The Sikh period (1799-1849) is probably the most interesting, and colourful, 50 years in the history of Punjab. After almost 777 years of foreign rule, starting from the Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni ousting the Hindu Shahi rulers until the time Maharajah Ranjit Singh entered the gates of Lahore, Punjabis had not ruled their own land. That moment is the starting point of the story of The Resourceful Fakirs, a book which dwells on how three famous Muslim brothers, Fakir Azizuddin, Imamuddin and Nuruddin, managed in the Sikh court of Ranjit Singh.
The author of The Resourceful Fakirs, Fakir Syed Aijazuddin, is also from the same Fakir family to which the three brothers belonged, all of them trusted ministers of the maharajah. They assisted him in writing treaties, and it goes to their credit that while the maharajah’s family and other relations betrayed the Sikh cause after his death in 1839, the Fakir family remained loyal, or at best, silent. In the foreword to the book, William Dalrymple has summed up the changing times in which the brothers lived when he says: “Few post-Mughal courts had the military power and discipline to take on the armies of the East India Company. But one that did with great success was Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire.” The role of the three Fakir brothers, more so Azizuddin’s, the foreign minister, has to be seen in this context, for they were instrumental in tempering the mercurial Sikhs to opt for peace and secure borders in order to consolidate. This policy paid rich dividends, and the three brothers ran the most important functions of the state.
The book begins with tracing the origins of the family and quickly, based on excellent research and historical documents, moves on to follow the main events in the life and times of Ranjit Singh. Azizuddin’s initial achievements were two peace agreements signed with the British. His diplomatic forays across the Sutlej always bore fruit, and because of this, Azizuddin certainly has a special place in the history of Punjab. The maharajah certainly followed the spirit of these agreements with great care, in the process always making sure the ‘enemy’ knew about the growing striking power of the Sikh Khalsa army. This balance, more than anything else, kept the peace.
By the end of the maharajah’s rule, it was clear that the revenues of the Punjab state had exceeded the expenditures of the lavish ruler. Aijazuddin’s meticulous research shows how the financial imbalance of the once glorious Lahore darbar proved to be its undoing. The need for more and more money led to Ranjit Singh striking out to the north, then to the south and finally to the west to secure income for the growing needs of his armies. The chapter ‘Ambition and Avarice’ highlights reasons why ultimately this great Lahore darbar imploded.
The Resourceful Fakirs is essentially focused on the three brothers as they worked their way through this period. Given the course of history, the manner in which the Afghans were handled can add considerably to our understanding of our neighbours who the Sikhs overcame by matching in brutality. In the end, there was a need to talk which is when Azizuddin’s skill came into play, which is just one aspect of the work of the brothers in diplomacy and finance.
Aijazuddin is a prolific writer with over a dozen books to his credit. His work on Lahore, as well as his documentation of the Sikh period art, has lasting value. This book about his famous ancestors may be considered as a contribution long overdue. Many of the episodes described in the book are well-known historic events. For example, the manner in which the Koh-i-Noor diamond was secured makes compulsive reading, as do other such episodes.
The details of the period after the death of Ranjit Singh and the manner in which the British made inroads in Punjab is a subject that has not been written about much. Aijazuddin has come up with details seldom pieced together, all with the assistance of documents that only he could have access to, for most of them are family-owned.
Of interest is also the role of outstanding people on the British side, such as Thomas Metcalfe. His letters to the East India Company are reproduced to put before the reader two sides of the same picture. In this respect, this is a unique book, for it leaves the reader with the luxury of forming his or her own opinion. But then, of greater importance is the role of the leading Sikh sardars of the time. From the dairies and letters of the Fakirs, one is able to discover these characters in Punjabi history and see how their loyalty or betrayal resulted in the end of one of the greatest empires in the post-Mughal era.
The book also carries pictures of the Fakir brothers, as well as the famous Sikhs they served. The famous Fakir Khana inside Bhati Gate in Lahore hosts the family’s collection of books and documents. Aijazuddin has used all these sources to piece together an outstanding book.
The Resourceful Fakirs: Three Muslim Brothers at the Sikh Court of Lahore
By Fakir Syed Aijazuddin
Three Rivers Publishers, India