Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign remains a significant memory in Punjab’s history
Referring to the dominance and manipulation of faith, I have argued in my previous two writings for The News on Sunday, that ideology has been central to both state-building and nation-building in Pakistan from day one. The contesting ideological orientations have caused the exclusion of many talented, competent and capable individuals from the pages of our history and academic writings.
Moreover, intolerance towards people of other faiths has been steadily on the rise. In an unfortunate incident on August 17, Rizwan Ranjha, a worker of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (a banned outfit), vandalised the statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh installed in Lahore Fort. The attacker tried to justify his action by alleging that Maharaja’s rule was anti-Muslim.
Before Rizwan’s attack, the statue had already been vandalised twice since its unveiling in June 2019 on the 180th death anniversary of the former ruler of the Punjab. The first attack took place within a month of its inauguration when two members of the TLP broke an arm and damaged the other using wooden rods. While destroying the statue, they chanted slogans against the Maharaja. The figure was attacked a second time in December 2020 when a man broke its arm. It was reported that the culprit, in his statement to the police, said that the statue of Maharaja should not have been erected and displayed at the Lahore Fort because he had committed atrocities against the Muslims during his rule.
Before Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s 38-year rule (r. 1801 – 1839), for most of its history, the Punjab had remained under the reigns of foreigners — from Ghaznavids to Sultans of Delhi to the Mughals. After the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, Banda Singh Bahadur captured eastern parts of the Punjab in 1709-10. However, he was defeated and executed in 1716. A prolonged struggle between the Sikhs, the Mughals and the Afghans followed. This struggle continued from 1716 till 1759. The Afghans’ retreat provided an opportunity to the Sikhs to occupy Lahore. Subsequently, Jassa Singh proclaimed himself the head of the Sikh’s sovereignty. Both the Afghan Kings, Ahmed Shah Abdali (r. 1748 – 1773) and Shah Zaman (r. 1793 – 1798), had to wage invasions to dislodge Sikhs. The Afghan power declined in the Punjab after the death of Abdali in 1773. This which provided a passage for the ascendency of the Sikhs.
The real Sikh rule in the Punjab started when Maharaja Ranjit Singh captured Lahore in 1799, and Zaman Shah declared him his governor for the city. Denouncing the suzerainty of the Afghan King, the governor proclaimed himself Maharaja of the Punjab in 1801. He ruled the kingdom till his death in 1839.
The real Sikh rule in the Punjab started when Ranjit Singh captured Lahore in 1799 and Zaman Shah declared him his governor for the city. Denouncing the suzerainty of the Afghan king, the governor proclaimed himself Maharaja of Punjab in 1801 and ruled the kingdom till his death in 1839. This way, he became the first indigenous ruler of the Punjab. He extended his kingdom from the Indus River in the west to the Sutlej river in the east and from Kashmir in the north to Thar in south. He is credited with uniting the Punjab for the first time (Punjab had earlier been divided into two or three provinces—Multan, Lahore, and Sirhind). He earned the title of the Lion of Punjab by turning the tide of invasion back into Afghanistan, the homeland of the traditional conquerors of India.
Expansion of his rule is attributed to his multi-religious Punjabi army — consisting of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. Many of the commanders of his army were Muslims e.g. Sheikh Illahi Baksh, Ghaus Khan, Imam Shah, Mazhar Ali, Sultan Mahmud Khan, Muhammad Khan Zufar, Nazir-ud-Din Ilahi, and Fakir Aziz-ud-Din. Similarly, his ministers were drawn from various religious communities. For instance, Fakir Aziz-ud-Din (a Muslim) served as his foreign minister.
The diverse composition of his army, commanders, and cabinet ministers demonstrates that he was a secular ruler. Owning his secular orientation, he built temples for Hindus, mosques for Muslims and gurdwaras for Sikhs. For example, he built the Mai Moran Masjid in Lahore for his beloved Muslim wife, Moran Sarkar. He never razed or demolished the worship places of Muslims and/ or Hindus. However, he used mosques for other purposes. For example, he converted the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore into a horse stable and Sunehri Masjid into a Sikh Gurdwara. He restored the latter to a mosque upon the request of Sattar Shah Bukhari, popularly known as Sufi Fakir.
This does not justify anyone attacking and vandalising his statue displayed at Lahore Fort. The attack met with a mixed response. On one hand, some people supported the attackers and tried to justify their actions based on forged history and opposing faith. On the other hand, several people, including some Pakistani officials, such as Fawad Hussain Chaudhary, the federal minister for information and broadcasting, and Shahbaz Gill, the special assistant to prime minister on political communication, condemned the incident.
Responding to the incident, Chaudhary tweeted, “#Shameful this bunch of illiterates are dangerous for Pakistan image in the world.” Dr Gill demanded the attacker’s arrest.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the first indigenous ruler of the Punjab. His rule makes up an essential chapter of our history. We may try to skip this chapter by closing our eyes, but we cannot delete it. To conclude, though it is a hard call, we have to accept the reality: instead of disowning Ranjit Singh on account of his faith, we should hail him as our local ruler and hero, who fought foreign invaders, including the British and the Afghans.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87