Sikh warrior voted greatest leader of all time in BBC poll

Statue of Maharaja Ranjit singh outside his last rest place, Lahore Fort, Pakistan.
Statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh outside his last rest place in Lahore Fort, Pakistan. (Getty)

A Sikh warrior born in the 18th century has beaten Winston Churchill to be named the greatest leader of all time in a new poll.

Some 38% of the 5,000 people who voted in the BBC World Histories magazine poll said Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire, was the greatest leader the world has ever known.

Singh came ahead of Winston Churchill, who came in third place, just ahead of US president Abraham Lincoln.

Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister, B&W graphic on gray
Winston Churchill came third in the poll of 5,000 people. (AP)

Historian Matthew Lockwood, who nominated Singh, said of the leader: “Though certainly an imperialist, Ranjit Singh represented a different, more enlightened, more inclusive model of state-building, and a much-needed path towards unity and toleration.

“We could still benefit from his example.”

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Arguing that Singh, who led Nikhs troops against Afghan rule Shah Zaman, was “more than a mere conqueror”, Lockwood added: “Singh was, almost uniquely, a unifier — a force for stability, prosperity and tolerance… He also went to great lengths to ensure religious freedom within his lands.

Portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) founder of the Sikh Empire, which came to power in the Indian subcontinent in the early half of the 19th century. Dated 19th Century (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, which came to power in the Indian subcontinent in the early half of the 19th century. (Getty)

“He patronised Hindu temples and Sufi shrines, attended Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, married Hindu and Muslim women, and even banned the slaughter of cows to protect the religious sensitivities of Hindus.

“His reign marked a golden age for Punjab and northwest India.”

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Singh, who became the Maharajah of the Punjab in 1801, was born in 1780 and died in 1839.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) by the photographer Alexander Gardner, 1865, United States, Washington. Library of Congress, . (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
US president Abraham Lincoln came fourth in the list. (Getty)

Matt Elton, editor of BBC World Histories, said: “Though perhaps not as familiar as some of the other names on the list, Ranjit Singh’s overwhelming success in our poll suggests that the qualities of his leadership continue to inspire people around the world in the 21st century.

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“And, at a time of global political tensions, it’s telling that Singh’s rule is interpreted as representing ideals of tolerance, freedom and cooperation.”

Results of the the BBC World Histories Magazine greatest leaders poll:

  1. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh empire 1801–39

  2. Amílcar Cabral, 20th-century African independence fighter

  3. Winston Churchill, British prime minister 1940–45 and 1951–55

  4. Abraham Lincoln, US president 1861–65

  5. Elizabeth I, Queen of England 1558–1603

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