Nature of Ranjit Singh’s Monarchy
Ranjit Singh was a monarch but his monarchy was different in nature from what is understood generally. He was not an autocrat, not amenable to any suggestion or not-responsive to the needs of his subjects. He did not believe in the dictum “King is always right and commits no mistake”.
The monarchy of Ranjit Singh had many peculiarities. He preferred to sit in a chair rather than on the throne while holding his durbar. The throne on which the Mughal emperor used to sit while in Lahore was still there but Ranjit Singh decided not to sit on it. In his reckoning, nothing on the throne was an expression of equality and self assertion besides bringing nostalgic memories of Muslim rulers in the mind of Muslim subjects. Nor did Ranjit Singh want to give impression that he was a vice regent of the Mughal Emperor because throne was one of the most important items of the royal regalia of the Mughal emperors. Ranjit Singh’s decision signified that he was a founder of entirely new kingdom which derived its legitimacy from Panth Khalsa ji and its concept was rooted in Sikh ideology.
In the matter of using the Chair too, he was not punctilious for there were occasions when he would hold Durbar sitting on a carpet with a velvet cushion at the back, Ranjit Singh’s head dress also was a plain chieftain’s turban and there was no special emblem as a mark of royalty. His dress was extremely simple as compared with the gorgeous dress of his courtiers. His usual clothing was made of plain silk or Kashmiri cloth nor did he adorn himself with ornaments except on special occasions when he would put on the pearls or a string of diamonds. The Kohinoor was worn on rare occasions.
In his conduct of business at the court, no special ceremonies were performed. There was informal atmosphere in the court. There was, however, no disorderliness and no body was allowed to speak unless he was asked to do so.
The most distinct feature of Ranjit Singh’s monarchy was that he did not recognize the age-long theory that “King can do no wrong; he is infallible”. In the contemporary world, in the east or in the west, this concept held its sway. The Mughal emperors, who professed Islam and claimed to subscribe to the Islamic theory of kingship according to which they were to obey the Islamic Laws, regarded themselves Khalifa of the age and vice regent of prophet Mohammad who in turn was the vice regent of God and they held an exalted position from where they could easily get the experts of the Quranic law to give verdicts in their favour.
Ranjit Singh never had such exalted pretentions. He believed that kingship was the gift and he got it as He had considered him fit enough. He considered himself servant of the Khalsa rather than head of it, much less the vice-regent of Gurus or God.
He had no reservation to declare that he, like all mortals, was fallible; his orders were not immutable and could be modified or amended.
He often considered himself as a trustee of the peoples’ welfare. He believed that God had assigned him the responsibility to take care of the people. How assiduously did he follow the idea of Divine Trusteeship, can be guaged from his instructions to Dal Singh, the Thanedar of Jalandhar in 18321and Misr Beli Ram in 1838.2
Dal Singh was strictly warned that he should collect revenue only when he was sure that his step would not be a discomfort to the peasants as they were marvelous creations of God. Similar instructions he gave to Misr Beli Ram.
In this context Diwan Amar Nath says, “Ranjit Singh always remembered that the state is like the calling of a shepherd and that it is obligatory for rulers to be vigilant so that every living being may live in peace......”
Such an attitude of Ranjit Singh sprang from his faith in Sikh ideology as propagated by Guru Nanak and his successors. The Gurus’ principle of Dharma (Moral law) and the concept of universal man were among the fundamentals of Sikh conceptual framework. Guru Nanak in his composition ‘Japu’ has succinctly put that earth was Dharamsal (abode of Dharma or marality)3 and hence everyone was obligated to follow the tenets of morality.
Guru Gobind Singh like his predecessor Gurus followed suit but in terms of intensity, his exhortations were conspicuous. He declared emphatically that he had taken birth primarily to uphold and disseminate Dharma implying that the mission of his life was the promotion of Dharama. In this perspective, it is not irrelevant to hold that the kings were also expected to be moralists in their functions and responsibilities. “Raj Dharma’ in Sikh ideology could not claim exemption from moral Dharma.
Another hall mark of Sikh ideology was “there is no Hindu or Musalman”. Ranjit Singh did not recognize religious, regional or caste divisions. According to him whether anyone was a Muslim, Hindu, Brahmins or Kharti, Vaish or Sudra, he was a member of the same family of mankind and hence could legitimately lay claim equal to the most exalted. No surprise, Ranjit Singh’s kingdom was administered by people belonging to all sections of people.
Monarchs in the east or in the west often presented themselves as the one deified, Ranjit Singh instead humanized monarchy. Ranjit Singh's monarchy may be called ‘People’s Monarchy’ embodying Sikh moral values. Such a monarchy was a fresh brand, at once unique and never thought of before in the medieval age either in the east and in the west.
Being a servant of the Khalsa rather than head of the Khalsa or even the vice regent of the Gurus, much less the vice regent of God claiming any divine status, he had no hesitation in declaring his orders could be subjected to scrutiny by his subordinates and amended if necessary. Relevant portions from two orders of the Maharaja in Persian issued in 1825 and 1831 respectively are given below by way of illustration of the above point.
1. Order issued4 to Fakir Nuruddin on 31 Bhadon 1882 Sambat (September 1825) contained these words:
“It is hereby declared by His Highness with the utmost emphasis that no person in the city should practice high-handedness and oppression on the people. Indeed, even if His Highness himself should issue an inappropriate order against any resident of Lahore, it should be clearly brought to the notice of His Highness so that it may be amended.”
2. Order issued5 to Fakir Nuruddin and Sardar Amir Singh on 19 Poh 1888 Sambat (January 1831) states among other things:
“By the grace of Sri Sat Guru ji the exalted command is issued to you that deeming yourselves to be responsible for the security of Lahore, you should take care of the duties pertaining thereto. Sri Sat Guruji forbid, if His Highness, his beloved son Kharak Singh Ji, Kanwar Sher Singh ji, the Raja Kalan Bahadur, Raja Suchet Singh ji or Jamadar ji should commit any inappropriate act, you should bring it to the notice of His Highness.”
The nature of the rule of the Maharaja was not theocratic, as some of the scholars are prone to assume. Theocracy implies a form of government in which God or deity is recognized as the king or immediate ruler and His laws as conveyed through particular religious book are taken as statutes of the kingdom. The Maharaja did not fulfill any one of the conditions to warrant the name of theocracy for his state. Besides, he never gave political powers to priestly order which is the essential condition of theocracy.
In this context, a question can be generally asked as to why Ranjit Singh chose ‘monarchy’ as the form his government. He had to do so because under the prevailing circumstances, there was no other choice left for him.
Before the Maharaja assumed kingship, Misl polity was prevailing, according to which Sarbat Khalsa met at Akal Takht and took decisions called Gurmatas. These decisions were conveyed to the whole Khalsa and were followed by the Khalsa considering these as the commandments of the Gurus. This polity reigned supreme when the Khalsa had to wage struggle against their inveterate enemies such as the Mughals and Ahmed Shah Abdali. The Danger to their existence tapered off after 1765 with the conquest of Sirhind by the Khalsa. In the wake of this, Sardars/Misldars occupied different parts of the Punjab and began to rule as independent rulers, confining their interests to their territories. In the process, they began to act as despots and engaged themselves in conspiracies and intrigues. The upshot was the Misal polity which had for quite a long time served as an adhesive turned disintegrative and irrelevant. Under such conditions Ranjit Singh had to bid adieu to that system, and adopted monarchy as a form of government, but being a farsighted person, he added new vistas to its shape, and named it “Khalsa Brand of Monarchy” to be run by a monarch whose mind was infused with Sikh value system.
1. Sohal Lal, Umat-ut-Twarik, Daftor III
2. Ibid., Daftor III, Part VI, p 452.
3. Guru Nanak, Jup, Rati Ruti , Thitwar Pawan Pani Agni Patal Tis vich Dharti Thap Rakhi Dharamsal, p.
4. A Photostat copy of this order in the original is given in Waheed-ud-Din’s book, The Real Ranjit Singh, facing p. 30.
5. Ibid., p. 32.
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