Tales and atrocities of British imperialists in India have been well-documented, right from the time when the British East India Company first dismounted on the Indian soil, through the start of reign of Queen Victoria in 1857, to India’s Independence in 1947. Britain’s intercontinental rival, France, followed the British into India, making their first official landing around 1668, though they proved to be a no-match for the superior British imperialists who confined them to a few pockets, most notably around India’s southern coast.
That, however, doesn’t mean that French left no admirers on the Indian subcontinent. Maharaja Jagajit Singh (1872-1949), the last official royal of the princely state of Kapurthala, was one such individual. A new biography on the Maharaja, Prince, Patron and Patriarch: Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, put together by his grandson Brigadier HH Sukhjit Singh and Cynthia Meera Frederick, throws light on the less explored part of India’s colonial history.
“If you go back to the era in which the Maharaja lived, all diplomatic transactions were done in French. All treaties were drafted in French. Most of the royal courts in Europe and royal families that we had at the time used French language,” explains Sukhjit Singh, as he tries to give a sense of his grandfather’s fondness with the French culture.
“At that time, Paris was considered as the aesthetic capital of the world. So, he gravitated towards France,” adds the titular maharaja.
In fact, so impressed was the Maharaja by the French culture and their society that he decided to build a palace in Kapurthala, which was modelled on the Palace of Versailles and had been conceptualised by a French architect, M Marcel. Started in 1901, the construction of the palace was completed in 1906.
Sukhjit, a decorated war veteran at the time of 1971 India-Pakistan War, says he has been troubled with the “misinformation campaign” around the role of princely states since India achieved independence in 1947, which he says prompted him to pen his book.
“The princely states were the co-architects of the freedom of India. I have always been troubled after Independence as to the distortion of history that seems to have become institutionalised about the princely order. The well-off people and the India landowners have been portrayed as villains of peace in general,” he complains.
Nothing hurts him more that this malicious perception, which he says his new book would debunk.
He goes on to recount the instances when his grandfather facilitated backchannel talks with French and other foreign governments, just taking into account the Indian interests. “Nothing was political about these meetings. There were intended as a personal gesture on his part,” he says
“They (the French) were rather pleased to have the Maharaja as an acquaintance, since it gave them a diplomatic backchannel with the British. His presence in France didn’t attract much political attention, which was a clever way of doing things. That’s how diplomacy works,” he proudly declares.
In fact, the Maharaja had even embarked on a visit to Nazi Germany, which wasn’t favourably looked upon by the British rulers of India at the time. But Sukhjit says that the trip was undertaken to satiate Maharaja’s intellectual curiosity about the German people and the German nation of the time.
“On his return, he told the viceroy that he wanted to understand how the hard-working and industrious public of Germany got mesmerised by one man. The psychological aspect that he sought to understand was well-appreciated by the British colonial government afterwards,” tells the Maharaja’s kin.
Despite his fondness for a foreign culture, nothing had as significant a bearing on the Maharaja as the Partition, which happened two years before his death.
Says Sukhjit, “The Partition had a profound impact on my grandfather. After building an empire for 60 years, it was hard for him to see the collapse of the territory, its division purely on religious lines.
He couldn’t conceive of such a thing.”