Remembering Lion Princess on her birthday

Sophia Duleep Singh is the granddaughter of Sher-e-Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But she is not a part of Punjab’s folklore. And despite being the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, her life doesn’t find much echo in British consciousness either.

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By Kamal Preet Kaur | OPINION |

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh is not a likely name that comes to mind when thinking of inspiring people. This granddaughter of Sher-e-Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh, like his other grandchildren (and unlike their celebrated ancestor), is not a part of Punjab’s folklore. And despite being the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Sophia’s life doesn’t find much echo in British consciousness either. None of this, however, takes away the fact that the life of the Princess was far from ordinary.  If one sentence can capture the essence of her being, it is Sophia Duleep Singh’s contribution to her entry in the women’s Who’s Who in her latter years. Under ‘interests’ she wrote: ‘The Advancement of Women’.

“It’s very appropriate to be thinking about her now on her birthday. She is definitely a hero. The number of young Asian women, not only Sikhs and Punjabis, but women of colour now come up to me and say we never knew we had someone like us here, who we could say, did some things that changed the world. And that’s true because of the kind of fight that she and others in the suffragette movement put up and risked themselves for us to have the right to vote. These things were not given as gifts but were taken,” says broadcaster and author Anita Anand, whose 2015 biography ‘Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary’ is one of the pioneering works on Sophia’s 71-year-long life. 

Born on August 8, 1876 at Elveden estate in Suffolk, to Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last ruler of Sikh Kingdom and Maharani Bamba Muller, Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh was the fifth child among six siblings. Displaced, disillusioned and depressed Maharaja Duleep Singh was not the father young Sophia saw often while growing up. Nevertheless, she was brought up as an aristocratic Englishwoman, presented at court and given a guest accommodation in Faraday House at Hampton’ Court Palace. The “Indian-ness” of Princess was not lost on anyone. The Church Weekly on June 6, 1902, recorded: “Notwithstanding her great Oriental name, which marks her to those cognisant of Indian history as descendant of the famous founder of the last Sikh Empire, the princess is to all intents and purposes, a thoroughly English girl.”

A trip to India in 1902 changed the high-society, fashion-forward, “successful breeder of exotic hounds”, into, as Anand records, “a revolutionary”. After Lord Curzon’s over-the-top Delhi Durbar parades, Sophia and elder two princesses, Bamba and Catherine, travelled to Lahore to see the capital of the lost Sikh kingdom. They met people, rich and poor, soaking in the stories of their grandfather’s golden era, making mental note of what they had lost. 

Overwhelmed by the poverty and tragic circumstances of her people during her travel, she jumped on to the cause of helping lascars working on the London docks when she returned. Often unpaid, with improper clothing and treated by their British employers as vermin, lascars worked to load and unload cargo to and from ships docked at the yards. She took over where her father’s philanthropic work for haggard Indians was left off. The Princess had found her purpose. She raised funds with the help of her rich friends and built and furnished space where lascars could receive any kind of help needed to lead a dignified life. 

The Princess travelled to India again in November 1906 at the insistence of her sister Bamba, who had stationed herself in Lahore for good. In her diary that is available at the British Library, Sophia has recorded how she and Bamba were scorned upon by the British officers and their families in Punjab. On the New Year Eve’s ball organised by Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Rivaz, she said, “I was taken in corners…I never spoke to the LG at all that evening except to say Howdy and good bye…I should have refused to go into supper.” Later, they spied on them as they travelled across the state, she recorded. “It was the greatest cheek imaginable- followed us right up…How they dared!!”

As Lahore was in the midst of growing Indian nationalism, Princesses Bamba and Sophia attended public meetings addressed by Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai. The diary note of February 16, 1907, reads: “We were stuck up on the stage and clapping ensued, oh horrors—we knew we were going to have reserved seats and feared this, but the clapping was awful!! However, it was nice of them to put us up there.” Gokhale asked the gathering to stand for the granddaughters of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and they rose in respect, cheering. The same thing happened the following day when Lala Lajpat Rai joined them on stage. “Up we got mid cheers…we were cockatoos with a vengeance today.” Lalaji’s message to unite and go Swadeshi against British injustices resonated with the spurned Princess. She remained sympathetic to Indian freedom struggle.

When this champion of equality and social justice came in contact with suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst, she was sold to the revolution. Her photograph outside Hampton Court Palace selling newspapers carrying news about women’s right to vote seems to have caused scandal and embarrassment to the government. She took part in many Women’s Society for Social and Political Union (WSPU) meetings where her celebrity status was encashed and she was happy to help. 

“Sophia played a vital role in the suffragette movement for right for women to vote in the UK. Her place in history is very significant but unfortunately not many people know of her. It’s great that statue on Parliament Square has her picture along the plinth and more and more people are getting aware of her contribution to British society and in terms of advancing women’s place in politics as well. For me she is very significant. She is someone I regularly talk to my daughters about and want them to feel inspired and also for them to understand the link between the Sikhs and the Raj,” says Birmingham Edgbaston MP Preet Kaur Gill.

On November 18, 1910, 34-year-old Sophia was one of the nine-woman-strong guard that marched with hundreds of protesting women towards the Parliament. That day Sophia saw worst kind of physical assault on suffragettes by the police. She wrote letter of protest to Winston Churchill. When suffragettes turned violent and destructive and finances dwindled, she turned the most generous donor for the cause, raising it from £30 to £51. She also refused to be counted during Census and joined Women’s Tax Resistance League. 

The Daily Mail’s December 13, 1913 news ‘Fines Upon Four Summonses’ records her statement in the Feltham court. “When the women of England are enfranchised and the State acknowledges me as a citizen I shall, of course, pay my share willingly to its upkeep”. Fines were imposed on the four summonses amounting to £12.10s, she added, “I don’t say I will pay these fines either.” The trial led to the confiscation of a pearl necklace and gold bangles, to be auctioned at Twickenham Town Hall. They were reclaimed for her by members of the Women’s Tax Resistance League.

Despite her outings where she got bruised and hurt, she was never arrested due to her social bearings. However, it gave India Office a chance to reduce her allowance. Once she risked her life and put herself (with a vote for women banner) in front of the Prime Minister’s car. 

“Her contribution shows that she was passionate and committed to empowerment and we probably need someone like that now too—the fact that she fought for every woman shows the value that is placed on equality in Sikhi. But I am also conscious about nominating her as a Sikh contributor or role model because we don’t know how closely, if at all, she identified herself as a Sikh. As a student of colonial history, I would argue that her story is still fairly unknown so that taints the way in which we can say she contributed because if nobody knows what she did then her impact ends up belonging to someone else (wrongly). Similar to the case of the Sikh contribution in WW1,” says PhD student and Head of Decolonisation and Literature Network Kiran Kaur.

During the First World War when more and more injured Indian soldiers were brought to Britain, Sophia joined the Red Cross and not only raised funds for them but also took to nursing. She is known to have gifted them ivory mirrors and obliged Sikh soldiers with photographs who were surprised to see the Maharaja’s daughter tending to them.

Sikh Women’s Alliance’s Balwinder Kaur Saund says, “Sophia was an amazing Sikh woman of substance with Punjabi revolutionary blood in her. Being Queen Victoria’s god daughter, she had to tread carefully but despite that she helped loads of Sikh Army men with her fundraising and one was one of Pankhursts’ team who got us women the vote 100 years ago. Her unsung work and deeds are many but sad thing is that we Punjabi people have not given her the prominence in history she deserves. We should mark her birthday and death anniversary and talk about her to keep her memories alive.” 

At the time of Second World War, she looked after evacuee children as her own, taking care of their every need at the country home of her sister. “Unlike her sisters, she was never poisoned by rancour. They had rage against entire people. Catherine left the country, Bamba was more upset about what was stolen from them. Sophia lifted people she loved, here in Britain and India. Sophia died on August 22 1948, at 71, peacefully in her sleep. She transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality. Besides looking after her servants, she left donations for dog charity and Hindu, Sikh and Muslim girls schools in India,” shares Anand.

“For her to speak against injustices where she saw that at time, being such an alien, foreigner in a foreign land. Even though she was born here, she was never English. She felt a weight of that. Even though she could have had everything taken away from her at just a click of a finger and there were attempts to do that, she still put principles before personal gain and that’s a wonderful attribute”. 

It’s high time we celebrate the Lion Princess!  

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