In defence of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh | Pakistan Today

In defence of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh

How the 18th Amendment made it possible to access the past of the provinces

The unveiling of the statue of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh at the Lahore Fort on 27 June, while adding a monument, also opened up the debate for the position of a Sikh ruler in the heritage of Pakistan. From a critical response of a religious organization denouncing the statue as an act of idolatry, one can find a diverse range of responses evaluating the event. One reads even a demand of installing a statue of Raja Dahir in Sindh. It seems the event irritates many of the sacrosanct beliefs hardened in last 70 years of the prevalence of centralized nationalism in Pakistan.

Referring to the social media posts, a BBC report claims that there is an increase in the demand to declare Raja Dahir as the true hero of the Sindh province. The report also congratulates Punjab for finally acknowledging the true hero of its own land. It seems that Maharaja Ranjeet Singh has appeared again on horseback in his own Empire in Lahore Fort, a journalist Javed Langah opines in the same report. He criticizes Punjab for accepting the version of history by owning the warriors such as Ghaznavi, Ghauri, Suri and Abdali as heroes at the cost of local defenders such as Raja Porus and Ranjeet Singh. Another journalist, Nisar Khokhar, asked the permission from Punjab for installing a statue of Raja Dahir in Sindh.

The monument of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, a Sikh ruler and a symbol of Sikh presence in the history of Lahore and Punjab, can become a step to live up with the complex of ethnic-religious memories

Disapproving the event, a journalist Shahab Omer blamed government for acting secretly and for deceiving the sentiments of the general Muslim public. He not only questioned the place of installation of the statue but also invoked the agonising memories attached with the rule of Ranjeet Singh. He lamented liberals were ignoring the defamation of Muslim religious symbols by the rule of Ranjeet Singh and concluded that the rule was full of miseries for the Muslims.

Another interesting disapproval comes from an organization, Tanzeem Islami, that termed the event as a practice of idolatry. Hafiz Akif Saeed, Ameer of Tanzeem Islami registered disapproval by claiming that a Muslim is always an “idol-breaker and not idol-maker.” He reminded that this country came into being to pursue the program of Kalima Tayyiba. He demanded to dismantle the statue completely.

Two other perspectives, of Ali Qasmi and Pippa Virdee, although appreciated the event but critically. Ali Qasmi, prompted by the celebratory language for the statue, uncovered the totalitarian impulses of the PTI government by installing a statue of a king albeit hailing from Punjab. Endorsing the idea of promoting Sikh heritage in Punjab, he dismissed the government’s efforts to wrap this event in the anachronistic terms of “reforms in the governance.” He stressed that looking towards the past has been changed after the emergence of Two Theory in 1947. He also critically evaluates the rule of Ranjit Singh by placing many of his “secular” governance with the Muslim agonising memories. He reminded the reader that the celebration of Ranjeet Singh was embedded in the nostalgia for the empire for the Sikh community especially since 1940s. He established his case by showing that the statue is a gift to the Walled City of Lahore Authority by SK Foundation, an organization based in the United Kingdom and already exhibited its programme in London as “Empire of the Sikhs.” Mentioning the historical conflict between Ranjeet Singh and Nawab Muzaffar Ali Khan of Multan, he feared that celebrating Ranjeet Singh may unleash the ethnic voices each looking for a singular centre to territorialize.

Pippa Virdee pushed forward the need for reducing stress on male heritage. After explaining her journeys to Lahore and Punjab for the purpose of her PhD research work she showed her unhappiness for the condition of women in the society. Unless society opens itself for the female, she suggests it is not possible to move away from the past which heavily relied on a male figure for its heritage.

Interestingly all these perspectives assumed a similar notion of the nation-state and couldn’t see that Pakistan is a unique nation-state. The state’s over-emphasis on centralization defied any effort for giving importance to the ethno-territoriality, that is giving importance to the provinces as an essential unit for grouping together with each other to establish a federation. It is only the 18th Amendment that underscored the importance of ethno-territoriality in Pakistan.

The over-emphasis on centralized nationalization always held dear some version of Islam as its ideological tool and feared from any claims of provincial or ethnic identity. This tendency acted like a double vision and favored a nationalistic version of the past from the perspective of the singular religious identity. The change that the 18th Amendment has brought in Pakistan is to make it possible to write history from the provincial perspective and to find a new balance of religious and ethnic territorial identity.

One should remember that the Walled City Project Authority, responsible for the installation of the statue, and the National Fund for Cultural Heritage found their lives only after the amendment. Rather, one can say safely that the whole debate of heritage become meaningful only after the focus turned towards the provinces. This is a turning point in the constitutional history and started making impacts without being reflected sufficiently in Pakistan.

The Heritage Department puts forward the meaning of heritage as the “seat of world leading civilizations from the time immemorial,” and the “legacy of our predecessors at the time of our independence, on August 14, 1947, came to us as a treasure which may be called as Pakistan’s national heritage”. This perspective becomes meaningful when history is revisited with the consciousness of connecting to the land, rather to the specific land (Province) among many lands (group of provinces as federation). Even the singularity of Muslim dissolves here into multiple ethnic Muslims while considering ethnicity as treasured as being Muslim.

The monument of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, a Sikh ruler and a symbol of Sikh presence in the history of Lahore and Punjab, can become a step to live up with the complex of ethnic-religious memories. It may give us chance to read, in more meaningful ways, the violence on the eve of the birth of Pakistan. It can also provide a chance for the heritage of Pakistan to overcome the tendencies of covering up past events: bitter or sweet, they are all legacies of this region thriving with life long before the birth of this country.

Umber Bin Ibad is a Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at SOAS, London, and teaches history at FC College, Lahore.

The writer is a Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at SOAS, UK and an associate professor at FCCU, Lahore.