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183rd death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Published July 6, 2022
Sikh pilgrims perform ritual while visiting Maharaja Ranjit Singh's mausoleum in Lahore.
Photo: Reuters
Sikh pilgrims perform ritual while visiting Maharaja Ranjit Singh's mausoleum in Lahore. Photo: Reuters

The Sikh nation observed the 183rd death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh with zeal and fervour at his Samadhi (tomb), where around 450 Sikh pilgrims arrived from India and numerous local Sikhs paid homage to the founder of the Sikh empire.

Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi is located adjacent to the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque, as well the Gurdwara Dera Sahib, which marks the spot where the 5th guru of Sikhism, Guru Arjan Dev, died.

Sikh pilgrims gather during commemorations on the 183th death anniversary of Ranjit Singh, the first Maharaja of the Sikh empire, at Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore. Photo: AFP
Sikh pilgrims gather during commemorations on the 183th death anniversary of Ranjit Singh, the first Maharaja of the Sikh empire, at Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore. Photo: AFP

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, known as Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of Punjab), is revered not only by Sikhs but the people of Punjab for his love for humanity and military skills during his 40-year rule (1799-1839).

Born in Gujranwala on November 2, 1780, he was the only son of Mahan Singh of Sukarchakia misl (confederacy). Few had foreseen that the frail child Ranjit Singh, his pock-marked face further disfigured by the loss of one eye because of the affliction, would one day rise to strike terror in the hearts of his enemies, unite the Sikhs, and establish the prosperous Sikh Empire.

The background to Ranjit Singh’s rise is that after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal Empire started to disintegrate, which was accentuated by the creation of the Khalsa community of Sikh warriors by Guru Gobind Singh in the Punjab. The milieu became murky with Afghan raids across the Indus river valleys, meanwhile, colonial traders and the East India Company commenced operations in India with imperialist designs.

During mid-8th century, the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent comprised fourteen small warring regions; of which, twelve were Sikh-controlled misls, Kasur was Muslim controlled, and one in the southeast was led by an Englishman named George Thomas. The fertile region of Punjab attracted invaders but the Sikh misls were constantly warring with each other over revenue collection and petty jealousies.

Ranjit Singh, who became the chieftain of his misl after his father’s early demise, rose in fame when in 1797, at age 17, he defeated the Afghan Muslim invader Shah Zaman, one of the descendants of Ahmad Shah Abdali. In 1798, the Afghan ruler dispatched another powerful army, which was defeated by Ranjit Singh with a different strategy: alluring the invaders to enter Lahore, he laid siege, blockading all food and supplies, burnt all crops and food sources, forcing the Afghan army to retreat in disarray after suffering huge losses.

This victory propelled Ranjit Singh’s rise from the status of a petty chieftain to become the king of a huge empire, which extended from Gilgit and Tibet to the deserts of Sindh and from the Khyber Pass to the Sutlej, annexing Kashmir and subjugating the turbulent Sikhs, Hindus and the Pathans of the North-West Frontier and Balochis of Multan province.

The popularity of Ranjit Singh is also based on his creating Punjabi nationalism, freeing them from the fear of foreign invaders and policies of secularism. However, he is guilty of the desecration of Muslim mosques like Lahore's Badshahi Mosque was converted into an ammunition store and horse stables. Lahore's Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) was converted into "Moti Mandir" (Pearl Temple) by the Sikh army, and Sonehri Mosque were converted into a Sikh Gurdwara. Lahore's Begum Shahi Mosque was also used as a gunpowder factory, earning it the nickname Barudkhana Wali Masjid (Gunpowder Mosque).9

Interestingly, of the total population living in Singh's kingdom, Muslims comprised 70%, Hindus around 24%, while Sikhs formed around 6-7%. The mighty Sikh ruler recruited men from different religions and races to serve in his army and his government in various positions of authority, which also included a few Europeans, but Singh refrained from recruiting Britons into his service, since he was wary of British expansionist designs.

In 1820, the Maharaja began to modernise his army, using European officers - many of whom had served in the army of Napoleon-I - to train the infantry and the artillery. The rebuilt Punjabi army fought well in campaigns in the North-West Frontier (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan), including quelling an uprising by tribesmen there in 1831 and repulsing an Afghan counterattack on Peshawar in 1837.

The crafty Maharaja did not refrain from also using the Afghans to keep the British at bay and sanctioned an expedition led by the Dogra commander Zorawar Singh that extended Ranjit Singh’s rule in the northern territories into Ladakh in 1834.

Yet he also maintained a diplomatic channel open with the British. In 1838, he cooperated with them in removing the hostile ruler of Afghanistan and agreed to a treaty with the British viceroy Lord Auckland to restore Shah Shuja to the Afghan throne in Kabul.

In pursuance of this agreement, the British army entered Afghanistan from the south, while Ranjit Singh’s troops ingressed through the Khyber Pass and participated in the victory parade in Kabul. The mighty Sikh ruler had gained possession of the 105.6 carat Koh-i-Noor - one of the largest cut diamonds in the world - from Shah Shuja in 1813 in return for his hospitality.

Although Ranjit Singh has been eulogized by British and other foreign historians, many Muslim scholars deride him for his debauchery, extensive indulgence in alcohol and opium but more so for his victory against Syed Ahmad Shaheed in 1831 in the Battle of Balakot, where the Sikh monarch used local Pathans to treacherously turn against the Islamic reformer, who wanted to free India of British occupation and Sikh rule.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh died on 27th June 1839 after reigning for four decades and almost immediately the cherished ideal of a strong Sikh state began to disintegrate because of Sikh internecine warfare, manipulated by the British.

The sad saga of his descendants speaks volumes for the machinations of the East India Company. After Ranjit Singh’s demise, the Sikh empire was ruled by Maharaja Kharak Singh, followed by Maharaja Nau Nihal Singh and Maharaja Sher Singh, who was assassinated in 1841. Thus, Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was not even a year old at his father’s death, was proclaimed the next King of the Sikh empire on September 16, 1843, at the tender age of five, and his mother Maharani Jind Kaur Aulakh ruled the kingdom on his behalf for a while.

From 1843 to 1845, the Sikh army was still formidable although the foreign officials in the army were dismissed from their posts. On December 13, 1845, the British declared war against the Sikh empire and defeated the Sikh army. Though Duleep Singh was retained as the figurehead Maharaja, the Council of Regency replaced Maharani Jind Kaur, who was imprisoned and exiled to Nepal.

In 1849, the Sikh empire lost the second Anglo-Sikh War, and Punjab was annexed to the British Empire. Duleep Singh had to not only surrender the Empire to the British, along with the Koh-i-Nur (which now adorns the crown of the British monarch) but he was also put into the secluded care of Dr John Login, a Scottish surgeon in British India, who motivated the 15 year old Duleep to convert to Christianity in 1853.

In late 1854, he was shifted to England and was introduced to the British Court of Queen Victoria, who treated him kindly, but the young Duleep Singh started to miss India and expressed his desire to go back but the East India Company Board did not permit it.

In 1855 the British Empire fixed an annual pension of £25,000 a year with the caveat that he would remain obedient to the British Government if he wanted to receive the pension. When Duleep was 18 years old, he wrote a letter to his mother, exiled in Kathmandu. In his letter, he expressed his desire that she should join him in Great Britain. The letter was intercepted by the British Authorities, and it could never reach his mother. Later, he tried again to contact her via an Indian named Pundit Nehamiah Goreh. However, the contact was intercepted again, and he was not allowed contact his mother again.

This time, Duleep had enough and decided to go himself. By that time, Maharani was virtually blind and in a frail state. The British Government came to the conclusion that she was no longer a threat and did not stop Duleep from meeting her.

Subsequently, he reconnected with his cousin Sardar Thakar Singh Sandhawalia and asked for his help to return to Sikhism. He wanted to return to India and revert to Sikhism, but his decision was not welcomed by the British. It would have been a major shock for the British Empire, and they decided to do everything in their power to stop him from leaving Britain.

On March 30, 1886, Duleep Singh lodged in a ship to sail back to India, but he was stopped by the British officials. Later, his cousin Sandhawalia helped him to return to Sikhism in the presence of Sikh Granthi Pratap Singh Giani in Aden. During that time, he tried multiple times to revolt against the British empire. He also sought support from Russians and others but could never achieve what he wanted to do.

At the age of 55, Maharaja Duleep Singh died in Paris in 1893; he was desirous of being buried in India. However, the British Government believed sending his body back to India would cause unrest as he was the son ofthe Lion of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Duleep Singh was buried in Britain in accordance with Christian rites despite the fact that he had returned to Sikhism. His grave is located on the west side of the Elveden Church. His mortal remains are still waiting for the day to return to India.

Multiple efforts have been made by Sikh leaders to bring back his remains but all efforts failed to reach a fruitful conclusion. He had married twice but none of his children are alive, thus perished the great Sikh Empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Sher-e-Punjab.

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst

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