Does the unveiling of Ranjit Singh’s statue in Lahore represent the state’s willingness to move away from the narrow conception of Muslim-versus-Sikh history to accomodate a more holistic narrative?
Lahore is no ordinary city. It is a metaphor for empires, states and regimes of all kind over its millennia-long history. It is a medium through which kings, queens, administrators and politicians express their rhetoric and political ambitions.
For example, the city under Dara Shikoh became a symbol of love for his Sufi mentor, Mian Mir. A pathway of red tiles from his palace at Naulakha to the shrine of Mian Mir was not only one of the greatest infrastructure projects he planned during his times but also a true expression of this love for his mentor. The project could never materialise because of the most bitterly fought war of succession for the Mughal throne between Shikoh and his brothers. Aurangzeb, who took over the Mughal throne eventually, used the red tiles to construct another symbol, the Badshahi Masjid.
Ranjit Singh’s ultimate purpose was to capture Lahore and transform himself from a warlord to a maharaja. When he conquered Lahore in 1799, the city had lost much of its charm, replaced by the burgeoning Amritsar, yet it was identified as the symbol of Mughal power. During his rule, he further added to this symbolism, and fashioned his darbar on the same model as the Mughals.
Under the British, Lahore became a potent symbol of power. They constructed the civil lines, Mall road, and cantonment, with wide avenues and spacious bungalows that stood in contrast with the congested houses and narrow streets of the Walled City. It symbolised the emergence of a new more ‘organised’ and ‘scientific’ empire. Also, the development of Saracenic architecture, that amalgamated Indian and European styles, represented in the buildings of Punjab University, Lahore Museum and Lahore High Court, displayed continuity with the British casting themselves as the ‘successors’ of the Mughal Empire. In the years to come, this new city of Lahore, a modern incarnation of an ancient city, became a powerful symbol the British used to justify their rule.
Like architecture, statues too played an important role in articulating the political aspirations of the state. Facing the Punjab assembly on The Mall was the statue of Queen Victoria, sitting under a pavilion that borrowed from the Mughal architectural tradition. The British queen appropriating Mughal architecture was the epitome of this symbolism and the need to show continuity between the ancient and the modern Lahore.
A few kilometres away, next to the Lahore High Court, was the statue of John Lawrence, who, before serving as the viceroy of British India, served as the chief commissioner of Punjab; overseeing the transition of Punjab from the Sikhs to the British. Lawrence’s role during the ‘rebellion’ of 1857 made him a legend, as he single-handedly rescued the empire. The iconic statue that was removed in the 1920s, after much protestations, held a sword in one hand and a pen in the other with "Will you be governed by the pen or sword?" inscribed on it. His statue expressed how the ‘benevolent’ British empire was willing to use force if the people were not ready to accept the ‘scientifically superior race’.
There stood a statue of King Edward next to the King Edward Medical College.
The statue of Alfred Woolner, the former vice chancellor of the university, was placed outside the Punjab University, and is the only one that has stood the test of time.
In the latter half of the 20th century, as Lahore slowly became a symbol of the nationalist movement, a couple of other statues sprung up across the city. Close to Nasir Bagh was the statue of Lala Lajpat Rai, the popular Congress leader from Lahore, whose death was ‘avenged’ by Bhagat Singh and his comrades. On The Mall was also the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the civil engineer, who in the early 20th century gave the city some of its most iconic buildings.
Soon after the creation of Pakistan, Lahore became a symbol of nationalism. Roads, junctions and buildings that were named after colonial officers or prominent Congress leaders were replaced by the names of Muslim League leaders. Lawrence Hall became Quaid-i-Azam library; The Mall became Shahrah-e-Quaid-i-Azam and Krishan Nagar became Islampura. The statues, symbols of a different era, were removed. Lala Lajpat Rai was moved to Simla; Ganga Ram was destroyed during the partition riots and Queen Victoria was moved to the Lahore Museum. No new statue replaced them, as under a certain interpretation of religion, statues were seen as un-Islamic. While some of the colonial names and symbols were retained, the biggest victim of this new found metaphor was Hindu and Sikh symbols.
In this context, how is one to interpret the recently inaugurated statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh inside the Lahore Fort?
For years, we have gone out of our way to cast the Sikh history of the city in a particular framework. The years of Sikh rule in Punjab, which predate the rise of Ranjit Singh and also continue for a few years after him, are projected in the Pakistani historiography as tumultuous years, particularly for Muslims. It is usually difficult to separate facts from propaganda but in this case truths back propaganda. For example it is true that under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Badshahi Masjid was used as a stable. There is also a popular story of him spending a night on the minaret of Masjid Wazir Khan with his favourite consort, Moran Sarkar.
The problem is not the inclusion of these stories. The problem is the selective inclusion of stories. So while students are taught that Ranjit Singh used Badshahi Masjid for a stable, they are not taught how one of his wives, Maharani Jind Kaur, the mother of Maharaja Daleep Singh, donated a collection of handwritten Qurans to Data Darbar. Or, how on the insistence of his Muslim minister, Ranjit Singh renovated and handed over the Sunehri Masjid to Muslims, which had been converted into a gurdwara before he came to power.
We have also conveniently ignored political persecution of the Sikhs by the Mughals from our national narrative. The executions of Guru Arjan at the hands of Emperor Jahangir and of Guru Tegh Bahadur on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb are never mentioned. What is also not mentioned is the phoenix-like rise of a persecuted religious minority to the pinnacle of power under Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
We need to understand what Ranjit Singh represents today. Towards the end of the Mughal Empire, there was a time when a child born in a Sikh household carried a death warrant. However, in less than a century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh emerged, and he transformed the most persecuted minority of Punjab into its ruling class. Singh was no religious leader. He was a shrewd secular ruler, who appropriated religious symbols for political gains. In Sikh iconography, he acquired a religious significance, primarily because of how persecuted the community was only a few years before his rise.
The government of Pakistan has undertaken a wonderful step to honour Ranjit Singh. It represents how the state today is willing to move beyond the narrow conceptions of Muslim versus Sikh history to accommodate a more holistic history. Interestingly this comes at a time when the Indian state is almost seeing a reverse direction with deliberately sidelining Muslim history and heritage.
This is a step in the right direction, a step that shows how the Pakistani state is willing to share its most important metaphor, Lahore, with other religious communities. Let’s hope this step is followed by several others.