Poignant story of exiled king and death in a hotel in Paris
Kishwar Desai
The Asian Age,
October 4, 2008

I often think that despite their so-called militant nature, the Sikhs (and Punjabis in general) are among the most forgiving communities. Look at the way they do not remind us constantly about the wounds of the 1947 Partition, the assault on the Golden Temple or even the 1984 riots in New Delhi. They have the courage and sagacity to support a political party in India which was accused of the massacre of more than 3,000 Sikhs, and now we even have a Sikh Prime Minister from the Congress. The Sikhs have forgiven and moved on: it is a pragmatic approach. They know that by irritating the scars, over and over again, they will solve nothing — only keep the hatred alive. It may not be very fair to the riot victims, who have suffered enormously, but it allows tempers to simmer down. Had our entire present polity less vested interest in keeping similar schisms — Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian — alive (both, the ruling party and the Opposition), we could have gone in for a healing process, perhaps through truth and reconciliation committees as in South Africa, where people talk about their suffering, which in itself sends a powerful message to the perpetrators of violence. There is a sense of shame and catharsis — but it remains a powerful weapon, used successfully to end decades of apartheid. However, to do that, you need to tone down the shrill rhetoric and use persuasion and, yes, even love. But this appears to be an impossible task for all political parties in India. Their identities depend on highlighting differences, not in reconciling them.

So what is in the water of the famous five rivers that has made Punjabis (of whom the Sikhs are a part) so temperate, compared to other communities? This is the question troubling me as I read Navtej Sarna’s extremely moving book, The Exile, based on the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the man who would have been king had his throne not been so brutally stolen from him.

Why did this strong, rich and powerful community submit to the might of the British Empire, and literally allow them to rape the final vestiges of the dignity of their last king? What kind of Machiavellian planning was required to face a dominant power, and why was it so impossible to execute a defence at that time? I have no doubt that this book will make many readers very angry (and perhaps, also incite the indomitable Kuldip Nayar to again demand the return of the Kohinoor) because it touches on issues close to heart, such as Punjabi pride and fair play. For the son of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh to be reduced to a mere pawn because he was too young to understand the machinations of the British painfully exacerbates a very raw nerve.

Navtej Sarna was, of course, till recently the very visible spokesperson of India’s external affairs ministry, and he was recently in London to launch his book. Given the analytical nature of his day job, I am sure he will be taken aback with the emotional responses which The Exile will no doubt receive. But perhaps that is the response he wanted to evoke — as the book is written like a novel, based on years of research. The story is told through the points of view of people who were close to Duleep Singh — for instance Mangla, a favourite "slave girl" of Duleep’s mother Maharani Jindan; Dr John Login, a Presbyterian surgeon in the Bengal Army who, with his wife, was charged to bring up the young Duleep Singh; and Arur Singh, Duleep’s favourite servant for many years. These eyewitness accounts, as narrated by Sarna, provide a sense of immediacy to a well-written book. Interestingly, while the book describes painful and often tragic experiences — such as the cruel murders of family members, or sati — it is all narrated in a calm and gentle tone. Because the language is so remarkably low-key, it makes all the unhappy incidents even more poignant.

Of course, this is not the first book on Duleep Singh. But the others, so far, have been mostly from the Western point of view — which projected him as a Don Quixote tilting against windmills. He was shrugged off as an alcoholic, out-of-control megalomaniac trying to get back his lost empire through any means — even if it meant colluding with the enemies of the empire, and raising a rebellion in India. But of course, none of his dreams came true, and an outmanoeuvred desolate maharaja died alone in a cheap hotel in Paris, impoverished and bitter. The Exile helps us understand Duleep Singh’s dreadful alienation and his desire to get back what had been snatched from him while he was still a child. It is a book which is going to make the Western reader extremely uncomfortable — as it re-examines the ignoble side to colonial rule — often a destructive force which left behind debris still being cleared up.

For instance, the Gurkha question, which had been dismissed by the UK home office, is now all over the British media. Thanks to the tireless efforts of some members from among the Gurkhas and well-wishers like the gorgeous Joanna Lumley, the Gurkhas have finally won the right to stay on in the UK. This is a very crucial decision and one which will, no doubt, inspire others who have been similarly ill-treated in the past.

This is the time for Duleep Singh to have been amongst us — pushing for his right to the income and lands that had been snatched away from him. But the irony is that there are no survivors at all from his family. So will someone else now seek an apology on behalf of the hurt and wounded people of Punjab?

All I can say, Duleep Singh would have had the last laugh. Because these days it is the Queen herself who has been writing to the government to increase the amount paid to her as the present amount no longer covers all her expenses. Well! At least, the deprived woman can quote the full extent of her estate and its worth. Poor Duleep Singh had no such luck. He could not even ask that his private property in India be counted as his existing estate as everything had been confiscated. The last betrayal, doubly ironic in today’s debates about conversions, was his adoption of Christianity — after he had been thoroughly indoctrinated by his minders. And yes! He did reconvert back to Sikhism. These are the uncomfortable home truths that Sarna makes us face — and very successfully too.