, free from jargon. Indeed, an admirable study from a non-professional historian!