Remembering Ranbir Singh

Satparkash Suri
Maharaja Ranbir Singh breathed his last on 12th September, 1885 at Jammu and his eldest son, Mian Pratap Singh was formally recognized as successor to the throne of Jammu and Kashmir State, The British Indian Government exploited the strained relations between Pratap Singh and his younger brothers, Ram Singh and Amar Singh, and they made acceptance of a British Resident a pre-condition for giving recognition to his succession to the throne in 1885. Maharaja Ranbir Singh (1830-1885) after being installed as the Ruler on the throne of Jammu & Kashmir State on 20th February, 1856 did not change the basic structure of the personal rule which his father, Maharaja Gulab singh, had adopted in running the administration and gave positive dimensions to his rule. He inherited a government which was disorganized and its economy was in shambles and limpimg. He wanted to breathe prosperity, peace and to usher an era of reforms for his subjects. As he took over the centre stage of administration, he vigorously crafted policies and potential innovative measures to launch his rule because he wanted to bring out the State from the shackles of poverty and exploitation.
Maharaja Gulab Singh was eager to install Ranbir Singh on the throne of the State during his life time because by 1856, his health had worsened. Confirmation for Ranbir Singh’s ascendancy to throne was required by the British Rulers in India. Gulab Singh’s friendly and diplomatic relations, his influence and status with the British officialdom weighed in his favour. At twenty – six Ranbir Singh had sufficient experience and rigorous training under his father to assume the onerous responsibility as a ruler of the largest Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. He was inspired by the youthful ambitious and impassioned zeal to uplift the socio-economic status of the State.
Ranbir Singh’s administration was required to remove the scars of many centuries of maladministration, mismanagement and harsh rules of the Afghans and the Sikhs under whom the conditions of the local inhabitants had deteriorated. Cultivation had suffered, there were almost prohibitive duties levied on all the goods imported or exported from the State and the justice had become a commercial commodity. He completely overhauled the administrative machinery, made an attempt to demarcate the various functions of the administration and established several separate departments for the Army; foreign relations; home affairs; civil departments besides religious endowments. He was desirous of an over-night change for the better lot of his subjects as he felt himself responsible to God for the care of his people.
Ranbir Singh was the third youngest and the only surviving son of Gulab Singh who was entrusted the mantle of Rulership of the State. He was married to the daughter of Raja Bijai Singh of Siba in Kangra in June 1843. Raja Suchet Singh was issueless so he had adopted Ranbir Singh who spent his boyhood mostly in Ramnagar which was the Jagir of Suchet Singh. Suchet Singh was strikingly handsome, accomplished courtier and surveyor of petitions of Lahore court as well as a popular military commander. There were murder attempts on the life of Maharja Ranbir Singh during the early years of his rule hatched by his close relatives in nexus with the disgruntled conspirators. Jawahir Singh, a cousin and son of Dhyan Singh joined hands with Mian Hathu, the Governor of Rajouri, to eliminate Ranbir Singh while he would be on a hunting spree below the dense forests of Gumat. Subedar Gulabu Langeh, one of the conspirators shot him when he was sitting on a raised platform erected for hunting purpose, but this shot missed the target and the Maharaja escaped unhurt. But the search for the killers started. It was through the efforts of Ganesha Bhalwal along with Sheikh Saudagar that the whole conspiracy was exposed when prominent rebels – Ganjan Deva and Mallu Salathia of Chogan Salathia of Jammu; Mohru Thakkar; Udey Singh Bandral; Jawahar Manhas; Nar Singh Das Raina and Jittu Gajodia were holding a secret meeting to kill the Maharaja in their next attempt. All the persons involved in this conspiracy were caught red handed and tried and their punishments were decided on 10th of February, 1860 by the Maharaja himself except Jawahir Singh who was let off without a trial.
An expedition force was especially raised and trained under the command of Colonel Devi Singh Narania, Colonel Bijai Singh and General Hoshiara Singh to annex the north-east Tribal areas because Maharaja Gulab Singh was unable to subjugate Gilgit and other tribal areas during his life time. There was a rebellion in Gilgit and the tribal Rajas of Yasin, Hunza and Nagar gave a deadly blow and inflicted heavy casualties on Dogra forces and only a Gorkha woman survived who swam across the Indus to tell the gory tale of this disaster. This hostility and revolt raised by them was a discredit to the reputation of Gulab Singh as a soldier who was in his failing health. Maharaja Gulab Singh laid the foundation of a stable administration in the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir, but the credit of reconquering Gilgit and the subjugation of Hunza and Nagar, Ponial and Yasin went to Maharaja Ranbir Singh.
Maharaja Ranbir Singh established the Justice department and regular courts came into being during his reign. For the smooth running of this department, criminal and civil laws were formulated and later on consolidated into Ranbir Dandh Bidhi or Ranbir Penal Code which are in practice till today and form the part of the State constitution. He made Justice prompt, cheaper and regular because the people’s faith in the prevailing judicial system had waned due to the tardy disposal of justice. He handed over the judicial department to executive officials and he made himself available to the generality of his subjects. The Maharaja held two Durbars a day where all petitions were received and heard. Petitions were dictated by the Maharaja to the Munshi who read them in the Durbar. For political prisoners and rebels, separate cells were constructed in jails and those convicted for life- imprisonment, forts were built in the far flung frontier areas. Food and dresses of the prisoners were decided and arrangements for them were made systematically.
The British interference in the internal affairs of the State was very aggressive. The Governor General in a communication recommended the appointment of a British Resident in the Kashmir Durbar in 1873. But Maharaja Ranbir Singh in a well reasoned communication pointed out that there was no such provision in the Amritsar treaty of 1846 to appoint a Resident Officer in the State. They were not successful in imposing a Resident so they started a campaign of vilification against the Ruler and his administration.
The officer on special duty at the Durbar, Major Henderson had hoisted the ‘Union Jack’ over his official residence. Maharaja Bahadur deputed Babu Nilamber Mukerji, his most trusted confidante minister to convey that the Resident would not be allowed to fly the Union Jack because it would be an contravention of the Sannads and the Treaty at his disposal.
The great ghastly famine which struck the valley in 1877 washed away all the potential and populist measures taken by the Maharaja to improve the socio-economic conditions of the shawl weavers, agriculturists and the other labour classes. It plunged the entire valley into the jaws of starvation and the scarcity of all food grains. The Maharaja employed all his resources and administrative machinery to fight this calamity. The British officialdom in collaboration with the Anglo-Indian press added fuel to the fire by concocting incredible fictitious stories of lukewarm attitude of the State Government and exploited the situation to malign the Ruler. They accused the Maharaja of drowning one and half lac of his poverty stricken muslim subjects in the Wular Lake ‘to save his grains’ and to support this unfounded allegation, the British produced a forged letter of the Maharaja ordering for this diabolical action. The British joined hands with the anti-Dogra elements in Kashmir against the wishful intentions of the Ruler who had done every thing that was humanly possible to ameliorate the sufferings of the majority community.
The witnesses who had been promised Jagirs by the arch-intriguer, the officer on special duty, when examined the matter seemed to assume the serious dimensions of humiliation for the Maharaja. The Government of India appointed an enquiry commission to delve deep and probe this serious matter. The persons who were alleged to had been drowned in the Wular Lake presented themselves before the enquiry commission in flesh and blood which exposed the hypocrisy plotted by the officer on special duty with the nexus of a few Kashmiris. The whole sinister game plan of the British to regain the possession of Kashmir flopped and ended in a complete fiasco.
During his 28 years rule he achieved unparalleled prosperity for his subjects, he remained unruffled and unfazed, successfully foiled all British strategies to impose the Resident in the State and through out his rule maintained complete and unrestricted independence in the internal matters and gave to Jammu and Kashmir an enviable political identity.