-Dr. Maheep Singh*

    Rising from a family of little political consequence, a heir to one of many petty chiefdoms that had sprung up on the ruins of the Mughal Empire, Maharaja Ranjit Singh rose to an unusually lofty political position. He successfully avenged the innumerable defeats, humiliations and depredations suffered by the people on this part of the land over the centuries, at the hands of Afghan invaders. He was the first in a thousand years to stem the incessant tide of invasions from the north-west frontier holding aloft his flag into the homeland of the invaders.

    Ranjit Singh entered Lahore fort as a conqueror on July 7, 1799 at the age of nineteen. The papulace, largely consisting of Muslims and Hindus, welcomed him as their redeemer. On Baisakhi day, April 13, 1801 Baba Sahib Singh Bedi a Saintly person, applied the cermonial saffron mark to Ranjit Singh’s Forehead and proclaimed him Maharaja of the Punjab. For the coronation ceremonies Ranjit Singh refused to wear any emblems of royalty or sit on throne. He continued to hold Durbar seated cross legged in his chair as before. He had his coin struck in the name of the Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh and did not lend them his own image or name. Ranjit Singh never sat on a throne throughout his life, never did he ever wear a crown. His government was ‘Sarkar Khalsa ji. His court was ‘Durbar Khalsa ji’. He was addressed as ‘Sarkar’ or ‘Singh Sahib’. Ranjit Singh convinced his people that he did not intend to set up a Sikh Kingdom, but a state in which Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs would be equal before the law and have the same rights and duties.

A Religious Person

    Ranjit Singh was a devout Sikh. His daily routine began with early morning prayers, and listening to a recitation from the Holy Dasham Granth. After that he would place on his eyes and forehead the ‘Kalgi’(Plume) of Guru Gobind Singh. He considered himself an humble servant of the Guru. An inscription over the entrance of the Golden temple at Amritsar reads – "The Great Guru in his wisdom looked upon Maharaja Ranjit Singh as his chief servant and Sikh and in his benevolence, bestowed upon him the privilege of serving the temple."

Truly Secular

    Ranjit Singh had a profound reverence for all that was holy and spiritual, irrespective of what religion it pertained to. His visits to the shrines of the Muslim saints and Hindu temples were as much acts of faith as those to the Golden Temple. He extended generous donations, jagirs and financial help to institutions regardless of their religious faith. Ranjit Singh granted 80 bighas of land for the support of the shrine Ismail alias Wadda, situated near Shalimar gardens at Lahore. He donated Rs. 15,000 for the repairs of mosques at Lahore. Liberal donations were given for the repair and construction work of the holy Muslim shrines of Muslims in other parts of his kingdom. Ranjit Singh’s belief in spirituality and catholicity exhibited spontaneously. Once a calligraphist approached him with a manuscript of the Holy Quran, which was his life- time work. The calligraphist told him that he had been to all the Muslim princes in India except the ruler of Hyderabad and that none had agreed to pay him a fair price. Ranjit Singh took the manuscript from him, pressed it against his forehead and ordered that the price the man was asking for it be paid to him. He often used to say that it is perhaps God’s tryst that he should be secular.

    Ranjit Singh was equally generous to Hindu temples. He donated six quintals of gold for gilding the Vishwanath temple at Varanasi. He made very generous offerings to the temple of Jwala Mukhi whenever he visited that shrine. But a very significant act of Ranjit Singh was that when a treaty was signed by him with Shah Shuja of Afghanistan on March 12, 1833, one of the terms was that the portals of Somnath temple, made of sandal wood, carried away by Mahmud of Ghazni more that 800 years ago, should be delivered back.

Peace and Progress

    Before Ranjit Singh’s occupation of Lahore in 1799, Punjab had known no peace. In this period the foreign horders had invaded this country twenty times from the north-west. They destroyed every hearth and home on their way. All the trees around Lahore had been cut off and used by the invading hordes to warm themselves in wintry cold and to cook food. Ranjit Singh had banned felling of trees within radius of 50 km of Lahore to improve the environmental conditions of the area.

    Ranjit Singh gave unity to the Punjab. He established order where there had been disorder. He created law in place of lawlessness and anarchy. In the history of the Punjab, no man has excited the imagination of the people as much as did Ranjit Singh. An inherent quality of kindness was a marked aspect of his disposition. He was a humane despot. In his lifetime he never wantonly inflicted either capital punishment or mutilation. He always treated his fallen foe with deliberate kindness and seldom imbued his hands in blood. In the words of Baron Charles Hugel, a European traveller who visited Punjab in 1835, "Never perhaps was so large an empire founded by one man with so little criminality."

Humane Rule

    Ranjit Singh always considered the welfare of his subjects as the primary object of his rule. He never thought himself or his sons or his high ranking officials above the law. Fakir Syed Waheeduddhin has quoted in his book two orders issued by Ranjit Singh about the dispensation of justice, from his family records. First order is directed to Fakir Nuruddin, which says – It is hereby decreed by His Highness with utmost emphasis that no person in the city practice high handedness and oppression of the people. Indeed, if even His Highness himself should issue an inappropriate order against any resident of Lahore, it should be clearly brought to the notice of His Highness so that it may be suitably amended.

    In another order addressed to Sr. Amir Singh and Fakir Nuruddin, it is very clearly stated that if he himself, his beloved sons or high officials should commit an inappropriate act, they should bring it to his notice. This order also stated that forcible possession of any person’s land or the demolition of any person’s house should not be allowed. This order particularly forbade highhandedness on the common people like woodcutters, fodder vendors, oil vendors, horse shoers, factory-owners etc.

    Ranjit Singh’s court reflected the secular and liberal pattern of his Administration. His most trusted Ministers were Fakir Azizuddin and Fakir Nuruddin. His finances were managed by Rama Nand Sahu, Bhawani Das, Ganga Ram and Dina Nath. His Prime Minister was Dhian Singh, a Dogra Hindu Rajput. His best generals were Fateh Singh Kalianwala, Dewan Mohkam Chand, Missar Diwan Chand, Hari Singh Nalwa, Sham Singh Attariwala, Desa Singh Majithia. His artillery was under the command of Ghaus Khan, Ilahi Baksh and Azhar Ali. Ranjit Singh had many European Christians in his service such as Ventura, Allard, Court and Avitabile. Miss Emily Eden, painter sister of Lord Auckland, Governor-General of British India, accompanied his brother when he visited Amritsar in 1838. Later she wrote a book, entitled ‘Princes and jpeople of India’. In her memoirs she wrote – He (Ranjit Singh) has made himself a great king, he conquered a great many powerful enemies, he is remarkably just in his government, he has disciplined a large army, he hardly ever takes away life, which is wonderful in a despot, and he is excessively beloved by his people. There is something rather touching in the affection his people have for him.