Bhupinder Singh, Raja
Lieutenant-General Maharajah Sir Bhupinder Singh (1891-1931)
Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire, Knight of the Order of the British Empire, ruler of the Sikh state of Patiala, was one of the most colourful and influential Indian princes of the interwar years. Tall, robust, dashingly handsome, he was to the British the personification of the Punjabi martial races, a veritable "flower of Oriental aristocracy." In his own eyes, and in the eyes of many of his co-religionists, he was the temporal leader of Sikhism. Ten times elected Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes during the 1920’s and 1930’s, he was for much of that period the guiding hand of the princely order in its campaign to unlock the shackles of paramountcy which bound the princes to do the bidding of the British raj.
Born on 12 October 1891, Bhupinder Singh was only ten years old when the premature death of his father, Maharaja Sir Rajinder Singh, catapulted him into the public arena. For nine years the state was ruled by a Council of Regency headed by Sardar Bahadur Gurmukh Singh while the young prince finished his schooling at the Aitchison College in Lahore.
He started ruling in his own right in 1909, and was invested with full powers on. 3 November 1910. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 was the first real turning-point in Bhupinder Singh’s career. Prior to 1914 Patiala had been just one of many medium-sized states, having no special claims to distinction. During the war, under Bhupinder Singh’s leadership, the state established itself as favoured ally of the British by contributing lavishly in men, money and materials to the imperial cause, the Maharaja himself taking a personal role in the war effort as honorary lieutenant-colonel of the Ist Ludhiana Sikhs. These earned Bhupinder Singh a clutch of imperial decorations, a seat at the Imperial War Conference of 1918, an appointment as honorary aide-de-camp to the King-Emperor and, later, an appointment as an Indian delegate to the League of Nations. More importantly, the state’s salute was raised permanently from 17 to 19 guns which placed Bhupinder Singh among the dozen top-ranking Indian rulers.
Riding high on British favour, Bhupinder Singh began to see himself as a future leader of the princely order and as a power-broker in Sikh affairs. In 1917, he adjudicated at the behest of the Chief Khalsa Diwan in a dispute about a corpus of Sikh scriptures; in 1921 he got himself elected to the standing committee of the newly formed Chamber of Princes; and in 1923 he took part in the kar-seva (cleansing of the tank by voluntary service) at the Golden Temple.
As Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, Bhupinder Singh worked long and hard to transform the Chamber into an efficient forum for the maintenance of princely rights against the encroachments of paramountcy. His vigorous lobbying helped to secure the appointment, in 1927, of an Indian States Committee headed by Sir Harcourt Butler, to investigate the princes’ claims that paramountcy had infringed their treaty rights. And in 1929 and 1930 he arranged for the Standing Committee to negotiate personally with the Viceroy. These efforts were rewarded when, in October 1929, Lord Irwin announced that representatives of the princes would be invited to a Round Table Conference in London to map out, conjointly with delegates of British India, a new constitution for the sub-continent.
Maharaja Bhupinder Singh was a great sportsman. In his youth he was a crack shot, a first-rate polo player, and a hard-hitting batsman, captaining the Indian cricket team on its 1911 tour of England. Later he developed an interest in dog-breeding, and in the 1930’s was president of the All-India Gundog League and vice-president of the Indian Kennel Association. He was also a lavish patron of sport, endowing a gymnasium in London for use by Indian students and several cricket grounds in India. One of these, at Chail, the Patiala summer residence, 7,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas, remains the highest playing field in the world.
Bhupinder Singh beautified the city of Patiala by endowing it with new palace buildings, gardens and metalled roads. He established a high court, numerous hospitals and schools and a beautiful secretariat. He was chancellor and chief patron of the Sikhs’ premier educational institution – the Khalsa College at Amritsar.
As his power and prestige grew, Bhupinder Singh came under increasing criticism from jealous rivals and opponents of the princely order. Sapped by over-indulgence, he died at Patiala, ostensibly from heart failure, on 22 March 1938.