India’s Historical Figures: Are Political Cartoons a Form of Ridicule?

By Tridivesh Singh Maini

A few weeks ago, members of India’s Parliament fiercely debated whether or not cartoons included in a school textbook insulted India's political class and founding fathers. Our founding fathers themselves are unlikely to have been offended by these cartoons, but the debate omitted the most offensive aspect of India’s school textbooks—who’s missing. In the words of Samuel Johnson, “It is surely better a man should be abused than forgotten.”

One such personality who finds rare mention in textbooks is the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who managed the conquest of what now constitutes the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP)—an area where the Indian subcontinent meets the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. It was more than 180 years ago that Maharajah Ranjit Singh and his brilliant commander Hari Singh Nalwa decimated the Afghans and the tribes of the Khyber Pass area, consequently securing India’s North-Western frontier. If it weren’t for Ranjit Singh’s efforts, Peshawar and the NWFP of India (now in Pakistan) would have been part of Afghanistan today. Just like NATO’s present forces in Afghanistan, Ranjit Singh’s army too was a coalition. The Indian king’s main forces were made up of Sikhs and Hindus, while the artillery was operated mainly by Muslims. Though unlike NATO, which lacks any clear objectives, his army had a clear goal of ensuring the survival of the empire the empire.  

The Sikh ruler’s achievements were possible for a number of reasons. First, he possessed clear vision and foresight. Unlike many other rulers of the time, he was amenable to change and not averse to employing European officers. Of the foreign officers who entered the Maharaja’s service, two had assisted Napoleon in his campaigns against Spain and Italy. Claude August Court, another Frenchman, commanded two battalions of Gurkhas. Colonel Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner, an Irishman of considerable ability, was employed in the artillery. All these officers were engaged by Ranjit Singh for the purpose of modernizing his troops. Second, secularism and tolerance were the hallmark of Ranjit Singh’s rule. His rule has been called “Sikh rule” since the sovereign held power in the name of the Khalsa (from the Persian word ‘Khalis’ which means pure)  and the army was predominantly Sikh. However, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom survived because of the emphasis on secularism and the common bond of Punjabi identity. He once told his foreign minister Faqir Azizuddin, “God intended me to look all religions with one eye.”

Two years ago, senior Pakistani politician Chaudhry Nisar apologized in Pakistani parliament for criticizing Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Nisar confessed that his views about the Maharaja changed after reading a book authored by Khushwant Singh on Ranjit Singh’s life. Nisar who had been brought up thinking that Ranjit Singh was a barbaric and ruthless ruler, realized that he was actually extremely compassionate and liberal as a ruler and respected all communities after reading the whole book.    

It is a collective failure that strategic analysts who frequently quote great Western military commanders have never even heard of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.  Ironically, apart from a few Indian historians such as Hari Ram Gupta and Kirpal Singh, it is the British historians of Ranjit Singh’s era who have written extensively on him and are useful reference points.   While it is true that the geo-political landscape has changed over the last two centuries, there is indeed some lesson to be learned from the past. Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s openness to new military techniques, sensitivity to all communities, and off course exceptional foresight are just some of the numerous qualities which he possessed that can provide numerous lessons to present day military leaders.  

If  Indians can borrow from Western military history, then why not give some importance to our own military personalities? If enough time and interest had been devoted to these figures, they too would have become reference points in other parts of the world, just as many pre-twentieth century military personalities have in India. Rather than debating the interpretations of a few historical figures, it is important that more is written and spoken about those deserving of space in Indian and Western academic discourse but have not been included because they existed before the creation of the modern nation state.  

Merely blaming Western conspiracies for the neglect of some of our great historical figures is not enough. It is time to look within and revise our own curriculum and approach to history beyond petty politics and not waste time on debating about the impact of benign cartoons which are not intended at mocking or ridiculing any personality on impressionable minds.



Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

Disclaimer: Views are personal

[Photo of Rohtas Fort, built by Sher Shah Suri. Courtesy of Flickr]

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