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THE TRIBUNEsaturday plus
Saturday, February 20, 1999


Regional Vignettes


The tragic life of Maharaja Dalip Singh
By Reeta Sharma

IT is largely believed that the British system of justice is unparalleled. And, of course, there are many cases which can be cited to substantiate this belief. But I feel that it is a sweeping statement and it is hard to accept it as some kind of universal truth. I think there were individuals in England from time to time who (because of their actions) created this kind of belief. However, this is not necessarily always the case . Allow me, therefore, to tell you the story of an innocent child with whom the British were blatantly unjust.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the shrewd king and iron-fisted administrator, had ruled Punjab for 40 years. He had succeeded in forging unity among the warring Sikh factions and people of different loyalties. Punjab, under his rule, was the only area that British could not touch. For centuries, the Afghans and others had invaded Punjab, but it was Ranjit Singh who had reversed the roles. He extended his kingdom and became the arbiter of the throne of Kabul. Punjabis under his rule had even rendered incapable Chinese satellites in Tibet and stopped British expansion to the west.

It was at this juncture that the illustrious Maharaja died ( June 27, 1839). Dalip Singh, who was an infant at that time, was the youngest of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s seven sons. He grew up as an orphan, even though his mother was alive. And this unbelievable, almost fictional turn of events, could actually happen because of a strange sense of punishment that the British had.

The British were obviously very keen to bring Punjab under their rule. After Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death, they systematically invaded Punjab, annexed Jalandhar-Doaba, on the one hand and gave away Jammu and Kashmir to Gulab Singh Dogra, on the other. Rani Jindan, (infant Maharaja Dalip Singh’s mother) along with her brother, Jawahar Singh, gave sleepless nights to the representatives of the British and the warring factions from within the palace. That she was a political novice and was faced with rivalry from the other six sons of her husband notwithstanding, Rani Jindan didn’t make it difficult for the British or other aspirants to rule Punjab. In turn, the British humiliated her repeatedly and reduced her annual allowance to a pittance. She was "dragged out of the palace by her hair and put under heavy guard at Shekhupura". Her brother, Jawahar Singh, was killed by a "Army Panchayat" and she was finally banished from Punjab to Varanasi.

On March 29, 1849, a proclamation was made declaring the end of the Sikh kingdom. The 11-year-old Maharaja Dalip Singh was forced to present the Koh-i-noor to the British and step down from the throne. The English took young Dalip Singh in their custody without his mother’s consent. What kind of justice was this? They were planning to kill two birds with one stone. They were punishing Rani Jindan, on the one hand, and clipping the wings of a prince, on the other. He was despatched to Mussoorie and later to Fatehgarh in U.P. for schooling. However, in less than five years-- by June 1854-- the 16- year- old Dalip Singh was sent away to England. He was not allowed to meet his mother.

In England, he was handed over to Sir John Login to ensure that all his emotional ties and cultural roots were severed. He was instructed to address the Logins as mother and father. He was neither allowed to return to India nor was he permitted to write letters to his mother. He began growing up in England, gradually forgetting his real self.

But once he became an adult, he began understanding the cunning games that the British were playing. He realised that though the British had promised to only "take care of his throne" after the first Anglo-Sikh War, they had become the rulers themselves. So he wrote to the East India Company that all restrictions on him should be removed and he should be allowed to visit India in October 1857. But before the British could respond to his letter, the Mutiny of 1857 broke out. His letter was never answered. In fact, the British expected him to condemn the mutineers. But he did not oblige.

Eventually, the East India Company allowed Maharaja Dalip Singh to visit India but with a condition -- he would not visit Punjab. What would you call it? Justice? The only living Maharaja of Punjab was not allowed to visit his own motherland. In January 1861, he finally landed in Calcutta and checked into a hotel.

From historical events it appears that Rani Jindan, though exiled, had never lost hope.. She had kept track of her son and his well-being. However, for 13 long years she could neither see the face of her son nor hear his voice. She suffered alone the agony of having been forcibly parted from her son. It ended when she arrived from Kathmandu to be finally united with Dalip Singh.Reportedly for the almost English Dalip Singh, it took about half- a- minute to break away from the shackles of imposed grooming and to sink into his mother’s bosom.

Dalip Singh escorted his mother to England , where she died on August 1,1863. Her last wish was that she be cremated in her own country near her husband’s samadhi. Dalip Singh was yet again not allowed to enter Punjab. He had to, perforce, cremate his mother near Nasik on the banks of the Narmada. By now he was full of hatred for the British. He again wrote to the East India Company demanding the restoration of his personal properties in Punjab. The British had sold many jewels of Lahore palace which were supposed to be under their care. He demanded that his ancestral treasures should be restored to him. He also pointed out that as per agreement his annual allowance was aboutRs 5 lakh. However, only Rs 2.5 lakh was finally approved by the British government. The irony of the situation was that he was getting only Rs 1.30 lakh per year. Very just, I suppose !

By now, Dalip Singh was restless. He finally decided to leave England and reach Punjab. In 1864, he had married one Bamba Mullar, who bore him six children. The sons were named Victor Dalip Singh, Fredric Dalip Singh, and Edward Dalip Singh. The daughters were Bumpa Dalip Singh, Katherine Dalip Singh and Sofia Dalip Singh. So in April 1886, Maharaja Dalip Singh, along with his wife and six children, reached Aden to finally head for Lahore, the then capital of Punjab. But he was not allowed to step out of Aden. Frustrated, his wife and children returned to England. But Maharaja Dalip Singh, burning with rebellion, went back to Paris. Within a year, by April 1887, he managed to enter Russia.

In Russia, he met Alexander III and requested him to provide military and financial support. He followed it with a letter on May 10, 1887, in which he wrote that he wished to free 25 crore Indians from the slavery of the British. "Many royalties of India have promised to stand by me. I need 200,000 armymen and 2000 machine guns to fulfil my aim. For this, I look up to you."

Meanwhile, he sent letters through his personal messenger Aroor Singh to the rulers of Awadh, Patiala, Nabha, Jind, Faridkot and Kapurthala asking them to join hands with him to rise against the British. But all his hopes came crumbling down when Alexander III did not respond at all. This broke Dalip Singh from within and he returned to Paris filled with bitterness and frustration. He lived six years after this passionate effort but not even once did he look in the direction of England. Punjab’s last legitimate ruler died on October 22, 1893, in Grand Hotel, Paris.

To me it seems that this man was born to bear the load tragedies. Can you imagine that though all his six children married, not even one of them was blessed with a child. Except for Princess Bamba Dalip Singh, none of his children could live in Lahore in the palace of their father and grandfather. However, Princess Sofia Dalip Singh played a significant role as a social activist in the life of British women. Women in England did not have the right to vote. Princess Sofia evolved a novel method to protest against this discrimination. She used to tie her right hand with a chain to a pole in front of the British Parliament and distribute protest material with her left hand. She used to stand there every day till the police took her away, only to return again, the next morning. I was shown the famous pole during my recent trip to England. It is now called "Sofia Pole". I felt proud of her contribution but my heart was heavy with the thought of the tragic life that Dalip Singh led.. back

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