Britain’s decision to take military action against Syria is like Alice in Wonderland: ‘sentence first-verdict afterwards’, says Lord Singh
Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has said that the Cabinet’s decision to deploy military strikes against President Assad is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, citing Alice’s bogus trial when the Queen says, ‘sentence first – verdict afterwards’.
In a scathing speech, the crossbencher spoke out powerfully against the rank hypocrisy of Western military interventions in the Middle East. He cited Britain’s morally reprehensible arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, which continue to be deployed in a bloody war in Yemen against Houthis. Moreover he said he was personally ‘appalled’ when a Minister told him we should not raise human rights issues with China when talking about trade – the Minister’s suggestion here being trade trumps human rights.
Speaking from a Sikh perspective and challenging the established orthodoxy of today’s ‘power-bloc politics’ Lord Singh said, ‘Sikh teachings on the prevention of conflict almost parallel the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated after the horror of the Second World War, and they stress the dignity and equality of all members of our one human family. They also legitimise the use of military force only as a last recourse when all other means have failed.’
Lord Singh said, that he found propaganda justifying military intervention in reported government statements as ‘morally questionable and hypocritical’. He said, Assad is no angel, but like many other leaders in the region we [Britain] have ‘propped up’ a brutal dictator. He said countries that we don’t like become to be known as ‘regimes’, and Assad himself has been referred to as a ‘monster’, which could be counterproductive if Britain is to be involved in future negotiations on the Syrian issue, something the PM has indicated to be a possible solution to the conflict.
He said, ‘I am saddened by the hypocrisy of our government and the governments of the USA and France. While wringing their hands about the monster Assad’s supposed chemical weapon attack on little children, they have all in the last two or three of weeks signed billion-dollar deals with Saudi Arabia to export arms for use in Yemen, so that Saudi Arabia can strut its military might in the Middle East with the continued bombing of men, women and little children in Yemen.’
He went on, ‘We are then expected to believe that President Assad, having secured control of much of the country, suddenly decides to launch a chemical attack on a children’s hospital. It could be true, although it sounds implausible, but it gave the US President an opportunity to withdraw from the conflict flourishing his military might. France and Britain dutifully backed him in a combined military strike against Assad. President Trump predictably tweeted “Mission accomplished”. It is sad that our PM should feel duty-bound to back military action prior to any investigation. I thought that it was only in Alice in Wonderland that we had the saying, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards”.’
In conclusion he said, ‘The whole concept of supposed strategic interest has, over the centuries, been shown to be deeply flawed and a recipe for continuing conflict. A Christian hymn reminds us: “They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin”. It is a truth echoed in Sikh teachings and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The only strategic interest worth pursuing is respect for human rights and social justice for all and for future generations in our highly interdependent world.’
Lord Singh’s full speech can be read here.
If ever you need a reference point on one man’s battle against institutional racism, then we recommend you get a copy of Gurpal Virdi’s book out today – Behind the Blue Line.
It is fair to say Virdi has been through it all. In 1998 as a police Sergeant in the MET he was falsely accused (and dismissed) for sending racist e-mails to himself, and other BAME officers and was subsequently exonerated. On his reinstatement to work, he says his career was essentially over because he’d spoken out and challenged racism in the police. However, what would have deterred a lesser man didn’t stop Virdi. He has successfully taken the MET to two industrial tribunals for discrimination, and bravely gave evidence to the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence – when he knew of the consequences. He is also the subject of the VIRDI inquiry report.
After his retirement, in 2014, he decided to enter local politics as a Labour candidate. Just before the election, he was falsely accused by the MET of a sexual offence against a minor and abandoned by many of his friends, so called colleagues and the Labour Party. He stood and won as an Independent. In 2015, a jury took 50 minutes to clear him of charges from an alleged incident in 1986. The presiding judge, His Honor Judge Andrew Goymer said a conspiracy may be behind the case. Despite his lengthy battles for justice and equality, Virdi remains a man who encompasses the Sikh ethos of chardi kala, or everlasting optimism.
We at the NSO have worked with Gurpal Virdi for many years and collaborated with him during his role at the Metropolitan Police Sikh Association (MPSA). Our Director, Lord Singh of Wimbledon was incensed at the allegations leveled against Virdi in 2014 and supported him during the trial.
We don’t often give book recommendations, but Gurpal’s journey in Behind the Blue Line is the rare exception as an injustice can happen to any one of us.
The Mirror’s recent article on grooming gangs highlights the best of British journalism, but we have filed a complaint to IPSO regarding use of the term ‘Asian’
The term ‘Asian’ continues to be regrettably used as a euphemism, when it comes to the identity of those convicted in the majority of Britain’s sexual grooming cases. The report in the Mirror last Sunday focusing in on Telford, rightly describes this horrifying issue as an ‘epidemic’. Whilst we are indebted to the investigative journalists behind this important report, the continuing smearing of ‘Asians’ per se is appalling, as the term encompasses swathes of communities from across the Indian subcontinent. This cowardly non-specific description of the perpetrators continues to be used in the British press, to describe men of predominantly Pakistani Muslim heritage convicted in grooming gang cases. We believe this is in part due to the fear of offending Muslims.
The media’s reluctance to describe perpetrators of these despicable crimes with clear and honest language, has elicited angry responses from Sikhs and Hindus, who’ve contacted us to express their outrage following the Mirror’s article. It has upset Pakistani Christians too. To put it frankly, the word ‘Asian’ gives the false impression gangs of Indian, Thai, Japanese or Korean men are rampaging across Britain sexually abusing underage white girls on an industrial scale. Is that fair? We suggest that this vague terminology isn’t only an insult, smearing innocent communities, but also serves to mask the fact that girls from Hindu and Sikh communities have historically fallen foul of grooming gangs themselves. The common denominator in such cases is the deliberate targeting of non-Muslim girls, which we believe should be categorized by the police as a hate crime.
Although we applaud the bravery of Nick Sommerlad and Geraldine McKelvie for their excellent journalism in the Mirror’s report, the NSO has reluctantly chosen to file a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), because of the liberal use of the word ‘Asian’ in the article to describe the identity of the offenders. Given the importance of their work, we did not take this decision lightly. However, we believe use of the word ‘Asian’ to describe sexual grooming by men of predominantly Pakistani Muslim heritage, whilst being both irresponsible and inaccurate, masks the real identity of those perpetrating these heinous crimes.
Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO)
Back in 2008 Faith Matters, the organisation behind Tell MAMA (the Muslim hate crime monitor) organised a ‘cohesive communities’ project for British Sikhs and Muslims to address, ‘the growing gulf between Sikhs and Muslims in certain localised areas of England’. It was held in Corrymeela (Ballycastle) between 4th-6th July 2008, a centre famous for conflict resolution at the height of sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland. According to FOI disclosures seen by the NSO the project cost the taxpayer £33,600.
Following the residential course four (out of nine) of the Sikh participants felt disgruntled enough to publish what they called an ‘Alternative Report’, (dated 1 October 2008) to express their concerns. They wrote: ‘In the view of many Sikh participants, the whole exercise proved faulty and dysfunctional; and failed to enable a wholesome and engaged dialogue on the critical Sikh-Muslims issues.’
In the same year the founder of Faith Matters, Mr Fiyaz Mughal, talked about the project in an article published by Faith Matters titled: ‘Cohesive Communities: Bridging Divides Between Muslim and Sikh Communities.’ He writes: ‘As the name suggests, the Cohesive Communities project was a chance for key issues to be aired and a start to the interaction process between both faiths. It was not meant as a basis to provide legitimisation for either community to use the report or its findings against the other and we firmly adhere to this principal.’
Despite the assurances given above, in June 2012, the following tweets (which were later removed following a complaint) making derogatory references to Sikh participants in Corrymeela were published by @FaithMattersUK.
We understand Faith Matters/Tell MAMA has recently organised a ‘round-table’ to discuss hate crime with Sikhs. This is in fact an area in which Sikhs led by the NSO have made significant progress, firstly by unearthing a breakdown of data from the MET police (through FOI) that shows significant numbers of non-Muslims, or those of no recorded faith (in 2015 and 2016) are being recorded under the ‘Islamophobic hate crime category’. In addition, we have a firm commitment from policy makers on a specific project for Hindus and Sikhs with True Vision – the police hate-crime reporting portal, which we hope to progress with our partners in the Hindu community this year.
We believe the 2012 tweets made by @FaithMattersUK, particularly the comparing of Sikhs who entered interfaith dialogue in good faith with Faith Matters to the EDL, and the accompanying hashtag #wolvesinsheepsclothing, are simply not compatible with the aim in creating harmonious relations between British Sikhs and Muslims, or promoting the concept of ‘cohesive communities.’
In the circumstances, it is our advice that Sikh groups should be wary of any partnerships, given what we view to be a previous betrayal.
Network of Sikh Organisations
The Home Affairs Committee inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences have published our second piece of written evidence which can be viewed here.
We are delighted that one of our policy recommendations from last year was heeded by Ministers, but it still needs to be implemented. We will be pushing for action on this specific commitment to Hindus and Sikhs, and would like to see the initiative implemented this year.
Despite this limited success, the NSO continues to be disheartened by the government’s lack of parity when it comes to the suffering of non-Abrahamic faith communities. Especially given FOI disclosures to us (for 2015 and 2016) from the MET police revealed significant numbers of non-Muslims including Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists and Agnostics are being recorded as victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’.
We will continue to hold the government to account on what has clearly become a bias and ‘Abrahamic-centric’ policy approach to hate crime.
Background: Iain Bell Deputy National Statistician for Population and Public Policy at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had been invited to the gurdwara over the weekend to discuss concerns felt by the committee over attempts to categorise the Sikh community as an ethnic group. This was as a private meeting to be held with a few members of the committee. An invitation had also been extended to Lord Singh of Wimbledon. As he was not a member of the committee, he first obtained clearance from Iain Bell that it would be OK for him to attend.
On the day of the event a number of people from The Sikh Federation (SFUK) turned up uninvited at the gurdwara demanding to be heard. Ian Bell felt he’d already heard the SFUK’s views on a number of occasions, and wanted to hear the views of other parts of the Sikh community. The President of Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow generously allowed in individuals from the SFUK to join the meeting.
Iain Bell proceeded in giving a short presentation about the census and its importance. The meeting was then opened for general discussion. In an abuse of hospitality, the SFUK began recording proceedings and taking over the meeting, stating Sikhs were an ethnic group and must be monitored as such. Lord Singh of Wimbledon explained that the House of Lords in 1983 had allowed for Sikhs to be counted as an ethnic group solely for protection under the 1976 Race Relations Act. This this was done because there was then no protection against religious discrimination, but the situation today was different because all religions are protected by legislation. He explained that Sikhism was a world religion, which should not be confined to those of Punjabi ethnicity.
Iain Bell confirmed that there was no substantial under-recording of Sikhs in the response to the question on religion. In response to a question on the possible misuse of data, he also confirmed that that there were rigid checks in place to prevent this.
Lord Singh, emphasised that all Sikh organisations should use their influence to get the fullest possible response to the religious question. He reminded the meeting that at the time of the 2011 census some Sikhs had ill advisedly campaigned against identifying Sikhism by Sikhs as a religion.
In reply to a question Iain Bell of the ONS explained the importance of ethnicity in providing appropriate medical and other services to those from different parts of the world. Members of the Hounslow gurdwara management committee were unanimous in their view that Sikhs were members of a world religion that was not limited by constraints of ethnicity and people could be Sikhs from different ethnic backgrounds. Some of the arguments advanced by SFUK, varying between the questionable and ludicrous are given below:
Some of the arguments used by those who felt Sikhs should be recorded as a religion only are given below:
In response to calls from SFUK members to arrange more meetings, Iain Bell said that he would like to reflect on what he’d heard, and if whether or not an effective case had been made for a Sikh ethnic tick box or not. Members of the gurdwara committee made clear they saw no sense and only confusion in a separate Sikh ethnic tick box. Bell confirmed the ONS had received legal threats from certain sections of the Sikh community if the ‘ethnic Sikh tick box’ wasn’t included in the 2021 census.
The meeting concluded with the President Gurmit Singh Hanzara and all present thanking Iain Bell of the ONS for coming to Hounslow from South Wales on a Saturday, and wishing him by a comfortable journey back home.
Satvinder Singh Joint General Secretary at Hounslow gurdwara said: ‘Gurdwara, Sri Guru Singh Sabha Hounslow (SGSS) held a successful meeting on 16 December 2017 with the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The object of the meeting was for SGSS Managment to understand the overall situation and provide its view, which was in the main generated via a previous internal meeting.’
He went on: ‘In view of continued progress on the issue of ‘authenticity’, the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) not only kindly accepted our invitation to attend but also helped immensely by providing structure and input to the event. We are most thankful to Lord Indarjit Singh and the NSO for their contribution and assistance.’
On Monday evening representatives from the NSO participated in an Office for National Statistics (ONS) meeting in London regarding the Sikh Federation UK’s ongoing lobbying for the inclusion of a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box in the 2021 census.
Notably, the ONS informed audience members they had widely consulted Sikh groups, namely the Sikh Federation UK, the Sikh Network and the APPG for British Sikhs. To anyone outside the Sikh community this would on first inspection appear to be something of a community wide consultation. However the truth is all the aforementioned groups are in reality inextricably linked. Perhaps unbeknown to the ONS, Dabinderjit Singh is an advisor to the Sikh Federation UK, founder of the Sikh Network, and the Sikh Federation UK is the current secretariat to the APPG for British Sikhs. Preet Gill MP, Chair of the APPG remains an active board member of the Sikh Network. We take the view that this has therefore been far from a representative consultation with British Sikhs, but rather with the Sikh Federation UK, its affiliates and friends.
At the start of Monday’s discussion, our Director Lord Singh asked the ONS if they had taken into consideration Sikh teachings, and specifically the edict of Guru Nanak who rejected the labeling of individuals on caste, ethnic, race or any other lines of perceived difference. Sikh teachings emphasise the equality of all human beings. Lord Singh provided a robust Q&A on ‘Sikhs and ethnicity’ to the ONS at the meeting, which can be read here.
During the event another NSO delegate raised the issue of evidence-based research on South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans) that shows they are at more risk of strokes and heart attacks. He said healthcare professionals offer advice on lifestyle modification and prophylactic therapies, and ethnicity is an important risk factor for them to consider. We take the view that in such cases involving cardiovascular risk, it would be irresponsible and furthermore dangerous to deny one’s Indian heritage. The risk factor for a Sikh convert of Caucasian heritage would of course be different. We are confident the ONS will take this into consideration.
After careful deliberation, we’ve decided to speak out about some further concerns. In short, we were taken aback by the conduct of some of the delegates at the meeting. Amrik Singh, Chair of the Sikh Federation UK openly boasted that his organisation had previously sued the ONS, spending £10,000 in doing so. He did not however clarify the outcome of the litigation. After the event, some delegates (who have chosen to remain anonymous) informed us how the meeting environment had made them feel intimidated. One was aggressively told to ‘shut up’ in Punjabi. We are aware that some individuals subsequently flagged concerns with the organisers. Regrettably, our Director was also heckled and jeered for simply putting forward his point on Guru Nanak’s teachings.
Embarrassingly others accused the ONS of being like some kind of modern day extension of the British Empire, and playing ‘divide and rule’. An attendee told The Sikh Council supremo Gurmel Kandola to leave the room for not respecting the meeting format. Another supporting the Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box proposal, oddly suggested that the whole idea of Sikhism as a great world religion was an invention of the British. There appeared to be significant numbers of Sikh Federation supporters at the meeting, but regrettably very few Sikh women. We would like to take the opportunity to commend the ONS for their patience, expert facilitation and professionalism at an event fraught with difficulty and tension from the outset. They themselves faced significant vitriol from some of those present.
Importantly, the ONS shared their own quantitative research on the Sikh ‘ethnic group’ question, which was conducted with Sikhs in both Hounslow and Wolverhampton this year. These areas were chosen because of their sizeable Sikh communities. Summarising their findings the ONS concluded, there was no indication that the inclusion of the proposed box ‘provides any additional information over the religious question about the Sikh population’. Moreover they said the research, ‘indicated that the religious affiliation question better captures the size of the Sikh population’.
Q: What is ethnicity and why is it important?
A: Ethnicity refers to shared hereditary characteristics like environment, culture, religion, diet etc. Some of these factors are reflected in our DNA and the degree to which people from different cultures in different parts of the world are affected by certain diseases and ailments. For example, people from the West Indies are more prone to sickle cell anaemia. People from Punjab are more likely to suffer from heart and liver disease than people in the West.
Identifying ethnicity is particularly helpful in the planning of medical services to meet the needs of immigrants from different parts of the world.
Q: What is the link between ethnicity and religion?
A: Religion is considered relevant to ethnicity because those sharing a religion in a particular part of the world, often share a common diet and lifestyle.
Q: What was the Mandla Case and why is it sometimes mentioned in Sikh discussions on ethnicity.
A: The Mandla Case was fought in 1982. It concerned a Sikh schoolboy Gurinder Singh Mandla who was being denied entry to a school wearing a turban on the grounds that it was against the school rules. The Head agreed that it was religious discrimination but not against the law. At the time there was no law against religious discrimination.
Q: The 1976 Race Relations Act protected people against discrimination on the grounds of race, nationality and ethnic origin, but not against discrimination on the grounds of religion.
A: The then Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) wanted to try to prove that Sikhs were a race. In a meeting in my house with representatives of Bindman and Partners (solicitors for the CRE), the Barrister Harjit Singh and myself, I advised against the use of race as the concept of different races was against Sikh teachings, which emphasise we are all members of one human race. Instead we agreed to go for the less rigid concept ethnicity, on the grounds that most Sikhs in the UK at the time came were born in the Punjab, spoke Punjabi as their first language, shared Punjabi culture and common diet.
The case went up to the House of Lords where the Judges ruled that for the purpose of protection against discrimination, we could be considered an ethnic group.
Q: Does this mean that Sikhs are a distinct ethnic Group?
A: No. It simply means that Sikhs from any part of the world, including converts of any ethnicity, are entitled to protection against discrimination while in the UK as if they were a distinct ethnic group. We still retain the ethnicity with which we were born. Our DNA and susceptibility or relative immunity to some diseases cannot be changed by legislation.
Q: Are there any advantages in writing ‘Sikh’ in the ethnic tick box?
A: It is claimed that monitoring will result in improved opportunities in employment and in the provision of services to the Sikh community. In reality, ethnic monitoring can only provide a broad snapshot of relative disadvantage. There is no evidence of any community actually benefitting from ethnic monitoring. On the other hand there is clear evidence of Jews and Muslims using political lobbying to enhance their position.
Q: Are there any disadvantages in writing ‘Sikh’ in the ethnic tick box.
A: Yes. Firstly, If a large employer, like the BBC were monitored to see if they were employing an acceptable quota of Sikhs, it might be shown that they were employing an acceptable number of ‘supposed ethnic Sikhs’. It would not reveal any discrimination against visible identity Sikhs. It should be remembered that the Mandla Case was fought to protect Sikh identity. Practicing Sikhs and non-practicing Sikhs would be seen as one and the same.
Q: Shouldn’t non-practicing Sikhs be protected by law.
A: Of course. As Sikhs we should be committed to protecting all people against discrimination, religious or otherwise. However, in reality, Sikhs without a visible identity, suffer no more discrimination than say, Hindus and Muslims. We should not compromise the Gurus’s teachings to give additional protection to those not committed to Sikh teachings.
Q: Why do you feel strongly against Sikhs calling themselves an ethnic group.
A: In the 60s I saw a Daily Telegraph crossword with a clue-4 letters; a Punjabi Hindu, The answer the next day was ‘Sikh’. In schools nothing was known about Sikh teachings and we were described as martial race or tribe. Hindu leaders insisted that Sikhs were simply a sub-set of Hindus.
Some of us worked hard to show that the uplifting teachings of our Gurus constituted a distinct religion that in its tolerance and respect for different beliefs had much to offer today’s world. Through broadcasts and the media, in interfaith meetings and in lectures across the world, including the Vatican, and in discussions on the school curriculum, we managed to get Sikhism recognised as one of the six major religions of the world.
Sikhs in the UK, Canada and many parts of the world are competing successfully without ethnic monitoring. It is sad to see some people, for questionable motives trying to reduce us to some sort of ethnic tribe to be monitored and counted like some sort of endangered species.
Sikhs should focus on trying to ensure that all Sikhs enter ‘Sikh’ in the religious tick box with pride in our Guru given identity.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon
My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, Good evening. Thank you Lord Sheikh for giving me this opportunity to say a few words on this joyous occasion if the launch of the book Emperor of the Five Rivers. I am delighted and indeed honoured to have this opportunity. In only ten minutes, I will try to do some justice to this superbly written book. Usually we say that no self respecting Sikh will speak less than an hour. Let’s see.
Emperor of the Five Rivers provides a fascinating insight into an important period in Sikh history. It is both a well researched and reference book for the serious scholar and an enjoyable read. The author is to be congratulated for a remarkable addition to Sikh literature.
The book is set against a background of British expansion in India and the savage culture of the times. It provides a fascinating account of Ranjit Singh’s generosity, courage and extraordinary humanity in an age of unabashed greed and cruel regimes.
I found it a well researched book, with helpful references providing vivid examples of Ranjit Singh’s humility and compassion and extraordinary diplomatic skills. It also shows his human weaknesses including a fondness of wine and beautiful women.
Appropriately the story begins with how the teachings of the Sikh Gurus helped shape Ranjit Singh’s character and his attitude to religion and politics. We learn that the young Ranjit was virtually illiterate but possessed a sharp brain and an intense interest in the world about him. He would sit for hours in the gurdwara [a Sikh temple], listening to the stories of the Gurus and the respect they showed to the people of other religions.
The book shows how these teachings had a huge influence on the young Ranjit and the way in which behaved to both his subjects and his defeated enemies, in his sprawling empire which extended beyond the subcontinent to Kabul and Tibet, earning him popular acclaim as the ‘Lion of Punjab’. His inclusive attitude to other religions and nationalities is shown by the fact that he employed several French and European generals in his army and that more than half of his governing cabinet consisted of non- Sikhs.
Even in those early days Sikh Gurus’ teaching of equality of women with men was not forgotten by Ranjit Singh. Among his most famous commanders was his mother in law Maharani Sada Kaur, who was leading her armies at Lahore, Amritsar and other places. She was his advisor and a confidante for many years.
As Lord Sheikh writes, ‘ He handed responsibilities to those best able to discharge them, whatever their religion.’Again on page 47, Far more important aspect of Ranjit’s religious faith was its tolerance. Unlike either Islam or Christianity, Sikhism was not a missionary religion. Sikhs believed utterly in their religion and were only too happy for others to join them, but they did not try to coerce anyone to do so. Nor did they view non-Sikhs with contempt. This attitude underpinned Ranjit Singh’s entire religious outlook. Many calls him a secular ruler, but as pointed out by Lord Sheikh, Ranjit Singh was a Sikh ruler in the true sense whose rule was secular.
The author notes many examples of Ranjit Singh’s humility. He struck a coin for the investiture that paid tribute to Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, he dispensed with his right to wear his crown or sit on a throne. He continued to preside over the Darbar sitting cross-legged on a modest chair. His modesty was entirely in keeping with the republican nature of Sikhism, and in total contrast to the way in which oriental kings normally presented themselves. Story of a Muslim calligraphist who had spent years transcribing the Qur’an beautifuly by hand was about to leave the Punjab to sell his product as no one would buy it. Ranjit summoned him to an audience, respectfully pressed the piece of work against his head, purchased it giving more than the asking price and later presented it to Fakir Aziz-ud-din.
Ranjit made it an ironclad rule that his armies would not indulge in carnage, burn holy books or destroy places of worship. The civilian population would remain free to carry on with their normal activities and no women were to be molested. When Ranjit rode through Peshawar after wresting it from the Afghans, the holy people of the city prayed openly for his long life.
It was not only Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who enjoyed his generous patronage. Among his advisers in the highest ranks of his army , were French, English, Scots, Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Spaniards and Greeks.The Maharaja, illiterate but thirsty for knowledge would spend hours with these ‘firangees’, as they were called, learning about their country and their way of life.
The book gives a fascinating insight into the diplomatic intrigues of the East India Company and the British government; the shadow boxing between the Sikhs and the British, each wary and respectful of the other’s strength. We learn how the astute Ranjit Singh successfully countered British moves to extend their domination and control to the fertile and rich area of Punjab. Each side would maintain outwardly cordial relations with the other indulge in lavish hospitality and the exchange of fine gifts, while at the same time spying on the military strength of the other.
Emperor of the Five Rivers shows, in an easily readable way, how under Ranjit Singh’s enlightened rule, Punjab and the other areas enjoyed peace and prosperity for forty years. This part of the continent had seen only conflict and suffering, and sadly is still experiencing terrible conflict and religious extremism.
The Maharaja is shown as a knowledgeable patron of the arts with a priceless collection of jewellery, shawls and other beautiful works of art. He gave generously to gurdwaras and religious buildings of other faiths, not only in Punjab but other parts of India. He gave endowments and charities to all religions – put gold on Hermandir Sahib, became known as Golden Temple, gold plated temple in Banaras.
In the two Anglo Sikh wars of the 1840s the brave virtually leaderless Khalsa Army was narrowly defeated but not before it had shaken British rule in India to its very core. The author ruefully observes that if its leaders had not made shameful deals with the British, the whole history of the sub continent would have been entirely transformed.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was one of the most charismatic figures in Sikh history who ruled much of North India including Punjab, present day Pakistan and Kashmir from 1801 until his death in 1839. Think of the romantic image that Richard the Lionheart has in English history: add to it the judgement and wisdom of Solomon and you have some idea of the place that Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ‘Lion of Punjab’, holds in the heart of every Sikh, Hindu and Muslim in Punjab.
Ranjit Singh was powerful enough to have ruled in a totally autocratic way. Instead, he saw himself as the head of a commonwealth and took decisions only after consultation with other Sikh and non-Sikh leaders. It was fine while he lived. He was the hub at the centre, the referee between selfish and often conflicting interests. Ranjit Singh’s own personality was the glue that kept together a vast and sprawling empire. In military terms, Ranjit Singh’s commonwealth was so strong that even the all-powerful English to the South, though keen to establish their influence northwards, hesitated to face him on the battlefield. For some two generations, Punjab enjoyed, for the first time in its entire history, truly secular government.
And then in 1839, Ranjit Singh died and it all fell apart. Internal feuding between warring factions took place. There was treachery and betrayal. The English saw their chance. Two hard fought wars between the largely leaderless Sikhs and the English ensued and,within ten years, nothing was left of Ranjit Singh’s vast empire.
The strength of the Rule under Maharaja Ranjit Singh lay in the power source of Sikh teachings. Ranjit Singh was fired by the ideals of equality, selfless service, humility and concern for the less privileged. When those that followed Ranjit Singh, ignored these ideals, decay was certain.
We have a great lesson to learn from this book. Emperor of the Five Rivers clearly shows us that Sikhs Hindus, Muslims and by today’s extension Christians and Jews can live together in peace and harmony if their rule is even handed, be they elected, selected or hereditary.
A thanks to Lord Sheikh for bringing true history to us, without any bias. When I interviewed him for Sikh Channel and asked him how Ranjit singh was so well versed in all areas of administration, his reply was that Ranjit Singh was ‘a genius’. This one word genius, very appropriately describes the man of his book Emperor of the Five Rivers.
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak at the launch of your book and thank you all for listening to me.