Maharaja Ranjit Singh is arguably the most remarkable figure in the history of Punjab. A fiercely brave and brilliant military commander, an able administrator and an astute statesman, Ranjit Singh ranks amongst the greatest leaders in Indian history.
Succeeding his father as head of a small confederacy at the age of ten, Ranjit Singh, owing to his military genius, became the ruler of Punjab when he was 21 and, during his forty-year reign, turned his religiously heterogeneous state divided into multiple warring principalities to a unified and powerful empire – known for its military exploits, a centralised but efficient civil government and fair justice system.
Ranjit Singh turned the tide of history by putting an end to the centuries-old tradition of invasions from the north-western region of India. He established Punjab as an independent state and his empire lasted for fifty years. He ousted the Afghans from their erstwhile provinces and conquered their territory in the north-west. On the eastern front, he kept aggressive British forces at bay by signing a treaty which both sides honoured for decades, till his death.
His empire, which lasted from 1799 to 1849, stretched from the southern districts of Punjab bordering Sindh to the Khyber Pass in the west, Kashmir in the north east, and up to Sutlej in the east. Ranjit’s greatest achievement, however, was not military conquest but political: he was able to unite Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs under one banner.
Ranjit made history, altered geography, expanded the economy, built an empire, and secured a place among the pantheon of heroes by delivering peace and prosperity to Punjab. Chaos and confusion had reigned supreme before Ranjit’s ascent to power in 1799 as Punjab changed masters four times – Mughals, Persians, Afghans, and finally Sikhs – in less than a century.
Ranjit Singh was born on 13 November 1780 in a small village Sukerchak, located between Gujranwala and Wazirabad. He was born into a family of Warraich Jats who had converted from Hinduism to Sikhism around 1692. His grandfather, Charat Singh, was a bandit warrior who fought against Abdali’s forces repeatedly. Mahan Singh, Ranjit’s father, lorded over a small principality in Gujranwala region, known as Sukerchakia – one of the 12 misls (as principalities or military bands were known) operating in Punjab at the time of Ranjit Singh’s birth.
Ranjit Singh’s journey during the next forty years, relying on military conquest, marriage alliances, diplomacy and conciliation, has been mapped out very well by Mohamed Sheikh, a Conservative Party member of the British House of Lords, in his informative biography titled Emperor of the Five Rivers – The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Lord Sheikh, born in Kenya and brought up in Uganda, has spent most of his life as a British Muslim in London and is of Indian origin. His book chronologically focuses on every decade of Ranjit’s forty-year reign.
By end of the eighteenth century, when Ranjit appeared on the scene, Punjab was a house divided as the following four distinct groups or regions were significant at that time: the twelve Sikh misls spread from the plains of Central Punjab and Sirhind to the foothills of Kangra and Jammu; hill-states ruled by Rajput princes in the inner ranges of the Himalayas such as Jammu; regions ruled by Punjabi Muslim rulers including Kasur, Rasulnagar, Jhang, Shahpur, Khushab and Sahiwal; and independent principalities Multan-Bahawalupur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Mankera, Bannu, Tonk, Peshawer and the uplands of Hazara, which were ruled by Pathan chiefs who owed allegiance to the King of Kabul but were practically independent.
Ranjit subdued or conquered all these regions and established an empire in less than a quarter of a century. His most notable conquests during the first two decades were Amritsar in 1805, Multan in 1818, and Kashmir in 1819. On the diplomatic front, his masterstroke was the Treaty of Amritsar in 1809 – signed with the British – which recognised Ranjit Singh as the sole sovereign ruler of Punjab and agreed on River Sutlej as the eastern frontier of the Ranjit Singh’s realm.
Although Ranjit had to give up his claim over cis-Sutlej Sikh states, the treaty gave him a free hand as far as territorial expansion elsewhere in Punjab was concerned. Both parties honoured the treaty and to the British it was unmistakeable proof of Ranjit’s statesmanship that he never abandoned his policy of accommodation.
Charles Metcalfe, the British representative who negotiated the Amritsar Treaty with Ranjit Singh, admired him for his “unprejudiced use of talented men of all religions”. Sikhs formed hardly 12% of Punjab’s overall population while Hindus and Muslims were the majority. That Ranjit Singh was able to carve out a powerful empire in Punjab despite this is a testament to his political skill. The nobility of the Maharaja included men of all religious denominations – Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. About one-fifth of the members of the Lahore Darbar nobility were the dispossessed chiefs and their dependents. Mian Ghausa, a Muslims gunner, was head of artillery whereas European officers hired after the Napoleonic wars – Court, Ventura, Avitabile, Allard and others – became generals and occupied senior administrative positions during Ranjit Singh’s rule.
By end of his life, nearly half of his army in terms of men and officers had been trained on European lines, with a large number of Punjabi and European commanders in it. The striking power of Ranjit’s army was better than that of most other Asian states.
His greatest achievement, however, was not military conquest but political: he was able to unite Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs under one banner
Fakir Azizuddin, a Muslim physician, was Ranjit Singh’s closest confidant and served as his foreign minister for years. Muslims occupied important positions in Ranjit’s court and administration – including two ministers, one governor, 41 senior army officers (including two generals) and 92 senior bureaucrats. Two of Ranjit Singh’s multiple wives were Muslim, including his favourite Moran, a Kashmiri dancing girl who became the love of his life and was the only Queen in whose name a coin was struck. Ranjit allowed his non-Sikh wives to practice their religion.
Ranjit Singh was liberal in extending state patronage to Sikh, Hindu and Muslim institutions. Nearly 7 percent of the state revenue was spent on religious institutions. Among the Muslim shrines which received state patronage were the shrines of Data Darbar and Mian Mir (Lahore), Hazratbal and Shah Hamdan (Kashmir), Pir Mitha (Wazirabad) and Sakhi Sarwar (Dera Ghazi Khan) in addition to support for prominent families such as Syeds in Multan, Peshawar and Bannu as well as descendants of Shah Farid in Pakpattan and Bahauddin Zikriya in Multan.
Ranjit Singh’s judicial system was simple, which suited the social and political environment of Punjab as decisions were made in accordance with established customs. Panchayats were largely involved in settlement of disputes in rural areas while Qazis decided cases of Muslims in accordance with Shariah laws. Ranjit himself heard appeals against the decisions of administrators and ministers. Apart from troubled areas like Peshawar and Hazara, fines were levied in almost all cases: imprisonments were unknown and capital punishment rare.
Ranjit Singh revived prosperity in Punjab by paying personal attention to revenue administration and trade. Near the end of his reign, income from land amounted to Rs. 30 million per annum, which is slightly less than what Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s administration was able to collect – but this low figure is due to low rate of assessment or taxation.
Ranjit Singh was a patron of art and his era became distinguished in the art of portraiture. As Lord Sheikh points out in the book, Mulk Raj Anand, famous twentieth century Indian writer, wrote that Ranjit Singh released the creative energies of people to construct buildings worthy of the new empire, to develop the arts as part of enjoying life and to appreciate the beauty of artistic creations. Persian was the court language and historical literature in Persian was encouraged by Ranjit Singh. New buildings, both religious and secular, were built during his period, showcasing a new style of architecture.
Syed Ahmad, a fiery Wahhabi preacher from Bareilly in Hindustan, tried to stir rebellion against Ranjit Singh. His call for Jihad fell on deaf ears of Punjabi Muslims; it was only among Pashtuns that his call for Jihad resonated but even there, once the Yusufzais withdrew the last scrap of support to him, Syed Ahmed met his end at Balakot in 1831.
Peshawar was formally annexed in 1834 although it had been paying tribute since 1824. Leading from the front, Ranjit Singh, when he personally crossed the Indus,was in a sense crossing the Rubicon. For centuries, Aryans, Huns, Mughals, Persians and Afghans had marched through the Khyber Pass to the conquest or plunder of Punjab and India. Ranjit took the battle to the land of invaders and conquered them.
He met two British Governor Generals in 1831 and 1838. After initial hesitation in 1838, Ranjit Singh agreed to the British idea of raising a tripartite army to put displaced ex-Afghan king Shah Shuja – living in exile in Ludhiana – back on the throne in Kabul. According to historian William Dalrymple, Ranjit outmanoeuvred the British during negotiations and managed to turn what was planned as a Sikh expedition into Afghanistan in British interests into a British invasion in Sikh interests!
Afflicted by paralysis since 1835, due to his hard-drinking habits, Ranjit Singh passed away on the 27th of June 1839. Just a month after his death, Sheikh Baswan, Muslim commander of Punjab army, led the victory parade in Kabul as part of the tripartite army invasion of Afghanistan.
Ranjit Singh, given his military prowess, was often compared by European visitors to his court to his famous contemporary Napoleon Bonaparte. However, based on his statesmanship, he can also be compared to Bismarck. Both the Maharaja of Punjab and the Iron Chancellor of Prussia were instrumental in setting up a powerful military monarchy which dominated the political landscape for decades during their lifetime but was militarily defeated in a war just a few decades after their death.
Ranjit Singh’s forty-year reign is a compelling argument for the notion that in statecraft little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from polycratic chaos, except ethnic and religious inclusiveness, peace, easy taxes and tolerable administration of justice. His unworthy successors, who neither understood nor practised this fine notion, frittered away his mighty empire – although backed by a powerful military machine of its age – in hardly a decade when they surrendered to the British in 1849.
The author tweets at @AmmarAliQureshi and can be reached via email at email@example.com