Maharajah and his chief suspect

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 10, 2010

The year was 1829 and Maharajah Ranjit Singh was approached by an Afghan chief living near Rang Mahal inside the old walled city of Lahore. His daughter and the local mullah -- who taught her the Quran -- had secretly effected a 'nikah'. He wanted revenge. The Sikh ruler advised restraint.

The maharajah sent a Muslim scholar to understand the situation. The daughter was adamant and wanted to stick to her husband. The Sikh ruler called the Afghan chief and narrated an old Punjabi saying: “Every woman who runs away can be regained, except one who runs away with a maulvi”. He then informed the chieftain that he had a solution that would work wonders.

This particular Lahore mullah was called over and he was given the task of going to Kabul to buy a horse. What else was said is not known, but the very next day he sent the girl back to her father's house. History tells us she disappeared, probably killed by her family. The mullah set off for Kabul with an armed guard and was never heard of again. The Afghan chief who lived near Rang Mahal was satisfied.

It is a fact of history that Maharajah Ranjit Singh allowed men from all religions to rise to commanding positions of authority. This policy of merit above religion served him exceptionally well. His Christian mercenary generals led his forces skillfully, while Muslims commanded his artillery with exceptional distinction. To the Hindus he gave full control of the financial matters of the state. Genuine Muslim religious scholars of merit did well, and the Lahore Darbar afforded them the utmost respect.

In 1831, Maharajah Ranjit Singh sent a diplomatic mission to Simla to discuss “peace and co-operation” with the British Governor General, Lord William Bentinck. He informed them in advance that he was sending his 'taranga' – triangle, or three-coloured – team, “each sharper than the other”. The team consisted of Sardar _ HYPERLINK "" o "Hari Singh Nalwa" _Hari Singh Nalwa_ (a Sikh), _ HYPERLINK "" o "Fakir Aziz-ud-din (page does not exist)" _Fakir Azizuddin_ (a Muslim) and Diwan _ HYPERLINK "" o "Moti Ram (page does not exist)" _Moti Ram_ (a Hindu). He also informed the team that they were all equal, only, for the sake of diplomatic formality, “Hari Singh was more equal than the others”.

Before the discussions began, a British East India Company intelligence report (Punjab IR, 1829-39, pp 87) sent to the Governor General stated: “Externally, everyone in the Sikh kingdom looks alike; they support a beard and cover their heads with turbans, of different shapes and colours. It is most confusing to make out who is a Sikh and who is not. This is most confusing, for unlike the rest of _ HYPERLINK o “Hindustan” _Hindustan_, where religious and caste distinctions were carefully observed, Punjab seems free from such distinctions.

“The Sikhs are not known to force any of their inhabitants of the country they rule to convert to Sikhism. In fact, men of piety from all religions are equally respected by the Sikhs and their ruler. Hindu sadhus, yogis, saints and bairagis; Muslim fakirs and pirs; and Christian priests are all recipients of Sikh largess. There is only one exception — the Sikhs view the Muslim clergy with immense suspicion. Mullahs were not looked upon kindly, as they are known to fan fanaticism”.

The Sikh ruler was fond of saying: “Mullahs should all be sent to heaven, for once there they would fight over which one of them deserved to go to hell.”

It would be incorrect to believe that the Sikhs did not hold a grudge against the _ HYPERLINK "" o "Afghanistan" _Afghans_ for the atrocities perpetrated on them over decades. Before the Afghans, the Moghals, especially Emperor Aurangzeb, had hunted down the Sikhs like animals. The butchers of Lahore had in one week actually – ritually - slaughtered over 10,000 Sikhs in one week of savagery outside Delhi Gate. Every Sikh carried a price on his head. The Afghans had caused havoc during the lifetime of both Ranjit Singh's father and grandfather.

Despite this history of immense persecution, the Sikh period was a most tolerant one. According to Masson, a deserter from the British India Army who was to later become a Political Agent for the East India Company and stationed in Kabul: “At present, flushed by a series of victories, they (the Sikhs) have a zeal and buoyancy of spirit amounting to enthusiasm; and with the power of taking the most exemplary revenge, they have been still more lenient than the Mahomeddan were ever towards them”.

Sir _ HYPERLINK “” o “Alexander Burnes” _Alexander Burnes_, who travelled extensively through Punjab during Maharajah Ranjit Singh's rule, narrates the following incident, which occurred at the royal stud farm at Puttee: “The horses were attacked with an epidemic disease from which a Mohammedan, who resides in a neighboring sanctuary, is believed to have cured them. Though a Mohammedan, the Sikhs repaired and beautified his temple, which is now a conspicuous white building that glitters in the sun. I have always observed the Sikhs to be most tolerant in their religion…”

Once a British team visiting Lahore asked the maharajah as to why he disliked the Muslim mullah so much. His answer was simple: “Guru Nanak went to Haj and he also went to Baghdad, and his best friend was Mardana, and he tells us that with the coming of Islam, man became direct with the Almighty. In Islam there is no place for a mullah. He is a waster who loots his own flock”. The maharajah added: “Forget my opinion, just listen to what Bullay Shah says”.The happenings of 1947 saw the Sikhs caught in a situation where they were ejected from their lands and heritage. There is no doubt that they reacted with immense ferocity. In communal strife there are no winners. That is why the men who lead such communal strife need to be viewed with immense suspicion. That is probably why Maharajah Ranjit Singh's handling of the 'maulvi' has a lot of lessons for us today.

Bulley Shah so aptly reflected: “Mullah tay Bullah, aag tay pani, sirf Allah fani” – the mullah and Bullay Shah are like water and fire, in the end only the Almighty survives.




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