Sikh history shows that Punjabi women have been active in politics for centuries, says British historian Priya Atwal

Ranjit Singh never would have become Maharaja without the protective support of his mother, Raj Kaur..

As opposed to the popular narrative that brings religion into the Sikh-Mughal conflict, the historical relationship between the two had too many shares of grey, writes British historian Priya Atal in her book, Royals And Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire. Atwal, who is a researcher at Oxford, tells Manimugdha S Sharma how the story of the Sikhs had gendered family politics and motivations of power at it's heart...
How crucial were the women in the story of the Sikh empire? 
Women are integral to the story of the Sikh Empire. Ranjit Singh never would have become Maharaja without the protective support of his mother, Raj Kaur, after the death of his father, Maha Singh, when Ranjit was just 10. Raj Kaur safeguarded the Sukerchakia misl for her son until he came of age. Moreover, Ranjit Singh would certainly have struggled to conquer Lahore without the support of his in-laws, the Kanhaiya and Nakai misls, whose troops accompanied him to lay siege to the Lahore Fort in 1799. It was actually his formidable mother-in-law, Sada Kaur, who negotiated a peace settlement with the Sikh sardars occupying the fort at the time, ensuring that they departed without causing further bloodshed. Both mother figures were crucial in teaching the young Ranjit Singh ow to be a decent effective leader...
...You present a very interesting picture of the Maharaja's multiple marriages and his wives taking part in the power game, with the last wife, Jind Kaur, becoming the Queen-Regent. Tell us a bit about it. 
The Maharaja had at least 30 wives - according to my estimate! My book includes a 'marriage map' which plots where these women came from. Ranjit Singh's queens were Sikh, Hindu and Muslim; his marriages to them helped cement Sukerchakia dynastic ties throughout the different classes and ethnic groups of its growing empire within and beyond the Punjab. Jind Kaur is his last and most famous queen, given her dramatic role fighting against the East India Company in the 1840's, and attempting to preserver the Sikh Empires' independence. However, as I found, Rani Jindan, though an incredible woman, was no exception in the key political role that she played as Queen Regent. She was following in the footsteps of Raj Kaur and Sada Kaur, as well as Ranjit Singh's other forgotten wives who were also variously military leaders, ambassadors, eductors of princely sons and artistic patrons. It would therefore be entirely false to claim that Punjabi women's participation in politics is only a recent phenomenon - they have been political for centuries!...

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