Harjeet Singh Gill
In those dark days of colonialism all over the world, when slavery of the conquered was considered normal, Ranjit Singh dealt with his governed populace with love and affection
Maharaja Ranjit Singh is an icon of Indian and Punjab history. We have been emphasising his greatness in polity, in his concern for religions and sects of his governed populace, in his love for all, in his incisive understanding of human values in an age when there was the rule of brutal force and tyranny all over the world.
The first outcome of colonialism was slavery. The “other”, the slave, the ruled simply did not exist. Men and women from African tribes were displayed in the West as some kind of animals. It was the beginning of the 19th century. For the ruling elite, the slaves were not citizens of the state. They had no rights. The faithfulness of the slaves was one of the most important characteristics of the “ghulam” in Judeo-Arabic world. But for Ranjit Singh, there were no slaves, all had the same rights and duties towards the State. This was the enlightenment of Khalsa Raj. There are several examples when his Sikh sardars were admonished for their misbehaviour towards the persons of other religions.
In a recent poll conducted by BBC, Maharaja Ranjit Singh has been declared to be the ‘greatest world leader’. Matt Elton, the editor of the BBC World Histories Magazine writes: Ranjit Singh’s overwhelming success in our poll suggests that the qualities of his leadership continue to inspire people around the world in the 21st century. Five thousand scholars from all over the world participated in this poll which included eminent historians like Matthew Lockwood, Margaret MacMillan and Gus Casely-Hayford. Ranjit Singh received 38 per cent votes. The second best got only 25. The top 20, way below the line, included Joan of Arc, Mughal emperor Akbar, Russian empress Catherine the Great, and US President Abraham Lincoln.
For the Punjabis it is a matter of great pride that their maharaja is honoured for his reign of love, equality and justice for all religions and cultures, when, not only in our country, but all over the world, there is absolute tyranny of intolerance. The old French revolutionary slogan of the annihilation of the “other” is the order of the day. It is refreshing to note that the sane voices recognise the excellence of humanity wherever it may be, whenever it had been. The brotherhood of all humans, the existential ‘condition humaine’, irrespective of its religion and origin, is still honoured by the intelligentsia of the world. It is a great event.
It is heartening to note that the world of scholarship has recognised the Maharaja’s foresight of abolishing death sentence in the beginning of the 19th century. To conceptualise justice and equality of human relationships across race and religion in those days of imperialism and rule by terror and brutal force is indeed a high mark in the history of political ideas. This supposedly illiterate sovereign had the most incisive understanding of humanity. He could, in those dark days of colonialism all over the world, when slavery of the conquered was considered normal, deal with his governed populace with such affection. Even more surprising is the fact that in the so-called Khalsa Raj, where the Sikhs were in extreme minority, there was no coercion, no forced conversion. He was known for his liberal donations to all sacred places of worship. In Varanasi, at a famous temple, the priests show you with pride the gold bell that was offered by the Maharaja. There are several examples of such charity. Numerous temples and mosques were built in his kingdom at the expenses of the State.
He looked for talent wherever it was found, whether the able soldier or statesman was a Muslim, a Hindu or even a foreigner did not matter. His most trusted wazir was a Muslim. His army was trained by French and Italian generals. There were artists, architects, scholars from different religious and cultural background. They all served the same State. They were all members of the same brotherhood.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a great king but he was also the most humble person. As per a number of historical sources, he lived a very simple life. There are several anecdotes. Off and on, his Muslim Prime Minister reminds him of his status of a king and councils him to follow the regal dress and code of the Oriental Throne. The Maharaja listens with due respect and tells him of his humble origin and the origin of his fellow sardars. As far the sardars were concerned, they always addressed him as “brother”. No honorific title was ever used in their address. For Maharaja, the Sovereign of the Punjab, the Lion of the Punjab, it was perfectly normal. He was at ease in that informal ambience.
It is for this highly enlightened political, social and cultural order of his reign that the BBC poll has declared Maharaja Ranjit Singh as the greatest leader of all times. We, the Punjabis, are certainly grateful for this honour.