Wednesday 30 January 2013

The Indian King who turned his back on the English royal couple

The eyes of the world was on the event. In India itself where the event was being organized on a scale unheard of, it was received with mixed emotions. While the intelligentsia and the nationalists reviled the waste of money and the event as pompous and worthless, the British were determined to go ahead with it.  
All the Kings and Queens of  India (please remember that there were nearly 600 princely states) were in attendance along with their top officials. The entire world media, including newspaper representatives from the United States, England and other places had converged in India to cover the event.
The event, held 101 years ago, witnessed more than a lakh people gathering at what was described as one of the most defining moments of Indian history.  The Emperor of England, George, the fifth and his wife, Queen Mary, had attended the event along with a host of top British India and England officials.
This was the Coronation Durbar of 1911, also known as Delhi Durbar since it was held in Delhi.
The Durbar had been organized by the British in honor of the coronation of King George and also announce the shifting of the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi.
The durbar also saw the announcement of the construction of the Viceroy Palace near today’s Guru Tej Bahadur locality. This was found unsuitable and the building later came to be constructed at the Raisana Hill.
Coming back to the Durbar, the British had ensured that everything went according clock-like precision. To ensure that nothing went wrong, a dress rehearsal was held in which all the Kings participated. The Kings were “taught” the manner in which they would have to behave before the ruling English monarch.
The day dawned and King George and Queen Mary were seated on thrones atop a platform. The new tented city that sprang up in Delhi had accommodated more than 2,5 lakhs people. Nearly, 80,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army had been stationed at the venue for providing fool-proof security. 

The Durbar commenced and each of the Indian Prince or King came up to the stage to pay his or her respects to the King and Queen and then withdraw gracefully after bowing.
The Rajput Kings from Rajasthan, the Nawabs, Nizam of Hyderabad, the Maharaja of Mysore, Holkars of Indore, Scindias of Gwalior, Bhonsales of Nagpur and Gaekwads of Baroda were all in attendance. 
Each of them had been asked to perform proper obeisance to the English monarch by bowing three times before him and  then backing away without turning. The Indian Kings were told that they should never turn their back on the monarch as it would amount to a great insult.
Each King or Maharaja did as he had been told by the British. King after King headed towards George and Mary and bowed before them like a well-drilled mummy and stepped back, heads down and hands at the sides. As if to add insult to injury, the British had asked the Maharajas to wear all their royal ornaments and decorations. All of them did without fail.
It was then the turn of the Gaekwad of Baroda. The British had considered Baroda to be second in importance after Hyderabad.  
Maharaja Sayajji Rao Gaekwad, the third, rose casually from his seat and walked towards the English monarch with his trademark walking stick.
The then Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge cringed with anger and fury when he saw that the Maharaja had discarded all his jewels and decorations and was walking with a majestic gait towards the monarch.     
Sayajji Rao not only ignored royal etiquette by turning his back on the king and queen after formally introducing himself but also  “laughed ever so lightly” as he walked back from their presence.
He showed his back to the English royals and the Viceroy and walked back “insolently” swinging his walking stick.
Lord Hardinge was bursting with anger at the perceived insult to his King and his fury doubled when he saw the bow by Sayajji was only perfunctory. At no point of his “presentation” did Sayajji show himself to be a subordinate of  the clueless British assembled in the tented amphitheatre.
Sayajji’s conduct sent ripples of shock among the gathering and it made headlines throughout the world. As can be expected, the British Press went hammer and tongs at the Maharaja. “How dare he insult our monarch”, seem to be their refrain.
From then on until his death in 1939, Sayajji Rao was kept at bay by the British. This even though he apologised for his conduct and blamed it on his  “nervousness and confusion in the presence of Their Majesties”.
Though not forgiven, Sayajji Rao was made a Knight Grand Commander by the British in 1919. The action divided the Indian nation then. While many welcomed his open defiance, they criticised Sayajji’s apology saying that it showed him in much worse light. 
Hardinge later had his revenge when he tightened the screws on Baroda state and forced Sayajji not to give shelter to the nationalists (freedom fighters). He also took away some of the administrative powers of the King. Howsoever much the Viceroy would have liked, he could not depose Sayajji Rao because of his popularity among the people and also due to the bad press that the British would have to face.
On his part, Sayajji Rao took a series of measures to develop Baroda. He introduced compulsory and free primary education in  1906.  He encouraged textile and banking industries.
While his defiance seems to have been forgotten today, what India still remembers is that in 1913, he financed three years of postgraduate studies for B.R. Ambedkar at Columbia University.

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