During my visit to Pakistan in 1983 I was pleasantly surprised to find that the people there regarded Ranjit Singh as "their" king in whose reign Punjab regained its lost glory. The guide at Lahore Fort described Ranjit Singh as the bravest and the most benevolent king of the 19th century. He said that the Punjab peasantry still remembered the king in whose rule the strong were just and the weak secure. A book entitled "The Real Ranjit Singh" by a Pakistani historian, Syed Fakeer Waheeduddin, the great grandson of Fakeer Azizuddin, Maharaja's Foreign Minister, brings out the secular character of the Maharaja giving very intimate facts based on family records and archives. According to the book the Maharaja is fondly remembered by one and all, not only by people who once lived there but also by those who still reside there. Even during his conquests he was regarded more as a liberator than a conqueror as at Peshawar, Multan or Kashmir. Wherever the soldiers of Ranjit Singh went they were treated as friends, not foes. Maharaja's standing orders to his armies were that during their movement, no religious place, no religious book, no place of learning, no standing crop was to be destroyed and no woman dishonoured.
Capital punishment was abolished. "Never was so large an empire built with so little criminality", says Princep. The Maharaja is not known to have taken anybody's life although his own life was attempted at more than once. His special care for the 'Kisan' (farmer) and the 'Jawan' (soldier) made Punjab a very livable place. The result was that people from Delhi, UP and Rajasthan came and settled in Punjab. George Keene, a very keen observer of the Punjab scene, states: "In hundreds and in thousands the orderly crowds stream on. Not a bough is broken of a wayside tree, not a rude remark to a woman". Writing sixty years after the Maharaja's death, Griffin said: " His name is a household word in the province. His portrait is preserved in the castle and in the cottage alike." Jacquemont, the French botanist who came from Paris to Punjab in search of roses and who met the Maharaja, said, "His conversation is a nightmare. He passes from one subject to another with the speed of a tornado. He remembers by heart the names of all the villages of his empire, the village heads, the cash crops, the flora and the fauna." He was a modern mind unfettered by nationalities, religion and faiths, an internationalist who looked much beyond his frontiers.
The French visitor called Ranjit Singh "the first inquisitive Indian" who completely identified himself with the joys and sorrows of his people. Magnanimous to the fallen foe and generous to the injured and the insulted, Ranjit Singh was the last Indian king in whose reign the common man felt real freedom. The repartee and the freedom of speech that existed in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh could be the envy of any parliamentary forum.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was one of those rare rulers who remained humane even on the battlefield. He possessed an informal yet a disciplined mind, with a hilarious yet an equable temperament, humorous yet not given to levity. A man of unusual presence of mind and exceptional balance, he could surprise even the wittiest Westerner. When Dr. Joseph Wolffe asked the Punjab ruler what was the easiest way to reach God, the shrewd king replied: "By immediately concluding an alliance with the East India Company!" His retorts were gentle, his humour pungent. A son of the soil, his humour was an integral part of the Punjabi character. Like all Punjabis he loved the banter and burlesque, yet suffered no fools.
When his Muslim wife formerly a courtesan, asked him where he was when the God Almighty was distributing beauty, the Maharaja twinkled his only eye and said: "I had gone in search of a kingdom." And what a great kingdom he established. During his 40-year rule there was not a single communal riot in his kingdom, no forced conversion, no second-class citizenry, no disrespect to a shrine or a mosque. On the other hand he donated several mounds of gold for the Vishwanath Temple at Benares and Saraswati Mandir at Kurukshetra. He gave liberal grants to mosques and the Madarsas (Muslim schools). He was a far-sighted man who made many Punjabis learn English. He established the first printing press in Gurmukhi (Punjabi language script) at Lahore. He respected talent and asked the Punjabi traders to go abroad and trade with other nations. He thus freed Punjab from the slavery of eight centuries, brought peace and prosperity to the land of five rivers. The ravaged fields smiled once again, Punjab once again became the cherished "golden sparrow".
Maharaja Ranjit Singh had a tender heart. He released the young cub, which he had caged with care. Asked why he said: "The lioness, the cub's mother, had been crying and wailing throughout the night. I could not bear the cries of a mother." Nobody could shoot a sailing swan or hurt a singing nightingale. With the onset of Monsoon he would order a 102-gun salute to the rising moon. No king anywhere had done it before or ever since.
The Indian Prince of Hyderabad, the Nizam, extended his hand of friendship to him and sent enormous gifts. The Kings of Nepal, Burma, the Czar of Russia and the Emperor of France wanted their embassies to be established at Lahore. When Fakeer Azizuddin, Maharaja's emissary, was asked by Lord Auckland at Simla which of the Maharaja's eyes was missing", he replied: "The Maharaja is like the Sun. Sun has only one eye. The splendour and the luminosity of his single eye is so much that I have never dared to look at the other eye!" Lord Auckland was so pleased with the reply that he gave his wristwatch to Maharaja's emissary as a present.
No wonder that when he fell seriously ill in the summer of 1839 there were continuous prayers, non-stop recitations in the temples, the mosques and the Gurudwaras for the recovery of their own 'Badshah' (King).
On 27th June, 1839, he breathed his last. He died 159 years ago. But he is still the ruler of the mind of Punjab, nay the whole of India.
The author, a historian, is a freelance writer.
Source: India Perspective