Revolutionary Punjabi Princess Uncovered

"Most people with Punjabi ancestry know all about the Lion of the Punjab, who is this great towering figure, but ve...

Radio 4 presenter Anita Anand tells how she unearthed the fascinating story of Sophia Duleep Singh, granddaughter of the Lion of the Punjab and goddaughter to Queen Victoria, who played a leading role in the fight for women's votes

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Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (written by Anita Anand, published by Bloomsbury


Jan 19, 2015: The Indian princess who became a leading suffragette would 'lob a brick' at Russell Brand's window for telling young people today not to bother voting.

That's according to Radio 4 presenter turned author Anita Anand, who uncovered the remarkable story of Sophia Duleep Singh for a new biography.

Sophia, Anand's literary debut, recounts the forgotten tale of one woman's extraordinary life, set against a sweeping historical backdrop.

It takes us from the foundations of the Sikh faith in the 15th century to the fight for Indian independence, which was finally secured in 1947.

But at its heart is the role Queen Victoria's goddaughter played at the vanguard of the suffragette movement, fighting alongside more celebrated heroines like Emmeline Pankhurst to secure votes for women.

Anand, who presents BBC Radio 4's Any Answers, was on maternity leave when she stumbled across a photo of Sophia distributing suffragette pamphlets outside Hampton Court Palace. She had no idea where it would lead her.

"This was the last thing in the world I wanted at the time. I was having a blissful time on maternity leave when I was struck by this photo in a local magazine," said the 42-year-old, who lives in west London.

"Her surname was Singh, which is my surname by marriage, and she was from the Punjab like my ancestors. I consider myself a feminist and I was ashamed to have never heard of this suffragette.

"I thought I'd better go about correcting my ignorance but when I looked for a book there was nothing, and as a journalist I couldn't let it lie."

Having done a little more research she decided she had to write a biography, sparking a bidding war for the rights, which were snapped up by Bloomsbury for a reported six-figure advance.

She 'arrogantly' told the publisher she would be done in seven months, having little idea of the scope of her undertaking, which as she puts it would turn into a an epic tale of the 'rise of women and the fall of empires'.

The book was eventually published last week, in the same year the movie Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep and telling the story of the militant movement whose protagonists would inspire Mahatma Gandhi, is due to be released.

Women finally secured equal representation at the polls in 1928 but if Sophia were alive today, says Anand, she would have mixed emotions about the progress achieved since then.

"I think she would be heartened by the fact there are women in high positions but disappointed by how few," says Sophia's biographer.

"For the first time at the last general election fewer women voted than men, because they're turned off by what they see in front of them.

"Sophia would possibly lob a brick at the windows of those telling young people not to bother voting, because she knows people died to give us that privilege. She was a woman with a mission."

The brick is of course a reference to the suffragettes' tactic of smashing windows to highlight their cause, and there's little doubt about the intended target - the comic Russell Brand, or, as she calls him, 'that beardy weirdo'.

Sophia was a leading suffragette, famous in her day for throwing herself at then prime minister Herbert Asquith's car and unfurling a banner reading 'Give women the vote!'

That she failed to secure her place in history alongside other heroines of the suffrage movement is, in Anand's words, a 'catastrophe' - one which is largely down to the efforts of the then British government to keep her out of the public consciousness.

"They did their utmost to bury her history. They had a tenuous hold on the Punjab and the last thing they wanted was for people to hear about a revolutionary Punjabi princess causing havoc in London," says Anand.

"Her activity was hushed up and even when she raised money for Indian soldiers during the First World War they tried to make sure her role wasn't acknowledged.

"There are maybe three suffragettes most people can name but behind them was an army. The ones we remember are those who put their lives on the line by going on hunger strike in prison.

"Sophia did everything she could to get arrested but for the British government the idea of Queen Victoria's goddaughter going to prison was simply too embarrassing."

Sophia's grandfather was Ranjit Singh, a fearless leader known as the Lion of the Punjab, who brought peace to the previously unsettled region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

After his death, the British capitalised on the ensuing insecurity to seize control, denying Sophia's father Duleep Singh his rightful inheritance of the vast empire's great wealth - including the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond, which today remains on display among the crown jewels in the Tower of London.

Queen Victoria grew incredibly fond of the deposed ruler, who was exiled to England. The affection was initially mutual, only for the relationship to sour when he learned the true extent of her government's treachery.

So it was that his daughter Sophia was born into the upper echelons of Victorian society in 1876, initially revelling in her courtly life before eschewing her comfortable existence to take up the causes of suffrage and Indian independence.

Hers is a fascinating story, revealing much about the times in which she lived, and one which is ironically illuminated by the letters of the very British officials sent to spy on her and starve her of the oxygen of publicity.

Anand's four-year-old son may be far too young to appreciate all the political ramifications but he is nonetheless gripped by his mother's tale of the 'fighting princess'.

"Most people with Punjabi ancestry know all about the Lion of the Punjab, who is this great towering figure, but very little about his granddaughter," she says.

"My son loves hearing about her. For him it's like a fairy tale about a fighting princess, and I hope it's a story which will resonate with little boys and little girls everywhere, as well as their parents."

When I ask given the book's warm reception whether Sophia's story may one day make it to the big screen, like that of the women she fought alongside, Anand is thrilled by the idea - but for purely selfless reasons.

"Anything that helps rectify the wrongs of the past by taking her story, which has been buried in the sands of time, and spreading it as far as possible, would be great," she says.

* Sophia: Princress, Suffragette, Revolutionary, is published by Bloomsbury and is available in hardback for £20.

* Anita Anand will give a talk about her book, followed by a sparkling wine reception, at Richmond Museum on Monday, February 2, from 7.30pm. Tickets, priced £18, can be purchased in advance from the museum.

 

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