History has a host of strange and funny ways to remind us of its lessons. Two peculiar sayings characterize the beauty of it: first, winners write history, and second, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. While both of these sayings in the first instance do come across as patently disparate, they delve at length into the importance history carries with it.
History deserves a lot more importance than its meagre presence in textbooks waiting to be mugged up or merely being ridiculed as a pastime to study in free times. It holds within itself a massive potential of introspection and critical analysis for everyone to take a cue from. It gives an ocean of perspectives to compare the fallibility of present discourse by digging deep into the past. It is attributable to the study of history that generations can build around the normative idea of a nation, society, and paramountcy of humanity by ruling out the ills which have plagued its spirit.
Perhaps for this very reason, some characters and figures, through the labyrinth of history, remain etched in our minds, doing the job of implicitly guiding nuances of statehood and navigating through uprisings against tyranny.
Particularly this weekend, I was reminded of Punjab’s Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who has made such an impact at the advent of the nineteenth century on the history of the Indian subcontinent that he remains an enigma for time immemorial. The political landscape of Punjab, which he had set his eye on to conquer at that time was ruled by segmented and ruthless ‘Misls’ for a long time. He rose from a small chieftain to the most powerful Indian King of his time. He can rightly and uncannily be compared to his contemporary Napolean Bonaparte of France, for he gave all the reasons to the British colonizers to have sleepless nights making assumptions about his prowess.
Though illiterate, he administered his kingdom with astute knowledge, wit, bravery, and an unparalleled sense of judgment of the people around him. His rule is remembered for his ability to promote a strong feeling of Punjabi nationalism not only amongst Sikhs in Punjab but also in Punjabi Hindus and Musalmans. His cabinet included three Hindus, two Muslims, one Sikh, his kingdom comprising of 7% Sikhs. At the same time, he focused on revitalizing his forces by training them on lines of French Warfare techniques.
Certainly an incredibly progressive and visionary leader for his time! His impeccable military command is revered through his chosen military commander Hari Singh Nallua who was perhaps the only person to have laid siege on Afghanistan, a hotbed of fierce and unwinnable resistance with a complex interplay of global powers of its own. It was a perpetual source of external aggression and pillage for India more so for Punjab, for it lied at the crucial juncture connecting the two sides.
Ranjit Singh’s kingdom stretched from Khyber Pass along the Suleiman range in the west up to the Sutlej River in the southeast. It included Kashmir, Ladakh, and extended to Tibet in the far north. It roughly comprised of what is now present in Pakistan, part of present Punjab and Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and Tibet regions. He grasped over what can be called a geopolitical amalgamation of Pan India, instilling it with a lost sense of native central control.
For Ranjit Singh, nationalism was based on equality for all, which he relentlessly pursued to imbue within his masses. Once someone inquired about the fact that he had just one eye to which he thoughtfully replied,” God intended me to look upon all religions with one eye; that is why he took away the light from the other.” He took forward the message of Sikh Gurus, which was to preach equality and rationality. He was instrumental in cementing true Punjabi identity of the unity of all on the Indian map after years of brutalities on Sikhs fugitives who had no independent political voice or autonomy.
The tumultuous discourse of Indian history has proved that those rulers who practised secular and democratic principles in their administration consolidated their kingdoms on lines of true nationalism. While bigoted zealots have not only been infamous giving abundance of humiliation, but they also lay down disturbing foundations of destruction and divide leading to ultimate ruin of their vast empires, either within their lifetimes or soon afterwards. On the contrary, Emperor Akbar the Great and Maharaja Ranjit Singh stand out as quintessential leaders to have personified the ethos and bedrock on which Indian civilization has rested for centuries. Rightly so, the Maharaja of Punjab has been voted as the greatest ruler of all time by BBC World’s History Magazine 2020, leaving behind my favourite Abraham Lincoln.
What is more prompting is that the Maharaja’s enduring principles of strengthening the secular fabric and equality before the law have garnered more prominence and relevance now, more than in his times!