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Punjab’s last Maharaja – and his strange life overseas

By Vikas Datta

Mussoorie, Sep 27 (udaipur kiran) Fate was kind to him – initially. The eighth son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and that too from a minor wife, Duleep Singh became Maharaja of the Punjab when he was just five years old. But within six years, his kingdom, the sole independent power in mid-19th century north India, was defeated twice in battle by the British and annexed, he had to hand over the world’s most famous diamond and spent the rest of his life in overseas exile.

But Duleep Singh never abandoned hope of regaining his kingdom – though his efforts were subverted by the British, managed to hit back at them – especially over the Kohinoor – and his memory endures in both India and Britain in some curious ways, says British historian Peter Bance, author of half a dozen books on Sikh history in Britain. These include “The Duleep Singh’s: The Photograph Album of Queen Victoria’s Maharajah”, and “Sovereign, Squire & Rebel: Maharajah Duleep Singh and the heirs of a Lost Kingdom”.

“Duleep Singh is part of the Punjabi history in Britain. He was possibly the first Sikh to live in Britain, and his mother, the former Maharani Jind Kaur, the first Sikh woman to do so,” Bance, whose own family has been in Britain since the 1930s, told udaipur kiran in an interview.

Bance, who was in Mussoorie to deliver a talk on the chequered life of Duleep Singh (1838-93) at the prestigious St George’s College under the auspices of the Mussoorie Heritage Centre last week as the unfortunate Maharaja had a connection to the hill town too, said that he grew interested after coming to know about Duleep Singh’s life in Britain.

“I’ve always been interested in history. And Duleep Singh’s life is extraordinary. He was the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and that too from a wife so minor that she didn’t even live in the main palace. Yet within five years, he was on the throne after succession violence and intrigues did for all of Ranjit Singh’s other remaining sons (Kharak Singh, Sher Singh, Multana Singh, Peshawara Singh, Kashmira Singh and grandson Naunihal Singh),” he said.

While the events of Duleep Singh’s brief and far from peaceful reign (1843-49) – the continuing court intrigues, the defeat of the Khalsa Army in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46), the deposition and exile of Maharani Jind Kaur to Varanasi (and her audacious escape to the Rana’s court in Kathmandu), the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49), which Bance says was a local disturbance deliberately let escalate into a wider conflict by the British to enable them annex Punjab – are still meaty topics, his focus remains on the life and legacy of Duleep Singh in Britain and elsewhere.

Duleep Singh, he says, evokes sympathy.

“Duleep was used as a tool almost all his life. He was deposed in 1849 over something that was not his fault and though he was treated fairly well, it was not at the scale of the Nawab of Avadh who would be deposed for misrule a few years hence but allowed to maintain a lavish lifestyle with his own court and followers,” Bance said.

On the other hand, Duleep Singh was separated from his mother for over a decade, taken away from his homeland and only managed to return to India for two brief, fully supervised, visits, in which he was kept far as possible from Punjab, and never let to do what he desired – even when ensconced in far-away Britain, Bance noted.

Briefly kept in the Fatehgarh cantonment, Duleep Singh was shifted to Mussoorie for health reasons – but his residence there is a matter of dispute with Whytebank Castle and the Castle Hill in Landour the two contenders, says Bance, adding he leans towards the latter.

“Duleep Singh was kept in such a controlled environment in Mussoorie that those who were allowed to meet him were not even allowed to mention where he was staying. And then he was taken to Britain, where he was not allowed to study in a university as he wanted, but taught at home, and lived the life of the upper class landed gentry,” he said.

He was subsequently allowed to go to India in 1861 to collect his mother, who came back to British India, and take her back with him to Britain. He returned to India to perform her last rites two years later as cremation was illegal in Britain then.

On Duleep Singh’s conversion to Christianity, Bance said it was genuine and the Maharaja even went on to marry a German-Abyssinian woman called Bamba, whom he met at a missionary’s house in Egypt while returning from India after cremating his mother, though he did seek to re-convert to Sikhism in his last years. They had six children – three boys and three girls (one of whom was recently commemorated on a British stamp for her suffragette activities).

But, Duleep Singh was not content to remain in his gilded cage all his life, says Bance. He tried to hatch a conspiracy to free Punjab, and in the 1870s, was in contact with the Irish Fenians, the French, the Germans and the Russians.

But here also, he was unlucky, says Bance. The Fenians even recommended a military man to help him, but Captain Tavis was a British double-agent who exposed all the plots and though Duleep Singh even travelled to St Petersburg – with the Great Game at its height- he was left adrift after his Russian contact, Katkoff died.

But it was Kohinoor where Duleep Singh hit back at the British. Soon after the British took possession of it, he claimed he had “gifted” it to Queen Victoria, leaving the Viceroy outraged, Bance said. He also later termed her “Mrs Fagin” (after Charles Dickens’ master thief) during his rebellious phase, though he reconciled with her eventually.

Apart from the books he wrote, Bance has collected a lot of memorabilia of Duleep Singh, including his robes, and well as unearthing the temporary tombstone of his mother and donated it to various British museums, including in Thetford where Duleep Singh lived and has a statue – unveiled by Prince Charles in 2009.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

–udaipur kiran

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