Sikh-Muslim Relations in the Post-Ranjit Singh Period, 1839-1849: A Reappraisal.


Byline: Robina Shoeb, Anum Iftikhar and Muhammad Hameed


Sikh power in the Punjab underwent an unpredictable and rapid decline during the period under discussion. Within a decade four rulers, namely Kharak Singh, NauNihal Singh, Sher Singh and Dilip Singh, held power, but none of them could prevent the fall of the Sikh empire caused by both internal and external threats. After the demise of Ranjit Singh in 1839, a war of succession started among his heirs.1 Internal disputes and political hostilities severely weakened the state. The British East India Company cunningly exploited this opportunity and waged wars against the Sikhs to realize their long-held dream of taking over the Punjab in 1849.

Unlike Ranjit Singh, his successors lacked political sagacity and leadership qualities. They were more interested in securing their rule than strengthening the state.2 The Punjabis were divided and the court split into a number of groups. The Dogra Hindus stood up against the Sikhs and started challenging their power. However, Muslims mostly remained indifferent to all these developments during the early years of the decade.3 In this crisis and struggle for the survival of Sikh rule, the Muslims remained loyal citizens and showed no sign of revolt; similarly, the state did not deprive the Muslims of their fundamental rights. However, the British and their Hindu allies were successful in capitalizing on the situation and were able to capture and merge the Punjab into the British Raj.

Therefore, an attempt has been made in this article to investigate how the Sikhs adopted their communal policy, particularly towards the Muslim community during this period, and how the Muslims reacted to the declining Sikh rule in the Punjab and their policies.

Sikh Rulers (1839-49)

On his death in 1839, Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed on to his successors a prosperous, peaceful and tolerant Punjab. For 40 years he had ruled the Punjab with a balance of ambition and patience. His ambition expanded the Khalsa Empire from Dera Ghazi (DG) Khan to Peshawar and Kashmir and his patience won him the support of the Akali warriors.

His foresight kept the British away from the Punjab and his fair conduct earned him the allegiance and loyalty of the Muslim majority in the Punjab. Despite the intricate socio-political history of the two communities, he skillfully handled the relationship between Sikhs and Muslims. He made mistakes, at times bad ones, but he corrected most and learned from them.

Yet within a few years of his death, all the hard-earned and cherished victories of the 'Lion of the Punjab' were wasted by his unscrupulous successors, and subsequently the Sikh kingdom fell to the British. In contrast to the reflections of many historians, the present author maintains that the Sikh monarchy founded by Ranjit Singh was 'Napoleonic in the suddenness of its rise, the brilliancy of its success and the completeness of its overthrow'.4

However, it was, indeed, shattered into pieces within10 years of his death.

Numerous factors were responsible for the decline of the Sikh rule in the Punjab. However, the present author identifies three key reasons. First is the disputed succession of Kharak Singh to the throne, which was not accepted or supported by many, including his own wife and son. In fact, Ranjit Singh himself seems to be mainly responsible for this uncertainty around the succession. Despite his being the eldest son, the obvious succession of Kunwar(Prince) Kharak Singh was not formally announced until the Maharaja was on his deathbed.5 This ambiguity and uncertainty encouraged the ambitions of the Prince's rivals, and Kharak Singh faced serious opposition and intrigues on his accession. From the first day, the Dogra brothers and his own son NauNihal Singh were conspiring against him and weakening his rule. Moreover, Ranjit Singh had done little to train the Prince to run the Khalsa state after his death.

Making no significant contribution to the strengthening of the Sikh kingdom, Kharak Singh was no match for the political and administrative wisdom and even physical strength of his father, his rival Sher Singh, his brother or NauNihal Singh, his son. In short, the selection of Kharak Singh as ruler of the Punjab was not a wise decision. The second reason flowed from the first. The dispute around the succession weakened the Sikh hold on the state and resurrected a deeper political issue, the old antagonism between various courtiers, chieftains and families, mainly Sikhs and Hindus who were holding important positions in the kingdom: A detailed discussion of these rivalries and the resulting negative impact follows in the following sections.

The weakening of state authority also gave birth to the third key reason for the fall of the Sikh kingdom: the rise of the army as a major political player in the state. As the intrigues and disputes among various groups intensified, the significance of the army rapidly grew. Every group wished to have the army on its side against the rival group, and consequently the army assumed a pivotal role in deciding both the succession and the fate of the kingdom. This antagonism not only politicized the...

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