What Pakistanis Think of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Sikh Empire

By Yasser Latif Hamdani Ranjit Singh : The Quintessential Indus Man

Today (29th June) is the 170th death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Bismarck of Punjab and Pakhtunkhwa, whose great Indus state was the forerunner of Pakistan.


Narrowminded ideologues – writing in the aftermath of bitter communal bloodletting accompanying the birth of Pakistan- have not been able to fully appreciate the significance of this great statesman to the state of Pakistan. If they were to apply their minds to the history of the Punjab from late 18th to mid 19th century theywould find in support of the legal arguments employed by Jinnah a hundred years later. The great tragedy ofcourse was that Sikh leadership could not come to terms with Jinnah in 1947 even though the latter had given them a blank cheque.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh literally cobbled together a number of principalities to forge an independent state from Kashmir to NWFP consisting of Punjabis and Pakhtuns, Muslims and Hindus. This state had its own foreign relations and foreign policy. It also showed that India was never one country but a continent which was to become the basic premise upon which Muslim League was t0 build its case for Pakistan. More importantly, however, Ranjit Singh laid the foundations for the Punjabi parochialism that was to create such a huge problem for both Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League, forcing the latter to search for a slogan that sought to tame this parochialism. It was this powerful parochialism that Jinnah referred to when he told Mountbatten that “A Punjabi is a Punjabi before he is a Muslim or Hindu ” while arguing against the partition of the province. This identity was given to the Punjabis by Ranjit Singh.

How did this one-eyed Sikh warrior manage to bring together Punjabi Musalmans, Sikhs, Hindus and Pushtun Musalmans together in this one great Sikh-dominated state remains a mystery. It is said that a calligrapher tried to sell a beautifully copy of the Quran to Ranjit Singh’s Foreign Minister Fakir Azizuddin who wouldn’t buy it. Ranjit Singh overheard the argument, took the Holy Quran, kissed it and bought it for a price in excess of what is being asked. When asked why he replied “God gave me one eye – so that I could see all religions with the same eye”. Our historians would have us believe that this man defiled the Badshahi Mosque.

Perhaps the most poignant lessons that the Pakistani state can learn from the Maharaja is the way he brought the Wahabi-led Islamist insurgency against the state in form of Syed Ahmad and Shah Abdul Aziz. These forerunners of the modern day Taliban and Al Qaeda had taken refuge in NWFP and had used the Pathan tribesmen to wage a “Jehad” against Ranjit Singh and his state which was in any event Muslim majority. Ranjit Singh and the Army of the Indus crushed this earliest insurgency of the Taliban, pushing back Afghans who had occupied Peshawar since Mahmud Ghaznavi’s time, thus establishing what was to become the permanent border of British India later and consequently Pakistan’s border. It is often said that the British and Russians failed to subdue insurgencies in the tribal area. It is suggested that the US might lose the war as well. However, Ranjit Singh proved that the Army of Indus could defeat this insurgency. Today another Army of the Indus is fighting yet another war in the same region to safeguard another Muslim majority state against a “Jehad”. Inshallah the Army of the Indus will overcome.

This is no call for Punjabi parochialism lest I be mistaken- I believe in Punjab being divided up into several provinces. My interest in Ranjit Singh is purely from a Pakistani angle. Just as we admire Tipu Sultan but do not become Mysore Nationalists, we don’t become Punjabi nationalists by admiring Ranjit Singh. This is however an attempt to honor one of the greatest sons of this soil from whom the Pakistani nation state can learn a thing or two in state-craft.

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