As the British rolled their cannons across India and trampled it under the hoof of their horses, one Indian kingdom, at the North Western edge of British held India, stood alone as a sovereign nation for 37 years after the British had occupied all the rest of India. This empire was the Khalsa Empire of Ranjit Singh. But this story is not about Ranjit Singh.
This story is about the seven year old son of Ranjeet Singh, the last Maharaja of that last Indian kingdom – the Maharaja who was the last to fall in 1845.
This story is however, not even about his defeat; this is about the way he was the ONLY prince of India who rebelled openly against British occupation of his kingdom; the ONLY prince who forsake all his pensions, his estates and his property to try to get his kingdom back from the British. This a story of his rebellion, a rebellion that India has forgotten.
Indian sub-continent in 1837  :
The story starts with the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839. When Ranjit Singh died, he left behind a fluorishing state. Ranjit Singh had trained his elder son – Kharak Singh and his favourite grandson – Nau Nihal Singh – to take over the empire when he was gone. The youngest son – Duleep Singh – was just one year old then, cradled in the arms of his grieving widowed mother. Kharak Singh ascended the throne but was soon killed, followed by his son – Nau Nihal Singh, who was murdered too in a managed accident. Chand Kaur, Kharak Singh’s wife occupied the throne for a short time, but she was murdered too, bludgeoned to death by her servants. Another valiant son of Ranjit Singh – Sher Singh – ascended the throne and for some time provided some stability; he fought wars with the Sino-Tibet forces in Laddakh and won them – India owes the inclusion of Laddakh into India to the valiant armies of Sher Singh under a very able Rajput general – Zorawar Singh. Sher Singh was however killed too under machinations of some courtiers along with his son.
That left in 1843, just Duleep Singh – the youngest 7 year old son of Ranjit Singh – as the legitimate claimant of the throne; with his mother – Maharani Jindan – being the Queen Regent and the administrator in his name. Maharajah Duleep Singh, as he was then known had an empire that stretched from the Sutlej to the Khyber Pass to Kashmir and Laddakh, an area far bigger than France and Germany taken together.
In 1845, the British, setting aside the peace treaty signed between his father’s empire and the British Indian Empire, attacked the Khalsa empire. The war is known as the First Anglo-Sikh war. Duleep Singh’s army , led by his mother in his name, was defeated and a surrender treaty was signed with the British in 1846, wherein the sovereignty of the Khalsa empire was made subservient to conditions set by the British Governor General. The treaty was signed by the eight year old kid Duleep Singh. I wonder how legal it was for a minor to be signing a legal contract; but much water has washed beneath the bridge now for it to matter beyond academic interest.
This painting depicts his surrender to Lord Hardinge in 1846
In 1849 however, the conditions set by the British seemed to be too stifling to the soldiers and generals of his army and the Sikh empire set out in rebellion against the British. It was the First War of Independence by an Indian Prince, but nonetheless the honour has been given by historians to the local revolts of 1857 – that is a story for another day. The rebellion by Duleep Singh’s army, with several major battles, is known as the Second Anglo-Sikh War. Duleep’s kingdom again suffered a thrashing defeat in this war; largely with help from a Kashmiri Dogra Raja who sold off to the British and saved his Kashmir for himself by trading it against the gems and jewellery looted from Duleep’s Lahore treasury. Duleep was then an 11 year old child, but he was made signatory to a treaty of accession where his empire was ‘annexed’ to the British India Empire, with direct control of the British East India Company.
Lord Dalhousie, the British Governor General, was quite vary of Sikhs rising again in rebellion, so they set about to wipe off all remnants of the royal family and their armies. Duleep Singh was separated from his mother – Maharani Jindan. His mother was sent to a prison.
With his mother in jail, Duleep as a teenager was was sent to Fatehgarh under custody of a British bureaucrat called Dr. Login, where Duleep was converted to Christianity. Finding Duleep’s presence in India too risky, lest it foment a revolt of the Sikh regiments, Duleep was sent to England in 1854 to be housed as a prince. In England, Duleep Singh started growing up under the tutelage of the Login Couple; was given some princely pension, with Queen Victoria of England acting as his Godmother. Victoria in fact was so fond of Duleep Singh, that Duleep became almost a member of the British royalty, with sprawling estates and all trappings of wealth and decadance. He grew up as a British Prince, albeit being of dark skin he was named as the ‘Black Prince’.
Picture : Duleep Singh as British nobleman
Maharani Jindan, his mother, meanwhile had a parallel story where she escaped from British prison to the independent kingdom of Nepal. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Maharani Jindan after escaping from a British prison, wrote to the Maharaja of Kashmir to overthrow the British hegemony in Kashmir and move towards Gorakhpur, where the Nepalese army would join hands with him. She also told him about Nana’s and Tantya Tope’s presence in Nepal and exhorted him to fight in alliance with them. The letter was intercepted by the British and never reached Kashmir. People often point to the non-participation of Sikhs in 1857 mutiny as a reason for its failure. Such arm-chair historians may notice that a lion’s part of the Sikh domains had no leader; Duleep Singh was in England, and his mother – Maharani Jindan – was in Nepal.
In 1861, Duleep Singh, very much a British noble-man of 23 years age, convinced Queen Victoria of the need to see an Indian Tiger and requested permission for a tour of India, supposedly for tiger-hunting. He also requested to meet his mother. His mother, by now blind was seen as too little a threat by the British, and was hence allowed to meet him. He was allowed to meet her in Calcutta – in a hotel. Some platoons of the British Sikh regiment – the remnants of his erstwhile army – were on transit to and from China (after the Opium Wars). They came to know that their Maharaja and the Queen Mother (Jindan) was in Calcutta and very soon their hotel was surrounded by the Sikh troops, revelling in the glory of their lost emperor, shouting the Sikh slogans of glory. The British got scared of this enthusiastic display and in the middle of the night packed both mother and son to England.
To cut a long story short, a story that I have covered in detail in my blog at; Duleep Singh very soon, under the influence of his mother, started a process of rebelling against the British control of his erstwhile empire. Prof. Ganda Singh summarises it well:
>With all the information that she (Maharani Jindan) was able to give him while in India, and during her stay in England, the Maharaja seems to have been disillusioned and set a-thinking about the treatment that he had received at the hands of his guardians (the British). The influence of Maharani Jind Kaur on her son was soon felt by the Government in England and the Maharaja was prevailed upon to arrange for a separate house for her. But after her death on August 1, 1863, the Maharaja assiduously devoted himself to the study of the causes of his deposition, and collection of material about his private estates and property. He consulted his friends and legal advisers, and made representations to the Government. But with the passage of time the attitude of the Government of India, and consequently of the Government of England, became stiffer and stiffer. This resulted in the desperation of Maharaja Duleep Singh towards the end of eighteen-seventies.
After the death of his mother in 1863, Duleep Singh travelled to India to have the ashes of his mother transferred to Punjab for being spread into the rivers of Punjab. British Government however could not afford his presence in Punjab and stopped him in Maharashtra where Maharani Jindan’s remains were dropped into the Godavari river in Bombay state, far away from Punjab.
Therafter began Duleep Singh’s attempts to seek back his legacy from the British, to actively dissent against the unlawful accession of his territory, and the illegal confiscation of even his private properties in Punjab. He started writing letters to newspapers in London, wrote letters to the British Sovereign and slowly began to set aside his comforts for a life of revolt.
In 1882; one sees Duleep Singh writing on August 28, to the Times, London (August 31, 1882), the Maharaja said:
….. terms of the annexation which I was compelled to sign by my guardians
when I was a minor, and, therefore, I presume it is an illegal document, and I am still the lawful Sovereign of the Punjaub
Duleep was the ONLY Indian royal that unequivocally declared claim on his former throne and also declared revolt. By 1884, he had re-converted to Sikhism, left his estates and riches in England and started making earnest efforts to create a rebellion against British rule in India. I am not aware of any other Indian prince (other than in the 1857 revolt) forsaking his riches to rise against the British; I am sure there must be a few more forgotten heroes. But we stick to our subject at hand for the moment.
The French Intelligence Agencies, rivals of the British, took advantage of Duleep’s dissatisfaction with the British and tried their best to help him foment a rebellion in the Punjab. They helped him create contacts with underground groups working against the British in Ireland. Duleep started dalliances with the Irish Freedom fighters operating from France; took their help and tried seeking help of the Russian Czar, Alexander – III, to attack British India from the Afghanistan border. The Great Game was under-way – the Russians were then, the sworn enemies of the British Empire and were fighting for influence in the Baltics, Caucasus, Persia while vying for a pie each of the fragmenting Ottoman Empire.
Duleep Singh, very correctly, estimated that if he turned up on Indian soil, he could foment a rebellion of the Sikh forces in the British Indian Army, and for this purpose he wrote exhortations to the Sikh troops in British army to support him when he arrived at the Indian borders. He wrote long letters to the Indian princes, mainly Rajput kingdoms, to join hands with him in throwing away British rule. He tried to convince them that his sheer presence in the Punjab would make the lakhs of Sikh soldiers in the British-Indian army rebel against their British masters. He said he planned to come from the Afghanistan side, while they could implode the empire from within. No Indian prince responded to him. He wrote letters to the Sikh soldiers in the British Army, proclamations of revolt, but the letters never reached India.
He wrote to the British Queen, pointing out her injustices to his empire and sought it back. He even asked back for the Kohinoor, which he said had been snatched away from him as a kid.
He established contact with the Russian Czar – Alexander -III, and with help of a fake passport in an assumed identity, he went in disguise to St. Petersburg Russia to meet the Czar, seeking his help in creating an army to attack British India. The Czar, through his ambassadors, initially showed interest, but later, with British spies getting wind of the plan, dismissed the plan and refused to meet Duleep. Duleep waited patiently for over six months in St. Petersburg to meet the Czar, but never got an audience. Meanwhile, the British had mended their frosty relations with Russia and there was little hope that Russia would turn against British interests in Afghanistan. Duleep thus returned back to France, a dejected man.
Queen Victoria is said to have a motherly relationship with Duleep and saw him as a fellow royal. Even after he had rebelled against her, she pardoned him officially, but stripped him of the lion’s share of his earnings. It’s a testimony to the affection she had for him that even after he rebelled, she took time to meet Duleep in a one to one private meeting, on an official trip to France, where he lived. The description of their meeting makes sad reading, with him emotionally charged against his god-mother, and the god-mother bound by her legacy to reject his charges. It goes to the credit of the British monarch that despite Duleep’s rebellion, Duleep’s children and wife were allowed to live in England in reasonable comfort and luxury.
The Sandhawalia brothers, his distant cousins, had been funding Duleep’s attempted rebellion. The leader of the supporting group, Thakar Singh Sandhawalia, had been bank-rolling Duleep Singh and had been providing logistic support to him, based out of his home in the French colony of Pondicherry. The British intelligence got wind of Thakar Singh, and he was poisoned by the British in his home. This put a stop to that stream of funds. Having been dispossessed of revenue from his estates in England as well, Duleep Singh was seeped in poverty and moved to a hotel in France.
He kept on writing letters of rebellion to Indian princes and other world powers, sometimes quite delusionaly seeking their support that was never to be. He never got any further ahead though, even though he kept on trying till his end. Dileep Singh, divested of his estates in England, died a pauper in 1893, in a decrepit hotel in Paris, a dejected man.
The story gets murkier here. Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of Punjab, had three sons and five daughters from two marriages. But surprisingly, none of Duleep’s children gave birth to an heir and his lineage died out within a generation. How is it that none of them had an offspring is a subject of further inquiry! I, for one, find it statistically impossible to believe that his lineage could have ended without a conspiracy by the British intelligence services.
There is no trace now of the descendants of the Last Maharaja. His is a tragic story; not only for its failure, not only for the sheer pathos in it; but by the way India never came to know of it. His struggle happened beyond the Indian shores, in France and Russia, and somehow the story never travelled to India.
Strongly suggested reading on his life: “The Maharaja’s Box – by Christopher Campbell”