Well-off Indians under British rule have been portrayed as “villains of peace”  

Brigadier HH Sukhjit Singh, the grandson of the last Maharaja of Kapurthala, says he is troubled by the misinformation spread about the role of the princely states in the Indian Independence movement

NH photo by Vipin
NH photo by Vipin

Dhairya Maheshwari

Prince, Patron and Patriarch: Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, a biography on Jagatjit Singh, the last Maharaja of Kapurthala, throws light on the royal’s French connection during the British colonial rule in India.

Put together by maharaja’s grandson Brigadier HH Sukhjit Singh and Cynthia Meera Frederick, and published by Roli Books, the book throws light on the less-explored part of India’s colonial history.

Brigadier HH Sukhjit Singh sat down for a chat with National Herald:

What’s the trigger for writing the book? Why now?

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.

The wrong things in our post-Independence society today have at many a time been attributed to the pernicious influence of these people. That’s not true at all. They were the co-architects of the freedom of India.

Each one of us has a certain role to play in society. In the Indian context, the ability of the princely order was governed by dharma. And when you are governed by a dharma, you realise that there is a power above you, no matter how big you consider yourself to be.

Q. Your new book is about French influence on the Maharaja of Kapurthala. When most of our conversations about India’s pre-Independence history are focussed on the British imperialists, how would you summarise the role of France in colonial India?

If you go back to the era in which the Maharaja lived, the majority of 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. One of the greatest advantages my grandfather had was his ability with the French language. It gave him a passport to entry into any of these places.

At that time, Paris was considered as the aesthetic capital of the world. So, natural for aesthetics, he gravitated towards France. But in all the other matters, he was firmly rooted in British training.

How much time did it take to put together this book?

Well, we embarked on this mission to put together this book five years ago. I would say that most of the credit goes to my co-author, as the book project wouldn’t have been possible without her inputs. The distinct advantage that we had was all the material was in house. We didn’t have to seek permission from others, which was of great help, since we were documenting our own family’s history.

What did the French authorities think about the Maharaja?

They 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. And he was happy to oblige,many a time as just a personal rather than a political gesture. His presence in France didn’t attract much political attention, which to mind was a clever of doing things. That’s how diplomacy works.

The Maharaja was a witness to some of the major global political happenings during his lifetime. One of the events was his meeting with the Nazi officials of Germany. What was the purpose of these meetings?

I believe he wanted to get an insight into the collective psyche of the German people. He had been warned by the British government to not visit Nazi Germany. In fact, he was even summoned by the Viceroy after his meeting with the Germans, despite objections from the colonial government.

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 once he returned.

How much time did it take to build the Kapurthala Palace,which was modelled on the Palace of Versailles in France?

The construction began in 1901 and the palace got completed in six years. The Maharaj hired a French architect, M Marcel. for the job.

Has the Maharaja’s love for French culture and society passed down in the family line?

If one has the advantage of witnessing events, which I have,and being part of the evolutionary process in a rapidly changing world,especially in the Indian scene, the effort must be to channelise everything in a positive direction. Ultimately, what is to the benefit of humans is more cooperation and more understanding among different cultures.

There are good things, as well as bad, about every culture. What do you think we as Indians can learn from the French culture and society?

I would sum it up in three words that was part of their Revolution (1789). Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. That’s exactly what we have been trying to emulate. And I think we still have to long way to go as far as realising these aspects are concerned, mainly because perceptions are different in every cultural context. Balancing these aspirations with reality is what ultimately counts.

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Published: 17 Feb 2019, 12:30 PM