Maharaja Ranjit Singh - Encyclopedia

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RANJIT SINGH, MAHARAJA (1780-1839), native Indian ruler, was born on the 2nd of November 1780, the son of Sirdar Mahan Singh, whom he succeeded in 1792 as head of the Sukarchakia branch of the Sikh confederacy. By birth he was only one of many Sikh barons and owed his rapid rise entirely to force of character and will. At the age of seventeen he seized the reins of government. He is said to have poisoned his mother, though it is more probable that he merely imprisoned her to keep her out of his way. At the age of twenty he obtained from Zaman Shah, the king of Afghanistan, a grant of Lahore, which he seized by force of arms in 1799. Subsequently he attacked and annexed Amritsar in 1802, thus becoming master of the two Sikh capitals. When Jaswant Rao Holkar took refuge in the Punjab in 1805, Ranjit Singh made a treaty with the British, excluding Holkar from his territory. Shortly afterwards acute difficulties arose between him and the British as to the Cis-Sutlej portion of the Punjab. It was Ranjit Singh's ambition to weld the whole of the Punjab into a single Sikh empire, while the British claimed the territory south of the Sutlej by right of conquest from the Mahrattas. The difference proceeded almost to the point of war; but at the last moment Ranjit Singh gave way, and for the future faithfully observed his engagements with the British, whose rising power he was wise enough to gauge. In 1808 Charles Metcalfe was sent to settle this question with Ranjit Singh, and a treaty was concluded at Amritsar on the 15th of April 1809. At this period a band of Sikh fanatics called "akalis," attacked Sir Charles Metcalfe's escort, and the steadiness with which the disciplined sepoys repulsed them, so impressed the maharaja that he decided to change the strength of his army from cavalry to infantry. He organized a powerful force, which was trained by French and Italian officers such as Generals Ventura, Allard and Avitabile, and thus forged the formidable fighting instrument of the Khalsa army, which afterwards gave the British their hardest battles in India in the two Sikh wars. In 1810 he captured Multan after many assaults and a long siege, and in 1820 had consolidated the whole of the Punjab between the Sutlej and the Indus under his dominion. In 1823 the city and province of Peshawar became tributary to him. In 1833 when Shah Shuja, flying from Afghanistan, sought refuge at his court, he took from him the Koh-i-nor diamond, which subsequently came into the possession of the British crown. Though he disapproved of Lord Auckland's policy of substituting Shah Shuja for Dost Mahomed, he loyally supported the British in their advance on Afghanistan. Known as "The Lion of the Punjab," Ranjit Singh died of paralysis on the 27th of June 1839.

In his private life Ranjit Singh was selfish, avaricious, drunken and immoral, but he had a genius for command and was the only man the Sikhs ever produced strong enough to bind them together. His military genius showed itself not so much in actual generalship as in the organization of his plans, the selection of his generals and his ministers, the tenacity of his purpose and the soundness of his judgment. The British were the one power in India that was too strong for him, and as soon as he realized that fact he was unwaveringly loyal to his engagements with them. His power was military aristocracy resting on the personal qualities of its founder, and after his death the Sikh confederacy gradually crumbled and fell to pieces through sheer want of leadership; and the rule of the Sikhs in the Punjab passed away completely as soon as it incurred the hostility of the British.

See Sir Lepel Griffin, Ranjit Singh (Rulers of India Series), 1892; General Sir John Gordon, The Sikhs, 1904; and S. S. Thorburn, The Punjab in Peace and War, 1904.

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