Today is the 120th anniversary of the death of Maharajah Duleep Singh, known as the last king of the Sikh Empire.
As some of you will know, he was the youngest son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh and Maharani Jind Kaur, and he came to power after a series of intrigues, when several claimants to the throne killed each other.
He was eventually exiled to England at age 14 after the British annexation of the Punjab and is considered Britain’s first Sikh settler.
After an eventful life, which included conversion to Christianity and then back to Sikhism, and trying to win back his kingdom from the British, the deposed ruler of the Punjab died alone in a Paris hotel room.
This was no doubt a tragic end for someone with as grand a legacy and heritage as he had. Some Sikh academics do not believe that Duleep’s legacy should be left at that.
Last month, former Indian police cop and academic, Dr. Gurbinder Singh Aujla, brought up this point at a lecture about Duleep at the British Library. Aujla called for Duleep’s buried body to be exhumed so that he could be taken to India and cremated in an appropriate Sikh ceremony.
He said: “[T]o bring the remains of Duleep Singh to India has often been expressed by various Sikh[s] and the Punjabi diaspora abroad. To treat him a Christian in burial even after he had re-embraced Sikhism is to inflict an injustice in perpetuity. Since there are no articulate successors of the Maharajah in Europe it is incumbent upon the entire community to claim the remains of the last king.
“The place where the Maharajah of Punjab lies buried is akin to a place of pilgrimage as the Punjabis visit the grave in a silent bond with the deceased monarch. The person who as an eleven year old child parted with “Koh-i-Noor” (the Mountain of Light) which adorns the royal diadem since the times of Queen Victoria surely deserves a posthumous home coming. Let him be consigned to ashes in his homeland which was denied to him during his lifetime. Let it not be denied after his death.”
But Aujla was challenged by some in the audience. One person asked if an exhumation was really necessary because it would mean the late maharajah’s body would have to be removed from where he was buried alongside his family, which would be in bad taste. Another pointed out that this was just another example of a tendency to over-mythologise Duleep, at the expense of more effective ways of encouraging solidarity and progression within the Sikh community.
Some in Sikh circles also do not accept that he died of natural causes, but that he was the victim of a more sinister poisoning plot and are in favour of an exhumation to check for evidence of this.
Should the body of the last king of the Punjab be exhumed to give him a proper Sikh ceremony and to find out if he had possibly been poisoned?
Will this put right a big wrong? Will it restore some lost pride in the Sikh legacy (and identity)? We have to ask if there is really a big desire to do this and what difference it would really make if it was done. One prominent guest at the lecture commented: “Why don’t people focus more on preserving the monuments and history that already exist in India and are being destroyed rather than this?”
What do others think?