Review: “Empire of the Sikhs: The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh” – Patwant Singh and Jyoti M. Rai

Patwant Singh and Jyoti M. Rai’s “Empire of the Sikhs” tells the story of one of the most remarkable individuals in the history of the Indian subcontinent, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire.

Blinded in one eye from smallpox, Ranjit Singh first fought in a battle with his father when he was 10-years-old. In 1797, at the age of 17, Singh defeated the Afghan ruler Shah Zaman’s attempt to annex the Punjab. Singh again defeated a second Afghan attempt to annex the Punjab in 1798. By 1799, Singh had declared himself the Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.

Under the Maharaja the Sikh Empire successfully held in check British attempts to annex the whole of the Indian subcontinent. Far more remarkable than his numerous military victories, however, was the kind of state the Maharaja established. Under the Maharaja’s rule the Sikh state was a secular empire. The Maharaja built and restored numerous Sikh and Hindu temples and mosques, including platting the Hindu temple Kashi Vishwanath in one tonne of gold, and naming a mosque after his beloved Muslim wife, Moran Sarkar. The composition of the Maharaja’s government reflected his secularism: his Prime Minister was a Dogra, his Foreign Minister was a Muslim, his Finance Minister was a Brahmin Hindu, and his military included Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, and Christians, including a number of Polish, Russian, Spanish, British, and French officers, some of whom fought in the Napoleonic Wars. As the authors write in this book, “Ranjit Singh’s monarchical practice was more in keeping with democratic principles than democratic functioning in India today.”

In contrast to other rulers in the Indian subcontinent, the Maharaja also prohibited his army from looting conquered territories and massacring or otherwise harming the populace. “When a victorious Ranjit Singh rode into Peshawar after wresting it from the Afghans,” the authors write, the Maharaja “provided a striking contrast to Mohammed Ghori, Timur, Nadir Shah, Ahmed Shah Abdali [Durrani] and all the other blood-shedding armies down the centuries. He made it an ironclad rule that his armies would not indulge in carnage, nor burn holy books, nor destroy mosques. The civilian population could, with confidence, continue its daily activities as usual, and no women would be molested, nor men flayed alive.”

The book concludes with the death of the Maharaja, and British attempts to annex the Sikh Empire, culminating in the Anglo-Sikh Wars and British imperialism’s plundering of the Punjab’s wealth.

An excellent book about a remarkable man!

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