Thursday, 23 April 2009

Duleep Singh - first Sikh in Britain

"we received the young Maharajah Duleep Singh, the son of Ranjeet Singh who was deposed by us after the annexation of the Punjab. He has been carefully brought up and was baptised last year so he us a Christian. He is extremely handsome and speaks English perfectly and has a pretty, graceful and dignified manner...This young prince has the strongest claim on our generosity and sympathy; deposed when a little boy of ten, he is as innocent as any individua of the misdeeds which compelled us to take possession of his territories. I always feel sorry for these poor desposed Indian princes." Queen Victoria, 1st July 1854 (Journal of Queen Victoria)

Maharajah Duleep Singh (1837-1893) -
the Sikh Bonnie Prince Charlie

This boy maharajah, the son of the grandiose king of Panjaab, Ranjeet Singh, was taken into British custody, immediately following the defeat of Panjaab in 1849. Sikh resistance to British expansionism into Panjaab, following two intense wars - the Anglo-Sikh Wars between 1845 and 1849, had failed. Panjaab was no more an independent state. It was now safely secured as border state for British India. This last bastion of independence, and a potential threat to Britain's security in India, was no firmly in British control.

Maharajah Duleep Singh, aged 5 at the time, personified that independence in the Sikhs. To ensure that no further Sikh activity was possible, Duleep Singh was promptly taken into British imperial custody and kept concealed from the Sikh masses.

He was taken to England, where he was fitted out with a brand new lifestyle. He was brought up in a royal environment, under the care and attention of Queen Victoria, the Empress of India. His life would be that of a grandiose 'country-gentlemen', mixing with aristocracy, hunting, enjoying the lavish features of a typical royal life. He had been completed infused with a British aristocratic character. All his Sikhness has been erased.

However, as he grew in adulthood, contact with his long exiled mother, Rani Jindan and other figures from his family, Thakar Singh Sandawalia, produced a string of deep feelings about his origins. His country, his home, his religion, his history, his independence and more began to rock his internal being.

The country-gentleman Duleep sought a return to his Sikh origins. He took amrit, to formalise his Sikh re-connection. He started to aspire to Sikh sovereignty and statehood, once again. His feelings of dissatisfaction and rebellion against the social and political confines of life in England as the 'black prince' royal householder, began to overspill. He began active plans to return to Panjaab, and re-start a freedom movement.

This boy prince taken from Panjaab, and his attempts to revive and reconnect with his Sikh origins, brought him into direct and intense conflict with his British imperial overseers. Duleep was never allowed to return to Panjaab territory. This young figure was vigorously surveilled as he crossed the world, in search of support for his envisaged war of independence. He sought help from Britain's arch enemy, the imperial Russians; but without success. He bore an anguished dream to return and revive his country from its position as subdue province in British India.

This young pretender, like Bonnie Prince Charlie of Scotland, was watched and pursued by the might of the British imperial state. As the first Sikh to come to Britain, thought without consent, he wanted to leave rapidly. His lenghty appeals to Queen Victoria, his main carer, to rectify the rights of his country, fell on deaf ears. In fact, they provoked anger and bitter revulsion towards the 'brat'.

His life story represents a magnificent heartache and struggle for justice. His spirit took on a whole empire. In 1838, he died in a Paris hotel of a suspicious heart-attack. Broken and down-trodden in his agonising pursuit of freedom for his cherished country, he left behind a legacy that continues to inspire the minds of Sikhs in Britain over a hundred years later.

Duleep Singh's story is very much the story of the British imperial conquest and subjugation of the Sikh nation between 1845 and 1849. Whatever, the relationship and gradual friendship that has emerged thereafter, with critical Sikh sacrifices to defend the British from the most fatal threats to their control (i.e. Indian rebellion 1857, Battle of Saraghari 1897, Second World War 1939-45); the injustice and impact of the Anglo-Sikh wars on Sikh life and liberty and independence remains a deep scar visited and re-visited by the aspiring Sikh nation. History-makers like Duleep Singh (the deposed 'King' of the Sikhs) have left a powerful legacy, which is picked up by inspired generations to come. History will certainly be made further.

For further details on the life of his British-Sikh hero, see:

No comments:

Post a Comment