Sophia: Sikh princess, British crusader
Sophia Duleep Singh was almost an international rock star. An exotic Indian princess, Queen Victoria's goddaughter, a high-society darling...each of her moves followed closely by the world media. Just one prohibited trip to India was to change it all — a journey that is once again making the world sit up in awe more than six decades after her death. An icon of the movement for women's right to vote in the UK, she has, of late, been subject of several books and films, which show how one of the most loved members of the aristocracy became one of the most hated women in Britain.
Daughter of last Sikh maharaja Duleep Singh, Sophia's early life was like that of just another aristocrat child. UK-based historian Peter Bance sees the years spent under a ward after her mother's death and father abandoning the family and living in Paris as what shaped her. "These years would have been very difficult for her but made her a very strong character, as she did depend on anyone. In fact, there was no motherly figure for her. She had to grow up very fast," he says. Her biographer Anita Anand says of all the maharaja's children, she was the most pliant and pleasant. "At first, shy and unassuming, she became in her teens a rather vacuous socialite. Sophia adored her life of privilege and parties and felt grateful to her godmother Queen Victoria," tells Anand, whose biography 'Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary' was released by Bloomsbury earlier this year. Still, she was nowhere close to what the world remembers her as today: a firebrand feminist, a leading Suffragette. Yet, it was inevitable.
She wanted to be part of one of world's biggest parties, the 1903 Delhi Durbar, held to celebrate the succession of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. The British government forbade the trip, but she set out nevertheless.
What she saw turned her stomach. "Against a backdrop of famine and crushing poverty, the Viceroy was throwing the greatest party the world had ever seen. She saw her fellow Indians suffering under intolerable circumstances. Though she was treated like a celebrity in England, in the land of her forefathers, officers of the Raj treated her very shabbily. The scales fell away from her eyes. Little wonder then that Sophia later fell under the thrall of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai. The latter in particular became her mentor and fired her sense of injustice. India rewired her DNA and turned her into a fighter," says Anand.
Six years later, she was a leading Suffragette, advocating women's right to vote. She shot to fame quickly. Suffragette historian Diane Atkinson says her courage in taking such a highly visible role was much admired. "It required great courage to defy the pressure a woman of her standing would have been subject to align with such a controversial and deeply unpopular organization. She happily volunteered to take part even though she must have known that would bring notoriety, and Mrs Pankhurst [Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement] was more than happy to say yes. Celebrity played its part too," she says.
Bance says she was aware she could give the suffragette movement maximum publicity. "She was the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, so her antics were greatly publicized in the media. Any arrest would have been embarrassing for the Queen. She played on this and knew she could push the boat out without the risk of imprisonment," he says and that is how it panned out.
Her 1910 march led by Pankhurst to the House of Commons, where her comrades were attacked and molested by police, is legendary. It came about to be known as the Black Friday. On another occasion, she threw herself before the Prime Minister's car holding a placard saying, 'Give women the vote'. Anand feels that an Indian princess and goddaughter of Queen Victoria, she was a propaganda grenade. "One of the suffragettes were more than willing to deploy." However, Sophia didn't remain just that. In 1928, following Pankhurst's death, she became president of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship. That year, Royal consent for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, enabling women above 21 years of age to vote, also came.
The right to vote was theirs, but she knew it would be futile if not exercised. "She always told people: 'Women fought very hard to win the right to vote, so make sure you vote!'" tells Bance.
In the end, was it a fulfilling life? Yes, answers Bance. "She lived into her late 70s and had done what every woman of her time would have loved to do. Travelling the world, being a high society socialite, an active player in the Suffragette movement and witnessing the victory for the movement during her life... If there was anything missing, it would have been a married life with children, but then again we do not know she may not have wanted that intentionally."
Anand feels that is where sadness lay.
"She was a maternal creature with no children of her own. From being one of the most loved members of the aristocracy, she became one of the most hated women in Britain. She never had a family of her own, choosing the suffragettes above all else. For her impertinence, the British squeezed her income and more sinisterly set about erasing her from history. I would say that is suffering enough. But I think she would have looked back on her battle scars with pride. Were it not for her and women like her, the world would have been more different, much uglier," she sums.