Ranjit Singh, whose name was nominated by the University of Alabama assistant professor Mathhew Lockwood, polled more than 38 per cent votes.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire, has been named the “Greatest Leader of All Time” in a poll conducted by BBC World Histories Magazine. More than 5000 readers participated in the poll.
Ranjit Singh, whose name was nominated by the University of Alabama assistant professor Mathhew Lockwood, polled more than 38 per cent votes. He was nominated for forging a modern empire of tolerance.
African Independence Fighter Amílcar Cabral, who united more than 1 million Guineans to free themselves from Portuguese occupation, came in second place followed by two time UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill (nominated for refusing to accept capitulation to Hitler), former US president Abraham Lincoln (for championing working people and the emanicipation of slaves); and Queen of England and Ireland from 1558-1603 Elizabeth I (for reestablishing peace and building national power after tumult).
The nominations were sought from global historians, including Lockwood, Rana Mitter, Margaret MacMillan and Gus Casely-Hayford, who selected their “greatest leader” – someone who exercised power and had a positive impact on humanity.
The resulting top 20 included some of the most celebrated leaders in history across the globe from the UK, the US, to Asia and Africa, including the likes of Mughal Emperor Akbar, French military leader Joan of Arc and Russian Empress Catherine the Great, Japanese feudal lord Oda Nobunaga, Pope Innocent III, and Oliver Cromwell.
“Taking more than 38 per cent of the vote, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was described by Lockwood as a modernising and uniting force, whose reign “marked a golden age for Punjab and north-west India”,” read a post on HistoryExtra, the official website of BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and BBC World Histories Magazine.
Exploring the life and achievements of Ranjit Singh, Lockwood noted: “On 27 June 2019, a statue was unveiled in Lahore Fort in Pakistan. The equestrian sculpture had been commissioned to mark the 180th anniversary of the death of one of Lahore’s most famous and significant historical figures. But even more than that, in a region riven by ethnic and religious strife, in an era scarred by rising religious fundamentalism and growing tension between India and Pakistan, the statue was intended to be a symbol of a previous age of toleration and stability, and the near-mythical ruler who presided over it: Maharaja Ranjit Singh.”
“Ranjit Singh had come of age in a similarly fractious age. When he was born in Gujranwala just north of Lahore in November 1780, the once-mighty Mughal empire, which had dominated the Indian subcontinent for centuries was in the last stages of terminal decline. As its power dimmed across the 18th century, a host of local and regional powers emerged to fill the vacuum. In the south the sultans of Mysore and the nizams of Hyderabad carved out independent kingdoms. In the basin of the river Ganges, the nawabs of Oudh and Bengal struggled with the Maratha Confederacy to fill the gap left by the Mughal retreat,” Lockwood further noted.
“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. But when his father died in 1792, the 12-year-old heir to Sukerchakia Misl – small in stature, his left eye blinded and his face scarred by smallpox – was an unlikely candidate for the founder of an empire,” Lockwood pointed out.
“By the time Ranjit Singh was born in 1780, Afghan raids, chronic infighting among Punjab’s various misls (sovereign states) and the looming presence of British expansion left the region politically fragile, economically weak and religiously splintered. All this changed with the rise of Singh, the ‘Lion of Punjab’,” the HistoryExtra post read.
“To secure the internal stability of the empire, Ranjit married a series of women – at least 18, but as many as 46 – from the ruling families of the region. Plural marriage was common practice among Punjabi elites at the time, a symbol of status but also a crucial means of cementing alliances,” Lockwood observed.
“The stunning rise of the Sikh empire made Ranjit Singh a celebrity. A French traveller compared him to Napoleon in miniature, while other observers praised him as a “military genius” and 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”,” Lockwood noted.
“In a religiously diverse region, however, military might alone could not ensure stability. Ranjit Singh thus struck a careful balance between his role as a faithful Sikh ruler and his desire to act as friend and protector of his empire’s Muslim and Hindu people. He thus embarked on a public campaign to restore Sikh temples – most notably rebuilding the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, at Amritsar in marble (1809) and gold (1830) – while also donating a tonne of gold to plate the Hindu Kashi Vishwanath temple to Lord Shiva in Varanasi. He patronised Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Sufi shrines, and in a nod to Hindu sensibilities banned the slaughter of cows. In his lands, forced conversions were largely unheard of, and even his Muslim and Hindu wives were freely allowed to practice their faiths. On a few occasions he did convert mosques to other uses – Lahore’s Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) became Moti Mandir (Pearl Temple) – but he tried, with some success, to limit the destruction of conquered religious sites. He was a conqueror, even a unifier, not a crusader,” Lockwood stated.