BOOK REVIEW: ROYALS AND REBELS: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire … Priya Atwal


    The book has so much to do with Sikh-Mughal connect. As opposed to the popular narrative that brings the aspect of religion into the Sikh-Mughal conflict, the historical relationship between the two had many hues of grey, writes the lady author, who is a British historian and a also researcher in Oxford.

       The Sikh popular memory tends to have a negative image of the Mughals, but historically speaking, Sikh-Mughal relationship was never completely antagonistic, elicits the author, which she explains in a very concealing fashion. What we think of as a lasting memory is actually an evolving thing, and never constant. While, it’s the painful events, such as the execution of Sikh Gurus that tend to dominate the lasting memory. Overall the author has highlighted the evidence that where Sikh-Mughal encounters were not wholly hostile. Albeit briefly, the gurus were at times supported, and at times they themselves extended support to certain Mughal royals. Sikh Gurbani additionally reveals how they assimilated and challenged Mughal ideas of power to forge their own vision of a fair, and virtuous society.

   Women were vital in the story of the Sikh empire. Sikh History underscores the point that Punjabi women have been active in politics for centuries. Citing an example the author writes, Ranjit Singh would never have become Maharaja without the protective support of his mother, Raj Kaur, after the death of his father, Maha Singh, when Ranjit was just ten. Raj Kaur safeguarded the Sukerchakia misl for her son until he came of age. The Sukerchakia Misl was one of 12 Sikh Misls—or say, Sikh Confederacy, in Punjab during the 18th century concentrated in Gujranwala and Hafizabad district in Western Punjab (in modern-Pakistan) and ruled from (1752-1801). The Sukerchakia’s last Misldar or commander of the Misl was Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh united all the misls and established an independent kingdom in Punjab. Moreover, Ranjit Singh would have certainly struggled to conquer Lahore but for the support of his in-laws, the Kanhaiya and Nakai misls, whose troops accompanied him to lay siege at the Lahore Fort in 1799. It was actually his formidable mother-in-law, Sada Kaur, who negotiated a peace settlement with the Sikh Sardars occupying the fort at the time, ensuring that they departed without causing further bloodshed. Both mother figures were crucial in teaching the young Ranjit Singh how to be a civil and effective leader.

    The book presents a very interesting picture of the Maharaja’s multiple marriages and his wives taking part in the power game, with the last wife, Jind Kaur, becoming the Queen-Regent. The Maharaja had at least 30 wives—according to author’s estimate. The title includes a ‘marriage map’ which plots where these women came from. Ranjit Singh’s queens were Sikh, Hindu and even Muslim. His marriages helped cement Sukerchakia dynastic ties throughout the different classes and ethnic groups of its growing empire within and beyond Punjab. Jind Kaur was his last and the most famous queen, given her a dramatic role, fighting against the East India Company in the 1840s, and attempting to preserve the Sikh Empire’s independence. However, Rani Jindan, though an incredible woman, was no exception in the key political role that she played as Queen Regent. She was following in the footsteps of Raj Kaur and Sada Kaur, as well as Ranjit Singh’s other forgotten wives who were also variously military leaders, ambassadors, educators of princely sons and artistic patrons. It would therefore be entirely false to claim that Punjabi women’s participation in politics is only a recent phenomenon. They have been political for centuries!

    On a tricky question about social media that often circulates rather disturbing illustrations depicting the execution of Sikh gurus that came with strong anti-Muslim rhetoric the author writes until the 19th century, Punjabi authors like Bhangu were trying to show that Emperor Babur had Guru Nanak’s sanctity to rule over India.

    When the Sikhs attempted to put their Gurus’ ideas into practice, seeking power and challenging oppressive regional elites (including Mughal lords and Hindu hill rajahs), they began facing persecution. Yet the Sikhs withstood this, becoming kings themselves by the end of the 18th century. It was then that they too began carefully embracing some of the trappings of Mughal royalty, including commissioning new histories of Punjab. Rattan Singh Bhangu’s, Sri Guru Panth Prakash was produced in this context. He and other 19th century historians effectively re-imagined the story of Sikh-Mughal relations to assert the legitimacy of Ranjit Singh’s generation as the rightful ruler of Punjab.

    The book deals with the counter the anti-monarchists who say that Maharaja Ranjit Singh destroyed the republican nature of Sikhi, by founding a Sikh state, based on hereditary kingship, where the author believes that the path was shown by the Sikh gurus themselves and the various misl sardars who followed them.

    The author found during her doctoral research that there was clearly some unease, even disapproval, amongst a particular group of twentieth-century Sikh historians about the monarchical status of Ranjit Singh. They connected his royal style of government to the eventual downfall of Sikh Raj, claiming that monarchical rule went against the ‘republican ethos’ of the Khalsa and therefore doomed his dynasty to failure. However, more recent research by scholars has powerfully highlighted that a royal style of ruler-ship was readily embraced by Sikh misl sardars well before Ranjit Singh became Maharaja in 1801. The Sikh Gurus themselves, never out rightly, condemned monarchy as a form of government in Gurbani. Instead, it is coming to a new understanding of how, in Sikh philosophy, ideas of kingship have been routinely deployed as metaphors—and in the 1700 and 1800s, were directly adopted—to give expression to Sikh sovereignty.

Posted by Kamlesh Tripathi



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