past present

Posted: January 7, 2009 in literature
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PAST PRESENT: The Other Side

Published: Jan. 04, 2009 Dawn
By Mubarak Ali

In the subcontinent, spirituals leaders belonging to different beliefs were considered to possess miraculous powers that could influence individuals or society.

The rulers therefore tried to either keep a close rapport with them or genuinely expressed their devotion to win their favour.

Ranjit Sing was a devout Sikh, but he respected Muslim saints as well as Hindu sadhus. Fakir Wahiduddin writes, “His visit to shrines of Muslim saints and Hindu temples were as much acts of faith as those to the Golden temple or to Taran Taaran. To all of them he gave donations, jagirs and presents with equal generosity.”

The ruler ordered repair of the tombs and shrines of Muslim saints that were in dilapidated condition. The mausoleum of Data Sahib was one of them. The sajadanashin or the supervisors of the shrines got regular salaries from the Sikh darbar. Ranjit Singh had great respect for the sajadanashin of Madhulal, SainSube Shah, and whenever he went for an expedition, he first paid his respect to the latter.

One such spiritual leader Shah Fida Hussain received Rs 200 monthly from the Maharaja. Mastan Shah was another such beneficiary and received Rs100 daily from the Sikh darbar. Following the traditions of Muslim rulers, Ranjit Singh also paid respect to the Sayyids.

The presence of people belonging to different religion at the court promoted the cultural life. This is what J.S. Grewal calls ‘cultural secularisation.’ All religious and seasonal festivals were celebrated with fervour and gaiety and freeom. Once, when the Akalis objected to Shia community’s taziya during the month of Muharram, Ranjit Singh interfered and allowed them to take out their procession as usual.

He participated in the Basant festival at the shrine of Madhulal and assigned jagir for the sustenance of the devotees quoting that although he was not like the rulers of Chughati dynasty, he was ready to help financially as much as he could.

The lion of the Punjab also patronised the institutions of the Arabic and Persian scholarships. One such institute was in Bazaar-i-Hakiman, which he financially supported by arranging for stipends for needy students. In another case, Charles Masson writes, “Although himself an illiterate, he has respect for acquirements in others, and when occasion presented itself during his first visit to Peshawar of showing his esteem for literature, he did not neglect it, and issued positive orders for the preservation of the extensive library of the Mussulman saint at Chamkanni.” On Ranjit Singh’s popularity, Masson writes, “He is equally popular with the generality of his subjects, and rules with an equal hand both Mussulman and Hindu. The only hardship of which the former complains is the interdiction of azan, or summons to prayers.”

It is argued that Ranjit Singh, by integrating all communities living in the Punjab, created a sense of Punjabi identity. This, according to Grewal, is reflected in the architecture, painting, and literature. “Only in this context can we appreciate Sawan Yar’s Sihafi sarkar ki praising the rule of Ranjit Singh, Jafar Beg’s Siharfi lamenting his death, and Hakam Sing’s Siharfi celebrating the exploits of Hari Singh Nalwa. Qadir Yar identified with the Punjabi ruling class against their Afghan opponents.”

As to how long this Punjabi identity survived, remains a controversial issue. According to history, it collapsed soon after Ranjit Singh’s death. It is evident that the pillars of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom depended on his person and not on a stable state institution. This caused the decline and eventually the end of the Sikh state.

In Furstenspiegel or Mirror of Princes literature (manuals which were written for the guidance of rulers), the rulers were advised to remain in touch with their subjects in order to know their grievances and not to hide themselves behind the walls of forts and palaces. Ranjit Singh, from the very beginning of his rule decided to be accessible to his subjects. In fact, whenever he went out, people were allowed to stop the Maharaja by shouting ‘Dohai Sarkar.’

Fakir Wahiduddin also published one of Ranjit Singh’s farmaan in which he had ordered that people of his kingdom should be protected. The farmaan mentions that, “You should not allow any high-handedness to be practised upon woodcutters, fodder-vendors, oil-vendors, hores-shoers, etc. In such case, you should also prevent the oppressor from oppression… so that every person’s rights are secured and no person is oppressed.”

Ironically, since Ranjit Singh spent most of his time fighting wars, his contemporary as well as modern historians focus their observations and research either on his wars or on his diplomacy rather than on his domestic policy. However, whatever material is available suggests that he was an unassuming, sagacious and a tolerant ruler.

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