Maharaja Ranjit Singh — a visionary
THE rise of Ranjit Singh in the Punjab was a unique phenomenon. It can in no way be associated with the decline of the Mughal Empire or consequential rise of the provincial satraps in various regions of the Indian sub-continent. However, some historians have attempted to make an odious comparison between Tipu Sultan of Mysore and Ranjit Singh. Tipu was called The Tiger of Mysore and Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab. But the only thing common between Tipu and Ranjit Singh is that the former fell fighting at Seringpatnam in the summer of the same year (1799) in which Ranjit Singh conquered Lahore, the ancient capital of the Punjab. In a way, they have a relationship of one’s fall and other’s rise.
What is more important to understand about the rise of Ranjit Singh and the situation in Punjab is that the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babar, set his heart ‘to possess Hindustan’ about the same time when Punjab was under the spell of sweet stirrigns of a new gospel preached by Guru Nanak the founder of Sikh faith. His gospel was not meant for recluses or mendicants. It aimed at creating a vibrant social order that could stand against oppression.
Guru Nanak witnessed the sack of Syadpur (Emnabad, Gujranwala district, Pakistan) and the massacre that followed. He was unhappy to see the atrocities committed by the conquerors. With the coming of the Mughals, a record stability of sorts ensued under four Mughal emperors — Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb — for about half a century, unique in India indeed. The nine successors of Guru Nanak stood their ground during this very period. Two of them were martyred by Jahangir and Aurangzeb who aligned themselves with Sunni fanatics. Guru Gobind Singh, the last in the line of spiritual successors of Nanak, created the Khalsa and embarked upon open struggle against oppression. His nominee, Banda, a recluse-turned-Sikh warrior struck at the root of the Mughal power in Punjab and by his conquest of Sirhind and minting of a coin in the name of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh made it sufficiently clear that the Khalsa Panth would not let any Mughal satrap establish his sway over the Punjab.
His measures like abolition of zamindari system and wholesale dismissal of Mughal kardars were enough to show the direction to which the events were leading. The Sikhs fought the Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali with the same ferocity as they had fought against the Mughals. They learnt much from the rigours of persecution and ultimately the Afghan Baba-i-Qaum had to concede victory to the Sikhs when Ranjit Singh’s grandfather Charhat Singh fell upon his retreating army, uttering the words ‘Azin Qaum bue badshahi me ayad’ (the manner of these people smacks of royalty). The road to the pedestal of power that awaited Ranjit Singh had thus been cleared.
Charhat Singh occupied vast territories in the Rachna, Chaj and Sind Sagar Doabs including the dhani area and the impregnable fort of Rohtas on the Jhelum. He even had his eyes on hill principality of Jammu. Mahan Singh, Ranjit Singh’s father, the second Sasrdar of Sukerchakia misl added Sialkot (Kotli Ahangaran, a place well-known for manufacture of guns), Ramnagar (earlier name Rasulnagar) and Akalgarh (earlier name Alipur) and humbled the powerful Chatha Chief, Pir Mohd Khan. He also took full advantage of Jammu succession dispute and looted the wealth of Jammu to his satisfaction. All this left Ranjit Singh as Sukerchakia Chief, the strongest of all the misls.
Ranjit Singh inherited a ravaged country, devastated towns with minimal industrial activity and a host of inimical neighbours. The fraternity of the Khalsa did not accept him as emerging leader, like Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. On the other hand, the old guards like Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, Gurdit Singh Bhangi and Jai Singh Kanheya resented the success that came his way. Though illiterate, he had the vision to peep into the future. Without any delay or dithering he was able to perceive that his first priority was to be the unification of Punjab. Small principalities could neither give strength and glory to the Khalsa nor prosperity to people of Punjab as a whole. Therefore, he formulated a well considered policy to progressively bring the Sikh, Muslim as well as the Hindu hill rajas under his tutelage.
But he aimed at no exactions or plunder. He was a humane conqueror who could feel for the fallen foe. He befriended some mislars like Fateh Singh Ahluwalia (with whom he exchanged turbans as symbol of brotherhood) and Jodh Singh Ramgarhia. The matrimonial alliances with the Kanheyas and Nakais were also aimed at extension of power. He could see through the state of mind of all those who accepted his overlordship. He treated them generously giving jagirs for subsistence and exalted offices for those who professed unstinted loyalty.
In the organisation of government he showed extra-ordinary capacity to grasp intricacies of administration and instinctive urge to attract talent. The system that emerged under him proved to be efficient, effective and geared towards the welfare of the people. But, unfortunately, it continued to hinge on his person; which tended to make his exercise of authority get the complexion of an absolute monarchy. His best asset was his down to earth knowledge of the affairs of his state and his easy accessibility. He ensured that the ownership of the land was vested with the tiller and the title to dig a new well also belonged to him. His standing orders to the marching troops were not to cause any damage to the crops.
There are numerous stories that remain current till today about the easy accessability of Ranjit Singh and his high sense of imparting justice. No matter was too small or big to be brought before him. A story survives that a young woman entered the durbar crying ‘Dohai Sarkar dohai’ (Cruelty, Your Highness, Cruelty). With repeated sobs she related that she had been raped by Maharaja’s soldiers. The Maharaja held his head down in shame and threw his unsheathed sword towards the woman and asked her to kill him as he had not protected her honour. ‘This is the job of the King’ replied the lady. The legend has it that Maharaja got the culprits identified, dismissed them and put them in prison for life.
It is interesting that having lived through an age of intrigue where recrimination through murders was not uncommon, Ranjit Singh banned capital punishment in his state. Secularism as conceived and adopted by rulers like Sher Shah and Akbar had been the outcome of political exigencies. But in case of Ranjit Singh it was an article of faith. Sikhism never taught him to use political power to bring adherents to his religion. Moreover, he had been invited to occupy Lahore by prominent persons belonging to all faiths. He did not declare any religion as a state religion. Therefore, toleration and co-existence of all communities was ensured. He appointed no minister for ecclesiastical affairs. He refused to ban azan (Muslim call for prayers) at the behest of some fanatic Akalis and also did not allow them to occupy Sunehri Masjid at Lahore to convert it into a gurdwara. His was a regime of Hlemi Raj of Guru Arjan’s concept and his ideal was Sarbat Da Bhala (good to all) as set forth by Guru Nanak.
He spurned the suggestion of using marble adoring the Mughal mausoleums at Shahdra for parkarma of Harmandar (Amritsar). It is this policy that earned the unstinted support of the Punjabi Muslims for Sarkar-i-Khalsa of Ranjit Singh and they refused to respond to Syad Ahmad Brelui’s call for Jehad in the trans-Indus territory. Ranjit Singh did not declare himself as Gau Rakshak but banned cow slaughter in his kingdom. He did much for the glorification of the Harmandar Sahib (Amritsar) which was turned into the Golden Temple. He also made liberal grants to the Hindu and Muslim shrines for extensive repairs and maintenance.
He was responsive to the scientific advances. He felt an urgent need for modernisation of artillery and reorganisation of his forces and welcomed the European expertise by appointing experienced Europeans who had served in the French army. He encouraged industry and trade. The Kashmiri pashmina shawl industry was revived and shawls began to be exported to the European countries. Multan silk became popular. Existing roads were repaired and made safe and new kacha roads were laid to open up villages. The conditions of small towns like Adina Nagar (Gurdaspur), Phillaur, Eminabad were considerably improved. Punjab saw prosperity and glory under Ranjit Singh. That is why a Muslim, Shah Mohammed, wrote the best requiem on the decline of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom:
"Ranjit Singh was a born warrior-king who gave his feel to the country. He conquered Kashmir, Multan, Peshawar and made Chamba, Kangra and Jammu bow before him. He extended his territories upto Ladakh and China and struck his coin there. O Shah Mohammed! For fifty years he ruled with satisfaction, glory and power." (Jang Namah)