THE SIKH RULE AND RANJIT SINGH
GURDASHAN SINGH DHILLON
The reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh has been the subject of abiding interest for scholars and historians but, by and large, they have concentrated their attention on the military and political achievements of the Maharaja. No doubt, he was a great military genius. His political objectives could not have been achieved with out his military genius. But this is an incomplete epithet to describe him adequately. For considering the times, the Indian background and the historical circumstances in which he appeared, the great edifice which he created and the manner in which he fostered it was, we believe, primarily due to the religious background, approach and tolerance and the catholicity of Sikh ethos in which Ranjit Singh was born and brought up. Otherwise he would have remained a mere war-lord and an adventurer. Nurtured in the Sikh tradition and unequalled for the daring and originality of his many-sided genius, the Maharaja gave the Punjab four decades of peace, prosperity and progress, the benefits of which were enjoyed equally by all the communities. This paper is an endeavour to study the salient features of the Khalsa Raj under Ranjit Singh and to evaluate his place in the history of this region.
The character and the nature of his polity is a subject of controversy among scholars. Many writers like J.D. Cunningham1 and Sita Ram Kohli2 ascribe to Ranjit Singh high and noble objectives on the basis of which he carved out his kingdom, which became the source of power and pride for the Sikhs. Many others like Prinsep3 and N.K. Sinha4 have characterised his polity as absolute despotism, which was just the outcome of his military enterprise.
Kingdoms and empires have almost invariably been founded and maintained on the strength of arms. Ranjit Singh had as good a right to crave out a kingdom for himself through the exercise of arms as any other ruler before or after him. In the ultimate analysis, the fundamental criterion to measure a ruler’s greatness should be the manner in which he wields his authority. To what end does he use his power, for the furtherance of his own personal ambitions or for the welfare of his subjects through the projection of eternal values of truth, goodness, justice and freedom? This is the fundamental criterion which we shall use and which we feel should be the only criterion for any kind of modern historiography. In short, our test should be not how an Ashoka or a Changez Khan gets his power but how he uses it and the net results which he achieves.
Both Carlyle5 and Macaulay6 lodged their protest against history being made a mere record of ‘court and camp’, of royal intrigue and state rivalry, of pageants or processions or chivalric encounters. According to Carlyle the essence of history does not lie in laws, Senate houses or battle-fields but in the tide of thought and action-the world of existence that brightens, glooms, blossoms and fades. What gives meaning to history is not merely the exploits and aggressive enterprises of the conquerors and kings, but how the victorious sword is used during the time of peace A ruler’s greatness lies in the vision he projects for the future, the message he leaves for posterity, the direction and dimension that he imparts to history. What mankind needs is peace, progress, prosperity and a harmonious social order. A ruler can best be judged in terms of Arnold Toynbee’s well known historical formula of ‘Challenge and response’.7 The correct measure of a ruler is the vision in terms of initiative, depth and sincerity that he has in responding to the need of times i.e. whether he is an Ashoka or a Changez Khan, a Lenin or a Stalin.
In view of the above criterion we shall explain in this study how Ranjit Singh employed his power and how other rulers of his times, great or small, directed that power to different ends. For this purpose we shall also indicate very briefly the ideological background which threw him up, shaped his character and governed his perceptions and personality. According to Lepel Griffin,”Ranjit Singh was so completely a product of the Sikh theocracy and so embodied the spirit of the Khalsa, that no account of his character and career would be complete without a description of the religious system of the Sikhs.
Ideological Background: Sikhism arose in the sixteenth century as a new revolutionary ideology, opposed in its fundamentals to the contemporary and earlier religions. On the one hand, it challenged the fanaticism and religious hypocrisy of the priestly class9 and on the other hand the religio-political oppression of the contemporary rulers.10 Guru Nanak’s rejection of the Varna Ashram Dharma and of the cult of gods and goddesses11 and his emphasis on the unity of mankind12 and Oneness of God13 constituted a daring and a glaring departure from orthodox Hinduism. He challenged the conventional yardsticks of religion and society of his times by denouncing asceticism,14 idolatry,15 ceremonialism and the role of the intermediary agency between God and man16. He exhorted people not to shun the battle of life, not to renounce their hearths and homes, not to retreat to the private solitude of the hills and caves but to live the life of full blooded householders. He introduced a conspicuous note of world and life-affirmation in his teachings by bridging the gulf between the spiritual and the empirical realms of human existence.17 The significance of the Guru’s message lies in emphasising the role of religion as an instrument of liberation, personal as well as social. In the integrated vision of the Guru, religion became a potential basis of freedom for man-freedom from tyranny, freedom from injustice and freedom form ruthless religious conversion. The Guru thus laid the foundations of a catholic or liberal religion, which was not a mere system of philosophy or a set of abstract ideas, concerning God and the mystery of life and death. It was a discipline, a way of life which infused spiritual and social vitality in its followers and brought about a far-reaching trasformation in their outlook. The Gurus believed that religion could be an effective vehicle of promoting the values of social harmony, love, equality; freedom and brotherhood of man. They aimed at a social revolution that would lead to the emergence of an egalitarian, forward-looking and just social order.18
Sikh movement was not only an egalitarian social order; it was a plebeian political revolution as well but the pressure of circumstances prevented it from assuming spectacular dimensions. Nevertheless, the rise of the Khalsa, the martyrdom of the Gurus, the saga of Sikh resistance to the Mughals and Afghan invaders carried a new message of hope and kindled that spark in human nature that impelled men to seek out a better and saner path for mankind. People looked with eager eyes to the rise of a messiah who would finally deliver them from socio-political persecution of the contemporary rulers and tyranny and oppression of the invaders.
The first bid for establishing the Khalsa Raj was made by Banda Singh Bahadur but without much success. Banda had an indomitable spirit but, faced with the over-whelming might of the Mughal empire, he could not succeed in liberating the country from the oppressive rule. He and his 740 followers were tortured to death.19 However, Banda deserves credit for laying down the foundation of the political sovereignty of the Sikhs. On the Diwali day of October 27, 1761, the Sikhs assembled at Amritsar and passed a national resolution, called the Gurmatta, to liberate Punjab from the foreign invaders and seize all their strongholds.20
The Sikh Misls, which emerged on the scene, no doubt, had a great political potential but through their internecine quarrels, they had reduced each other to a state of political impotence. They were not properly organised to realise the dream of Khalsa Raj. George Forster, a traveller who has a keen observer of things remarked : “We may see some ambitious chief led on by his genius and success and absorbing the power of his associates display from the ruins of their common wealth the standard of monarchy.”21
Ranjit Singh was a characteristic product of the Sikh tradition and also the messiah, who had come to deliver the goods. Thus the emergence of Khalsa Raj under him was neither miraculous nor a freak of history. It was a unique historical phenomenon, the outcome and the flowering of a prolonged struggle for capturing political power and must be understood in its true perspective. Bir Singh, a contemporary of Ranjit Singh in his poetical composition, Bara Maha Guru Gobind Singh Ji Ka, refers to the period of socio-political turmoil gone through by the peasant-soldiers or the Singhs, who had become Sardars (rulers) with the Guru’s grace22
Ranjit Singh’s Career : Ranjit Singh became the chief of the Sukerchakia Misl at the age of eleven years in 1791. In his young days, he was an excellent soldier and the beau-ideal of youth. One of his ancestors Budh Singh had been one of the Khalsas baptised by Guru Gobind Singh.23 He found the Punjab strife-ridden and chaotic, a loose confederacy of powerful Misl Chiefs, lacking the corporate spirit and indulging in petty intrigues and dissensions. In the absence of a strong central authority the state had become a prey to the Afghan invaders on the one hand and to the Marattha and the British designs on the other. Ranjit Singh brought the Misl chiefs into submission, fired his people with a corporate zeal and led them from victory to victory so as to galvanise a whole people with a sense of collective triumph. ‘He avenged the innumerable defeats, humiliations and depredations suffered by India over the centuries at the hands of the Afghan invaders by conquering part of the Indian territory wrested by them and more than that, by being an arbiter in the fate of Afghanistan herself.24 He rose to be the ruler of a powerful state extending from Tibet to Sind and from Khyber pass to the Satluj. With his capture of Lahore he sealed the Khyber pass for ever, thus putting and end to the tyranny and oppression of the invaders. He was both feared and respected by the British, who ruled over the rest of the subcontinent. It has been acknowledged that in fulfilling his ambitions, Ranjit Singh used the barest minimum of force necessary. Baron Charles Hugel record, “Never perhaps was so large an empire founded by one man with so little criminality; and when we consider the country and the uncivilised people with whom he had to deal, his mild and prudent Government must be regarded with feeling of astonishment”.25 Similarly Captain Murray says,”It is difficult to suppress admiration in contemplating the career of such a man, who, with so many disadvantages, succeeded, with so few crimes in elevating himself from a simple Sardar to be the sovereign of a large kingdom, including Hindus and Mohammadans as well as the Sikhs, the only state in India, not substantially under British dominion”. 26 Even Henry T. Prinsep, who is a critic of Ranjit Singh, acknowledges that the Maharaja’s career was “stained by no bloody executions and by much fewer crimes”.27
The Sikh Raj : In Sikhism the inward and the outward, the spiritual and the empirical are inextricably interwoven. 28 The Gurus believed that a combination of religion and politics was essential to achieve the ethical ideals of human equality, freedom and justice. There was something positive and constructive in this combination which could abolish some of the worst evils of society and open new vistas of peace, progress and harmony. A sound social order could be built and preserved only through moral and ethical imperatives and by abiding values of tolerance, humility, charity and compassion that constitute Dharma.
Ranjit Singh built his rule on religious foundations. He referred to his Government as Sarkar-i-Khalsa, which derived its legitimacy from the Khalsa or the Commonwealth-the mystic entity in which resided all sovereign power pertaining to the Sikh Community. He referred to his Darbar as Darbar-i-Khalsa. He never arrogated to himself the title or powers of a despot. He never sat on a throne and never wore a crown. He attributed every success to the favour of God and he styled himself and the people collectively as the Khalsa or Commonwealth of Gobind. Everything was meant for the benefit of his subjects, including the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims because the Khalsa aims at Sarbat da Bhala (welfare of entire humanity). His state salutation was Wahe-i-Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe-i-Guru Ji Ki Fateh (Khalsa belongs to God and its victory is the victory of God). He was often heard saying that he was nothing more than a mere Nagara (drum) of Guru Gobind Singh. He would say that while the literal meaning of Ranjit-the meaning which his father had apparently intended while choosing his name in preference to his original name, ‘Budh Singh’- was victorious, its real significance to his mind lay in this that it had been the name of one of the drums of Guru Gobind Singh.29 Both the Guru’s drum and he himself announced the victory of the Khalsa, but were in themselves nothing but instruments. On every Baisakhi, he would go to Amritsar and make his salutations at the spot, where the Guru had inspired his followers and had laid the foundations of the Sikh society.
His official seal bore the word- Akal Sahai (May God help). The term also indicated that the Khalsa did not owe its allegiance to any earthly power and acted in total devotion to Akal (The Timeless Reality). Similarly the coin of Ranjit Singh also did not mention any particular person or kind except Guru Nanak as the true Emperor of both the worlds, spiritual and empirical. His coinage which was called Nanak Shahi bore the inscription, “Hospitality, the sword, victory and conquest unfailing from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh”. He struck no coins in his own name. He listened daily to the readings from the Guru Granth. On one occasion when the Akal Takhat took exception to a moral lapse on the part of the Maharaja, he humbly surrendered to the dictates of the Supreme Sikh authority, the Akal Takhat, and readily bared his back for receiving public flogging as chastisement for his un-Sikh like act.
Born and brought up in the Sikh faith, Ranjit Singh was fully conversant with the catholicity of the Sikh tradition, which left its visible impact on his outlook and policy. Religious bigotry, he knew was incompatible with Sikhism. The idea of unity of God, universal brotherhood and welfare of all (Sarbat da Bhala) which summed up the basic tenets of Sikhism, enabled him to restore complete religious harmony in his kingdom. Here it will be worthwhile to compare him with the great Maratha ruler Shivaji, who had directed his power to the defence of Brahmins, cows and caste and was known by the title of Gou Brahman Pritpalika (Defender of Orthodox Hindu faith and the Cow)30 All his ministers, except the Commander-in-Chief, belonged to the Brahmin caste. His reign marked the triumphant establishment of an aggressive Hindu Swarajya (militant political expression of orthodox Hinduism).31
Ranjit Singh did not proclaim Sikhism to be the state religion, nor did he make any conscious efforts to propagate his religion, His broad religious outlook was reflected in according due respect to all religions. This was fully in consonance with the principle of peaceful co-existence propounded by the Sikh Gurus. Sikhism did not have an ordained priestly class that could rule in the name of Sikh religion. But the religio-political views of the Gurus could be inferred from the Gurbani and the lives and deeds of the Gurus. In the vision of the Sikh Gurus, a sane human society was essentially a plural one in which each community was afforded the opportunity to work out his genius to the fullest possibilities and potentialities. The Sikh Gurus who suffered martyrdoms to uphold the religious liberties of the people laid repeated emphasis on the unity of mankind in their Bani. Ranjit Singh held fast to the values of justice, freedom and human dignity, not through any defined statements or religious vows or policy pronouncements but through stark deeds. There is no denying the fact that it was because of his Sikh religious background that he proved to be a more enlightened exponent of humanitarianism and tolerance than some of the other contemporary emperors and kings or the rulers of so-called secular or democratic states of modern times.
The spirit of forbearance and moderation displayed by Ranjit Singh was in sharp contrast with the inhuman practices of the Mughal rulers, their plunder, greed, devastations and forced conversions. The Muslim state in India, being entirely subordinate to the Church, had believed in waging a religious war (Jehad) against the infidels. It aimed at stamping out all forms of pluralism whether political, religious or social and demanded total conformism in faith, belief, form and action. The ideal of the Muslim state was the conversion of the entire population to Islam and the extinction of every form of dissent. Accordingly, non-Muslims were not looked upon as equal citizens of the State. In order to secure the right of exercising their religion, they had to suffer political and social disabilities and pay toll tax (Jazia). Under Aurangzeb there was large scale destruction of non-Muslim religious temples and other religious institutions in northern India.31
The Muslim rule in Europe was, without doubt, liberal compared to the contemporary Christian states but its limitation was that it had to abide by the strict rules of the Shariat which was sometimes interpreted arbitrarily by bigoted Mullas resulting in serious socio-political discrimination. Of course the imposition of Jazia on non-Muslims was an accepted principle under the Shariat. Their crusade or Jehad against the non-believers or non-Muslim states with a view to spreading Islam was also an accepted principle of Islamic polity.
In the pre-Muslim India, the four fold division of Hindu society was looked upon as divinely ordained. Manu desired that a king should zealously guard and uphold this caste-based division. As a result, Brahmins came to enjoy a special status and laid claim to various immunities from the workings of the common law, even in matters of taxation and justice. In addition to those immunities, they enjoyed the right to collect from the masses a regular tax called Brahman Avimasti, the only logic behind it being their claim to divine favour as a reward for their good deeds done in their past lives.32 Evidently, there was no equality before law. The state, too, became a party to the various discriminations made against the lower castes in the name of a divinely ordained caste system.33 Not only the perpetuation of acute and serious caste discrimination against the Sudhras and lower castes and maintenance of the supremacy of Brahmins as the sole interpreters of Dharma, was the primary duty of a Hindu king, but the manner in which the Buddhists were treated, involving their virtual elimination from the Indian sub-continent was a part of the history.34 It is very relevant to point out that in contemporary Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Jewish ghetto, like discrimination against the untouchables, was an established institution. In the times just preceding the Muslim invasion of India, the Hindu orthodoxy was seen launching a religious crusade against the Buddhists. The holy Boddhi tree at Gaya was burnt.35A Hindu temple was erected on the ruin of a Buddhist monastery. A large scale massacre of Buddhists was ordered. Such a policy resulted in the alienation of the Buddhists from the Hindus and eventually led to their virtual disappearance from India.36
As against what we have stated about the Muslim rulers and Hindu kings, the most striking feature of the policy of Ranjit Singh was the equal respect shown to all faiths. He did not treat the Sikhs as a privileged class and did not place any disabilities on his non-Sikh subjects. Nor did he interfere with the religious and cultural life of other communities. They were allowed to freely practise their religions without payment of a special tax. There were no discriminating tariffs. His policy was free from bigotry or any kind of narrowness of outlook and racial arrogance, inherent in the traditional Hindu system of caste. His contemporary rulers, the Peshawas, could not be entirely free form the shackles of casteism and Brahmanical chauvinism. Between caste and caste they could not always maintain the balance evenly.37
Ranjit Singh gave complete freedom of expression and worship to all his subjects. Under him careers were thrown open to men talent, irrespective of their religion, caste or class. Even when he lavished his favours, he endeavoured to maintain an even balance among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Far from demolishing the religious places of Muslims or Hindus, he was in fact generous in his endowments to the Hindu and the Muslim places of worship. He gave liberal grants to the learned Muslims and paid due respect to the fakirs and derveshs of his kingdom. He repaired the Muslim monuments. The Sunehri Masjid in Kashmiri Bazar of Lahore, which had been earlier in the possession of the no-Muslims was restored to the Muslims and the tombs of Hazrat Data Ganja and Monj-i-Darya were repaired at the State expense. A Muslim calligraphist, who had transcribed the Quran in an exquisite hand and did not find a buyer to pay the price of his life long labour and was ready to leave for Hyderabad to sell the Quran to the Nizam, was paid Rupees one lac by the Maharaja.
He got the holy books of the Muslims and the Hindus translated into other languages. He participated in the festivals of Id, Holi, Dussehra, Baisakhi and Basant with the same enthusiasm. His Hindu, Muslim and Sikh subjects reciprocated these gestures by praying for him on important occasions when he launched a new campaign, when he won a new victory, when he had a hair-breadth escape, when he was ill, or when he recovered from illness.
The minority status of the Sikh ruler was no handicap in commanding allegiance from his Muslim and Hindu subjects. Surjit Hans’s argument that the Maharaja on account of his minority status per force had to strengthen his bonds with the Hindus and pacify the Muslims,38 is untenable. Invaders who come, too often, impose their minority rule through sheer force. In the background that the Sikhs had suffered immensely and immediately before the Sikh rule, and the community had gone through one of the worst prosecutions at the hands of the Muslim rulers, it is extremely creditable for the Maharaja not only to give equal treatment to his Muslim subjects but also fully to trust his Muslim employees manning the highest posts in his administration. In the medieval period monarchs were not dependent on the votes of their subjects and the question of majority minority was hardly relevant and the Muslim rulers when they chose could be cruelly intolerant and oppressive towards the majority of their subjects. In this context it is idle to indicate that Ranjit Singh’s policies towards the Muslims were related to any consideration of pacification, as suggested by Surjit Hans, of the majority community39. Besides, fake postures towards the Muslims could never beget their trust in a manner and to the extent the policy of Ranjit Singh begot. The revolts of Muslim Generals during the Muslim history in India have been a common feature It, therefore, speaks volumes for the humanity of Ranjit Singh that none of his Muslim Generals or fallen foes revolted. In fact, they loyally fought for the Sikh kingdom to the last In this context the observation of Surjit Hans looks so meaningless and puerile. Ranjit Singh solved the problem of multiple faiths by a policy of large-hearted liberalism. This liberalism, it may be reiterated, had its roots in the Sikh faith itself. As a matter of fact, Ranjit Singh’s faith and Sikh ethos guided him inevitably along this path.
During his reign, there were no outbursts of communal fanaticism, no forced conversions, no attempts at bloody revenge, no language tensions, no second class citizens, no repression, no bloodshed, no executions and no tortures. Punishments were humane There was no capital punishment which even the modern governments have not been able to abolish. It was not awarded even when there was an attempt on the life of the Maharaja himself. Such a thing is unknown in monarchical history, much less that of a despot. It is therefore both incorrect and unfair to call his rule autocratic, despotic, or personalised when it is seen that in modern India Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin was hanged. W.G. Osborne says that “except in actual open warfare he has never been known to take life, though his own has been attempted more than once, and his reign will be found freer from any striking acts of cruelty and oppression than those of many more civilised monarchs.”40 It is to his credit that during his reign of forty years he did not sentence even one person to death. He bore no rancour for his Muslim predecessors who were responsible for the persecution of the Sikh Gurus and had unleashed a reign of terror on the Sikh community. Being of a tolerant disposition, the Maharaja made peace with the Muslims.
Ranjit Singh’s employment policy reflected the basic liberal and humanitarian teaching of Sikhism. The highest posts in his Government were as open to Muslims as to the Sikhs and the Hindus. Fakir Aziz-ud-Din was his most trusted minister. Fakir-ud-Din was the Governor of Lahore and was one of the closest confidants of the Maharaja. There were many Muslims occupying high positions as Governors of Provinces and forts, and commanders of the armies.41 Muslims on their part proved worthy of the trust. Poet Shah Mohammed shed tears over the fall of the Sikh kingdom.
Similarly, the Maharaja bore no malice towards the Hindus. He overlooked so many past instances of Hindu betrayal to the Sikhs, whether it be that of Chandu Shah, who had played a role in the persecution of Guru Arjan42 or Hill Rajput Rajas, who invited the Imperial forces to suppress Guru Gobind Singh and his followers43 or the role of Gangu in betraying the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh and passing them on to the custody of the ruler of Sirhind, execution of whom later invited the wrath of Banda Singh Bahadur involving the sack of Sirhind. The other instances of Hindu treachery were that of Diwan Lakhpat Rai, who along with Yahiyya Khan, was instrumental in the destruction of the Darbar Sahib44 and Kabli Mal, who in his capacity as Governor of Lahore had defiled the sanctity of the sacred tank of Darbar Sahib on the instructions of Ahmed Shah Abdali.45 The Sikhs had resented the hostility of the Pathans and the Mughals and the treason of the Hindus, who often became the willing partners of Imperial forces and invaders in suppressing and oppressing the Sikhs.
Ranjit Singh forgot all this and entrusted the talented Hindus with the highest responsibilities of the State. Misr Beli Ram was the Revenue Minister of the State, while Diwan Bhawani Das, Diwan Ganga Ram and Diwan Dina Nath were respectively pay Master General, Accountant General and Comptroller General of the Lahore Darbar. Hill Dogras Dhian Singh, Khushal Singh and Gulab Singh were appointed to the positions of supreme authority in the Civil apparatus of the Maharaja’s government, Brahmins like Teja Singh and Lal Singh were granted such influence, which eventually raised them to the supreme command of the Sikh army Diwan Mokham Chand was made the commander of the Khalsa army; In fact historians have strongly criticised Ranjit singh’s over indulgence towards or misplaced trust in the Hill Dogras or the Purbia Generals, who in crisis betrayed the Sikhs and became the principal cause of the fall of the Sikh Kingdom46
Treatment to Fallen Enemies: In dealing with his fallen enemies, Ranjit Singh displayed unexampled generosity. Not only the Sikh nobbles and Sardars but also the deposed Muslim and Hindu nobbles were provided with Jagirs and treated equally and generously. In fact. Maharaja’s treatment of the fallen Muslim foes was unprecedented. The defeated Afghan Governor Sultan Mohammed Khan was given a Jagir of Rupees three lacs as revenues of the areas comprising Kohat and Hashat Nagar. When he conquered Kasur from Nawab Kutub-ud-Din, he gave him the jagir of Mamdot which brought a revenue of 190,000 rupees a year. In the same way, when he conquered Multan he granted big jagir in Sharkpur and Naulakhe to the Nawab’s sons.47 He honoured the sentiments of his Muslim subjects and maintained the established Muslim tradition of State grants to Ulemas and holymen. There is an important entry in the Diary-News of Ranjit Singh’s court 25th August, 1825″The Kazis, Sayads, Alamas and Fakirs of Peshawar were given good Khilats and each was given a jagir for his maintenance when the Maharaja annexed Peshawar.”48 When the victory procession of the Maharaja passed through the streets of Peshawar, he issued strict instructions to his Sardars to observe ethical restraint in keeping with the Sikh tradition, not to damage any mosque, not to insult any woman and not to destroy and crops. The Muslim priests were so pleased that they blessed the victory.49 No wonder the Muslim Generals of the Maharaja were responsible for carrying his flag across the Punjab borders. In this connection observations made by Sir Henry Lawrence are noteworthy : “Members of the deposed ruling families may be seen in Delhi and Kabul in a state of penury; but in the Punjab there is not to be seen a single ruling family whose territories may have been conquered by Ranjit Singh and which may have been left unprovided by him. Not only the Sikh ruling houses, but those of other faiths, too were provided for by him with equal munificence.”50 A similar observation is made by Lepel Griffin :”With all his capacity Ranjit Singh was not cruel or blood-thirsty. After the victory or the capture of a fortress he treated the vanquished with leniency and kindness, however stout their resistance might have been, and there were at his court many chiefs despoiled of their estates but to whom he had given suitable employ.”51
Here it will not be out of place to compare Ranjit Singh with the Marathas who had allowed the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II to languish in his palace with a niggardly allowance. By propping up the Imperial edifice, the Marathas had derived considerable advantage but it was rather sad that they did not mitigate the king’s pecuniary distress. This sordid policy had not only disgusted the royal house to Timur but had also roused the indignation of many Mohammedans in the country who did not approve of the treatment meted out to the Imperial family. It was therefore, not surprising that in September 1803, the hapless Mughal emperor welcomed the English as deliverers,52 Similarly, the treatment meted out by Governor-General Dalhousie to the royal house of Sikhs reflected no credit on the British. The minor Maharaja Dalip Singh was converted to Christianity, given a meagre pension of 13,000 per annum and after separating him from his mother, was sent to England. Maharani Jindan, called he ‘mother of the Khalsa’ was also treated very shabbily and was forced to leave the country. In pursuance of his imperial policies, Dalhousie abolished all military grants to the Sikh Sardars. Henry Lawrence, as head of the Board of Control, responsible for the administration of Punjab, recommended slight leniency towards the Sikh nobility. But Dalhousie insisted that Jagirdars deserved “little but maintenance’.53 Henry Lawrence tendered his resignation over this issue.
Among the notable traits of Ranjit Singh’s character were his kindness and the total absence of malice, cruelty or vindictiveness, these being so uncommon in the context of his times, were evidently due to the Sikh tradition and ethos in which he had been nurtured, conditioned and motivated. His regime was not stained by such dark blots as was the Mughal rule. For, there are numerous instances like the cruel death of Dara Shikoh at the hands of his own brother, or the diabolical murders of twenty one captains of Ali Wardi Khan, or the degradation and blinding of Emperor Shah Alam If by his own servant. The Marathas knew how to conquer but did not know how to govern. Though they were the strong exponents of Hindu Swarajya, yet outside the Swarajya they plundered Hindus as ruthlessly as Muslims so that their claim to be serving the cause of Hinduism was falsified;54 Here it will be worthwhile to give another historical analogy of the British Governors Clive and Warren Hastings, both of whom had to face disgrace and degradation on account of their involvement in charges of corruption, bribery and extortion.55 Both of the British empire in India, committed suicide in disgrace and frustration.
Similarly, Alfanso Albuquerque, the founder of the Portuguese Empire in India tried to establish Christianity in his territory with sword and fire.56 In its religious zeal, the Portuguese power became ruthless and issued charters from time to time making invidious distinctions between Christians and non-Christians and subjecting the latter to untold disabilities. An enactment was passed debarring all non-Christians from holding any public office. In pursuance of another enactment, the property of non-Christian orphans was confiscated, if they refused to be converted to Christianity. Under pain of being proceeded against by the law of the land, the people of Goa were prohibited from using their native language Konkani and were forced to learn the Portuguese language within a period of three years. The aim of all these enactments was to compel the natives either to accept Christian religion or to leave the State.57
To describe Ranjit Singh’s rule as military despotism is to do a great injustice to him. A comparative study of the contemporary Governments in the west reveals that Ranjit Singh’s rule was more humane and popular than all of them. His contemporary rulers in the West were known for their highly centralised and despotic rule, whether it was that of autocratic Napoleon Bonaparte (1804-15), or of the inglorious Louis XVIII (1814-24), or of the vindictive Bourdon Charles X (1824-30), or of the self-centred Louis Phillippe (1830-48) in France, or of George III, IV and William IV in England, or, for that matter, of the tyrant Czar Nicholas I (1826-55) in Russia. Let us amplify the point in respect of Napoleon. The French Revolution was the flower of the centuries following Reformation and Renaissance. And yet, Napoleon buried that flower before it could fruitify into a tangible fruit. It is not in doubt that he virtually destroyed the ideas and ethos of the Revolution that produced him. But the point for study is whether the ideas that led to the Revolution and which were easily smothered and distorted by Napoleon, an upstart, were really so great. Factually, Reformation in one sense belittled the Christian ethos and its supremacy over the political life came to an end. The states came to be governed by the whims of the rulers, political elites or classes. Ultimately it revived, as Toynbee laments, the parochial Greek idea of the national state being the goddess, thereby involving the gradual erosion of Christian ethos even in the social life. Rational concepts and dry ideas have no meaning unless they influence human and social behaviour. To us it appears a contradiction to say that the French Revolution was a great event of history, even though it was destroyed in the country of its birth within half a dozen years. As against it Sikhism was a movement that changed the life and motivations of a people, with the result that even an unlettered person, when he came to power, created a socio-political administration that was remarkably humane and just, even though, he belonged to a community that was in a microscopic minority. Ranjit Singh’s conquests were not to bring glorification to his person, community or people but to give peace to Punjab by stopping once for all a thousand year wave of invaders that had subjected Punjabis to perpetual loot, massacres, butchery and disgrace. As stated above Ranjit Singh won the hearts of his people, including Muslims and Hindus, by giving them peace, security and justice but not by any sense of glorification or threat of terror. What we mean to stress is that religious thought and ethos that permeate and affect the moral life, behaviour and sentiments of a people are far more enduring and meaningful than rational concepts that generally remain ethereal and short-lived, and fail to influence human motivations. So to us the inference is obvious enough that in comparison, it is not that Napoleon was a villain and Ranjit Singh a saint but that the ideology that produced Ranjit Singh was far superior to the ideas and thinking that preceded Napoleon and the French Revolution.
Ranjit Singh’s rule was, on the whole in many respects, humanitarian and humane. In fact his clear attempt at self-effacement and avoidance of nay personal elevation, while giving credit to God, Guru and the Khalsa would suggest a kind of unpretentious rule, beneficial; free from wanton atrocities and solicitious of the public Weal.58 It will always be the most inspiring example of a welfare State in the true sense in India. Khalsa Raj, is thus, full of lessons even for present day politics. Captain Murray pays the most befitting tribute to the Maharaja in these words, “Ranjit Singh has been likened to Mehmet Ali and to Napoleon.There are some points in which he resembles both; but estimating his character with reference to his circumstances and positions, he is perhaps a more remarkable man than either.There was no ferocity in his disposition and he never punished a criminal with death even under circumstances of aggravated offence. Humanity indeed, or rather tenderness for life, was a trait in the character of Ranjit Singh. There is no instance of his having wantonly imbused his hand is blood.”59
The habitual meekness of spirit which the Maharaja displayed even 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. It was quite in keeping with Sikh tradition and the Scriptural injunction: “To exercise forbearance in the midst of power, to be humble in the midst of honour.”60 G.L.Chopra believes that considering the social and political conditions of the country over which he ruled, the government of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was “surprisingly mild and merciful.”61 On one occasion he is said to have punished one of his Generals for killing a Koel (nightingale) when she was warbling. No body was allowed to hurt a swan, a parrot or a sparrow. Cow slaughter was banned throughout the Empire in deference to the wishes of his Hindu subjects.
Sikh Administration: A distinguishing feature of the Khalsa Raj was an orderly system of administration based upon the territorial divisions like that of the Subah, the parganas, the tapa and the mauza (villages). The administrative hierarchy of the Nazim, the Kardar, the Chaudhary and the Muqaddam linked the far-flung villages of the Sikh empire to the capital city of Lahore.62 Thus, Ranjit Singh exercised his authority on the basis of the willing cooperation of indigenous socio-political institutions. He made no innovations in the civil administration of his dominions but tried to improve the old arrangements. The stability of Ranjit Singh’s regime also rested upon moderation in what the state expropriated from the peasantry as its share of the agricultural produce. According to one source, the government’s share varied between two-fifth to one-third of the gross produce. 63 An agricultural tax of this order was in keeping with what the state could legitimately demand from the peasantry. The revenue could be paid in cash or kind and in easy instalments. A notable achievement of the Maharaja was that the ownership of the land was vested in the cultivator,64 from whom the revenue was also collected directly without the intervention of the middleman, an institution he summarily dispensed with. During the course of war or the movement of troops, and damage to the standing crops was severely dealt with. The soldiers had to dismount from their horses while passing through the villages and the pathways leading to the corn fields. Punjab peasantry, suppressed for centuries, was put on the road to prosperity and given a new dispensation.
The administration of justice under Ranjit singh was, by the standards of times, simple and well-organised and suited to the needs of the people. In villages, the disputes were settled by the arbitration of Panchayats, who had to decide cases according to the customs prevailing in each locality. In the towns the function was entrusted to the Kard rs, Nazims or sometimes to officials called Adalties (judges). An Adalt-i-Ala or High Court was set up at the capital. Above them all was the Maharaja himself to hear appeals and petitions made against the decisions of the above mentioned authorities. He was in the habit of receiving petitions and listening to complaints even during the course of passing through the streets. Decisions were speedy and justice was quick With the Maharaja justice was a passion. He believed that the only divine element in kingship was justice. He sent instruction to the Chief Kotwal of Lahore that he should not spare the Maharaja himself or any member of his family, should they be found guilty of any offence. It was a unique instance where the king had claimed equality with his subjects. A protector of the poor and the weak, the Maharaja established a state where the strong were just and the weak secure.
Though the cruelty, killings, injustice and oppression practised and the wars fought in the current century have raised a serious question mark in the minds of many thinking persons about the form of government best suited for a people, many persons conditioned by the western education are still sold to the idea of democratic structure of government being the best to secure justice among the people. On the other hand, the concept of kingship at once raises the idea of despotic and unjust rule. It is, perhaps, in this context that Fakir Syed Waheeduddin has quoted two orders of Ranjit Singh to ensure justice among the people and the application of secular laws of each community to its members through courts presided over by persons of the community concerned. These orders emphasise two things. First that equality before the law and equity in its administration were the fundamental criteria of Ranjit Singh’s administration. Second that because of the actual humane manner in which justice was administered, it was never felt necessary by him to give the extreme punishment of death so as to secure respect for the law. And, in this respect, he ensured the sanctity of this principle by not punishing with death even those who had attempted to kill him. We give below the two orders issued by Ranjit Singh.
1. “Sincere Well-wisher, Fakir Nuruddin Ji, May you be happy.
It is hereby decreed by His Highness with the utmost emphasis that no person in the city should practise highhandedness and oppression on the people. Indeed, if even His Highness himself should issue an inappropriate order against any residence of Lahore. it should be clearly brought to the notice of His Highness so that it may be amended. Protector of Bravery Malwa Singh should always be advised to dispense justice in accordance with legitimate right and without the slightest oppression and, further-more, he should be advised to pass orders in consultation with the Panches and Judges of the city and in accordance with the Shastars and the Quran, as pertinent to the faith of the parties; for such is our pleasure. And should any person fail to act in accordance with your advice or instructions, you should send him a formal letter so that it may serve as a proof on the strength of which His Highness may punish him for disobedience.
Despatched from the court For repairs to the old ditch
of His Highness. an expenditure of two thousand
31 Bhadon, 1882 Sambat rupees is hereby sanctioned.
For the present the salary of Fakir Sahib, Rs. 1500/- After expenditure on the said ditch, the salary of Sher Dayal, Rs. 500/-“65.
II. “Ujjal Didar Nirmal Budh Sardar Amir Singh Ji and our sincere well-wisher, Fakir Nuruddin Ji, may you live long by the grace of Sri Akal Purakh and enjoy the protection of Sri Akal Budh.
By the grace of Sri Sar Guruji, the exalted command is issued to you that, deeming yourselves to be responsible for the security of Lahore, you should take care of the duties pertaining thereto. Sri Sat Guruji forbid, if His Highness, his beloved son Kharak Singh Ji ,Kanwar Sher Singh Ji, the Raja Kalan Bahadur ,Raja Suchet Singh Ji, or Jamadar Ji should commit any inappropriate act, you should bring it to the notice of His Highness. Secondly, you should send your trusted representative to the Sardars with instructions to refrain from committing inappropriate acts. If the Sardars act according to your instructions, well and good; otherwise you should send word to them that you will bring the matter to the notice of His Highness. Moreover, you should not permit forcible possession to be taken of any person’s land or any person’s house to be demolished. Nor should you allow any high-handedness to be practised upon woodcutters, foddervendors, oil-vendors, horse-shoers, factory-owners etc. In such cases also you should prevent the oppressor from oppression You should administer matters in the same way as Sardar Desh Singh ji. should prevent the oppressor from oppression. You should forward to His Highness any petition intended for him Furthermore, you should daily send for Chand Mall, Kotwal of the Royal Court, and Babu Panda, and obtain from them news of all happenings so that every person’s rights are secured and no person is oppressed. The frames of the city gates should be caused to be repaired from the revenue of the Court. Hazara Sawars should be appointed to watch the roads and, considering the security of the whole of Lahore city as your responsibility, you should act in accordance with this decree. Dated Lahore 19 Pos, 1888 Sambat”.66
Waheeduddin concludes that these orders are “unique in one respect: they throw overboard the time-honoured legal fiction upon which the fact of kingship is based-that the king can do not wrong. It was characteristic of Ranjit Singh to acknowledge that both as a man and as a king, he was fallible and to provide against any possible adverse effects of his fallibility upon the rights and well-being of his people.”67
Students of history are well aware of the presence of racial, religious and ethnic discrimination and even riots in modern states, as also of the need or use of drastic force to maintain law and order. In this context, three things are important and speak for themselves. First, Ranjit Singh never tried to covert Muslims or Hindus to Sikhism, even though his community remained a permanent minority in the State. Second, there were hardly any communal riots in his times. This background and the actual administration of justice and equity was so impressive and evident to the people that respect for law was spontaneous and he never had to use strong or brutal measures to maintain or enforce the law.
The cases of bribery and corruption in his kingdom were rare. The Maharaja’s 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. The cases of theft and high way robberies were uncommon. George Keene, an observer of the Punjab scene during the Maharaja’s regime, stated, “In hundreds and in thousands the orderly crowds stream on. Not a bough is broken from a way side tree, not a rude remark addressed to the traveller as he treads his horse’s way.”68 As a result many people from the Cis-Satluj states migrated to the Maharaja’s territories, where their right 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.
Ranjit Singh was an enlightened ruler. He trained his armies on modern lines through his European Generals like Allard, Ventura and Avitable. A trained and disciplined army was the principal instrument that had led to Western supremacy over the East in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the Indian princes Ranjit Singh was the first to train his army to a level at par with Western armies. It was this training and discipline coupled with the Sikh ethos that his army even in his absence, though betrayed by its Generals, proved a match for the British. So much that vanquished it commanded the unstinted praise of its opponents like General Gough. He had a remarkable capacity for inspiring loyalty among the soldiers, who were imbued with national sentiments. They showed pride in their profession and valour, faith and righteousness in their cause and conduct. This made them fight like brave soldiers against the British even after the Maharaja’s death. Empire builders have often used the army as an instrument of state policy. The invariable result in all such cases is disintegration in the ranks of the army after the ruler’s death. But Ranjit Singh’s army after his death undertook the responsibility of defending Punjab from the British encroachment in accordance with the Khalsa tradition They could not save the Sikh state but even in their defeat won applause and admiration of their friends and foes. The poet Shah Muhammad in his Jangnamah extols the virtues of the Khalsa soldiers in the Anglo-Sikh Wars.
Though himself unlettered, the Maharaja knew the importance of education. The Gurus had bade their followers to be progressive in their outlook, always to be Sikhs or learners, to take increasing advantages of opportunities to improve their condition and knowledge as men free from the shackles of earlier prejudices, conventions and dogmas and the stranglehold of the priestly classes who claimed monopoly of knowledge. The Maharaja was very liberal and impartial in the matter of making endowments for education. There were about four thousand schools belonging to different communities scattered over the length and breadth of his kingdom, with about one lac and twenty thousand students. These schools were mostly attached to Gurdwaras, Mosques and Temples. The Maharaja was most generous in helping the custodians of these places of learning. He also stood for modern knowledge and is said to have encouraged the learning of English and French towards the end of his reign. He also procured the services of a Christian missionary to set up English medium schools at Lahore, though without allowing him to propagate Christianity or introduce Bible in the curriculum of the school. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s department of Charity cost the State exchequer one-tenth of the total revenues amounting nearly to twenty lakh rupees a year. This is an extremely important fact of Ranjit Singh’s administration that highlights its Sikh character. The Fifth Master had prescribed for the Sikh a contribution of Daswandh or one tenth of his earnings towards religious cause of the society. It is indeed outstanding of Ranjit Singh’s administration that he yearly marked one tenth of the total revenue towards expenditure on charities and other public causes. (Dharam arth grants).
Ranjit Singh’s Place in History: The Maharaja gave to his citizens a consistent and uniform system of administration and a greater amount of peace and prosperity than they had enjoyed for over a century. The Mughal and the Maratha rules in the country had been marked by bigotry, corruption, degradation, persecution, treachery, confusion, disorder, extravagance and pomp. Ranjit Singh’s claim to greatness lies in the fact that he successfully faced the historical challenge of abuse of power and religious bigotry by restoring communal harmony in his state. He endowed politics with a moral purpose. His state was governed and sustained by values and attitudes that characterised the Sikh tradition. The Gurus had envisioned an egalitarian social order based on justice and freedom. With the Sikh ethos in his psyche, Ranjit Singh translated this vision into practice.
For the first time in the Indian history a landmark was created. Mazahbis, the centuries old untouchables of the Hindu society, far from being discriminated against, became a regular component of Ranjit Singh’s army. The Hindu Hill Rajputs, who had refused to cooperate with the Tenth Master on account of his giving equality to the lower castes ceased to have any compunction in working and fighting side by side with them. And his greatest achievement was the unstinted and uncommon loyalty he commanded of all sections of his men, whether Muslim, Hindu Sikh, Rajput of European. The miracle was that this sense of comradeship was achieved just in a period of four decades, most of which time was spent in fighting and consolidation. Unlike the Muslim invaders or contemporary rulers of his times, another uncommon feature of his rule was that while he spent long periods in fighting far away from his capital, there never was a local uprising to challenge his authority. This indicates an incontrovertible belief and assessment of the people he ruled that he was neither out for any personal aggrandisement nor he or his armies were out for gathering any booty or loot. With his death on 27 June, 1839, a rare age of clemency and broadmindedness came to an end.
CONCLUSIONS: From our narration of facts about the rule of Ranjit Singh it is evident that in all aspects of its functioning and administration, Ranjit Singh’s rule was in sharp contrast with the rule not only of his contemporaries, but also of many of modern secular administrations. Moses and Mohammad were both spiritual and political leaders. Moses was followed by kings, David and Solomon, well-known for their fairness and wisdom. Similarly, the Muslims rule in Europe, in contrast with repeated butchery, massacres and programs perpetrated by Christian monarchs, was remarkably tolerant, mild and humane towards its non-Muslim subjects. It is the lesson of history that a healthy combination of religion and politics is bound to lead to a harmonious socio-political order. It is well known that Ashoka’s rule, coloured by Buddhist ethics was a shining light among the empires of the earlier millennia. Even among modern secular rulers atleast two of the despots are notorious for their inhumanity. We refer to Hitler’s elimination of six million Jews and Stalin’s liquidation of his twelve million countrymen in order to make their people safe and secure for peace, prosperity and equality. Hence the inevitable conclusion that Ranjit Singh’s rule, being a product of the Sikh tradition and ethos, was outstandingly humane, liberal and tolerant towards his people, including his erstwhile opponents and enemies. His rule was, undoubtedly, benign and fair, and why it was so is explained by the background of the whole-life religious thesis and ethos which conditioned and influenced it, and of which Ranjit Singh was a glorious product.