In August 2017, following a controversy over Confederate monuments in Virginia, the American Historical Association issued a joint public communiqué urging a revisiting of the state government’s decision to honour individuals associated with slavery.
President Donald Trump had opposed the removal of monuments that had been in place for over a century, arguing that they were remnants of a troubled past that could not be erased.
But as the American Historical Association statement pointed out, the idea was not to erase history but to open a healthy public debate on matters relating to the public recognition of individuals based on their contribution towards society.
Many of such monuments throughout the United States, the statement pointed out, had been installed decades ago without wider consultation from a broad spectrum of society, especially African Americans.
I am reminded of this important discussion on the politics of commemoration by the recent installation of Ranjit Singh’s statue at the Lahore Fort. There are, however, huge differences between the troubled legacy of Confederate monuments and a single act celebrating Ranjit Singh who, even by the standards of what his critics say, does not trigger such painful memories.
The unveiling of Ranjit Singh’s statue has not sparked any controversy, let alone demand for a public debate. This is even though the Walled City of Lahore Authority made the decision without broader consultation.
The primary motivation seems to be commercial, as the statue would help draw tourists, especially the Sikh diaspora, though the authority must also have taken into calculation the political implications of such an act.
What prompts me to write about the Ranjit Singh statue is the celebratory language in which it has been received by some. The best example is to be found in the way the federal minister for science and technology, Fawad Chaudhary, tweeted about it:
Other than its jubilatory tone and use of such anachronistic terms as “reforms in the governance” for the early 19th century, the tweet is hopelessly faulty on historical counts as well. Even though he commanded a large area under his control, the Maharaja didn’t even rule over all of Punjab, let alone Kabul and Delhi.
Ranjit Singh’s legacies
The statue derives its support from different constituencies based on varied legacies that they ascribe to the man.
Widely celebrated as a warrior and an able statesman, Ranjit Singh established a strong, expansive empire that encompassed a vast area of present-day Pakistani Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, along with Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh.
For a section of Punjabi activists in Pakistan and most Sikhs, Ranjit Singh is a local hero – a son of the soil – who successfully thwarted aggressors from the North and established a strong centralised government that provided relief to the people of Punjab after decades of chaos and violence.
There is also a counter-narrative which denounces Sikh rule under Ranjit Singh as an era of darkness in which Muslims were persecuted and their sacred sites vandalised.
For me, the search for the real Ranjit Singh is not important. I am more concerned about the legacy of Ranjit Singh as it is being created, invoked and commemorated.
The question of ascertaining Ranjit Singh’s contributions assumes the historian play the role of a forensic expert. It assumes the craft of the historian to be precise and scientific that can, on objective and impartial scrutiny, reveal absolute truth about a historical figure or event.
History, at best, can be an approximation of the past in an academic idiom that is contingent on the personal outlook of the author and informed by a range of personal influences, ideologies, affiliations and worldviews. It is just one way of recording the past.
There are other ways, especially in the South Asian context, in which competing ideas about the past percolate to sections of the society, internalised, passed on and then reimagined. For example, the creation of Pakistan in 1947, was seen as a culmination of, as well as a foundational moment for, new myths and the reimagining of older ones.
In one such instance, immediately after independence, a formal ceremony was held to open the Lahore Fort for the public, revoking its status as a military garrison. This act was interpreted as marking the fulfilment of a longstanding prophecy that the fort would be reopened once Muslim power was reestablished in this region.
So, it is not about ascertaining the truth about Ranjit Singh’s reign, especially the status of his Muslim subjects. What is important is that he founded an empire on the strength of Sikh militaristic prowess and ran it on ideas of moral legitimacy inspired by Sikh gurus and their teachings.
The way Ranjit Singh’s rule has been interpreted by his admirers today is a different process of past-making which makes use of such anachronistic terms as secularism to explain Ranjit Singh’s fair treatment of all his subjects and the fact that he had a Muslim as one of his closest aides.
Ranjit Singh’s constituencies
It is no surprise that this adulation for Ranjit Singh is most common among the Sikhs in India and the wider diaspora, as he is recognised as the embodiment of Sikh political power.
There is a huge nostalgia for the empire that celebrates the memory of the Sikh rule and the materiality of it classified as heritage. It is no wonder that Ranjit Singh’s life-size statue has been gifted to the Walled City of Lahore Authority by SK Foundation UK, an organisation based in the United Kingdom.
In one of the major events sponsored by Sikh groups in London – such as the UK Punjab Sikh heritage – was a 2018 exhibition, titled Empire of the Sikhs, held at Brunei Gallery, SOAS. The Sikh nostalgia for the empire – a veritable will to power – is a product of both an impulse towards anchoring the communitarian identity in state power and the historical peculiarity of the Sikhs – especially since the 1940s.
Partition set into motion a series of setbacks for Sikhs. They lost material wealth and were uprooted from the land they held sacred and relocated to a part of Punjab where an uneasy relationship with the Hindu majority followed.
A similar process of past-making, albeit with a completely different reception of Ranjit Singh, has taken place among Muslim nationalists who talk about oppression suffered by Muslims during the Sikh rule. This opinion has been based on historical works written in post-annexation Punjab that speak of Sikh violence against Muslims and vandalism of their sacred sites. Such a narrative served well to portray the British as the harbinger of peace and stability in the region.
Punjabi nationalists in Pakistan, however, have been jubilant as they see the installing of the statue a symbolic act of recognition from a state that, despite its domination by a Punjabi elite, has been oblivious to the history and language of Punjab.
Punjabi sense of nationhood has been sublimated within the larger Pakistani nationalism conflating Islam and Urdu. This made it frustratingly hard for Punjabi intellectuals, mostly affiliated with Marxists groups, to plead for or articulate an idea of Punjabi nationhood that could be rooted in its language and mobilised for a progressive polity addressing class issues.
In other words, the statist project of an Islam-based identity with Urdu as its flagship has made such massive inroads that the successive generation of Punjabi activists has found it difficult to counter it.
For them, the Ranjit Singh’s statue, therefore, is a breath of fresh air that could possibly become a precedent for similar steps to be followed. For them, it remains important that the act of recognition – whether for Dulla Bhatti or Bhagat Singh – should come from the state as it signifies a symbolic reversal of policy.
From the perspective of Pakistani liberals, it is a welcome step as it interrupts the singular telos of Muslim history that is taught at schools and rhetorically championed in the larger public sphere. There is a strong element of truth in this approach.
The inclusion of Ranjit Singh sits uneasily with a historical timeline which, simultaneously, champions the exploits of Ahmad Shah Abdali. Widely hailed as a saviour of the Muslims of Punjab from the excesses of Sikh and Maratha violence in the mid-18th century, Pakistani textbooks pay lavish tribute to his military campaigns and services to the glory of Islam – so much so that one of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles is named after him.
Similarly, Pakistani textbooks pay glorious tributes to the jihad led by Sayyid Ahmad against the Sikh rule. This militaristic attempt was also aimed at liberating the Muslims of Punjab.
Any historical representation for a statist project – whether as a museum artefact or textbook – is marked with erasures of some aspects of history that do not conform with the rest of the narrative. Historical narratives, therefore, and especially statist narratives, have seeds of subversion within. They are marked by silencing of voices and insist on a particular type of truth about a historical figure or event.
Up until now, it has been the erasure of Pakistan’s non-Muslim pasts and their richness. For once, there has been un-silencing of this past, so it counts as a welcome step for Pakistani liberals.
Languages of commemoration
What I find problematic, however, is the celebratory language used on this occasion rooted in the language of power, state and empire.
Tweets and comments welcoming Ranjit Singh hailed him, not as the ruler of Punjab, but the founder of an empire whose boundaries stretched up to Afghanistan in the West and Kashmir and Ladakh in the North.
This valorising of the Maharaja, thus, is thinly veiled othering of the Afghan as savage – with a certain fear and appreciation for the adversary as well – whose savagery could only be matched by a noble savage who was able to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Regardless of what Punjabi nationalists think of their son of the soil and reasons for honouring him, it cannot be overlooked that, in contemporary Pakistan, where Punjabi-dominated military and bureaucracy is seen responsible for the misery of every other ethnic group, such an act of state recognition – that, too, for a figure known for military exploits outside of Punjab – is interpreted as a celebration of Punjabi chauvinism.
People outside of Punjab may not be willing to understand the reasons for which Punjabi nationalists, a handful as they might be, are celebrating him, given what they have suffered at the hands of the same Punjabi-dominated state.
This occasion of honouring Ranjit Singh has prompted other ethno-nationalist ideologues to demand similar recognition for their warrior-like figures. The most interesting is the case of Nawab Muzaffar Khan of Multan.
The afterlife of his battle with the Lahore Darbar can be aptly summed up using poet Agha Shahid Ali’s words, “My memory keeps getting in the way of your history”.
The expansion of Singh’s Lahore Darbar, brutal as it was like any other empire, brought him into conflict with the ruler of Multan. The war that followed was violent, where Nawab Muzaffar Khan died fighting along with his sons.
Later, as a Seraiki national identity coalesced in postcolonial Punjab, Muzaffar Khan was to assume the role of a freedom fighter who resisted against the aggression of Punjab.
Taj Muhammad Langah, one of the leaders of Seraiki nationalism, tried to transform Muzaffar Khan’s final resting place into a mausoleum which he would visit every year with a handful of enthusiasts to lay down a floral wreath and chadar.
This shows how collective memories are formed, draw upon a peculiar version of the past that, in turn, itself, is subject to change under different political contexts.
The same holds true for Sindh where a section of hardcore nationalists glorifies Raja Dahir – the ruler of Sindh defeated by Muhammad bin Qasim – as a hero.
One could interpret these responses as an effective way of subverting statist narratives glorifying Muslim rulers and invaders. Such a reactionary approach and the elusive search in the history of strong men as heroes is the most unfortunate consequence of authoritarian state practices in Pakistan.
Ever since the notorious imposition of One Unit in 1955, much of progressive politics from smaller provinces have been tainted with ethnic chauvinism.
In the end, coming back to the politics of commemoration, choosing Ranjit Singh among an ideological range of representations is a political act which aims at signalling a specific kind of historical narrative.
It replaces one set of state practices with another, though its supporters don’t think of it as replication and expect a different outcome from such practices.
It is as if all those celebrating Ranjit Singh – or those demanding recognition for Ahmad Shah Abdali for the Pashtuns, Nawab Muzaffar Khan for the Seraikis and Raja Dahir for the Sindhis – are vying for an imperial legacy under the regalia of a sovereign whose politics they agree with, who conforms to their present-day ethnic imaginary or whose religious beliefs they share.
They have convinced themselves that their imperialist treated everyone fairly and thus ascribe to him such terms as secular and liberal. This, unfortunately, means that their investment remains in the idea of state itself, conquest as state-making and the power that comes with it to establish and safeguard a singular idea of nationhood.
Their commitment to the idea – in this particular case – of Punjab and its history that addresses questions of caste oppression, gender violence and class dispossession should have taken precedence over everything else.
In endorsing the symbol that the state has chosen for them, the nationalists and the liberals have chosen unwisely.
Ali Usman Qasmi is an associate professor of history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
This article first appeared on Dawn.