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Image above: detail from "Ranjit Singh" on oil by American artist Manu Kaur Saluja.

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'Tis Time To Learn From Ranjit Singh





Mystics and divines, poets and singers, men of enterprise and of daring, of quality and base instinct, the best dancing girls in the entire sub-continent, Punjab has given birth to them all.

What, through some quirk of geography or history, it has never been able to produce is the able ruler.

But for a single exception: for over 2000 years, from Alexander’s invasion to the Partition of British India in 1947, only one ruler of ability and distinction in its turbulent history, the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

Apart from him, governors and vassals in plenty but no independent ruler, principally because Punjab was never an independent kingdom except when Ranjit Singh raised it to that status.

Afghan kings, kings of Turkish origin, Mughal emperors … but only one Punjabi king.

So while Punjab had other strong traditions, in agriculture, music, poetry, dancing, and, I daresay, the sycophantic arts which come so readily to subjugated people, the one tradition its superior classes lacked was that of leadership.

They knew best how to scrape and bow before authority. They were good at carrying out orders. But in 1947, history placed upon their shoulders the task of creating a nation and giving that nation a sense of direction.

And they were not up to it, because nothing in their past had prepared them for this. True, Punjab’s elite classes, in alliance with the Urdu-speaking elites who had crossed over from India, managed to create order out of the chaos of Partition, a remarkable feat in itself.

A country was thus born but something else as important proved elusive: the quest for nationhood.

Small wonder, misgivings arose from the very start, not everyone feeling that they were equal citizens of the new state, certainly not the people of East Pakistan who despite being in a majority felt excluded from decision-making. Baloch nationalists were unhappy, Pakhtun nationalists aggrieved, they who had been in the forefront of the struggle against the British.

And winds of religiosity beat down upon the land, making what were still called minorities uneasy.

Jinnah had said that religion had no place in politics, the gist of his famous address to the Constituent Assembly just a few days before independence.

But here something else was happening, religious rhetoric becoming more powerful even as political and economic performance lagged far behind.

Paranoia as regards India, an insecurity which sought relief in military alliances with the United States, an obsession with religious chest-thumping, truly bizarre in a Muslim majority country where Islam should have been the last thing in danger, or the least in need of artificial props -- of such humours was concocted the doctrine that came to be hailed, and indeed flaunted, as the ideology of Pakistan.

The Baloch had no fear of India. For them Kashmir was a distant proposition. In Sindh where there was a large Hindu population, the people had no problem with India or Hinduism. Neither did the Pakhtuns have any mental problems with India, despite being very religious in their everyday outlook.

In the tribal areas and in places like Swat there were Sikh and Hindu communities which felt safe and co-existed happily with their Muslim neighbours.

But it was altogether different with the official Punjabi mind and that of the Urdu-speaking elites where flourished the demons of fear and insecurity, more as a political tactic than a psychological necessity because it was a good way to keep the rest of the population in line. And because these classes dominated the upper echelons of the armed forces, the ethos of the services came also to be imbued by the same fears and compulsions.

Paradoxically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who should have been the most enlightened man of his generation fanned the flames of this anti-Indianism more than anyone else, perhaps calculating (although there can be other theories on this score) that beating the anti-India drum would best appeal to the Punjab masses.

But when the wheel came full circle the movement against him in 1977 received its most powerful impetus in Punjab, and it was the Punjab bazaar and trading classes which bayed the loudest for his blood.

When Gen Zia went looking for allies against Bhutto he found the fiercest in Punjab. When President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the ISI sought to contain Benazir Bhutto in her first prime ministership they groomed a champion in the form of one Mian Nawaz Sharif, a scion of Punjab. The fateful enterprises promoted in the name of ‘jihad’ found some of their first votaries and loudest advocates in Punjab.

Land of the five rivers – what hast thou not wrought?

From thy bosom arising Guru Nanak and Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain and Waris Shah, Iqbal and Faiz and Munir Niazi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Kundan Lal Saigal, Rafi and Noor Jahan, not to forget the great Sir Ganga Ram who had no equal when it came to giving, and Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his companions who had no equals when it came to laying down their lives in the cause of freedom.

At the same time, land of our fathers, home to so much nonsense at the altar of faith and righteousness.

Pakistan today is largely what Punjab, for good or ill, has made it. Indian Punjab is a small part of India. Pakistani Punjab encompasses the best and worst of Pakistan. The social conservatism on display in our midst, the mental backwardness, the narrowness of outlook, the triumph of hypocrisy, the destruction of national education, the muddling up of national priorities, the temples erected to the false gods of national security – so much of this, alas, can be traced to the incapacities of Punjab.

Perhaps Ranjit Singh was an aberration, a historic anomaly – out of the mould and thus one of a kind.

Our Punjab today certainly has nothing in common with his kingdom.

In Ranjit Singh’s army found service men of all races and religions. There were Mussalman battalions in his army and his head of artillery was Mian Ghausa, just as his principal wazir was from the Faqirkhana family of Lahore. And his favourite wife was a Muslim, Bibi Gulbahar Begam.

The PML-N has been in power in Islamabad twice before but in different circumstances, Nawaz Sharif not quite his own man in his first incarnation and, despite his huge majority, an unsure man in his second.

He now comes as someone who has seen and experienced a great deal. So can he make a difference? Disavowing his past, does he have it in him to write a fresh history of Punjab?

Another thing to remember about the Lion of Punjab (the only lion, others all fake and imitations) -- Maharaja Ranjit Singh -- is that he knew how to handle his Afghan problem. He defeated the Afghans and took Peshawar from them.

Peshawar was part of the Sikh dominions annexed by the British. So if Peshawar and its environs are a part of Pakistan today it is because of that earlier Sikh conquest, half-forgotten in the mists of time.

As Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan go prattling about talking to the Taliban they could do worse than study the Maharajah’s approach to the Afghans.

So can we get our historical compasses right?

For over 2000 years on the soil of what is Pakistan today no independent realm or kingdom existed except two: Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Kingdom and the state of Pakistan.

The first was a success, a well-run entity, at least as long as the Maharajah was alive; the second is the shambles that we have made over the last 65 years.

Now there comes an opportunity to redeem our past. Question is, can the new rulers of Pakistan be half as good as their most illustrious predecessor, the one and only King of Punjab?

[Courtesy: The News]

June 2, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sundeep Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), June 02, 2013, 4:17 PM.

I appreciate the author's honest examination of history when comparing the situation in Pakistan to the overall issue of Punjab. Maharaja Ranjit Singh truly was a Punjabi king, rather than solely the king of the Sikhs. Although I have seen this view promoted by Sikhs, this is the first time I have seen a post-Partition Punjabi Muslim say something positive about the Maharaja. The unfortunate problem with Pakistan however is that it will not learn from its history, for it has adopted a nationalist perspective which does not truly reflect the real history of Punjab. This nationalist history -- a completely revised one -- states that Pakistan has existed since the first Arab set his foot prints on the soil of the subcontinent and the Sikh period is heavily downplayed. What is happening in Pakistan today is an identity crisis gone haywire. In their zeal to hail their faith as Muslims the country has erased the plurality which acted as the very foundation for Punjabi culture.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), June 02, 2013, 7:23 PM.

The creation of Pakistan by the bungling British is coming to haunt them and their biggest ally, the United States of America, with 80% of the world's terror originating from Pakistan! And in the UK today, we have the largest number of Pakistanis outside of Pakistan! The British are now protesting in the streets against their culture and ideology! The final insult by the British to the undefeated 'Lion of Punjab', Ranjit Singh, was to give 62% of his Empire to the Muslims and 38% to the Hindus when they hastily fled from their 'jewel in the crown', leaving the Sikh Nation and other lands in the hands of illiterate, casteist, sexist, superstition-ridden, petty thugs. And now they are paying the 'karmic' price in spectacular fashion!

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 02, 2013, 7:30 PM.

Apart from the testimony from the Fakir family, this was one of the rare occasions that Ayaz Amir has given the due credit to Maharaja Ranjit Singh of his remarkable achievements by any standard. He ruled a powerful state that extended from Tibet to Sind and from the Khyber Pass to the Sutlej. He was an invincible rival and in equal measure a friend and ally commanding both respect and fear. He redeemed the innumerable defeats, humiliations and depredation suffered by the sub-continent over the centuries at the hands of Afghan invaders and wrested back the territory from them. Ranjit Singh still continues to live large as life in the imagination of the folklore of all denominations. He lived amidst them to listen and redress their grievances at all times and, looking upon all his subjects irrespective of caste and creed with one eye (pun intended). Lord William Bentick, Governor-General asked Fakir Azizuddin at Simla where he had gone for some discussions, which of the Maharaja's eyes was blind. Fakir Sahib, proud of his master, was highly displeased at this question and summoned all his wit and replied: "Your Excellency, I have not had the courage to cast my eyes at the Maharaja's face. They are always fixed on his feet. If you wish to have some information about his feet I may be able to give it to you." Lord William Bentick was so impressed with his reply that he took his gold watch out of his pocket and presented it to Fakir Sahib. This watch is still a part of the Fakir family collection. Lord Bentick's citation: "So long as Ranjit Singh has men like you to serve him, no harm shall come to his kingdom."

4: Dr Dalbir Singh (Seremban, Malaysia), June 03, 2013, 12:34 AM.

To start, let India honour the promise Jawaharlal Nehru gave to Master Tara Singh to give Sikhs an autonomous status. We must fight for it now. The Indian government must keep the promise.

5: Qasim Pirzada (Pakistan), October 03, 2013, 3:48 AM.

No doubt that Great Leader & Lion of Punjab was a legend.

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