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Unfinished Business:
The Remains of The Last Sikh Emperor,
Maharaja Duleep Singh
Part II

T. SHER SINGH

 

 

 



Duleep Singh is no ordinary figure in Sikh, Punjab, South Asian or British history.

He and the family he hails from are our equivalent of the Wagnerian characters from the Camelot of legend and lore.

Except that our Camelot was and is real, not the figment of poetic imagination.

It is so close to us in time and geography, we can almost stretch out our arms and touch it. Yet, it has a grip on the Sikh and Punjabi imagination as strong as Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot have on the English psyche.

Deep in our consciousness, we see the forty years of Ranjit Singh’s Lahore as capturing the epitome of Sikh dreams and aspirations, and the half-a-century of Duleep Singh’s life that followed as a mere extension of it, even though the latter period was, in sum total, but a vale of tears.      

Therefore, how we handle the remains of this extraordinary man -- given that we must do something to correct the historical wrong -- is crucial. If done properly, with class and forethought, it has the potential of injecting a tremendous spurt of energy into the worldwide community like nothing has in recent memory.

Here are some thoughts on how I would do it … discard them or build on these suggestions, some or all, as you will.


1    It needs to be a grand event, in a larger sense, not as a gurpurab or a mela, not in a desi/Indian fashion. Think big!

It should not be just a Sikh/Punjabi event, but one enveloping the vision and ambit of a diaspora which encompasses all, Sikh and non-Sikh. 

It should have no politics intrude into it. Not even a tinge of it. No Khalistan, no Punjabi or Indian issues, no 1848 or 1984, no British Raj.

It should not become a religious event or get hijacked by one group or the other … no dichotomy between turbaned or non-turbaned; amritdhari or sehajdhari; jutt, khuttri, ramgharia or whatever; male or female; Punjabi or diasporic; long-established immigrants, local-born or newcomers;  etc. It must include and welcome and involve every segment of the community.


2    It should be done in England. It is a historical fact that Duleep Singh’s life was, for better or worse, intrinsically tied to Britain. Britain needs to own him as theirs. It will give Britons the equivalent of a “Truth & Reconciliation“ process vis-à-vis its ugly colonial past. If done right, the Britons -- Sikh and non-Sikh alike -- will emerge from the exercise both exorcised and reconciled as never before.   


3    There are three major parties who have a direct interest in how we go about doing it. Each must have a role centre-stage.

4    First, the British.

The British government will only come aboard if we keep politics out of the entire project … no if’s and but’s.

And it is important that they have ownership of all goings-on. Once they are on board, every aspect of it will be smooth-sailing.

And an equal component of the British involvement is that of the Royal Family.

Much of the wrongs committed against Duleep Singh was by the government (first as the Company, and then the Empire). The Royals have acted honourably throughout, all the way back to Queen Victoria’s embracing Duleep Singh as a virtual member of her family, to Prince Charles’ unveiling of the Duleep Singh memorial in Thetford, the town closest to Elveden where Duleep Singh lived and is now buried.

I believe it is of the utmost importance that the Queen as well as Prince Charles be the primary VIPs at the event(s).


5    Second, the Rt. Hon. Arthur Edward Rory Guinness, 4th Earl of Iveagh.

The 45-year old who is known as Lord Iveagh is the current owner of the 22,486 acre (91 square km) Elveden Estate, which was acquired by his ancestors after the death of Duleep Singh. The British government, in their warped sense of polity, had arranged to have Duleep Singh’s entire estate revert to it, rather to his heirs. 

I have had the pleasure of meeting Lord Iveagh a couple of times. He and his mother graciously gave us a personally guided tour of Elveden a few years ago. 
          
He too is an honourable man and has been most generous to our community, being very cognizant of the importance of the estate to the Sikhs.

Duleep Singh’s grave lies on his property.

It is imperative that Lord Iveagh be part and parcel of all that is done to honour Duleep Singh’s memory.


6    Last but not least in the trio of interested parties in this matter is, of course, the Sikh community. The Sikh-Briton community specifically, but the Sikh diaspora too, vicariously.

The looming question, then, is: who is to be consulted, who decides what needs to be done, who supervises and monitors the project, and who are they all accountable to?


7    First things first.

Who should have carriage of the project?

Britain has a whole slew of good Sikh institutions and organizations, some of them doing extraordinary work in their chosen fields of endeavour.

Scouring through the list, I find that some, however, are burdened by narrow or fringe agendas, and easily get distracted. Others are a bit careless in their research, with stress on optics and little else. Others, who have all the commitment and good intentions in the world, have no understanding of the importance of form and presentation, no style or class. Still others are steeped in old-country issues, and have yet to free themselves from a mind-set which is best left behind on the subcontinent. And, there are also those who are cluttered in their thinking, and careless in their relationships both within and without the community, behaving like semi-literates even though they hold all the degrees and professional positions in the world.

If I sound overly picky, you’re reading me right. I think this project is far too important to get tangled up in petty egos and short-sighted agendas.

Ideally, I think the people just right for this job are the Maharajah Duleep Singh Centennial Trust (“MDSCT“). It is led by Harbinder Singh whose work I have followed for two decades, especially his recent work on the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail (“ASHT“).

His group has been diligently and consistently working on the Duleep Singh project for longer than anyone else I know, and everything they have done exudes class and style. I like Harbinder’s attention to detail, and his ability to handle the two important sides of this work: the needs and aspirations of the Sikh community, and the interactions with the mainstream community and all its components.

True, both Harbinder and MDSCT/ASHT have their limitations and their detractors. But, don’t we all?

The bottom line is that if we look at the lay of the land, I can’t think of another group that could do better what needs to be done.


8    We can, however, put safeguards in place to ensure that even they do better than their best.

I would recommend that the project be led by two co-Chairs: Lord Indarjit Singh and Sir Mota Singh.

Both have impeccable backgrounds … in experience, skills, and in Sikhi.

I personally think that one of the great failures of our community in Britain is the fact that we have failed to fully avail of the leadership of these two giants in our community. I don’t think anyone can validly question their qualifications; the problem has been, in my opinion, that those who have failed to tap into their strengths have been held back by petty jealousies and no more.    


9     Britain is blessed with a lot of talent.

To design the Duleep Singh Funeral Project, I would involve the inimitable Singh Twins -- Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh. They are endlessly talented in infusing magic re both form and substance into anything and everything they touch.

Then there is Bhupinder “Peter” Singh Bance who has made it his life-long labour of love to collect Duleep Singh memorabilia. His collection and outreach is enviable. He will prove immensely resourceful.

Christy Campbell, the author of “The Maharajah’s Box” is another name that comes to mind. He’s the only one I know who, amongst all of Duleep Singh’s biographers, has ventured into doing original research into the life and times of Duleep Singh.

There are many more treasure lodes -- such as Julius Bryant, Susan Stronge, Deborah Swallow, et al -- but Harbinder knows them all and can draw them in at a moment‘s notice, I‘m sure.

I would also tap into the Nishkam group, but solely for the spiritual side of what is ultimately planned for the event(s).

Which brings me to a caveat: the vision must be clear, and not be allowed to be obfuscated in an way. Which may require that the planning remain the bailiwick of a select core group; the rest -- implementation -- is where you draw in the best people available, such as those listed in this section. 


10    The Sikh-Briton community shouldn’t be left out. A consultative process is a must.

Social media and other tools of the internet will allow us to make the process accessible to all, easy and efficient … and both low-cost and within a manageable time-frame.

Submissions should be invited from the community via, for example, email, looking for submissions of 500 words or less on ideas as to what should be done in the project. A 30-day deadline should be ample for this.

A team should be assigned to study the responses, garner the meat and present it to the co-Chairs for consideration.

Further than that, all decision-making should be left to the co-Chairs and the MDSCT/ASHT team. Having a larger group involved in decision-making will merely hamper the process and distort the vision which, once identified, needs to remain unified and steadfast.


11    The Sikhs from across the diaspora should be drawn in to ensure they feel ownership of it as well … but as attendees, not in the formulation of the event. Politicians from anywhere and everywhere -- especially India and Punjab -- should be kept out. They can come on their own steam as ordinary guests if they so wish, but not as VIPs or special guests -- otherwise the whole thing will get hijacked into something less than what we would like it to be.


P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am personally acquainted with all of the individuals I have named above; some I've only met a few times, others I enjoy their friendship to some degree or the other. But I've named them, not because they are my friends but because I genuinely admire what they do, and what they have done, and believe they are well-suited for the project at hand. 

 

To Be Continued … What exactly should we do, and how will we pay for it?


July 14, 2014   



 

Conversation about this article

1: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), July 14, 2014, 11:17 AM.

All of the above sounds good. You have put lots of thought behind it. In my humble opinion, we always neglect the period of our history between the Tenth Guru and Ranjit Singh. This is a most significant, dark, and yet extremely uplifting period. In fact majority of Sikhs can trace their lineages to this period when their ancestors became Sikhs, converted from Hinduism or Islam. We can organize seminars, bring out the historic accounts, recreate the scenarios from Bhai Mani Singh, Banda Bahadar, Ghallugharas, Misl period and then the British period. Duleep Singh, on the other hand, is our link to the Western world and our diaspora, being the first Sikh to emigrate. British Royalty should respect his memory also. Incidentally, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's movie, 'Eyes Wide Shut' had many of it's scenes shot on the Elveden estate.

2: Amarjit Singh Chandan (London, England), July 14, 2014, 12:59 PM.

The only last resting place of Duleep Singh will be next to his father, 'Singh Sahib' Ranjit Singh's samadhi in Lahore. The Punjabis could wait till the reunification of the Punjab, which I hope will happen in one or two generations' time. My 'utopian' idea is an anathema to all kinds of Sikh political leaders in East Punjab and the lackeys of the Delhi Darbar I meet from time to time. I always remind them of our daily ardaas praying: "jinhaan gurdhaamaan toN sanu vicchorhia gia ..." We need to pray for more than simply "darshan deedar"! Eventually the Kohinoor will also return to the land where it belongs. Taking back Duleep Singh's remains to Amritsar will be a hollow gesture in every sense. Both he and the Kohinoor belong to the Lahore Darbar and not to the SGPC and any Akali Dal - SAD, MAD or BAD. So please let Daleep Singh rest in peace till the time comes.

3: N Singh (Canada), July 14, 2014, 2:57 PM.

Yes, excellent! I agree with all of this. My only other suggestion would be that we embrace his progeny by his first wife. Legally speaking, if Maharaja Duleep Singh had succeeded in going back Punjab and wining back his throne then his eldest son would have been the natural heir. Either way we need to acknowledge them, especially since they are of mixed race parentage. This will give a strong message to our children of interfaith or mixed race marriages that there is always a place for them in Sikhi, and we recognise them as one of our own.

4: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 14, 2014, 5:07 PM.

Sher ji, what a lyrical summing up of the golden period gone not long ago. You would qualify as a Master of Rolls, if not to be counted among the famous justices for such a succinct, erudite summing up. Don't move the bones to India, even if you wash in milk and are followed by the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, even if he had to die for such an honour. If it helps the ego, just plant a Khanda. Let this remain as a part of the objective history. "Iss dharti meh teri sikdari ..." [GGS:374.5] - "In this world you may be the ruler ..." It would be just a holier-than-thou attitude even if it means to become a grave digger -- "achar karahai sobha me log" [GGS:374.4] - "You practice good conduct to impress people ..."

5: Dya Singh (Australia), July 14, 2014, 8:43 PM.

What a splendid suggestion and well thought out. I do not hesitate to put my hand up to present a lyrical/musical evening with my group. Sound of didgeridoos will go down well! Anything to promote harmony and love with former enemies, now turned friends, and a higher profile for the Sikh diaspora and quom. Keeping the history alive ... Lest We Forget.

6: Ravinder Singh Kalra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), July 15, 2014, 1:50 PM.

After contemplating and meditating for years, the Guru finally showed me the real essence of our religion ... it's simply music! Everything else is the detail that eventually leads us to that celestial music. I have risen above the thoughts of "Kohinoor belongs to us or the Brits took away immense historical wealth". It happened under the hukam of Akal Purakh and the Kohinoor is one such example which if not taken by the Brits, would perhaps be lying in a Swiss vault under some Indian politician's name. The Brits take great care of all our treasures and that's where the Waheguru intended these jewels to rest. Our real Kohinoor or asankh Kohinoors is our Gurbani Kirtan from Darbar Sahib. Fortunately, it's available around the clock via internet. I just wish that it were available via a fully dedicated Full HD Channel across the world via satellites and the internet. Darbar Sahib has that kind of money without any doubt. Let's just pray to Guru Sahib to reveal himself in the clearest possible audio visual form. And in future, in 3D and then in hologramic form. All other kingdoms have been given to those who deserve them.

7: Kaala Singh (Punjab), July 17, 2014, 7:51 PM.

I feel we as a community have misplaced priorities and have become direction-less. There are more important things to be done than exhuming bodies and moving them to the "Sikh homeland" that doesn't exist.

8: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 18, 2014, 8:03 AM.

Thinking outside the box ... how about the VIRTUAL burial site scenario in various places of significance with authentic and true historical narrative (Use the advances in technology of today) for multitudes and coming generations to cherish and enjoy, with the real burial site as is where it should be, such site being debated - agreed to - confirmed by community leaders and historians who care!

9: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), July 20, 2014, 10:52 AM.

All it takes is someone to give us an "agenda" and we get all worked up, whether it is what to eat,(veg vs non-veg) how to eat( sit on floor in the langar or chairs), etc. Good way to keep a community engaged squabbling over trivial affairs while "Rome is burning". Now it is the remains of Maharaja Duleep Singh! We have plenty of pressing issues in the recent dark chapter of our history that we can discuss/brain storm about. Look for solutions to save the living. There are plenty of Sikhs that need and deserve our immediate attention. If Maharaja Duleep Singh's remains stay where they have been for over a hundred years, it will not make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. Maharaja Duleep Singh belongs to Britain and to Sikh-British history of which a million Sikh-Britons are also a part of. I agree with the author that Harbinder Singh along with stalwarts like Lord Indrajit Singh and Sir Mota Singh can arrange for an event where the Sikhs can pay their respect to the last Sikh Maharaja. My suggestion is that perhaps an yearly event on the Maharaja's death anniversary can be held. With the permission of Lord Iveagh, a kind of historical guided tour once a year. I bet many Sikh-Britons have never visited his memorial in Thetford or his grave in Elveden. This yearly event will educate them and keep them connected to their history. On no account should anything be moved from anywhere in the world to another country, especially India. My personal feeling is that Waheguru wanted us to be a part of many countries' history, not confined to just one area. God has bigger/expansive plans for us.

10: Harsaran Singh (Pondicherry, India), July 23, 2014, 12:07 AM.

Dear Sher Singh ji, as mentioned in the travel diaries by Dya Singh ji during his visit to Pondicherry, I have been trying to get the sequence of events taking place when Thakar Singh Sandhawalia, the Maharaja's maternal uncle, was living in the French colonial Pondicherry -- which is also noted by Christy Campbell, the author of "The Maharajah's Box"". I am sure the articles written by Thakar Singh in the Times of India and other vernacular publications of those times can shed light on the vital events prior to the failed attempt to get Maharaja Duleep Singh back to Punjab. Please suggest how best the task can be completed.

11: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), July 24, 2014, 2:59 PM.

S. Harsaran Singh ji, I had read somewhere that the French had allowed Thakar Singh Sandhawalia to pursue his activities freely in Pondicherry, they even offered him a monthly allowance of 1000 francs. Maharaja Duleep Singh had appointed Thakar Singh Sandhawalia as Prime Minister of his 'Government in Exile' in Pondicherry (recognized by the French) while he sought the help of the Russians. Try history books written by Dr. Bakshish Singh Nijjar.

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The Remains of The Last Sikh Emperor,
Maharaja Duleep Singh
Part II"









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