For the last two decades, I’ve taken my voter’s ID card for granted: it’s just there, like the “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” of India itself. I almost voted for Dharatipakkad in my first election, before using my franchise a little more wisely, and will vote along with much of Delhi this Saturday. Like most of my generation, I can neither imagine living in a country nor a world where women had to fight for the basic right to vote.
In my favourite photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh, the princess stands outside Hampton Court, an elegant woman whose face expresses her determination. She is selling copies of The Suffragette. Until Anita Anand wrote Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (Bloomsbury India), even most feminist historians were unaware of the role played by Maharajah Duleep Singh’s daughter in the Votes for Women campaign.
Sophia Duleep Singh died a year after India gained its Independence at the age of 71, peacefully in one of the estates marked out for the former royals by Queen Victoria, who was also godmother to the princess. She had seen her father, the deposed king, fritter away a large part of his legacy after his move to England; she and her sisters had grown up without “roots, playmates or competent parents”.
The loss of the kingdom and the riches symbolized by the handing over of the Kohinoor had only been partly alleviated by the allocation of grace-and-favour houses to Sophia and her siblings. They were close; in the portrait of the three sisters taken at their Buckingham Palace debut, Bamba, Catherine and Sophia lean towards each other, comfortable in their long white debutante’s gowns. Ranjit Singh’s grand-daughters did not receive their due from the British, then or at any other time, though Sophia and Queen Victoria remained close.
Anita Anand’s liking for her subject is obvious; Sophia, who appeared to be apolitical in her teens, made strong choices all through her life. Aside from her lifelong love of animals, she had a tendency to take up causes with intensity and involvement.
She had grown up in Elveden: “The estate had an air of surreal but pleasant madness,” Anand writes. The Prince of Wales came down to shoot pheasants with Duleep Singh; the duties of footmen included chasing after parrots, jackdaws and the odd baboon. For a while, Sophia appeared in the papers as one of London’s fashionable young women, known for the elaborate dresses she wore, the Borzois she bred and for being a “first-rate cyclist”.
But in 1903, on a visit to India, Sophia explored Punjab for seven weeks, while her sisters retreated from the warm weather to Shimla. She began to understand her heritage, and to love the country that had shaped her history without ever being home. On the ship back to England, Sophia was one of the rare passengers to notice the plight of the lascars, the “ragged merchant seamen” who lived precariously on London’s docks. She changed the lives of thousands of sailors by setting up a home for able seamen; later, after the Great War, she would channel her philantrophic energies similarly towards the cause of Indian soldiers in Brighton, volunteering at a hospital for the wounded.
A separate book could be written on the number of women in that age whose relative privilege – wealth, estates, position – could not compensate for the frustrations of not being allowed to join the workplace, run industries, or participate in political life. Philantrophy was among the few acceptable outlets for their intelligence and energy.
In 1907, Sophia met the revolutionary Sarla Devi Choudhrani, and was profoundly swayed by the speeches she heard Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai make in Lahore. The sisters were taken aback to find themselves on stage with the nationalists: “Up we got amid cheers… oh dear we were cockatoos with a vengeance today.” By 1908, back in London, she had found the cause that would stir her almost as much as the talk of Home Rule in India: women’s rights, and the meetings of the WSPU, where Emmeline Pankhurst, Uma Dugdale and others gave animated speeches.
In the next few years, Queen Victoria’s god-daughter would become a headache for the British government. Sophia marched with Pankhurst, witnessing and being badly jostled in the many assaults on the suffragettes by London’s police; she funded the cause, and joined the hundreds of women who refused to pay their taxes until they had the vote. In a more flamboyant moment, Sophia attempted to stop the prime minister’s car as it left Downing Street; she had concealed her women’s rights poster in her fashionable furs.
It is so easy to erase women’s names from history. In Indian newspapers today, the conversation centres on just a few stalwarts of the nationalist movement, almost all of them male – Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, but so rarely even a mention of Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali, Annie Besant and the rest.
Anita Anand mentions that Sophia’s voice would have been lost had she not kept detailed diaries, which were fortunately passed on to the British Library. Anand managed to speak to three people who knew Sophia well, including her god-daughter, Drovna. She had almost given up on tracking Drovna when she received a phone call in July 2012: “My name is Drovna – what do you want with my Princess?”
Sophia: Princess, Sufragette, Revolutionary is a painstaking biography, perhaps more thorough than brilliant. But by resurrecting Sophia Duleep Singh’s overlooked life and memory, this book is a reminder of how bitter the battle was for the women’s vote, how remarkable it was that an Indian woman would have joined that cause in London, and how the early calls for nationalism resonated in the heart of this maharajah’s daughter. The last word should be left to Drovna, who remembers Sophia often telling her: “I want a solemn promise from you. You are never, ever not to vote. You don’t realise how far we’ve come. Promise me.”
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