Kashmir’s Last Maharaja

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Signing instrument of accession and sitting silent over the massacre of Muslims in Jammu in the fall of 1947 were just two instances of Hari Singh’s 21 years of tumultuous reign. A Kashmir Life special on Singh’s fiftieth death anniversary traces the rise of ‘Mr A’ who eventually was lost to oblivion as a polo pony farmer far away from the land he once owned, and ruled with pride and prejudice.

Maharaja Hari Singh

After over half a century of his death in Mumbai, Hari Singh, the last autocrat of the state made it to front pages this year. In March Muzaffar Hussain Beig, a PDP heavyweight and former Deputy Chief Minister interrupted at the peak of a verbal duel between BJP and NC in the state legislature to defend the Maharaja. He said Singh left the court of Maharaja of Patiala after coming to know that latter had got a girl from Maisuma to dance in his durbar (court).

“Later, the Maharja of Patiala was never permitted to come to Kashmir,” he said, adding, “Maharja Hari Singh said the dancing girl was like his daughter.”

A month later, separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani raked up history as the crisis over mischievous Dogra certificate. “There can be no parallel to the State Subject which was formulated by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1929,” Geelani was quoted saying. “The State Subjects irrespective of their religion are part of the state’s rich culture and social fabric. We will resist any move which is aimed at dividing the state on ethnic lines.”

In between there were many interesting stories. A Jammu newspaper carried a couple of reports on front page to suggest how the autocracy was better than the democracy that rules J&K now. The two copies had a number of comparative instances. Even a Jammu lawmaker – reacting to NC’s Dr Mustafa Kamal’s statement that Maharaja was a tyrant, said “he was not as Zalim as your party is.”

Nothing much is known to the people about the man whose flight from Srinagar in 1947 in wake of tribal raids ended the generations of kings and Maharaja’s in Kashmir. His death anniversary falls on April 26.

Hari Singh was born to Amar Singh (September 23, 1895), the young brother of Partap Singh who had no son to succeed him. He was enrolled for higher studies in Mayo College Ajmer in 1908 following which he went to the Imperial Cadet Corps at Dehra Dun for military training. After his father’s death in 1909, the British ensured he is educated well. By 20, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the J&K state forces. Unlike his predecessors Hari Singh was Kashmiri speaking and Western educated with a very good exposure to the world. However, well before he took over as the last Dogra maharaja of the state when Partap Singh died in 1925, Hari Singh was always in news.

History books suggest he was a lavish spender. In 1918, he was in England and had created a record of spending money. Operating from Douglas Castle in Scotland, the prince had acquired such notoriety that there were attempts to rob him off.

In one instance, when he visited Holdorn Stadium to witness a wrestling bout between Beckett, the English heavy-weight and Carpentier, the Frenchman, sleuths from the Scotland Yard knew of the attempts being made to rob him when he would leave the stadium. Once the wrestling was over, he was given cover by a double row of cops until he entered his car which had been specially brought up near the stadium; a police Inspector took the seat by the chauffeur and drove with them for about a mile.

However, it was the incident of 1921 that eventually gave him a nickname and an introduction worldwide. Around 1919, Partap Singh decided that his nephew, Hari Singh, should go to Europe for a visit.

He moved with a vault of nearly $4,000,000 and was accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Captain C W Arthur, whose duty was to safeguard the prince from danger in all its forms.

After visiting the Royal Family, Singh spent some time in London and later crossed over to Paris. “In this brief interval, he succumbed to the wiles of a certain bewitching Mrs. Robinson,” reported Time in 1924. “The Raja did not treat his ladylove with the liberality that she had expected. Therefore, according to the evidence given at the trial, she became implicated in a plot.”

Hari Singh moving out of the palace on the date he took over as the Maharaja of Kashmir

Singh and ‘Maudie’ Robinson were in a Paris hotel when a man barged in and introduced himself as her husband. A crestfallen prince was forced to part with two cheques for about $750,000 each in order to prevent divorce proceedings which would most certainly implicate him as respondent. He did stop payment of one cheque but by then, another had been cashed.

It was a reprobate solicitor named Hobbs who deposited the cheque in the name of Robinson in a London Branch of the Midland Bank. Later, he withdrew the money, gave Robinson $125,000, divided the remaining $625,000 among the plotters. In this year of grace, Time reported, Robinson sought to recover all the money which had been deposited in the bank, suing that institution for negligence in turning over the money to Hobbs without his authority.

Alternately, he claimed damages. But the bank affirmed, and was upheld by the court, that Robinson to them was merely a fictitious name and that it was, therefore, entirely within its rights in returning the money to the depositor who represented himself to be Robinson. The bank did say it was extortion money from an ‘Eastern Potentate’. The court on the request of Secretary of State for India withheld the potentate’s name and thus was born ‘Mr A’.

The trial proved that Captain Arthur was party to the plot and was paid $200,000, Hobbs, got another $200,000 for ‘professional services’. One Newton, who had impersonated as Robinson in the bedroom scene because Mrs Robinson had a very low opinion of her husband’s physical beauty, also received $200,000. A Mrs Bevan who ‘decoyed’ the aide got $25,000 and Robinsons received $125,000, which the male Robinson paid over to the female and started divorce proceedings. Judgment was entered for the defendant (Midland Bank) with costs amounting to about $150,000. Lord John Simon who was Singh’s counsel described his client as “a poor, green, shivering, abject wretch.”

After the case was over, the police made certain arrests. Captain Arthur fled to Paris and fought a protracted extradition battle challenging British court’s jurisdiction over him. Hobbs, the solicitor was put on trial as Robinsons and Newton were put under police surveillance. Finally the crown permitted the identification of Mr A.

Hari Singh returned home to face the wrath of Partap Singh, his uncle. He was banished to a remote jungle estate for six months and made to perform ritual acts of humiliation and penance. In penance for his indiscretions, Singh shaved off  his mustache.

Singh’s abolished purdah in his dynasty. In fact, Tara Devi was the first Maharani to appear in public without purdah. Interestingly, Tara Devi was Hari Singh’s fourth wife. His first three wives had died young without any issue. He had married Sri Lal Kunverba Sahiba at Rajkot (1913) who died in pregnancy in 1915, Rani Sahiba Chamba in 1915 who died in 1920 and Dhanvant Kunveri Baiji in 1923. Finally it was Tara Devi whom he married in 1928. The royal couple had tensions throughout and they finally separated in 1950.

But Singh’s global exposure had not much impact on him. He continued to be a lavish spender of money. Historians think no prince in Indian subcontinent could match his lavish life style.Singh’s uncle Partap Singh’s coffin was covered layer upon layer with pure gold. Inside the despot laid dead in full state uniform encrusted with jewels. As he was consigned to flames, Hari Singh and other nobles accompanying him threw gold continuously into the flames.

Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel hosted an At Home on April 20, 1948 to meet the Rulers of Central India who were in New Delhi in connection with the formation of the Malwa Union. In this rare photo, he is seen with Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir.

Hari Singh’s coronation in 1925 was a global shocker. While he himself wore diamond earrings, his favourite horse, Zabardast, was, according to Wakefield, decked out with emeralds worth rupees seven lakhs as it wore be-jewelled caparison. Even the elephants who were part of the state procession wore gold. An American cinema operator Cowling was engaged to make a film. Estimates suggest that the coronation cost the public exchequer around Rs 25 to 30 lakhs.

Time reported that on the coronation of the notorious ‘Mr A’ as Maharaja Sir Hari Singh of J&K, more than Rs 337,837 ($125,000) were expended upon the hire and expenses of dancing girls, who were brought “from all over India” to entertain his guests. “For good measure, it was told that ‘Mr A’ flung a diamond necklace valued at Rs 540,541 rupees ($200,000) to one of them, a nautch (girl) dancer from Delhi. Even the British government spent $1,000,000 for the splendid coronation. Then, London was encouraging the princes to sustain its empire.

As the throne started demanding, Singh started changing. A major revolt against the autocracy was one of the main factors that kept him under pressure throughout. In June 1931, when the autocrat’s wife gave birth to Karan Singh in Cannes, France – the Yuraj, Singh, according to Time, spent $300,000 on a ‘Nazar Durbar’ to celebrate the birth. Apart from promoting his son’s mother from to his first wife, Singh cancelled all land revenues owed to the state by tenants up to 1918, ordered girls shall receive free primary school education alongside the boys, and set up 500 new scholarships for educating ‘indigent orphans’. Widows were permitted to re-marry.

Singh was one of the wealthiest autocrats. His yearly income was estimated at one crore dollars a year. He had a silver-plated airplane, Versailles-sized palaces and lot of money and slaves. But the despot had only one priority – to ensure the popular movement against  his rule fails. To ensure his kingdom survives Singh did everything from massacres to arrests and taxes.

But destiny was crafted differently than the monarch thought it was. After he refused to re-employ the war veterans from Poonch who had returned from the Second World War, a rebellion broke out. It did not subside even after the local leader of Poonch jaghir was hanged and publicly skinned.

Dogra rulers had sent an army of 10,000 (some say 71667 including around 40,000 from Poonch alone) men to fight with the Allies during the World War. They had even declined $500,000 due to the state as payment for their services. “Grateful, Britannia showered the aged potentate (read Partap Singh) of nearly three score and ten with decorations,” commented Time in October 1925. “Touched and admiring, British citizens hailed him as an ardent cricketer, who, when he could no longer bowl, field or run, continued to bat and had someone run for him.”

Within a few months after the partition, the tribals raided. As the Mohra power house blasted, Singh’s Srinagar palace plunged into darkness. Within a few hours, Singh fled Srinagar in 85-vehicle convoy. Time reported that the cavalcade included, among other things, polo ponies, and necklaces from the temple gods. Interestingly it was a Russian jeweller, Victor Rosenthal who accompanied Singh to Jammu in the convoy comprising jeeps and American limousines.

The rest is history.

J&K acceded to India and the first war broke out between India and Pakistan that eventually led to the division of princely state into J&K and PaK after 15 months of fighting. Not many mention the massacre of the Muslim minority in Jammu and elsewhere that took place with Singh in town.

As New Delhi started normalizing Kashmir with the help of Sheikh Abdullah, Hari Singh abdicated his rule. He migrated to Mumbai as New Delhi agreed to pay him one lakh US dollars a year. The Maharaja of Kashmir started breeding polo ponies. However, Time says, Singh was best known for the apartment building he started building in India’s commercial capital. A team of masons was permanently employed in the building to tear down and rebuild the walls because a fortune teller had warned the erstwhile monarch that he would die the moment the building was completed. And he died of cardiac arrest in April 1961. He was 65.

(Kashmir Life is thankful to the Time magazine’s archives that helped in drafting this copy.)

                                            Hari Singh’s Initiatives

In 1927, Singh defined the state subject – almost 15 years after his uncle loosely got a definition of it.

In 1929, he increased penalty for abducting Kashmiri women from three to seven years imprisonment, plus the lashes. British India cooperated by making the offense extraditable. Time reported that the initiative trebled and quadrupled the price for abducted Kashmiri in the wicked Indian cities of Kolkotta and Chennai.

In 1930, primary education was made compulsory as Singh decreed the child marriage as banned.

It was during his reign that J&K had Agriculturist’s Relief Act that allowed debtors to seek judicial intervention in settling cases of usury with money lenders and creditors. The Land Alienation Act prevented transfer of agricultural land to the non-agriculture population. Even the Kahcharai Act was adopted in his rule.

Beagaar or forced labour and prostitution was completely abolished.

Village Panchayat were introduced by Hari Singh.

Set up J&K Bank in 1938, Srinagar Emporium in 1941, and SMHS hospital in 1945.

Opened all public schools, colleges, and wells to the untouchables (low caste Hindus) in 1931 as untouchability was pronounced a crime.

He made his bit in permitting re-marriages of Hindu widows.

In 1934 Singh permitted setting up of Praja Sabha which has 75 members – 12 government officials, 16 state councillors, and 14 nominated and 33 elected (21 Muslims, 10 Hindus and 2 Sikhs) members. It was prelude to the formation of state legislative assembly after 1947.

In 1947, the despot in Jammu sought help from Delhi and signed an instrument of accession while retaining the autonomy.

Hari Singh’s golden throne weighed 9 mounds. Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad presented it to New Delhi. Initially, Delhi hesitated thinking it might hurt the sentiments of Dogras. A few years later Bakhshi again offered it as a gift to the economically-tight central government. This time the then finance minister Murarji Desai specially flew to Srinagar to receive it.

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