As UK General Election drama unfolds, writer recalls Indian princess-turned suffragette

Arifa Akbar, literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers, left with Anita Anand, author of 'Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary', right

Arifa Akbar, literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers, left with Anita Anand, author of 'Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary', right

As UK General Election drama unfolds, writer recalls Indian princess-turned suffragette

07 May 2015

By Naomi Canton

As the British electorate cast its vote, BBC radio and TV presenter Anita Anand urged women to participate in the 2015 UK general election, recalling the bravery of suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Political journalist Anand, born in East London to Indian parents, has written a biography of a dispossessed Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh, born to Punjabi royalty in Victorian England in 1876, who, inspired by the Indian Independence movement, joined the British suffrage movement.

Granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the greatest ruler the Punjab has ever known and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, she entered the highest echelons of British society before becoming a revolutionary and joining the suffragette movement. Anand’s book Sophia: Princess, Sufragette, Revolutionary, which tells her fascinating story, was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in January this year.

It was in 1918 that women in the UK won a qualified right to vote. But despite their struggle more than nine million women failed to vote in the 2010 general election, compared to eight million men. Between 1992 and 2010, the number of women voters in general elections actually fell by 18 per cent.

Moreover only 143 women MPs were elected to the House of Commons in the 2010 election meaning women make up just 22 per cent of the House.

Just 364 women have ever sat in the House of Commons since 1918. Less women voted in the last general election than previously so I am worried about that disconnect. Seventy-eight per cent of MPs in the House of Commons who represent us are men. Does that figure sound right to you?” Anand asked, in conversation with literary editor of The Independent and i Newspapers Arifa Akbar at a Asia House Bagri Foundation pre-Literature Festival event.

“You have to feel your sense of ownership of the country you live in. It’s not just about you and your family. It’s about you and your street,” she said.

“I am a feminist and the suffragettes take my breath away. I think a lot of women in the UK want to serve as an MP but they just don’t want to be in that pit of shouting and screaming and that ‘boy’s football terrace’,” she said. “There has also been this perception that it consists of punishing hours, late night drinking and boys’ clubs. But I think it is changing and we need more women to stand,” she said.

“We are so lucky we live in a democracy. As a journalist I have covered elections in countries where the ballot boxes get blown up and people get murdered for not voting for a local crime lord. I do think it’s a moral duty to vote so it annoys and depresses me when people say ‘don’t bother,’” she said.

“Sophia Duleep Singh was as close to a celebrity as you could get in November 1910 when she took part in Black Friday, a women’s suffrage protest in the UK, regarding a Bill which would have extended the right of women to vote in Britain and Ireland that was being veto-ed,” Anand explained.  “This is where the book starts. Women were starving themselves to the point of death.”

Anand, who reported on the 2015 general election for the BBC, then spoke about how many protesting suffragettes were assaulted during the riots and how Sophia became a prominent suffragette who was arrested many times, but always released, owing to her royal connections.

“I met three people who knew her and knew how she smelt and walked. That’s how close we are to a time when women would not have voted,” she said.

“The greatest sadness for me is how disconnected young women are with that story. It is not long ago that women were considered not fit to vote because of their ovaries,” she added.

Sophia was the third daughter of an Indian Maharaja, namely Maharaja Duleep Singh, the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire and known as the Lion of Punjab. “There were also less desirable facets to her too – she was the daughter of a traitor who lost everything,” Anand said.

Duleep Singh was deposed from the throne at the age of 10 following the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh War and the British annexation of the Punjab and he was exiled to Britain by the British at the age of 15. He settled at Elveden Estate in Suffolk. He had six children with his first wife Bamba Müller of which Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was one who was born in Belgravia and raised at Elveden.

Anand admitted she never intended to write a book. “I am married to an author so I know how much work it is,” she said.

But she explains it was whilst on maternity leave in 2010 that she suddenly had the time to read material she would not normally read “in between sleeps and vomits.”

“There was this local magazine that came through the door and there was a picture and an article about a local suffragette exhibition. They had a picture of a suffragette selling The Suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace dressed finely in Edwardian clothes and although it was black and white there was something about it that just told me her skin was as brown as mine. I am Punjabi and I realised she looked Punjabi, not just Indian,” she said.

“Sophia was in fact the daughter of the last Maharaja of Punjab who was close to Queen Victoria. A portrait of him was even commissioned by Queen Victoria and later reproduced and sold to raise money for the soldiers fighting in Crimea,” she added.

“He was once the custodian of the Kohinoor diamond, now in the Tower of London. He tried to raise an army up against the British and take his throne back and then suddenly fell from grace. Sophia and her siblings were protected by the British state and Queen Victoria decided to save her and gave her lots of tutors and guardians to look after her and help her,” she said.

“Her sisters, particularly Bamba, hated the English and Bamba was really quite an out-and-out racist when it came to white people,” she said. “Duleep Singh would refer to Queen Victoria as Mrs Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods, but Sophia did not feel that way.  She wanted to fit in.”

This is the first book chronicling Sophia’s life. “I was reading the Duleep Singh papers at the British Library and suddenly out plopped Sophia’s diary. No one had read it! I had a trembling moment holding it.  In it she talks about that moment when she turned into a pointless socialite and the diary catalogues her trip to India in 1907 where she met Indian freedom fighters which brought her alive and turned her into a revolutionary.”

Sophia also went on a secret trip with her sister to see the two-week Delhi Durbar in 1902-1903 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII (Queen Victoria’s son) and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. On that trip she connected with the laskars (Indian seamen working on European ships) and supported their interests, Anand said.

“It was on that trip that she realised that when she was in London she was treated like Princess Diana but in India she was treated no better than a coolie, she was shunned,” she said. “She did not feel comfortable in the clothes she wore and when she returned to Britain she did not trust high society anymore and she felt she did not belong. That is the start of her change and 1907 is when she becomes fully politicised and she suddenly finds her armour. She heard the cry of ‘Give us a voice!’ from the Indian nationalists,” Anand said.

Back in England Sophia heard the same cry ‘Give us a voice’ coming from the suffragettes and that is where she fitted in, Anand explained.

“She was a real publicity grenade and Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes knew this. They knew the value of sending her to prison but every time she was arrested she was let go. The Raj did not want the North to have their warrior princess.”

Britain wanted to erase her from history,” she explained. “I wanted to find a book on her as soon as I saw the picture and I kept looking and there was not one. But I did not come across her – she barged her way into my house and landed on my doorstep!” Anand said.

Sophia’s grandmother Maharani Jind Kaur tried her utmost to keep power from the Raj, she explained. “She was the original suffragette to me. I really hope someone writes a book about her!” she said. “She was the kennel keeper’s daughter but ended up marrying one of the greatest kings that India has ever known, namely Ranjit Singh. He united the North in a way no one had done before. He was the one who amassed this extraordinary wealth and took the Kohinoor diamond as his own,” she added.

She explained that unlike her sister Bamba, Sophia did not get into the fight for Indian independence. “India was not her country. It’s kind of like that immigrant feeling people have today. She was born in Belgravi, lived in Suffolk and feted by everyone who matters in London in a celebrity lifestyle. She did not feel Indian but she did not feel British after seeing how the British treated Indians in India so she felt very alone and outside.”

She explained her love life was not successful either. “She did not marry. Dashing men in England would dance with her but would not marry her because no one wanted – in the words of the day – ‘mongrel children’. Indian men in India were nothing like the men she had grown up with. Her sister Bamba would send her sketches of gorgeous Sikh men from India but this was not her world and she wrote in her diary, ‘I don’t understand these people.’ It’s very similar to the experience of some British Asians who have arranged marriages in India with people from their village. Sophia had a really complicated relationship with India and the notion of home,” Anand added, saying she asked for her ashes to be scattered in India after her death.

She also left money to a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh girls’ school. “She asked for a German song Götterdämmerung to be played at her funeral. One of her sisters Catherine was a lesbian who moved to Germany. The only family she really knew and loved was her housekeeper, her housekeeper’s daughter and three evacuees from London who she took in during WWII – so she was not part of a typical nuclear family at all – it was more like a women’s collective!”

Sophia died in 1948 a year after Partition. “I did not find her talking about Partition, but from everything I can see about her life and journey, that taught me that Partition would have been one of the saddest days of her life. India was free but at what cost? Lahore, which went to Pakistan, was the seat of her father and grandfather’s kingdom. Ranjit Singh is famous in Indian history for uniting Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and suddenly, her country that she really wanted to be free, was ripped apart,” Anand said.

Akbar explained that Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary is a contemporary story still relevant in Britain today covering immigration, a lack of roots, gender, equality, belonging, negotiating different cultural identities and finding new ones.

“It’s a brilliant, at times moving biography about one extraordinary Indian woman,” Akbar said, revealing she read the whole book in a single day. This is a fascinating unrecorded history that you have pieced together really well. I cried at the end,” she added.

Listen to the full audio of the event below:

To see all the events taking place at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.

For more information on this year’s Festival click here.