Nature of Ranjit Singh’s polity : A ruler much ahead of his times
The most notable trait of Ranjit Singh’s polity was the complete freedom of expression and worship enjoyed by all his subjects. Though he was born and brought up in the Sikh faith and listened to the recitation from Sikh scriptures every day, he did not proclaim Sikhism as the religion of the state. He also did not make any conscious effort to propagate it. His broad religious outlook was reflected in his according due respect to all religions. The spirit of forbearance displayed by him was in sharp contrast to the inhuman practices of the Mughal rulers, their plunder, and forced conversions, writes Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon.
A note-worthy feature of Sikhism is the welding of the spiritual and the temporal realms of human existence. In the integrated vision of the Gurus, politics without religious and moral backing is pure opportunism. Likewise, religion without socio-political responsibility is simply negativism.
A healthy socio-political environment cannot be created without the moral basis supplied by religion. According to the Gurus, a sane society is essentially a pluralistic one in which everyone gets the opportunity to realise his potential to its fullest. They were conscious that the role of the State in enforcing a particular faith on the people violates man’s inherent desire for freedom. But it was the conviction of the Gurus that a sound socio-political order could be built and preserved only through moral and ethical imperatives — the abiding values of tolerance, humility, charity and compassion that constitute Dharma. Such a philosophy sustains the concept of a State, not of a religious-communal nature, but of a welfare State with wide ranging obligations and the general good of all as the basis of political governance.
Ranjit Singh was the ruler of a powerful State extending from Tibet to Sindh and from the Khyber pass to the Sutlej. Kingdoms and empires have almost invariably been founded and maintained on the strength of arms. However, it goes to Ranjit Singh’s credit that while fulfilling his ambitions, he used bare minimum force. Barron Charles Hugel records: "Never perhaps was so large an empire founded by one man with so little criminality." Unequalled for the daring and originality of his many-sided genius, Ranjit Singh gave to Punjab four decades of peace, prosperity and progress. Benefits of this were enjoyed equally by all communities — Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. To unite the three principal communities — Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs –in a common enterprise and reconcile them to the new political order through liberalism was no mean achievement.
The most notable trait of Ranjit Singh’s polity was the complete freedom of expression and worship enjoyed by all his subjects. Though he was born and brought up in the Sikh faith and listened to the recitation from Sikh scriptures every day, he did not proclaim Sikhism as the religion of the state. He also did not make any conscious effort to propagate it. His broad religious outlook was reflected in his according due respect to all religions. The spirit of forbearance displayed by him was in sharp contrast to the inhuman practices of the Mughal rulers, their plunder, and forced conversions.
Recruitment to all posts in his state was to be made on merit. He gave higher positions such as the post of the prime minister and the foreign minister etc, to members of the other communities. Some of his closest advisers were Muslims and it is a proof of the loyalty he inspired that during the Anglo-Sikh wars, Muslim forces fought as valiantly as the Sikhs.
For the first time in Indian history, a landmark was created. Mazhabis, the centuries-old untouchables of Hindu society, far from being discriminated against, become a regular component of Ranjit Singh’s army.
The institution of monarchy gave primacy to personal and family ambitions over requirements of public interests. However, in the case of the Khalsa kingdom, the ideals and duties of the ruler were to serve the people selflessly. Ranjit Singh’s office and power were a sacred trust to be used for the well-being of the people and not for his own. He held steadfastly to the values of justice, freedom and human dignity, not through any defined statements or religious vows or policy pronouncements, but through action and deeds.
Ranjit Singh’s rule was characterised by scrupulous observance of rare norms of public conduct and social ethics. When the victorious Khalsa army passed through the streets of Peshawar, he issued strict instructions to his sardars to observe restraint in keeping with the Sikh tradition, not to damage any mosque, not to insult any woman and not to destroy any crops. He tried his best to follow the Guru’s injunction: "Exercise forbearance in the midst of power, be humble in the midst of honour".
He attributed each success to the favour of God. Royal emblems of crown or throne were conspicuous by their absence in his Durbar. When he issued the coins of his empire, he struck them not in his own name, but in the name of the Guru. The rupee and paise were called Nanakshahi. The inscription on them in Persian meant: "Kettle: Symbol of the pot from which the poor were fed. Sword: Symbol of power to protect the meek and the helpless, and victory and unhesitating patronage have been obtained from Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh."
During his rule, there were no outbursts of communal fanaticism, forced conversions, attempts at revenge, or language tensions. Also, there were no second class citizens. Repression, bloodshed, executions and tortures was absent. There was no capital punishment — something that even modern democracies have not been able to abolish. Capital punishment was not awarded even when there was an attempt on the life of the Maharaja himself. During his 40-year-long reign not even one person was sentenced to death.
Ranjit Singh issued no infallibility decree. The idea of divine rights of kings, which connotes divine absolutism, had no appeal for him. He kept himself open to correction. In a farman addressed to the Chief Kotwal of Lahore, Fakir Nur-ud-Din, in 1825, it was stated, "If even His Highness himself or any other member of his family should issue an inappropriate order against any resident of Lahore, it should be brought to his notice, so that it may be amended." It was a unique instance where the king had claimed equality with his subjects. This should set an example for the present-day rulers.
Cases of bribery and corruption in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom were rare and his frequent and unexpected tours kept the local officials in check. While crime had been rampant under his immediate predecessors, it was reduced practically to the point of abolition during his reign. Cases of theft and highway robberies were rare.
George Keene, a contemporary observer of the Punjab scene stated: "In hundreds and in thousands, the orderly crowds stream on. Not a bough is broken from a wayside tree, not a rude remark addressed to the traveller as he treads his horse’s way." As result, many people from the Satluj states migrated to the Maharaja’s territories where there was more security for life and property, where their rights and privileges were better protected. The Maharaja provided to his subjects all the fundamental rights and basic freedoms supposed to be enshrined in any modern constitution of today.
Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India observes: "Ranjit Singh was remarkably humane at a time when India and the world seethed with callousness and inhumanity. He built up a kingdom and a powerful army, and yet he disliked bloodshed. He abolished the death sentence for every crime, however heinous it might be, when in England even petty pilferers had to face death." Death sentence was not awarded even when there was an attempt on the life of Ranjit Singh himself. Such a thing is unknown in monarchical history. Even in modern India, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin was hanged.
Ranjit Singh never sat on a throne and never wore a crown. Habitual meekness of spirit which Ranjit Singh displayed at the peak of his glory, the sympathy which he showed to the fallen foes and the compassion he had for animals demonstrated the breadth of his vision and the catholicity of his temper.
On one occasion, he is said to have punished one of his generals for killing a koel (nightingale) when she was warbling. Nobody was allowed to hurt a swan, parrot or sparrow. Cow slaughter was banned throughout the empire in deference to the wishes of his Hindu subjects. To bring about emotional integration in the kingdom, important festivals of all communities were jointly and officially celebrated. Known for religious tolerance, social harmony and justice, Ranjit Singh’s state was the most progressive state in India.