Shyam Bhatia in London
Sophia Dalip Singh’s conversion to the cause of Indian nationalism is detailed in a new book about the Punjabi princess who discovered and embraced her heritage more than a decade after her father’s death.
Princess Sophia was the fifth child of Maharaja Dalip Singh, last ruler of independent Punjab who was forced to give up the fabled Kohinoor diamond to the British, and a goddaughter of Queen Victoria. Born in 1876 in England, she was only 17 when her father died in a Paris hotel room.
Until recently, not much attention has been paid to Sophia, first a shy introvert, then a dazzling debutante at the English royal court and finally a militant in the suffragette movement, who lost her father, mother and a brother within a period of 10 years.
If anything the historical focus has been more on Dalip Singh’s other children, such as his eldest daughter Bamba, an Oxford graduate, who migrated to Lahore and lived there until her death in 1957, and Princes Frederick and Victor.
Overlooked by historians
However, a new book by broadcast journalist Anita Anand, entitled, “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary”, argues that this daughter of Dalip Singh was a revolutionary through and through and has been unjustly overlooked by historians. In an exclusive interview with The Tribune, Anand explains that until 1903 Sophia was a classic Victorian society woman who made her debut at Buckingham Palace where she had to curtsy, bend and kiss her godmother, the Queen.
“She impresses so much and she becomes this Victorian ‘IT’ girl, she’s at every party that matters, she’s at every season, in all society columns, she becomes the one to follow for her fashion sense and she loves it. She’s also given a grace and favour home at Hampton Court. That’s her transition and that’s where most people would have lived happily ever after,” she said.
Becomes aware of forgotten legacy
What changes her is a visit to the Delhi Durbar of 1903, from where she goes on to Lahore and becomes aware of her forgotten legacy. “In Lahore the education begins. Yes, she sees suddenly that this is everything that’s been taken from her family,” Anand explains. “She starts to feel she’s not a thoroughly English girl.
“She goes back to England and suddenly this empty vacuous life she has been leading of parties and dog shows and jewels is not enough. So she throws herself into philanthropy and the first thing she starts is raising money for the Lascars – Asian merchant seamen employed on British cargo ships - to build a new shelter for them. They’re mostly from India, also from China, some people call them coolies or merchant seamen,” Anand said.
Second trip to India
The next change for Sophia is a second trip to India, to both Amritsar and Lahore, at the request of her sister Bamba, who had settled down there. It is in Lahore in 1907 that Sophia meets and falls in love with Lala Lajpat Rai, the famous Congress leader known to his devotees as ‘Sher-e-Punjab’. “Sophia ends up staying for a year in Lahore, where she becomes the acolyte of Rai,” Anand adds.
“She meets him, falls in love with him and thinks everything he says is wonderful and it starts turning her head against the British. She starts understanding about nationalism, about the speeches he makes. Every time he makes a speech she makes sure she goes,” says Anand.
“He in turn calls her up on the stage when he speaks, saying, ‘behold the granddaughter of the real Lion of Punjab’. Their friendship is so close that he comes to see her on the day she is leaving Lahore and she says, ‘Come and stay with me in Hampton Court,’” she said.
Sophia is further radicalised after Lajpat Rai’s arrest and deportation to Burma. In her diary she writes, “Oh you wicked English, I long for your downfall” and “Ah, India awake and free yourself,” says Anand.
Two decades later in 1928, Lajpat Rai was lathicharged by the police for daring to lead a silent and non-violent protest against visiting members of the Simon Commission. He never recovered fully from his injuries and died a month later of heart attack.
As for Sophia, she nursed wounded Sikh soldiers from the First World War, then threw herself into fighting for women’s rights in the suffragette movement, participated in demonstrations and refused to pay her taxes. She died in England in 1948.
Sophia: From an introvert to suffragette
- Princess Sophia (in pic) was the fifth child of Maharaja Dalip Singh, last ruler of independent Punjab who was forced to give up the fabled Kohinoor diamond to the British, and a goddaughter of Queen Victoria
- Born in 1876 in England, she was only 17 when her father died.
- She discovered and embraced her heritage more than a decade after her father’s death
- A book by broadcast journalist Anita Anand, entitled, “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary”, argues that this daughter of Dalip Singh was a revolutionary through and through and has been unjustly overlooked by historians
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