Judging the erstwhile royals: An unkind cut or a bitter truth?

AMRITSAR : As India observes the 100th anniversary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre amid renewed demands of a formal apology from the British government, historians say that majority of royals – Rajas and Maharajas – within the country, ruling the erstwhile princely states then, had refused to condemn the horrific incident and some had even sided with the colonial rulers.

In the recent past, the Congress leaders in Punjab demanded an apology from former minister and Shiromani Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia on behalf of his great-grandfather Sundar Singh Majithia, who was Knighted and also given the title of ‘Sardar Bahadur’ by the British and remained a minister under British Raj.

However, the historians say that majority of the Rajas, Maharajas, and top Sikh leadership had refused to condemn the massacre with some even “praising” the British for the brutal killings. The leaders, according to historians, also included Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh, grandfather of Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh.

M Rajivlochan, professor, department of history, Panjab University, Chandigarh, says that Rajas and Maharajas of Punjab had even declared peaceful protesters as “rowdies” and praised British for killing them. “It was Mahatma Gandhi who had condemned and declared the massacre as entirely immoral in 1919. Mostly all the erstwhile royals and elite of Punjab appreciated the British for putting down what they called Indian rowdies. The elite Punjabis continued to praise, honour and appreciate Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer as for them it was more important to save their chair and position by siding with the British. Those who never condemned Jallianwala massacre include Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh. One prominent Sikh leader who insisted that Sikhs must fight against the British was Partap Singh Kairon who later became chief minister of Punjab,” Rajivlochan says.

In “The Magnificent Maharaja”, the biography of Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh, author K Natwar Singh wrote, “Dyer had killed 379 unarmed men at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on April 13, 1919. It is among the blackest episodes in the history of British empire. It was cold-blooded murder by a callous, conceited, narrow-minded unimaginative man, who should have been court martialled and dismissed. Instead he was lionised and a fund was raised for him from England. Inspite of the Martial Law, disturbances took place in various parts of Punjab. Maharaja Bhupinder Singh gave full support to the Raj. Lt Governor O’Dwyer acknowledged this in his autobiography. Maharaja Bhupinder Singh was not alone. All other Punjab princes did the same. Servile loyalty of this kind did not do the princely order any good. Even Churchill condemned the Jallianwala Bagh killings. But not one Indian ruler. The order was committed to taking orders from their imperial Masters”.

Sikh affairs experts also say that Arur Singh, then caretaker of the Golden Temple (Sri Harmandir Sahib) at Amritsar and Sundar Singh Majithia had allegedly played a role in getting Dyer honoured with a siropa at the highest Sikh shrine. Majithia, otherwise, is also credited with establishing historical Khalsa College, Amritsar and raising several Sikh issues with the British through his “moderate” approach. He was also nominated as the first president of Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) in 1920. He formed ‘Khalsa National Party’ in 1936 won polls and became Revenue Minister of Punjab under British and remained so till his death in April 1941.

Paramvir Singh, member, Sikh History Research Board, SGPC, says, “Dyer was honored at Golden Temple by caretaker Arur Singh, who too was a British nominee. He was the maternal grandfather of SAD (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann who had later apologized on behalf of his grandfather. Till the SGPC wasn’t formed, gurdwaras were controlled by mahants who were hand in glove with the British. Cream of Sikh community, including Majithia, who was secretary of chief Khalsa Diwan in 1919 (an organization formed by Sikhs to open schools, colleges and do other social works but with moderate ideology towards British), were called for a meeting by Dyer after the massacre and later he was honored at Golden Temple. These Sikhs played a facilitator in getting him honored and suppressing anger in Sikh community. Almost every kingdom and institution then, including Maharaja of Patiala, were close to British because of their compulsion to save their own chair”.

An excerpt from the book, “A History of the Sikhs: 1839-2004” by Khushwant Singh, read: “General Dyer tried to win over the Sikhs as best he could. He summoned the manager of the Golden Temple and Majithia and asked them to use their influence with the Sikhs in favor of the government. He sent out movable columns through Sikh villages to wean them away from the influence of mischief makers and to prove that “sircar” was still strong. Priests of the Golden Temple invited the general to the sacred shrine and presented him with a siropa (turban and kirpan). Mahatma Gandhi later visited Jallianwala Bagh and the sites where atrocities had been committed by the army and the police. He addressed mammoth gatherings and told people that the most important quality for a patriot was to be nirbhai- fearless. Under his inspiration a new organization, the Central Sikh League, consisting of nationalists who were opposed to Chief Khalsa Diwan’s toadying to the British, came into existence”.