The recent installation of a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) at Lahore Fort, from where he ruled large parts of northwestern India, may have caused a flutter in both sides of Punjab, but, in Pakistan, this unprecedented event has triggered a debate. Among the many questions being raised is why an Islamic Republic is celebrating a ruler who represented only one of the three main streams of 18th century Punjab – Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.
Sculpted locally, the statue has been financed by a UK-based Sikh organisation. It was unveiled as Pakistan, coaxing India to work out a corridor/passage to the Kartarpur Sahib Sikh shrine, was unable to get New Delhi to agree to a larger bilateral dialogue.
Pakistani Punjab’s Tourism Minister, Raja Yasir Humayun Sarfraz, was present at the event. Pakistan’s federal minister for science and technology, Fawad Chaudhary, tweeted: “Today is the 180th death anniversary of #MaharajaRanjeetSingh greatest king of The Punjab, one-eyed Maharaja ruled from Kabul to Delhi with belligerence, symbol of Punjabi supremacy. Maharaja will be remembered for reforms in the Governance.” Ch Fawad Hussain
Questioning the tweet’s ‘celebratory’ tone, Ali Usman Qasmi, a Lahore-based academic, pointed out “factual errors” in the minister’s message. Ranjit Singh did rule large parts of undivided Punjab, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, but never ruled in either Kabul or Delhi.
The Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) decided to install the statue without wider consultation. Qasmi believes the motive is commercial, as tourists are expected to pay to see it. Opinion is divided on what type of message would be going out from Pakistan by celebrating the reign of a non-Islamic ruler whom many view as having oppressed the Muslim community.
Qasmi points to conflicting narratives in Punjab. For some, mostly Sikhs, Ranjit Singh was “a local hero —a ‘son of the soil,’ unlike Mughals, Turks, Iranians and others — who successfully thwarted aggressors from the north and established a strong centralised government that provided relief to the people of Punjab, after decades of chaos and violence.”
But the counter-narrative denounces the Sikh rule “as an era of darkness in which Muslims were persecuted and their sacred sites were vandalised.”
It has been pointed out that painting the Maharaja as an oppressor of non-Sikhs is part of the British narrative to justify Punjab’s annexation. Also, his army had officers and soldiers from all three major communities and his court had administrators from other parts of India, particularly Hindus adept at administration, revenue and finance. Qasmi, however, says strong opinion in Pakistan rejects Ranjit Singh’s rule using the modern-day interpretation of it being ‘secular’.
He is not surprised that “this adulation for Ranjit Singh is most common among the Sikhs in India and the wider diaspora, who recognize him as the embodiment of Sikh political power.” His rule is part of the “nostalgia for Sikh empire and heritage.”
It is seen as a Sikh attempt to resurrect a glorious past since, Qasmi says, “the Partition set into motion a series of setbacks for Sikhs. They lost material wealth and were uprooted from the land they held sacred and relocated to a part of Punjab where an uneasy relationship with the Hindu majority followed.”
He observes that “Punjabi sense of nationhood has been sublimated within the larger Pakistani nationalism conflating Islam, Muslim and Urdu… Punjabi nationalists in Pakistan, however, have been jubilant as they see the installing of the statue a symbolic act of recognition from a state that, despite its domination by Punjabi elite, has been oblivious to the history and language of Punjab.”
For Pakistan’s conservatives, Ranjit Singh’s inclusion sits uneasily with a historical timeline which, simultaneously, champions the exploits of Ahmad Shah Abdali. Widely hailed as a ‘saviour’ of the Muslims of Punjab from the excesses of Sikh and Maratha violence in the mid-18th century (after the third battle of Panipat), Pakistani textbooks pay lavish tribute to his military campaigns and services to the ‘glory of Islam’ — in fact, one of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles is named after Abdali. Pakistani textbooks also record the jihad led by Sayyid Ahmad against the Sikh rule.
For Pakistanis who celebrate Muhammad bin Qasim, Mohammed Ghaznavi and Mohammed of Ghor, this valorising of the maharaja amounts to othering or slighting of the Afghan who is integral to their contemporary history and, with Pathan citizenry, of national identity. The Afghan is painted as a savage. If that is the case, goes the argument, the “Afghan savagery” could only be matched by “a noble savage” (Ranjit Singh) who “was able to give them a taste of their own medicine.”
Taking this argument further, they view the “Punjabi nationalists” as supporters of the province’s military culture that prospered during Ranjit Singh’s era and still prevails in Pakistan. The Punjabi-dominated military and bureaucracy in contemporary Pakistan are “villains”, responsible for the misery of every other ethnic group. The Imran Khan government is promoting “Punjabi chauvinism,” they argue.
If Punjab can be “chauvinistic” why not Pakistan’s other regions, which have been at Punjab’s receiving end? In a Seraiki national identity in post-colonial Punjab, Muzaffar Khan assumes the role of a ‘freedom fighter’ for resisting “Punjabi aggression.” The same holds true for Sindh, where a section of hardcore nationalists glorify Raja Dahir — the ruler of Sindh defeated by Muhammad bin Qasim — as a hero.
These responses could be interpreted as an effective way of subverting statist narratives glorifying Muslim rulers and invaders. Such an approach, and the elusive search in the history of strong men as heroes, is the regressive consequence of authoritarian state practices in Pakistan, Qasmi writes.
The way things are in Pakistan today, those celebrating Ranjit Singh, or those demanding recognition for Ahmad Shah Abdali for the Pashtuns, Nawab Muzaffar Khan for the Seraikis and Raja Dahir for the Sindhis, are vying for an imperial legacy under the regalia of a sovereign with whose politics they agree, who conforms to their present-day ethnic imagery or whose religious beliefs they share. Is this part of the search for identity by a nation, 72 years after the British created it?