by: Shafqat Tanwir Mirza

Dawn Lahore Edition


THE Indian government has refused to permit the Sikhs to visit Pakistan to celebrate traditional Besakhi festival in Lahore where their only political hero, Ranjit Singh, became Maharaja in 1802 at the age of 22. Incidentally, Besakhi in the Punjab took a political colour after the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy in Amritsar in 1919. This tragedy for the first time invited air strafing of civilian population particularly in the districts of Gujranwala and Lahore, which were Muslim majority areas.

In March, Fiction House organized a one-day seminar on the period and person of Maharaja Ranjit Singh which was addressed by eminent scholars, including Umar Kamal Khan from Multan. According to Mr Khan, it was the misrule of the previous groups of the regional Sikh rulers which had earned a bad name for them.

The historical fact is that there was a permanent clash between the Mughals of Delhi and the Pathans of Kabul such as Ahmad Shah, and also a clash between the Sikhs and the Mughals since Emperor Jehangir's reign. The third triangle of this clash was the enmity between the Sikhs and the Afghans. Rulers owing allegiance to Kabul had established their authority in all the areas in the Punjab. Nadir Shah, in response to the assistance given to him by the Abbasis or Kalhoras of Shikarpur helped them to migrate to Bahawalpur where they established their own state. Nadir Shah was followed by Ahmad Shah Abdali who established Afghan-Pathan rule in Multan and Nawab Muzaffar Khan belonged to a dynasty loyal to Kabul. Both these areas were independent of Delhi. There was misrule all over the provinces of Lahore and Multan, Peshawar and Sirhind and neither the Kabul rulers nor the Mughals could provide good governance to the people of the Punjab. The same was the case with the areas under Nawab of Bahawalpur and Nawab Muzaffar Khan because they could not fully extend their cooperation to the Afghan rulers to maintain their hold over the Peshawar and Lahore provinces.

The overall situation in the north-western and southern subcontinent was chaotic. Sindh was first ruled by the Kalhoras followed by the Baloch mirs and the Afghans were very much there from Nadir Shah to Abdali and later, to Shah Shuja to add to the turmoil. Before the emergence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the political division in the subcontinent was: Ali Vardi Khan had freed Bengal, Asif jab had taken Hyderabad Deccan and established an independent state there while self-rule was conceded to the Marhattas by the Mughals themselves. The eastern part of what is now UP, had become another independent Muslim state with Lucknow as its capital. The provinces of Peshawar, Lahore and Sirhind were virtually under Afghan control and their rulers should have established independent states of their own as had been done in Bengal, the Deccan and by the Marhattas.

The tussle was between local and foreign forces. The Muslims of the Punjab were neither taken into confidence by the ruling Mughals nor did the latter train the Punjabi Muslims in state management. Thus it were the fighting Sikhs who organized themselves after suffering great losses at the hands of the rulers of Kabul and Delhi and in that way, they qualified to become the rulers of the Punjab and this had to be accepted by Zaman Shah, the grandson of Ahmad Shah Abdali who on services rendered by Raja Ranjit Singh had ordered: "You are permitted to go and occupy Lahore (which was already under three Sikh rulers) and establish your self in the government of the Punjab. No ruler or governor from us will ever molest you." Ranjit Singh got this authority at the age of 19 and within no time he threw out the sitting rulers who were his co-religionists. The Sikh "Burchhagardi" was attributed to those ruler.

Now the first tussle was between Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs who were ruling supreme in northern, central and east Punjab and most of them were wiped out. All had to pay a certain amount as revenue or as tribute to the Lahore Darbar. It was a question of Raja Ranjit Singh's state and not of religion which forced him to look towards the south and the West where there were small Muslim princelings and the Nawab of Bahawalpur and Nawab Muzaffar Khan of Multan, had both pledged in writing that they would regularly pay a portion of their revenues to Ranjit Singh. It was almost 18 years after his accession to power in Lahore that the Nawabs of Multan and Bahawalpur created some obstacles in making their payments. This enraged the Maharaja, who was assured by the Kabul rulers that there would be no interference in his personal affairs. Now the clash between the forces of one state with those of the other was inevitable and one of them was destined to fail. This clash had nothing to do with religion.

The Nawab of Bahawalpur was wiser: he struck a bargain with the British across the Sutlej to be safe and for that he had paid in 1857 when he had extended full support to the British against the Muslim rulers of Delhi. Before that, the Nawab had militarily supported the British in 1849 in the battle against Mulraj, the governor of Multan.

Umar Kamal Khan talked exhaustively about the pattern of governance of the Sikh rulers before Ranjit Singh and by Ranjit Singh through his governor Diwan Sawan Mal. Most of the speakers pointedly referred to the secular behaviour of the Maharaja in statecraft.