There are periodical suggestions that Mahara Duleep Singh’s body should be exhumed and sent back to the Indian Punjab for Sikh rites and cremation. To quote a scholar responding to one such suggestion, “You are following up a good objective but I do not think, after so many years, anything of his body is left in the burial ground, except may be a piece of skull bone…(Dr Harbans Lal responding to S. Tarlochan Singh ex-MP.)
Sikh religious view would also discourage digging-up any grave of a Sikh. Once the “atma” (soul) has left the body, the body has little meaning. To quote Gurbani, “Some cremate, some bury, and some may be eaten by dogs. Some are thrown in water and some are cast on to “tower of silence” ( to be eaten by birds). Nanak this much is not known as to where do they go and disappear.” (SGGS Ang 648 “Ik dajheh ik dabeeah….”) Hundreds of Sikhs have been buried in remote countries before and during the World Wars. Sikhs do not exhume and cremate them because that would be against Sikh teaching.
Exhuming and returning the remains of Maharaja Duleep Singh to India is a topic which has been revived recently, probably by the film “The Black Prince”. Maharaja Duleep Singh, had taken Amrit many years before he died almost penniless in Paris in October 1893. A journalist, Christy Campbell wrote: “In the space of 24 hours the British foreign secretary was instructed to get the body of Maharajah Duleep Singh embalmed, placed in a coffin and brought back to Britain and back to Elveden. It was given a Christian burial at St Andrew’s and St Patrick’s Church. For reasons of state, the British government had to make sure he was buried a Christian to claim him forever.” But how can the British government “claim him” forever when he has lived on in the collective memory? Even today, Maharaja Duleep Singh as powerful a symbol of the lost Khalsa Raj and the British betrayal as ever during his life.
The above account will continue to hurt the Sikh nation. It is that pain which is seeking redress, but there is no setting right a historical colonial wrong except to remember and not to forget. That is precisely the reason why what is left of Maharaja Duleep Singh should not be removed. While standing there beside the Church grave in Elveden, we remember the tragedy of the Maharja and Maharani Jindan. That spot reminds the Sikhs of their great past, their own disunity and treachery within, and the colonial injustice. Quite rightly, the place attracts hundreds of Sikh visitors.
India would be unwise to seek back Sikh historical artefacts like the Koh-i-noor and the Maharaja’s remains, which are powerful reminders of the Khalsa Raj. These can cause the same sort of problems for India which the British feared when Maharaja Duleep Singh tried to return to Punjab. In fact, the memory of the “Black Prince” in the Sikh psyche has no less political potency today than when he was alive.
Gurmukh Singh OBE