Maharaja Dalip Singh
The complex and strange life of Dalip Singh, almost theatrical in the way that it subdivides into different scenes and acts, compresses into the life of a single individual all the tensions and violence brought about the clash of two great cultures. It contains the sadness and dignity of human being trying to act decently towards each other, despite being caught up in this clash and, on one side at least, an almost complete misunderstanding of the other's position.
Dalip Singh (1838-1893), the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab, was the youngest son of Rani Jindan, a junior queen of Ranjit Singh, and came to the throne at age of five in 1843 after a series of bloody coups and counter-coups left no other contenders. At first, the young boy catapulted on to the throne cannot have been aware of the struggles behind the scenes. The first year of his life were played out against the rich background of the court and the beautiful Mughal places of Lahore. He enjoyed falconry and had the best horses and elephants to ride. Everyday costumes and trays of jewels were brought for him to choose from. He received a royal education with two tutors, one for the Persian of the court and the other for the Gurmukhi of the Guru Granth Sahib. He was taught to shoot with the gun and bow, and trained in command by being given a troop of sixty boys. The love of his mother and her brother Jawahar Singh, who played a particularly affectionate role in the boy’s life, surrounded him.
It must have seemed a kind of heaven to the boy, but the brutalities of the politics soon invaded. Jawahar Singh had been removing his rivals and following a pro-British line that alienated the Khalsa Army, who summoned him before them on 21 September 1845. Although accompanied by Rani Jindan and Dalip Singh, he was killed before their eyes, despite the separate pleas of his sister. The child was horror-struck and in later life often recalled his fear and shock, describing how he had been in his uncle’s arms and realized he might be next. The military history of the First Anglo-Sikh War which now broke out has often been told. The complex nature of politics at the court of Lahore is revealed by the peace settlement, under which the Khalsa army was defeated but its nominal commander Tej Singh rewarded by the British. The other major figure in the Sikh government, Gulab Singh Dogra, had negotiated the peace and was made the independent Maharaja of Kashmir. The British had won because the Sikh state was divided. By the terms of the Treaty of Byrowal in December 1846, a council of Regency (including Rani Jindan) was set up and a British resident and garrison imposed as a temporary measure until Dalip Singh came of age. At first sight the treaty seemed very generous, protecting the young Maharaja until his state could be handed over to him intact, although reduced in size. In reality the British began to dismantle the Sikh State.
Henry Lawrence, who ruled the Punjab as resident, was charmed by the boy and personally kind to him, organizing activities and magic lantern parties. However, the Maharaja’s first recorded political act enraged Lawrence. At the Annual Hindu festival Dussera in 1847 Dalip Singh publicly refused, despite British instructions, to mark Tej Singh as his commander-in-chief. Lawrence and Henry Hardinge, the governor general, were convinced, probably correctly, that Rani Jindan had put him up to it. Lawrence acted swiftly. He asked the young prince to ride with him late at night; it was impossible to refuse and when Dalip Singh asked to return to the palace, Lawrence told him that he was to spend the night in the Shalimar Gardens. The next he learnt that his mother had been seized in his absence and placed under house arrest, and that he was forbidden to have any contact with her. Both other and son were devastated, Rani writing to Lawrence:"Restore my son to me, I cannot bear the pain of separation - my son is very young. He is incapable of doing anything. I have left the kingdom. I have no need of a kingdom - there is no one with my son. He has no sister, no brother. He has no uncle, junior or senior. His father he has lost. To whose care has he been entrusted?"
Although it is possible to conclude that the governor-general and Henry Lawrence, as well as his successor, his brother John Lawrence took the Treaty of Byrowal seriously but it is clear that Rani Jindan felt that they had no intension of upholding it. In desperation she wrote, 'why do you take possession of the kingdom by underhand means? Why do you not do it openly? On the one hand you make a show of friendship and on the other hand you have put us in prison. Do justice to me or I shall appeal to the London Headquarters.'
Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general who replaced Hardinge, had absolutely no time for indirect rule, and his new resident, Frederick Currie, was partially responsible for igniting the complex chain of events that led to that Second Anglo-Sikh War. While rebels claimed to be fighting in Dalip Singh's name, no evidence was ever provided to show that he had any part in the revolt. Isolated in the palace, he can have had little idea of what was going on. Nevertheless, the rebellion gave Dalhousie the legal fig-leaf he needed and, despite the fact that the British had sworn to uphold Dalip' throne against rebellion, now they disposed him and Punjab was formally annexed. The boy was sent into internal exile to a town called Fatehgarh in a care of new guardian, Dr John Login. He left behind his throne, his palaces, much of his personal fortune and his country, never to return.
Fatehgarh was a remote provincial town near Kanpur and an admired centre of Christian missionary activity in North India, with churches, orphanages, schools, a carpet factory and a village of Indian Christian converts. Dalip's extensive household was part-European and part-Indian, shared with his sister-in-law and her son. He was allowed elephants and hawks, and had a guard of honor made up of Sikhs and Skinner's Horse. Rumors were spread by Dalhousie about Dalip's mother, who had fled to Kathmandu. Dalhousie described Dalip Singh as 'a brat begotten of a bheeshtee' in his private correspondence, while at the same time writing to the young maharaja: 'Believe the strength and sincerity of the regard in which I shall ever feel towards you, and to remain, now and always Your Highness's sincere and affectionate friend'. the boy knew enough to agree with his guardian Login that it was all true and claimed that in Lahore he had thought of executing her, though an Urdu letter sent back to Lahore suggests a different story. In it, Dalip, now about fourteen, asked eagerly for information about his mother. Her personal influence was to remain very strong throughout his life, with no sign of animosity between the two.
In Fatehgarh Dalip became a Christian. Login and his wife had taken on the role of the father and mother in boy's life and were devout Christians. Two British boys were his closet friends, and one of them was a son of missionary. The British textbooks he studied were full of Christian messages. He was an intelligent young man, with sudden burst of curiosity for all sorts of things, above all people. It would have been surprising if Dalip had not been affected- and one of his servants, Bhajan Lal, was a Brahmin convert to Christianity and read him from the Bible. The strange feature of the conversion, which was reported at length by Bhajan Lal, is that the points which seemed to have convinced Dalip Singh that Christianity was to be preferred were all connected with Hinduism. He asked former Brahmin about the Hindu Scriptures, the benefits of bathing in the Ganges and the merits of giving cows to Brahmins. He wanted to take tea with his best British friend, Tommy Scott, which would have had momentous significance in Hindu eyes as he would thereby have lost caste. All these points involved Hinduism, not Sikhism, as he was later to point out on reconverting.
Dalip Singh's conversion may have been genuine, or maybe regarded as the result of psychological pressure, or perhaps it was a political act. However, there is no doubt that he himself forced the pace, setting up the faithful tea party with Tommy Scott and overriding the resistance of his servants and sister-in-law, and hesitation of the British. It was decisive act which changed his whole situation. Whatever his motives, he acted with customary generosity in supporting financially all the mission schools in the area. Dalhousie had earlier refused requests to allow the young prince to visit Britain, reflecting his concern about the number of Indian ex-rulers turning up in London and appealing direct to the queen or the Home Government. Dalhousie was placed at the conversion because it appeared to destroy any possible political threat from Dalip and opened up the possibility of marriage with Princess Victoria Gouramma, the recently baptized daughter of the disposed Raja of Coorg, which would have created a highly influential family of Indian Christian ex-rajas.
Thus, on 19 April 1854 Dalip Singh set sail for Britain. Dalhousie had given him a Bible inscribed 'This holy book in which he (Dalip) has been led buy God's grace to find an inheritance richer by far than all earthly kingdoms is presented with sincere respect and regarded by his faithful friend'. Dalip later referred to this note in a manner that showed its irony, in coming from the 'friend' who had cost him his earthly kingdom, had not escaped him.
On arrival he quickly gained a royal audience and was an immediate success with Queen Victoria, who kept him close on state occasions despite opposition from some British grandees and continental diplomats. She invited her into her family circle at Osborne where she sketched him several times playing happily with her children, and Prince Albert photographed him. Bazaar incidents still surround him, however, perhaps none more so than during the painting of the Winter halter portrait. While the maharaja stood in his full costume on a plinth, a brief conversation held between the queen, Prince Albert and a nervous Mrs Login. To the latter's astonishment, at a signal a party of yeoman warders in full uniform entered the room, escorting an official carrying a box. The queen called the maharaja over and shadow him the newly recut Koh-i-nur diamond, which he took to the window to inspect. With a gesture worthy of the most polished Renaissance courtier the maharaja presented the diamond back to the queen, saying how much pleasure it gave him to be able this time to make the gift in person.
The friendship between Queen and maharaja was sealed, and he was even able to skate over the lethal depths that the news of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 brought. He learnt to sample all the pleasures of a British gentleman. He had estates in Scotland, apparently dressing himself and his household in kilts, and also in Yorkshire; he liked shooting and photography and he traveled on the continent. In 1859 Dalip Singh returned to India in order to rescue his new ageing mother from political exile in Nepal. While he was in Calcutta he was besieged by ex-members of his court and, more dangerously, by hundred of soldiers from Sikh regiments visiting him. He could find nowhere to settle his mother, his own movements were curtailed by the government, and he was seriously worried that over-enthusiastic Sikhs would compromise him. The visit was unhappy and painful experience.
Mother and son returned to London. The Rani made considerable attempts to adapt attempting to wear British dress, going to church, encouraging him to take British wife. And he was delighted to be reunited with her; commissioning portraits and sculptures of her hands in marble. Then in 1863 she died. She had, however, made him remember the past. Following a return to India for her cremation, the maharaja was determined not to remain alone. Finding a wife was no easy matter. He had already alarmed Lady Login by telling her of his plans to propose to one of her relations, but finally chose, by correspondence from a Cairo mission school, a part German, part Ethiopian girl who spoke only Arabic. Her name was Bamba Muller.
He took her home to his newly acquired estate at Elveden, selected and purchased for him by the India office. He transformed the rundown estate into an efficient, modern game preserve, and the house into a semi-oriental place. With halls decorated with glass mosaic in the fashion of a Shish Mahal and dominated by the huge oil paintings of Ranjit Singh in darbar or at the Golden Temple of his brother Sher Singh in regal splendor, and with sculptures of past glories and cases of jewels, the whole place was a powerful reminder of his former status. He lived with his wife and growing family, the sons wearing a variety of costumes but frequently photographed in Sikh clothes, and with uncut hair. He invited Edward, Prince of Wales to highly successful shoots; Sikh visitors would discreetly come and go. Dalip loved Elveden and rebuilt the church, cottages and a school. At the height of his troubles the threat of his leaving the village panicked the rector into describing the effect that this would have on 'the afflicted, the aged and the extreme poor', 'for the school, clubs and charities, hitherto entirely supported by His Highness, will be supported by him no more'.
The new home had brought new expenses and as father of three boys and two daughters, he had to look to his future. His treaty pension was controlled by the India office and at first all he wanted was an increase, a settlement of his existing debts and to see the fund's accounts. The queen asked the India office to look into the matter favorably. The maharaja agreed to his accounts being examined to see if he had been extravagant, and all looked set for a reasonable compromise. The queen supported him, as did many of his high society friends and others but India office was flatly hostile. In 1886 the Duke of Grafton wrote to the India office, 'the truth is, they have spent the money and have no funds to fall back on and so fear an investigation'.
Dalip Singh's grievance about the loss of his kingdom re-emerged. The stakes rose on both sides with the India office successively suggesting that he was a spendthrift and a gambler, and that he kept mistress, before running to Dalhousie's old libel that he was a bastard. In the face of the India office's determined resistance and the increasing note of the challenge by the maharaja, Queen Victoria was forced to distance herself. In 1882 the maharaja went public with a letter to 'The Times'. Almost as explosively, he began to realize how far he had been misled over the teachings of Guru Nanak as these were progressively revealed to him by his relatives. Rani Jindan had reminded him of the rumors that had circulated amongst Sikhs that her son had been mentioned in prophecies by Guru Gobind Singh, and he began to think of reconverting. Finally, in 1886, he made up his mind to return to India and place himself as the prophesied moral head of the Sikh people, revitalizing the religion and purifying it of Hindu influences, especially caste. He published a public message in the papers so that effect and set sail.
He had stopped at Aden, where the Indian government's authority began, and was accused of issuing a disloyal proclamation. Difficulties were put in the way of his receiving Pahul, or re-initiation into Sikhism. Dalip challenged the viceroy, Lord Dufferin, to substantiate the charge of disloyalty but his government refused, being keen to keep the matter out of court. They did however allow the Pahul to go ahead and Dalip Singh once more became a Sikh. Unable to proceed to India from Aden, he sent his family back to Elveden but could not himself bear the humiliation of returning. Instead, he went to Paris and from there wrote that he would be content with his private estates in Punjab, and a seat on the Council of India. This appointment would be to enquire into a amend the petty grievance of the natives of India, which believe me are like thousands of little fires ready to be blown into a great conflagration at any moment by th merest accident, and I shall be more than content to serve England loyally and undertake to establish Her Empire on the foundation of justice - No one (though I say it myself) knows so well as I do both the English and the Indians by the particular circumstances of my life.
No viceroy would agree to this. In Paris Dalip Singh entered the world of intrigue. His own agent, Thakur Singh, a founder member of Singh Sabha, the major Sikh reform movement, had created a large undercover movement in the Punjab. The Patrick Casey of the Fenians contacted him - traveling on Casey's passport, Dalip went to Russia. On the way, a Berlin railway station, a British agent picked his pocket and he lost most of his money. In Russia he was supported by the leader of the anti-British party and newspaper editor Katkoff, and met Jemal al-Din al-Afghani, an agent dedicated to the pan-Islamic anti-colonial movement. The maharaja was thus at the centre of a web that included Sikhs, Irish republicans, Russian, Afghans and Egyptian agents. With them he created a master plan in which a combined Russo-Afghan force would invade India, precipitating revolts by the Sikh regiments and mutinies amongst the Irish. The surviving Sikh rajas would join them while the Bengalis sabotaged the railway system. Meanwhile, Egyptian nationalists would cut the Suez canal.
However the Russian were more interested in using Dalip as a pawn to persuade the British government to pressure anti-Tsarist dissidents in London than in grandiose geopolitical adventures. The web soon unraveled: his principal Russian backer Katkoff died, Thakur Singh too died (or was poisoned) in Pondicherry, and Dalip's secret correspondence with Indian rulers was traced. With hardly any money of his own, deserted by his Russian backers, and with his Indian organization broken, Dalip had no political influence left. In Britain Princess Bamba died, and maharaja's family was in trouble. He returned to Paris where he suffered a massive stroke. While ill, he was visited by his eldest son Prince Victor and those of his British friends who had remained faithful to him, and taken care of his children. The queen was holidaying in Nice, and it was these friends who arranged for her to have one last meeting with the maharaja. According to the queen it was a highly emotional meeting in which the obviously very sick man broke down and asked for forgiveness. He was buried at Elveden in 1893 and amongst the wreaths was one from queen Victoria and another from the Prince of Wales.
The maharaja's loyal circle of British friends thought that his attempt to regain his throne and his reconversion to Sikhism was the result of madness. However convenient a diagnosis for them, it hardly stands up in hindsight. Thakur Singh's organization in India was quite real, and Dalip was perhaps the first Indian nationalist to attempt to reconcile the different interests of the princes, non-princely India and Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. His attempt to build up an anti-colonial alliance showed an awareness of the need to organize internationally, but he had only come to this point after finally realizing that all other avenues were closed to him.
Perhaps it was the Indian office which showed the greatest lapse of judgment in denying resolutely any partnership in the real government of India even to the most loyal and most anglicized Indian, and insisting, as Dalhousie once wrote, that any India, no matter how well received in London, would have to leave his slippers outside the door of the viceroy's office in India.