Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji, Portrait painted by G T Vigne in 1837.
“On the 1st of Baisakh (April 12) 1801, Sahib Singh Bedi daubed Ranjit Singh’s forehead with saffron paste and proclaimed him Maharajah of the Punjab. A royal salute was fired from the fort. In the afternoon the young Maharajah rode on his elephant, showering gold and silver coins on jubilant crowds of his subjects. In the evening, all the homes of the city were illumined. Ranjit Singh’s political acumen is well illustrated in the compromise that he made between becoming a Maharajah and remaining a peasant leader. Although crowned King of the Punjab, he refused to wear the emblem of royalty in his simple turban. He refused to sit on a throne
The most important consequence of taking on the title of “Maharajah of the Punjab” was that thereby Ranjit Singh assumed the rights of sovereignity not only over all Sikhs (the government itself being Sarkar Khalsaji) but over all people who lived within the ill-defined geographical limits of the Punjab.”
— Extracted from A History of the Sikhs by Khushwant Singh.
Eighteenth century India was an age of troubles, generally called a gardi ka waqt (bad times). It was probably the worst of times in India, a period of greater misery and adversity than anything that Europe had witnessed since the Dark Age, not excluding the horrors of the Thirty Years War. India was drifting into chaos. Mughal rule had tumbled; the Mughal emperor was a prisoner; and his authority was confined steadily shrinking around Delhi.
In Northern India, atrocities committed by Nadir Shah in 1738-39, and later by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1748, 1749 and 1752, had brought untold suffering to people who had no breath of peace. In 1761 on the historic battlefield of Panipat, the death toll has been estimated at nearly 200,000.
By the end of the 18th century all political unity in India had disappeared and everywhere local magnates, heads of old tribal communities or ambitious upstarts, were scrambling for power and territory. The great mass of people had everything to lose as the framework of law and order had broken. The whole area was the prey of the strongest and most audacious free booter of the day. In fact, there was no government that could govern. Every adventurer who could muster a troop of horses might aspire to a throne.
The historical process works inexorably in human affairs in which an element of contingency operates. The rise of Sikh power in Punjab in the 18th century was a unique phenomenon. The forces of religious fervour unleashed by Guru Gobind Singh, the awakener of consciousness, his trials and tribulations, and his tearing spirit, inspired his followers who were to transform with a passionate zeal a purely religious sect into a great military confederacy in the early part of the 18th century. It was Ranjit Singh’s genius that in the turbulent period he succeeded in galvanizing these forces of theocratic confederacy into establishing a Sikh Kingdom that was to last for half a century, until its collapse at Sobroan.
Within six years of his assumption of power, after seizing Lahore and Amritsar, Ranjit Singh found himself placed in a predicament which exasperated him. In 1807 the Treaty of Silsit was signed between Napoleon and the Czar of Russia, Alexander I. Thereafter, Russia began to extend her influence in Persia and Afghanistan. It was also stipulated that the Shah of Persia was required to give a passage to the French army, should Napoleon decide to attack India. The Governor-General, Lord Minto, felt alarmed by Napoleon’s ambitious schemes in Persia. He thought it necessary to make the Punjab a strong bulwark against foreign invasions from Central Asia and Africa. And for this purpose, Lord Minto dispatched John Malcolm to Persia, Mountstruct Elphinstone to Kabul, and Charles Metcalfe to Amritsar to cement friendly ties in order to ward off foreign invasion.
By the time Metcalfe arrived in Amritsar for negotiating a treaty on September 19, 1808 there was a striking change in European politics. The French danger of invasion over India had passed away. The British object was therefore limited to only the security of the country south of the river Sutlej, in order to give protection to the Southern Sikhs who were the rulers of small principalities. Ranjit Singh was thus required to withdraw his troops to the right bank of the Sutlej.
On February 8, 1809 Colonel David Ochterlony declared all states on the left of the river Sutlej under British protection. Ranjit Singh did not want his freedom of action to be curtailed. He required from the British envoy the acknowledgement of his sovereignty over all Sikh states and people lying between the Sutlej and the Yamuna so that he could consolidate them into a great empire. The British were determined not to allow the subjection of the Cis-Sutlej states—these principalities were already under British protection. Confronted with such pressure from the British envoy Metcalfe to sign a treaty, what was Ranjit Singh to do. Ranjit Singh kept Metcalfe on tenterhooks for about six months. He used all possible means to circumvent British designs. He procrastinated. He dilly-dallied: He flattered Metcalfe in order to win him over by his smiles and humour. But Metcalfe stood firm. In January, 1809 the British government ordered Ochterlony to advance a military force to the banks of the Sutlej. Ranjit Singh realized the danger of war. He distrusted the British but knew that he did not possess sufficient power to withstand them. Therefore he signed the Treaty of Amritsar on April 25, 1809 with the British government which confined his territory to the south bank of the river Sutlej with exclusion of a strip of territory on the south bank in which he was bound not to place troops. The broad line of demarcation was the river Sutlej. This arrangement preserved the peace of northern frontier for 40 years.
For signing the treaty Ranjit Singh has been strongly criticised by historians like Patwant Singh and Sangat Singh on the ground that he had tamely succumbed to the British pressure and forfeited his independence. I think this criticism is totally unjustified. Ranjit Singh was a realist in politics who could never mistake a shadow for substance. He knew the limits of his powers. He realized that he could not fight the British. Nor could he find any Indian ally to support him in his resistance to the British. By this treaty Ranjit Singh managed to retain the independence of his kingdom. He also had a free hand to expand his territory in the North and the North-West undeterred by the British.
When Ranjit Singh died in 1837 at the age of fifty nine, he was the undisputed ruler of a compact Kingdom. He left in Punjab, an army which was capable of fighting the British on equal terms. He could dodge and confound the British envoy Metcalfe who had come to parley with him, and dismiss the Maratha chief Jaswant Rao Holkar as Pucca Haramzada, (Great Rascal). He drove back the Afghans across the Indus, into the mountains, and stemmed for all time to come tide of the Afghan marauders pouring into Northern India and committing arson, pillage and slaughter.
But for him, Kashmir would have continued to be a part of Afghanistan. He brought under his sway, three Muslim provinces: Peshawar in the west; Multan in the south west; and Kashmir in the north. He incorporated also the numerous petty states into his kingdom. It was only the growth of British power and its strength in India that prevented the Sikhs from succeeding the Mughals as the controlling authority in India but it is a speculation whether they would have succeeded in this venture.
Ranjit Singh had a questioning mind. He was deeply interested in the how and why of things. His was not a philosophical or speculative mind. He thought in plain terms and simplified even the most complex problems. This extraordinary understanding of human affairs he acquired by mediating over his own experiences through the steps and slips of life. In other words, his experiences were the foundation of his own life. He never ceased learning from others, due to his restless curiosity.
Victor Jacquemont, the French traveller, who met Ranjit Singh in Lahore wrote that the “Maharaja’s conversations were like a nightmare. Jacquemont wrote, “He asked a hundred thousand questions of me, about India and the British, Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte, the world in general and the next, hell, paradise, the soul, God, the devil and myriad of others of the same kind. In 1812 he rode with the British Commander David Ochterlony to inspect the drill of the English Company, in the style in which they would behave in the field of battle and he admired their performance. He employed French and Italian Generals to train his army on western model. That is why both his infantry and artillery were unrivalled for steadiness.
Ranjit Singh had, doubtless, all the wildness and irregularity of an ardent and indisciplined sensualist. Wine and women he could not resist, and he believed that the only way to resist their temptation was to yield. He would indulge in riotous career of self-indulgence, drinking and revelling in the company of women with reckless abandon and he let himself go. He was used to taking laudanum almost daily.
Ranjit Singh’s passion for collecting guns and horses for the army amounted almost to insanity. He would never miss an opportunity of obtaining a gun, and would even storm a fort to seize it. For acquiring the celebrated horse Leili, he embroiled himself in a tedious war with a neighbouring province, which cost him upwards of thirty thousand pounds.
What kind of a Kingdom did Ranjit Singh establish? Was it a military monarchy? Monarchy was the only form of government in India for centuries, and the Sikhs, in spite of their attachment to democratic ideals, could not think of representative government. Ranjit Singh refused to sit on the throne. His name was never inscribed on the coin. He kept the army under control, and never used it as an instrument of tyranny. He set up a Sikh state in the sense that the ruler was Sikh who held power in the name of the Khalsa, and the army was predominantly Sikh. His was indeed a heterogenous state based on harmony of religious faiths, and cooperation of communities with a rapport with the common man. There was no dictatorship of one community over other. He told Faqir Aziz ud Din, `God intended me to look all religions with one eye, that is why he took away the light from the other’.
By any standards, Ranjit Singh was statesman who out of anarchy and chaos had created order and stability and made Punjab a power to reckon with. There were also a glimmering of Punjab Nationalism. His task was enormous, his time was short, and his unworthy successes were a lot of trembling paltrooms lacking in political instinct who destroyed all the things he had build with political sagacity and will.