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The early years of the 19th century witnessed the power of the Durrani declining. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was encroaching the Afghan Kingdom and the Maharaja was eager to avail himself of any opportunity to snatch the rich province from the Durranis, the rulers of Afghanistan.

An opportunity came to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, when he annexed Attock in 1813 from the Afghans. But his initial attempts of 1814 and 1815 to seize Kashmir failed miserably. But then another opportunity arrived in 1819 when a Kashmiri Pandit, Birbal Dhar, a revenue collector of the Valley under the Afghans, escaped first to Jammu and then to Lahore and urged the Sikh ruler to free the Kashmiris from the Afghan’s oppression.

Sikh forces under the command of Missar Diwan Chand and properly guided by Birbal Dhar and Mian Gulab Singh invaded the Valley in 1819 A.D. Jabbar Khan the acting Governor of Kashmir collected his troops and faced the Sikh army but he failed to stop the onslaught of the Sikh forces.

Jabbar Khan was defeated and his remaining forces returned to Srinagar. In the darkness of night, the Afghan Governor and his forces left Kashmir by the Baramulla Muzaffarabad route heading for Kabul. After their victory under the command of Missar Devan Chand and Phula Singh Akali the Sikh forces halted at Shopian.

The Sikh recover Kashmir

On 15 July, 1819, the victorious Sikh army entered Srinagar. The commanders of the victorious army were personally ordered by the Sikh ruler that they should take special care for the safety and the security of the inhabitants of Kashmir and also see that no harm or injury be made to any individual.

Contrary to the victorious forces of the previous rulers the Sikh forces on entering the city of Srinagar did not harm any civilian, spoil their honour nor loot the property of the rich shopkeepers. This was a new experience for the Kashmiris as previously, their property was looted and their honour despoiled on every occasion at the hand of the victors.

The conquest of Kashmir was a significant addition to the Sikh kingdom because of the strategic position of the Kashmir valley which could give protection to the kingdom of Punjab from the North. It was also the richest province second only to Multan. Maharaja Ranjit Singh desired to visit the Kashmir valley but could not enjoy the beauties of the charming Valley because he remained too busy in the expansion and administration of his kingdom.

Maharaja visits a few places in Kashmir

However, he visited Purmandal and Jammu in 1822 and made lavish offerings at Purmandal to the Hindu temples and persons connected with their up-keep. He also took a holy bath at Purmandal. In Jammu he donated money to the keepers of the most beautiful garden in Jammu, the Garden of Muglani Begum. He also visited a Thakurdwara in Mubarak Mandi, the palaces of the Dogra rulers, a Dharamshalla in Panjtirthi and a Muslim Fakir named Ali Shah making many cash offerings.

The Maharaja ruled Kashmir through his Nazims (Governors) and revenue farmers, most of the Governors whose tenure of office was about two years were either recalled for mal-administration or for non fulfilment of their engagements.

The secular rule

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was secular and liberal in his political and religious affairs. “His visits to the shrines of Muslims, saints and Hindu temples were as much acts of faith as those to Harminder Sahib or to Taran Taran”. He not only paid visits to those shrines but also he gave liberal donations and assigned Jagirs for their maintenance and to support free kitchens.

This was his policy which enabled each community to observe their religious practices with freedom, but there are exceptions when he acted contrary to his liberal and secular attitude because of political compulsions. To make his subjects happy, he and the members of the royal family used to take part alike in Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religious festivals.

Maharaja attends Id-ul-Fitr

It is said that the Maharaja, on a few occasions, was even present at Id-ul-Fitr and during Muharram. In this way, he gained the goodwill of his subjects and their support on important occasions, especially when he had to launch campaigns against contemporary rulers of other faiths. As such, all the communities looked upon him not only as their well wisher and protector but as one of themselves.

Another reason for his great popularity enjoyed by him was that after conquering new territories he did not turn out their former rulers whether they were Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs with ignomity like other rulers of his time had done, but granted them Jagirs and considerable provisions for their maintenance.

The public welfare and secular attitude of Maharaja Ranjit Singh towards his subjects, irrespective of caste and creed, resulted in a communal harmony among all the various religious communities.

Large donations made

The Maharaja perceiving his death near donated many pieces of Gold and many lakhs of coins among his subjects and his Kingdom's institutions. As a Sikh most of the Hindu rites connected with an approaching death were not performed for the Maharaja, but his hair was, however, washed with curd and water from the Ganga. Being a devout and true Sikh, his last desire was to donate the world famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, the Maharaja had worn on his left arm in a golden band, to the temple of Lord Jagannath. But his desire could was not fulfilled due to his sudden departure from this world. Raja Dhian Singh his Prime Minister, himself a Hindu, opposed this lavish gift to the Hindu Temple.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh's religious policy towards his subjects, his treatment towards vanished Rajas and rulers, his compassion for the poor, for widows and needy persons and his encouragement and support to education and teaching indicates that inspite of being an autocratic ruler, his policies were, never the less, foresighted and ahead of his time.

One should be cautious when comparing his liberal and secular policies towards his subjects with the conditions of the people which preceded the establishment of his rule over Punjab and Kashmir with those which prevailed during his rule.

See also

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