The British instantly assessed that Ranjit Singh wasn’t to be messed around with and hence the cost of curbing or confronting him could be too high and unacceptable to Her Majesty’s subject-traders. The two Anglo-Sikh treaties showed the importance of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the eyes of emerging foreign landlords in Hindustan. Though it’s argued that he got checkmated by the treaties, the reality is that the ambitious British stood to lose more.
Will it be incorrect to suggest that between 1609, when the East India Company’s Captain Hawkins visited Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s durbar, and 1947, when India became independent, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (who ruled from 1799 to 1839) was the sole unconquered indigenous ruler in the post-medieval history of South Asia?
This article revolves around the warrior Ranjit Singh, whose death anniversary falls today, drawing a comparison with greats from the pages of history. He was born in 1780 to Raj Kaur and Maha Singh, the latter being chief of one of 12 Sikh misls (confederacies). Being the “worst of times” of turbulence, lawlessness and anarchy, the 12 Sikh misls separately had partitioned territories spanning from “the Jhelum to the Sutlej” in the Mughal empire’s twilight era. Having assembled at Amritsar and professing “Degh, Tegh, Fateh” (grace, power, rapid victory), the Sikhs further expanded from “Saharanpur, Attock and Multan to Kangra and Jammu”.
Understandably, this vast terrain didn’t belong to one single misl or dynasty per se, as all 12 misls had parcelled it out in accordance with individual convenience and opportunity. They had their own distinct identity: “Bhangi; Kanheya; Sukerchakia, Nakai; Faizullapuria; Ahluwalia; Ramgarhia; Dalewalia; Karora Singhia; Nishanwala; Sahid; Nihang and Phulkia”. Historians referred to them as “theocratic confederate feudalism”. However, as it so often happened in South Asian history, whenever the common threat receded, the thread sewing unity of indigenous coalition snapped owing to internal contradictions, differences, dissensions and disputes.
It goes to the credit of a precocious Ranjit Singh, certainly destiny’s child, that he organised the disunited brethren of the land to form a formidable and recognisable “Sikh national monarchy” from nowhere. Indeed, what actually could have been a familiar disaster before an equally familiar foreign invasion of Kabul’s Zaman Shah (1793-98), unexpectedly brought fortune to the young Sikh who had astutely rendered conspicuous services to the Afghan leader in the north-west of South Asia. Impressed by the tender-aged Ranjit Singh’s military and administrative acumen, the mesmerised foreigner appointed the local 19-year-old Sikh lad as the lord of Lahore, the epicentre and heart of Punjab.
The new star warrior of South Asia had arrived to cross swords with the very victors of the past who had ravaged Punjab for several hundred years. For the next four decades, foreign invasions of South Asia would be irreversibly repelled by the wonder-warrior of Punjab. Instead of Persians or Afghans moving all over and around Hindustan’s heartland, it was now the Sikh Maharaja’s turn to launch a counter-offensive with an assiduously crafted united garrison of a divided land, now mauling all.
Ranjit Singh became a one-man force taking on the forces of history. Citadel after citadel fell by the wayside as the unsheathed sword of the Sikh sovereign swayed and swerved over the alluvial soil of the Sutlej. Afghans in the north-west apart, the untrammelled moneyed merchant-military combine of Englishmen in mainland India was quick to take note of the Maharaja with alarm. They instantly assessed that Ranjit Singh wasn’t to be messed around with because he wouldn’t accept the “white man’s burden” philosophy ever, and hence the cost of curbing or confronting him could be too high and unacceptable to Her Majesty’s subject-traders.
Understandably, the two Anglo-Sikh treaties of Lahore (January 1806) and Amritsar (April 1809) showed the importance of the Maharaja in the eyes of the emerging foreign landlords in Hindustan. Though it’s argued that Ranjit Singh got checkmated by the treaties, the reality is that the adventurous and ambitious British who were outsiders had more to lose from the treaties than the son-of-the-soil Maharaja. The British always feared India’s north-west and their record reveals the propensity to avoid direct contact with the volatile tribals, preferring a buffer to give cover to their vulnerability and desired stability. Undoubtedly, the 29-year-old Ranjit Singh got a difficult terrain to traverse. Nevertheless, the Sikh warrior accomplished his goal with great elan; never shirking from facing the odds, however daunting, thereby treading and trampling upon those regions where none alone ever dare enter and entrench successfully, before or after.
Thus, whosoever faced the Maharaja fell before his fire and fury: Gurkhas (1809-11) lost Kangra; Afghans lost Attock (1813), Multan (1818), Kashmir (1819), Peshawar (1823), and virtually the whole of the Indus valley by 1834.
At its zenith, the Sikh empire covered an area of 5.2 lakh sq km and had a population of 1.2 crore — 84 lakh Muslims, 29 lakh Hindus and 7.25 lakh Sikh subjects, all co-existing and intact under the blood-and-iron sovereign warrior’s towering impact, without “divide” and “misrule”.
Could Ranjit Singh have gone further or done more? Gone for a direct combat against the British empire? There’s no answer because history doesn’t deal with “what would, if…?” History deals with “what, how, why, which, when, who, where”, like the counsel’s brief before the Bench. No speculation, no betting on the past. It’s history — as is, where is.
Now a few words about Indian warriors of different times, who all were indisputable heroes but couldn’t cross the “finishing line”. The 16th-century legend Maharana Pratap earned incredible glory but not victory. The 17th-century great Shivaji was a magnificent leader of men and a warrior par excellence. His task, too, remained unfinished. He died in 1680, 27 years before the death of the emperor (Aurangzeb) with whom he crossed swords all his life. And then, the 20th-century epic Bose-British saga imbued with lofty ideas, sterling qualities, grim determination and unmatched probity. Bose was discarded and made a pariah by his own political comrades even before leaving for a physical fight with the British. Why? Because Bose, like Ranjit Singh, didn’t believe in passivity. Hence, his fall was guaranteed before take-off in his own backyard. He trekked and sailed. Struck a deal with the fiery, fierce NRI patriots to fight the British. However, Bose too vanished into the vortex of history with the so-near-yet-so-far ‘Mission Delhi’ illusion. Thus, unlike the others, Ranjit Singh is the only one to die as an “unconquered conqueror of South Asian history”. Foreigners ruled over Indians in India, but none over Maharaja Ranjit Singh ever.