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Legacy lives on: Tales from the life of the Nabha maharaja who took the British head on

When the Sikh empire was annexed by the British in 1849, the then viceroy Lord Dalhousie took away the flag of the Sikh kingdom as a keepsake. The Khemkas staked out his ancestors and bought the flag from them.

punjab Updated: Apr 03, 2018 09:46 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Amritsar
Nabha maharaja,Sikh empire,Sikh empire annexed by British
Maharaja Ripudaman Singh’s grandson Uday Nabha Khemka with his mother during the launch of a book on the Nabha maharaja in Chandigarh on Monday. (Karun Sharma/HT)

Seventy-six years after his death in captivity, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, one of the few rulers of princely states who dared to defy the British, continues to inspire generations.

Uday Nabha Khemka, his grandson who was in the city to launch a book on the maharaja, says stories of his maternal grandfather first inspired him to take up history at Cambridge University, and then philanthropy in the form of Nabha Foundation. Such is the influence of a maharaja, who was dubbed by the British “as a danger to the whole of India”.

The clean-shaven Khemka, who sported a blue turban, bears an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather. His mother Maharaj Kumari Jeet Nabha Khemka agrees. Dressed in a blue saree, a colour dear to her father, Jeet Nabha has vivid memories of the time she spent with her father at Kodaikanal, where he was kept in custody without trial. “He was a doting father who loved to read.” It’s from her that Uday learnt about the man who threw himself into the freedom struggle with utter disregard for his title. “He lost his title, freedom, kingdom and even his family, but he never compromised his principles. He represented the best of Sikh and Indian traditions,” says Uday.

The flag of Maharaja Ranjit Singh
  • When the Sikh empire was annexed by the British in 1849, the then viceroy Lord Dalhousie took away the flag of the Sikh kingdom as a keepsake. The Khemkas staked out his ancestors and bought the flag from them. “It’s of great sentimental and historic value, we will one day bring it to Nabha and display it in a museum there,” says Uday Nabha Khemka.
  • Blurb: Uday Nabha Khemka, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh’s grandson, was in Chandigarh to launch a book on the maharaja. The stories of my maternal grandfather inspired me to take up history at Cambridge University, says Khemka

Today, members of his family, including his eldest son Dr Jasmer Singh, and residents of Nabha gathered at Taj to unveil his political biography by Dr JS Grewal and Dr Indu Banga — two leading historians of Punjab. “This independent political biography is the outcome of two decades of research,” says Uday.

Dwelling on the influences that shaped Ripudaman into a rulers with a spine of steel, Banga says he took pride in the fact that his ancestors were baptised by 10th Sikh master Guru Gobind Singh, who founded the Khalsa. Taught at home by Bhai Kahn Singh, a proponent of the Tat Khalsa movement, and Lala Bishan Das, a close friend of the nationalistic Lala Lajpat Rai, he was as adept in Guru Granth Sahib as in Shakespeare.

Uday recounted how the maharaja befriended Lala Lajpat Rai among other nationalists. He used his appointment to the imperial legislation council to speak against the repressive measures taken by the British. A reformist at heart, he also espoused education for women and introduced the Anand Marriage Act.

When he took over the throne, he refused to be anointed by the British viceroy and used his own sword and robes.

During the World War I, he refused to send his troops to fight for the British, and was arguably the only Indian ruler, who did not receive a war honour. Banga says though the British deposed him on grounds of maladministration, there was no doubt that he was exiled on July 9, 1923 for supporting Indian nationalists.

Though the Indian National Congress took part in the Jaito morcha to protest his ouster and Jawaharlal Nehru even courted arrest, the maharaja was relegated to the footnotes of history in the independent India. “Instances of princely resistance were glossed over,” says Banga.

But the maharaja continues to live on in popular culture. Uday recounts his brush with a Punjabi cab driver in New York. “When I mentioned Nabha, he turned around and said ‘Do you know Maharaja Ripudaman was the only one to oppose the British?.”

Uday, whose odyssey took him to the nephew of his grandfather’s lawyer, late Lord Millner, says, “He told me how his uncle summoned him to his deathbed, and said he must right the grave injustice done to the maharaja.”

Today Uday, who believes past is important only if it inspires the present, is trying to take forward Ripudaman’s legacy through the Nabha foundation.

First Published: Apr 03, 2018 09:45 IST