Here is the story of Sophia Duleep Singh, the fiery Indian princess who chose to risk her comfortable and privileged life to fight for causes she felt passionate about.
“When the women of England are enfranchised, I shall pay my taxes willingly. If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?” – Sophia Duleep Singh
On the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, UK’s Royal Mail issued a set of eight honorary stamps to celebrate the famous campaign that secured for women the right to vote in parliamentary elections for the very first time.
Featuring original photographs of the decade-long campaign, the eight special stamps includes an unusual and unsung participant of the movement — an Indian woman “selling copies of the newspaper, The Suffragette, in April 1913″.
That woman is Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh, the daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh of Punjab.
Here is the story of the forgotten Indian princess who etched her mark on the pages of history.
Unlike the match girls and mill workers she would go on to champion, Princess Sophia was born in a family with an illustrious ancestry. Born in 1876, she was the granddaughter of Maharani Jind Kaur, one of the most remarkable characters of 19th-century India.
The last queen of the Punjab Empire, Jindan (as she was also called) waged two wars against British rule in India. Her campaign against colonial rule began when she was still in her 20s — her husband, the last Maharaja of Punjab, had died of a stroke in 1839 and the British were trying to wrest the kingdom from her infant son and heir, Duleep Singh.
The feisty queen also led the court, discarded the prevalent customs of Sati and purdah and held meetings with ministers and the military, all of whom followed her counsel. It was to counter this power and influence that the British imprisoned and exiled her while taking her 11-year-old son to England.
Taken to Buckingham Palace, the first meeting between young Duleep and Queen Victoria went very well and the Indian prince became an instant favourite of the British monarch.
With assistance from the government, he acquired a sprawling estate at Elveden in Suffolk and transformed it into an Indian-style palace with ornate interiors. This was where he lived with his first wife, Bamba Muller (the daughter of a German merchant) after he met and married her in Cairo.
Elveden was also where Duleep’s youngest daughter was born and spent most of her childhood. The favoured goddaughter of Queen Victoria, young Sophia was a typical society girl who took the well-travelled route of private tutors and debutante balls.
This, however, was soon to change. After Duleep’s relationship with the British Crown turned sour, the family’s rapidly disappearing fortune led them to try and return to India. But they were turned back in Aden by arrest warrants. Soon after, her father died in a rundown Paris hotel and the British government lessened their vigil on a grief-stricken Sophia.
In 1907, Sophia finally visited Amritsar and Lahore, where she met long-lost relatives as well as Indian freedom fighters (such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai) who were willing to lay down their lives in their struggle against the British Raj. She also witnessed poverty on a scale she’d never seen before and was confronted by what the British had taken from her family.
This trip that proved to be a turning in point in the young woman’s life — she returned to London in 1909 with fire in her belly.
She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) at the behest of a leading member of the suffragette movement, Una Dugdale. For the uninitiated, suffragettes were members of women’s organisations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that advocated the extension of adult franchise (or the right to vote in public elections) to women.
From her residence at Hampton Court (where Queen Victoria had allowed her to live), Sophia played an active role in the movement for women’s voting rights — funding suffragette groups, attending meetings and joining in at demonstrations.
She participated in the ‘Black Friday’ demonstration in November 1910, which became infamous for the police’s harsh treatment of protesting suffragettes.
Less than a year later, on the day of the King’s Speech to Parliament in 1911, she threw herself in front of the car of the then prime minister Herbert Asquith with a poster that read “Give women the vote”. The same year, she drove the first cart in London’s ‘press cart’ parade to distribute the journal, Votes for Women.
Interestingly, Sophia was one of the first women in Britain to ride a bicycle in public!
Unbounded by allegiance to a single nation (she was a British subject who valued her Indian heritage) Sophia also supported the cause of women in a number of countries. In doing this, her title, Princess, was very useful.
During the First World War broke out, she threw herself into raising money for Indian troops who were deployed in France and Belgium, poorly equipped to combat the unfamiliar cold.
She also took up the responsibility of caring for soldiers on the south coast, seamlessly swapping high fashion for a nurse’s uniform.
Furthermore, as a pioneering leader of the Women’s Tax Resistance League (whose official motto was ‘No Taxation Without Representation’), Sophia refused to pay taxes to the British government. She argued:
“When the women of England are enfranchised, I shall pay my taxes willingly. If I am not a person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?”
She continued doing this despite being called to court on several occasions, frustrating the government and forcing a vexed King George V to ask in exasperation, “Have we no hold on her?”
A radical suffragette for the rest of her life, Sophia chose to risk her comfortable and privileged life to fight for causes she felt passionate about. She died in 1948 and, as per her wishes, her ashes were scattered in India according to the Sikh custom.
Yet Sophia’s fascinating life remained largely untold until BBC broadcaster Anita Anand stumbled across her picture in a magazine and went in search of more information about this unusual suffragette. Intrigued by what she found out, Anand spent five years writing the biography of the forgotten activist, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary.
At a time when the UK is marking the centenary of women’s right to vote, it is perhaps fitting that Princess Sophia’s untold story reaches the wider world.