Where Unity Is Strength
Header

[Image above: Lady Singh addressing the audience at Billion Women Parliamentary event]

Full talk given by Lady Singh at the launch of Lord Sheikh’s book Emperor of the Five Rivers at The Nehru Centre on the 6 September 2017.

My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, Good evening. Thank you Lord Sheikh for giving me this opportunity to say a few words on this joyous occasion if the launch of the book Emperor of the Five Rivers. I am delighted and indeed honoured to have this opportunity. In only ten minutes, I will try to do some justice to this superbly written book. Usually we say that no self respecting Sikh will speak less than an hour. Let’s see.

Emperor of the Five Rivers provides a fascinating insight into an important period in Sikh history. It is both a well researched and reference book for the serious scholar and an enjoyable read. The author is to be congratulated for a remarkable addition to Sikh literature.

The book is set against a background of British expansion in India and the savage culture of the times. It provides a fascinating account of Ranjit Singh’s generosity, courage and extraordinary humanity in an age of unabashed greed and cruel regimes.

I found it a well researched book, with helpful references providing vivid examples of Ranjit Singh’s humility and compassion and extraordinary diplomatic skills. It also shows his human weaknesses including a fondness of wine and beautiful women.

Appropriately the story begins with how the teachings of the Sikh Gurus helped shape Ranjit Singh’s character and his attitude to religion and politics. We learn that the young Ranjit was virtually illiterate but possessed a sharp brain and an intense interest in the world about him. He would sit for hours in the gurdwara [a Sikh temple], listening to the stories of the Gurus and the respect they showed to the people of other religions.

The book shows how these teachings had a huge influence on the young Ranjit and the way in which behaved to both his subjects and his defeated enemies, in his sprawling empire which extended beyond the subcontinent to Kabul and Tibet, earning him popular acclaim as the ‘Lion of Punjab’. His inclusive attitude to other religions and nationalities is shown by the fact that he employed several French and European generals in his army and that more than half of his governing cabinet consisted of non- Sikhs.

Even in those early days Sikh Gurus’ teaching of equality of women with men was not forgotten by Ranjit Singh. Among his most famous commanders was his mother in law Maharani Sada Kaur, who was leading her armies at Lahore, Amritsar and other places. She was his advisor and a confidante for many years.

As Lord Sheikh writes, ‘ He handed responsibilities to those best able to discharge them, whatever their religion.’Again on page 47, Far more important aspect of Ranjit’s religious faith was its tolerance. Unlike either Islam or Christianity, Sikhism was not a missionary religion. Sikhs believed utterly in their religion and were only too happy for others to join them, but they did not try to coerce anyone to do so. Nor did they view non-Sikhs with contempt. This attitude underpinned Ranjit Singh’s entire religious outlook. Many calls him a secular ruler, but as pointed out by Lord Sheikh, Ranjit Singh was a Sikh ruler in the true sense whose rule was secular.

The author notes many examples of Ranjit Singh’s humility. He struck a coin for the investiture that paid tribute to Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, he dispensed with his right to wear his crown or sit on a throne. He continued to preside over the Darbar sitting cross-legged on a modest chair. His modesty was entirely in keeping with the republican nature of Sikhism, and in total contrast to the way in which oriental kings normally presented themselves. Story of a Muslim calligraphist who had spent years transcribing the Qur’an beautifuly by hand was about to leave the Punjab to sell his product as no one would buy it. Ranjit summoned him to an audience, respectfully pressed the piece of work against his head, purchased it giving more than the asking price and later presented it to Fakir Aziz-ud-din.

Ranjit made it an ironclad rule that his armies would not indulge in carnage, burn holy books or destroy places of worship. The civilian population would remain free to carry on with their normal activities and no women were to be molested. When Ranjit rode through Peshawar after wresting it from the Afghans, the holy people of the city prayed openly for his long life.

It was not only Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who enjoyed his generous patronage. Among his advisers in the highest ranks of his army , were French, English, Scots, Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Spaniards and Greeks.The Maharaja, illiterate but thirsty for knowledge would spend hours with these ‘firangees’, as they were called, learning about their country and their way of life.

The book gives a fascinating insight into the diplomatic intrigues of the East India Company and the British government; the shadow boxing between the Sikhs and the British, each wary and respectful of the other’s strength. We learn how the astute Ranjit Singh successfully countered British moves to extend their domination and control to the fertile and rich area of Punjab. Each side would maintain outwardly cordial relations with the other indulge in lavish hospitality and the exchange of fine gifts, while at the same time spying on the military strength of the other.

Emperor of the Five Rivers shows, in an easily readable way, how under Ranjit Singh’s enlightened rule, Punjab and the other areas enjoyed peace and prosperity for forty years. This part of the continent had seen only conflict and suffering, and sadly is still experiencing terrible conflict and religious extremism.

The Maharaja is shown as a knowledgeable patron of the arts with a priceless collection of jewellery, shawls and other beautiful works of art. He gave generously to gurdwaras and religious buildings of other faiths, not only in Punjab but other parts of India. He gave endowments and charities to all religions – put gold on Hermandir Sahib, became known as Golden Temple, gold plated temple in Banaras.

In the two Anglo Sikh wars of the 1840s the brave virtually leaderless Khalsa Army was narrowly defeated but not before it had shaken British rule in India to its very core. The author ruefully observes that if its leaders had not made shameful deals with the British, the whole history of the sub continent would have been entirely transformed.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was one of the most charismatic figures in Sikh history who ruled much of North India including Punjab, present day Pakistan and Kashmir from 1801 until his death in 1839. Think of the romantic image that Richard the Lionheart has in English history: add to it the judgement and wisdom of Solomon and you have some idea of the place that Maharaja Ranjit Singh,Lion of Punjab’, holds in the heart of every Sikh, Hindu and Muslim in Punjab.

Ranjit Singh was powerful enough to have ruled in a totally autocratic way. Instead, he saw himself as the head of a commonwealth and took decisions only after consultation with other Sikh and non-Sikh leaders. It was fine while he lived. He was the hub at the centre, the referee between selfish and often conflicting interests. Ranjit Singh’s own personality was the glue that kept together a vast and sprawling empire. In military terms, Ranjit Singh’s commonwealth was so strong that even the all-powerful English to the South, though keen to establish their influence northwards, hesitated to face him on the battlefield. For some two generations, Punjab enjoyed, for the first time in its entire history, truly secular government.

And then in 1839, Ranjit Singh died and it all fell apart. Internal feuding between warring factions took place. There was treachery and betrayal. The English saw their chance. Two hard fought wars between the largely leaderless Sikhs and the English ensued and,within ten years, nothing was left of Ranjit Singh’s vast empire.

The strength of the Rule under Maharaja Ranjit Singh lay in the power source of Sikh teachings. Ranjit Singh was fired by the ideals of equality, selfless service, humility and concern for the less privileged. When those that followed Ranjit Singh, ignored these ideals, decay was certain.

We have a great lesson to learn from this book. Emperor of the Five Rivers clearly shows us that Sikhs Hindus, Muslims and by today’s extension Christians and Jews can live together in peace and harmony if their rule is even handed, be they elected, selected or hereditary.

A thanks to Lord Sheikh for bringing true history to us, without any bias. When I interviewed him for Sikh Channel and asked him how Ranjit singh was so well versed in all areas of administration, his reply was that Ranjit Singh was ‘a genius’. This one word genius, very appropriately describes the man of his book Emperor of the Five Rivers.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak at the launch of your book and thank you all for listening to me.

Image: Delegates as GSC meeting in Paris

Lady Singh has been unanimously elected to lead the Global Sikhs Council (GSC) at its annual general meeting (AGM) last week in Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia.

Former Vice-President Lady Singh’s election to head the group was met with approval from delegates from 18 countries at the AGM. A representative from an umbrella body of Malaysian Sikhs in attendance expressed his confidence in the new appointment. “She is a capable person,” he told Asia Samachar.

The organisation was initially set up in Australia in 2014, to establish a coalition of national Sikh organisations from across the globe that would fearlessly promote values and policies consistent with Sikhism.

On her appointment Lady Singh confirmed one of the GSC’s aims is to promote the primacy of the Nanakshahi calendar, so this gives uniformity to the celebration of Gurpurabs.

She said, “We will actively encourage the recruitment of bilingual preachers for gurdwaras in the West so young children and adults who don’t speak Punjabi can understand their faith.”

She is committed in dispelling misconceptions about Sikhism, which she said, “are being propagated in some influential quarters by those who are willfully attaching a false mythological narrative, which totally undermines Sikh ethos and teachings.”

Along with her new role, Lady Singh continues as Education Inspector and consultant responsible to inspect religious education in Sikh Schools for the Department of Education. She is also the Deputy Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations.

[Image above: Lady Singh addresses the audience at Billion Women Parliamentary event]

The NSO hosted an event in the House of Lords last week in aid of charity Billion Women to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The event focused both on the successes and challenges faced by women in modern society, from both a cultural and religious perspective.

Speakers included Lord and Lady Singh, Lord Sheikh, Lord Loomba, Criminologist Prof Aisha Gill from the University of Roehampton, Spoken Word Artist Jaspreet Kaur, the founder of Billion Women Mani Bajwa and business woman Mrs Amar Kaur Maker.

Event organiser Lady Singh told the audience the Suffragettes had fought tirelessly for women’s equality in Britain over a century ago. She told audience members they had thrown themselves under horses, chained themselves to railings outside Parliament and had suffered huge indignities. Referring to Emily Pankhurst Lady Singh said, “We owe her a lot.” But she warned Sikh women who had been given equality from day one by Guru Nanak – over five hundred years ago, that they should not be complacent.

She said, “Women have been fighting for equality with men right up to the twentieth century and in some ways even today. The Gurus gave Sikh women equality. It was handed on a plate. They did not have to hold rallies, protest marches, hunger strikes, getting under the hooves of horses or chaining themselves to the railings. They did not have to struggle to get rid of the obnoxious social customs such as sati, purdah, dowry and female infanticide”

She went on: “We Sikh women having got equality need to discharge our responsibilities to ensure we do not loose it. If we do not practice equality in our own homes and gurdwaras, our women in the future will loose it. Guard it by practicing it.”

Entrepreneur Mrs Amar Kaur Maker told the audience that she took inspiration from Sikh teachings when her husband passed away. She was left with the daunting prospect of supporting her family and running a business. Despite her challenges, in 2009 she was given a national ‘entrepreneurial excellence award’. Mrs Maker said, “I felt abandoned but somehow carried on with strength from my faith and inspiration from the life of Guru Gobind Singh.”

Attendee Rani Bhilku from Slough based organisation Jeena said, “It was refreshing to see so many women from across the generations attend, and I particularly resonated with Jaspreet Kaur’s poetic words on the night.”

Skip to toolbar