MAHARAJAH Ranjit Singh has been voted the greatest leader of all times in a poll conducted by BBC World Histories magazine.
The founder of the Sikh empire, known as the Lion of Punjab, emerged supreme with 38 per cent of votes from more than 5,000 readers, ahead of other prominent nominees including Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
Twentieth-century African independence fighter Amilcar Cabral came second in the poll, for uniting more than a million Guineans against Portuguese oppression, and inspiring colonised African countries to fight for freedom.
Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill came third, trailed by former American president Abraham Lincoln and Queen of England Elizabeth I.
The top 20 included some of the most celebrated leaders in history across the globe, including the likes of Mughal Emperor Akbar, French legend Joan of Arc and Russian empress Catherine the Great.
The magazine had asked readers to vote for a leader who “exercised power and had a positive impact on humanity and to explore their achievements and legacy”, from a list of nominations by an eminent panel.
Historian Matthew Lockwood, who nominated Singh, noted that the conqueror established a “modern empire of toleration” that “unravelled” as the British captured his territories after his death.
The academic at the University of Alabama described Singh—known for his “vast conquests, religious toleration and taste for fire-water and beautiful women”—as a unifying ruler, whose reign “marked a golden age for Punjab and northwest India”.
Lockwood wrote: “Though certainly an imperialist, Ranjit Singh represented a different, more enlightened, more inclusive model of state-building, and a much-needed path towards unity and toleration. We could still benefit from his example.”
Born in 1780, Singh was heir to one of 12 misls, or small sovereign states, under the Sikh Confederacy in the Punjab of yore.
When his father died in 1792, the 12-year-old boy “small in stature, his left eye blinded and his face scarred by smallpox – was an unlikely candidate for the founder of an empire”, noted Lockwood.
But, by the age of 17, Singh proved his mettle by valiantly leading Sikh warriors against Afghan ruler Shah Zaman’s forces.
“Warfare was central to Ranjit Singh’s upbringing–the name Ranjit, meaning ‘victor in battle’, was given to him as a child to commemorate his father’s victory over a regional rival,” said Lockwood.
After taking over Lahore from rival Sikh rulers, Singh proclaimed himself the maharajah of Punjab in 1801. Within a year, he captured the key city of Amritsar.
In 1807, Singh conquered the lone Muslim misl of Kasur. Over the next 12 years, Multan, Majhan, Peshawar, Srinagar and most of Kashmir were brought under the Sikh empire, after flushing the Afghans out of the Punjab region.
It is said that while some travellers of that era compared him to Napoleon, other observers called him a “military genius” and described his empire as “the most wonderful object in the whole world.”
“The British agreed, marvelling at the Sikh empire, the ‘Napoleonic suddenness of its rise’ and ‘the brilliancy of its success’,” added Lockwood.
At the time of Singh’s death in 1839, his empire extended from the Khyber Pass to Tibet.
“Singh, however, was more than a mere conqueror,” said Lockwood.
“While the Indian subcontinent was riven with imperial competition, religious strife and wars of conquest, Singh was, almost uniquely, a unifier—a force for stability, prosperity and tolerance…. He also went to great lengths to ensure religious freedom within his lands.
“He patronised Hindu temples and Sufi shrines, attended Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, married Hindu and Muslim women, and even banned the slaughter of cows to protect the religious sensitivities of Hindus.”
His most spectacular legacy is, unarguably, Armitsar’s Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple. He rebuilt the temple twice—with marble in 1809, and gold in 1830.
And, as per history, it was Singh who owned the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is now part of the Crown Jewels.
As Singh died in 1839, his empire “devolved into a series of succession struggles, coups, and assassinations as his heirs and other elites vied for power”, paving the way for the British East India Company.
Subsequently, after two Anglo-Sikh wars, Singh’s territory became part of the British empire.
Editor of BBC World Histories, Matt Elton, said: “Ranjit Singh’s overwhelming success in our poll suggests that the qualities of his leadership continue to inspire people around the world in the 21st century.
“And, at a time of global political tensions, it’s telling that Singh’s rule is interpreted as representing ideals of tolerance, freedom and cooperation.”