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The last of the Maharajas

He died at 61 years of age, of a sudden heart attack while serving as a diplomat at The Hague in the Netherlands. But the prophecy of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh’s death had been made years earlier, claims his son, Malvinder Singh, as he recounts his father’s illustrious life at one of their palatial residences in Patiala.

chandigarh Updated: Jan 08, 2013 11:14 IST
Lovedeep Kaur Sidhu

He died at 61 years of age, of a sudden heart attack while serving as a diplomat at The Hague in the Netherlands. But the prophecy of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh’s death had been made years earlier, claims his son, Malvinder Singh, as he recounts his father’s illustrious life at one of their palatial residences in Patiala.

“Pandit Lahori Ram, the family’s astrologer, had predicted the exact time and circumstances in which the Maharaja would die. And it turned out to be true, with my father dying in a foreign land with no family member around,” says Malvinder.

However untimely his death, the Maharaja lived long enough to have had the chance to administer a vast state and also witness its merger with the Union of an independent India.

Yadavindra Singh was born on January 7, 1913. Very soon, as was the custom in those days, began the Yuvraj’s hurried grooming to ready him to rule Patiala. A portrait of 11-year-old Yadavindra, handsome and tall, lies on a mantelpiece in the home of Malvinder. “Even at 11, he can easily be mistaken for an 18-year-old. My father was a strong man and an equally strong ruler. After his education at Aitchison College, Lahore, he went on to receive police training at Phillaur. This came in handy when at 25, he had to accede to the throne,” says Malvinder.

As the family celebrates Yadavindra’s 100th birth anniversary with the organisation of a golf tournament and a shooting match in remembrance of the avid sportsman, Malvinder looks back at a significant era with both nostalgia and regrets.

Yadavindra’s public activities were clearly overshadowed by his love for sports. Of a lithe athletic build, he earnestly took to cricket, hockey and polo, much like his father, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. Yadavindra’s son-in-law, Natwar Singh, who is married to Maharajkumari Heminder Kaur and has authored some books on his royal in-laws, elucidates on the Maharaja’s triumph in sports, when in 1936 he even played a test match in cricket.

“Politics came to our family because of our royal lineage,” states the younger of the two sons of Yadavindra, the elder being Captain Amarinder Singh, former chief minister of Punjab, who was conspicuous by his absence at the Akhand Path held for his father.

Born in luxurious surroundings, it can safely be assumed that the most exciting period of Yadavindra’s life was after the end of World War I, when dynamic changes rocked India, not the least of which was its independence from the British, with whom the Patiala House had throughout been on good terms with.

When asked if the transfer of loyalty from the British to the Indian government was easy, Malvinder explains that the Maharaja was, in fact, a nationalist “at heart”. “Which is why he gave away most of his property to the country and kept very little with himself,” adds he, to reinforce his point. In 1946, the Maharaja was chosen as a chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, a forum of several hundred princely states of India to negotiate terms regarding their future status. “He managed to convince almost all the states with the exception of Junagarh and Hyderabad.” Malvinder disagrees when asked if the merger was inevitable. “The states outnumbered the army. Had they held out, the country would have been dismembered,” he opines.

Whether his father was personally convinced about the wisdom of the decision, Malvinder asserts that it came from the Maharaja’s heart, “whose concerns for the country were foremost in his mind, more than his personal interests or the state’s autonomy.”

Natwar intervenes: “The Maharaja was approached by Jinnah [Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan] to merge Patiala with Pakistan. But he held his ground against this offer.” Malvinder says his father was on good terms with Sardar Patel, believing Patel “was a man of his word, while he didn’t think much of Nehru’s promises.” His opinion of India’s first prime minister seemed to have taken a turn for the worse when Nehru is said to have asked Yadavindra to give up his royal privileges. “That’s when he felt vindicated about his reading of Nehru,” suggests Malvinder.

In the background of his reservations about the country’s new government, Yadavindra contested as an independent candidate for the Punjab Assembly elections in 1967, and won almost unopposed.

However, he later resigned. “He was greatly disillusioned to see the new political class, ‘including the likes of Justice Gurnam Singh’. He didn’t think they were any worth and decided to step out of the political game.”

Nevertheless, the Maharaja was found to be in agreement with many of the Centre’s political decisions, such as the merger of PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union) with East Punjab in 1956.

Leading a life away from the public glare, Yadavindra continued to play a dominant role in organisations such as the Council of Sports, Indian Horticulture Development Council and as a diplomat in Rome and the Netherlands. Closer home, he set up the Yadavindra Public School in Patiala in 1948, after he realised that most of the educational institutions were lost to East Punjab.

“He also gave away several assets such as Anand Bhawan and Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NSPIS), Patiala, to the government,” states Malvinder, only to be informed by Natwar that Anand Bhawan is now in use by Baba Ramdev’s Pitanjali Trust. This gives Malvinder another opportunity to reiterate his opinion that his father was not given his due by the Centre.

However, Malvinder acknowledges that carrying forward their family’s legacy is of prime importance. For his father’s birth anniversary celebrations, he says, he will be joined in by Captain Amarinder Singh. He had fallen out with Amarinder on the eve of Punjab Assembly elections last year, joining SAD (Shiromani Akali Dal).

“Aberrations take place…but the Captain has some very fine ideas,” he says. At this moment, Malvinder seems at odds with the Akali Dal, with his opposition to the very formation of the Punjabi Suba. “Punjab has brought its present misfortunes upon itself, owing to the Suba and its weakened leadership. Given a chance, I would do all that I can to put things in order, for I’m not one to sit and complain.”

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