By A.J. Philip
When I got a job at The Tribune in Chandigarh in 2003, one of the first things I did was to go to my favourite bookshop, ‘Fact and Fiction’, near Priya Cinema at Vasant Vihar and buy the two-volume ‘A History of the Sikhs’ by Khushwant Singh.
I hope a word about the bookshop would be in order. I liked the name and the quotation it popularised through its bookmarks: “When I have money, I buy books. If there are any leftovers, I buy food”.
The bookshop owner was a very knowledgeable person. If he did not have a particular book in his stock, he would get it for you from somewhere. I remember him waiting for me with a book I ordered long after he had closed his bookshop one wintry evening, as I was held up at the office. By the way, he never gave me a discount. Nor did I ask for it.
Immediately after I joined The Tribune, a colleague Naveen S Garewal gifted me another book of Sikh history written by JS Garewal, who was related to him.
I had, therefore, a reasonable understanding of Sikhism when I visited a gurdwara near Ludhiana which was in the thick of a controversy at that time. I was delighted to find my article on the subject being quoted in an academic journal by my friend Prof Santosh K. Singh who is the only one to call me “Dr Philip”, knowing full well that I have no Ph.D to boast of.
Thereafter, I began reading a lot about Sikhism. I have visited almost all the major gurdwaras, including the one in Lahore. Visiting Hazur Sahib Gurdwara at Nanded still remains a dream.
One character in Sikh history that I began to admire, other than Guru Nanak and his nine successor Gurus, is Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Last month when I visited the Book Bunker at the Indian Military Academy, getting ready to admit women cadets from the next session thanks to a Supreme Court order based on a case filed among others by my friend Cdr Prasanna Edayilliam Rtd, my eyes fell on ‘The Real Maharaja Ranjit Singh: A Family Memoir’ by Fakir Syed Waheeduddin and updated by Fakir Syed Aijazuddin (Hay House, Pages 300, Rs 599)
I also bought another book on the ‘Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire’ on the lines of Edward Gibbon’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’, about which I will write, God willing, sooner than later.
I was happy that the IMA bookstore had these books, for Maharaja Ranjit Singh was a ruler whose military campaigns needed to be studied by all military personnel. He was not a very educated person. He was not handsome, either. He had lost an eye.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned Maharaja Ranjit Singh giving a large amount to the Shiva temple at Varanasi, he should also have mentioned that though his Empire was theocratic in nature, Ranjit Singh ran it on secular principles.
When he heard that a Muslim artist had handwritten the whole Quran using his calligraphic skills over almost all his adult life, he bought it for Rs 10,000, a kingly sum those days, and gifted it to one of his Muslim aides, related to the authors.
Fakir Nuruddin and two of his brothers were the Maharaja’s closest advisers. One of them served as his foreign minister holding discussions with the Britishers, the Afghans, the Europeans and the Mughals. He also had on his payroll Europeans, employed to train his soldiers in modern warfare.
In his time, the Sikh Empire that extended to Afghanistan and Tibet, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and the present-day Punjabs in India and Pakistan was one of the largest empires. It was second only to the Mughal and British Empires.
What’s more important, for 40 years, Ranjit Singh provided political stability to the region and his subjects rejoiced in his just role.
The strength of his character could be gauged from the fact that he did not award capital punishment even to the one who made an attempt on his life. Unlike most rulers of his time who were either killed or languished in jail, “he preserved his senses to the last, and was obeyed to the last by all his chiefs…”.
The authors Fakir Syed Waheeduddin and Fakir Syed Aijazuddin describe his final moments in these words: “Bhai Gobind Ram said into the ear of the Sarkar, at the moment he was expiring, the words, “Ram, Ram”, three times. Sarkar repeated them twice, but on the third time, his lips did not open and his life went out of him by way of his eyes…”
The authors are father and son and are lineal descendants of Fakir Nuruddin, one of the senior courtiers at the durbar of Ranjit Singh. They relied more on their family treasures and records to prepare this biography, which is at once a delightful treat for the mind and for the eyes, for it carries several paintings of the period.
The book quotes Lieutenant Colonel Steinbach, author of The Punjaub: “The treasures (of Ranjit Singh) may be estimated to have amounted at his decease to about eight crores of rupees in cash, or the same number of millions of pounds sterling with jewels, shawls, horses, elephants, etc., and several millions more… it is doubtful if any court in Europe possesses such valuable jewels as the court of Lahore”.
It was Ranjit Singh who accorded the due status to the foot soldiers, who were always accorded a very low rank and social status in the Indian military tradition.
He never sat on the Mughal throne in Lahore and never identified himself too much with personal pomp and glory. He had his occasional love affairs but he did not do any injustice to his wives. In fact, the chapter concerned is appropriately headlined ‘Unequal Sweethearts, Equal Wives’.
In comparison to many other monarchs, he had a smaller harem that “comprised 46 women belonging to four categories. In the first category were nine, whom he married in the orthodox Sikh manner.
“The second category also consisted of nine, all of them widows, whom he adopted as his wives by casting his mantle over them, as sanctioned by custom. To the third category belonged seven courtesans. All these categories enjoyed the status of queens. Not so the fourth category, which consisted of concubines”.
To judge Ranjit Singh 183 years after his death by modern standards is unfair. He was a monarch, not a Republican, and he used methods that most monarchs used to build his empire.
Why he stands out among all the monarchs is that he subjected himself to a higher order and treated everyone equally and equitably, not like a modern chief minister who says the coming Assembly election is a contest between 80 per cent Hindus and 20 per cent Muslims. We need to learn a lot from Maharaja Ranjit Singh who “possessed powers of mind rarely met with, either in the eastern or western world”.