The Indian sasu or mother-in-law is not someone to be trifled with. Just ask Ranjit Singh, the first maharaja of the Sikh Empire (1799-1849): he knew this fact quite well. Without his sasu, Sada Kaur, he would have been a dramatically less successful ruler.

It was Sada Kaur who, in 1799, helped her son-in-law capture Lahore, which became the imperial capital. She consolidated Ranjit Singh’s political control over the city and made sure that soldiers were paid. Most importantly, she convinced Ranjit Singh to be a gracious conqueror: to refrain from sacking Lahore and to negotiate terms with the defeated party which would preserve their izzat, or honour.

Without this intrepid sasu, there would likely have been no Sher-e-Punjab. Historian Priya Atwal demonstrates that Sada Kaur was no exception. In Royals and Rebels, her engaging account of the Sikh Empire, she reveals how women played an indispensable role in royal politics and administration. This is a significant observation. In South Asian history, more often than not, we only hear male voices. Atwal’s book is part of a wave of recent scholarship which has uncovered remarkable female power and agency in South Asian empires and kingdoms.

In this episode of Past Imperfect, Atwal examines how women helped define the notions and practices of Sikh kingship. Royal women were not simply confined to the zenana – in fact, Ranjit Singh often traveled to meet them at their power bases. They trained and tutored princes, managed the affairs of estates, and, like Sada Kaur, played important logistical roles in military campaigns.

Yet, there was a deep vein of misogyny which limited women’s agency and colored royal politics. Perhaps no one better symbolised this dynamic than Rani Jindan, Ranjit Singh’s last wife, who acted as regent in the tumultuous last days of the Sikh Empire. Rani Jindan held onto her position despite a whirlwind of durbar intrigues. But, as Atwal shows, prejudiced notions of female power, exhibited amongst both Punjabi and British elites, led to her undoing – as well as the undoing of the Sikh Empire.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.