A hundred years ago the terms of the Treaty of Versailles came into force, changing the geopolitical landscape of Europe, and ultimately the course of world history. One of its signatories, Maharaja Ganga Singh, is the inspiration for a new novel set in British India, Enemy of the Raj. Its author, Alec Marsh, believes that the world should remember Ganga Singh rather better than it does.
When the Treaty of Versailles was signed 1919, no fewer than 14 men signed their names on behalf of Britain’s King-Emperor George V. The USA and France had to settle for just five signatories each.
Among the British party, two representatives of British India added their names to the document which both concluded the Great War and enshrined the League of Nations: they were Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, and the Maharaja of Bikaner, Sir Ganga Singh.
The moment is celebrated in William Orpen’s painting, The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June, 1919, which you can see at the Imperial War Museum.
It’s worth taking a closer look: just off-centre, standing by a pillar, is the generously moustached Ganga Singh himself, cutting a dash in a turban and uniform of a full British Army general. He’s just in front of Montagu and is positioned above the stars of the show – namely David Lloyd George, British prime minister, and the walrus-moustached President of France, Georges Clemenceau.
You might wonder why the ruler of a desert princedom in western Rajasthan scarcely three times bigger than Wales, deserved this painterly privilege. After all, he’s pulling serious compositional rank over the prime ministers of Italy, South Africa and Australia – among others. And he’s at least as central to the visual proceedings as Woodrow Wilson, the president of the USA.
It might be chance, or it might – as I discovered while researching my new novel, Enemy of the Raj – be because Ganga Singh was one of the giants of the early 20th century. Albeit a giant that’s largely forgotten today.
According to his 1938 biography, Ganga Singh assumed the powers of Maharaja of Bikaner on 16 December, 1898. He was just 18 but made it crystal clear from the start that he was boss: “I want you to understand,” he told assembled dignitaries, “that I am saying what I really mean in this speech and not what I have been told by other people to say.”
This heralded a reign which lasted until 1943 and helped transform not just his own small kingdom, but India itself.
Back then Bikaner was then one of around 565 so-called Princely States covering a third of the subcontinent which had survived semi-autonomously under the British Raj. Moreover, it was wracked by frequent famine and far from influential.
But when in 1901 the Boxer Rebellion erupted in China, its maharaja sprang into action. “For a prince with the traditions of the Moghuls this was a unique opportunity,” wrote Singh’s biographer K M Panikkar, who served as his foreign secretary. As a result the Maharaja became the “first Indian prince to go overseas to fight under the British flag”. “The Maharaja sailed immediately from Calcutta in command of his camel corps, which he took as a dismounted unit and was mentioned in dispatches.”
On his return, the young prince was feted by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, who brought him to the attention of new king-emporer, Edward VII. An invitation to Edward’s coronation followed. Singh attended, got to know London, and in turn made a name for himself in the imperial capital. As a result he was appointed the aide-de-camp of the Prince of Wales, the future George V, a position he held until the king’s death in 1936. “It is an open secret that between them there was established a bond of friendship,” wrote Panikkar.
Then came the First World War. On hearing that hostilities were afoot, Singh sent a cable to the King imploring him to let him be of military service.
George obliged. Singh was sent to France where he served on the staff of the 7th division of the Indian Army. He was again mentioned in dispatches, but the authorities kept him away from the front line – he was too important in India for the risks involved.
Frustrated by the lack of action, Singh eventually persuaded Lord Kitchener, the War Secretary, to let him see active service in Egypt against the Turks. He was not to be disappointed: “One day when out at the head of a small detachment of troops, the Maharaja came across a large concentration of enemy,” we are told. “In the encounter which resulted the Maharaja himself took part, firing 19 rounds from his own rifle.” He continued to harry the retreating Ottoman forces until his campaign was interrupted by the illness of his daughter, requiring his return to Bikaner.
But it didn’t take long for the empire to come calling again: in 1917, as war intensified, Singh was summoned to London. Alongside the prime ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, Singh joined the Imperial War Cabinet, with the aim of improving the prosecution of the war.
Lloyd George regarded ‘Bikaner’ as “a magnificent specimen of manhood” and opined: “We soon found out that he was one of ‘the wise men that come from the East’. More and more did we come to rely on his advice, especially on all questions that affected India.”
During his stay, Singh was granted the freedom of the City of London and was guest of honour at a banquet at the Guildhall. Here he said that Anglo-Indian relations had been “cemented and consecrated with the blood of your sons, and brothers, and ours, in this titanic struggle”. “British rule in India rests on much firmer foundations than force,” he announced. “It is based on the principles of justice and equity, humanity and fair play. The most wondrous jewel in the British crown is held through the loyalty and devotion of the people of my country.”
Many would have disagreed. But despite being pro-British Singh was also clear-sighted about the need for reform in India – including the need for greater autonomy for Indians.
In an interview with The Times in 1917, he advised London to act swiftly: “The old saying that he who gives quickly gives twice applies,” he noted. Singh also wrote to the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, urging him “to do something on a really liberal, sympathetic and generous scale” in India. What followed (named after Chamberlain’s successor) was the Montagu proclamation of August 1917, which committed Britain to the development of self-government in India. To the maharaja’s biographer, it “was to a large extent the outcome of his own representations”.
But it is in another area of Indian national life that Singh arguably had most influence: as early as 1914 he was calling for the creation of a forum for the rulers of the Indian States to work together.
In 1916 he chaired a conference of princes in Bikaner, which called for a constitutional chamber to represent the rulers of Indian States. Its recommendations were accepted, and the Chamber of Princes was founded in 1920 – with Singh elected its first chancellor.
Singh’s vision, outlined as early as 1914, was to see this the princes sit alongside the governors of British India’s provinces in a federal upper chamber, a sort of House of Lords for India. The idea became official policy in the 1930s but never ultimately came to light because of the Second World War.
In its way, Singh’s farsightedness prepared the path for what was to come after independence in 1947, when princely states were pushed towards unification with the India. Bikaner, then ruled by Singh’s son, was among the very first to do just that in 1947.
But it wasn’t simply on the world stage that the Maharaja forged a legacy. In Bikaner itself, his reforms brought electricity to the capital, he built the railway to Jodhpur, he built hospitals and schools. He also established representative government.
Perhaps the most significant and ambitious of his plans was for a new canal to end the blight of famine which had afflicted Bikaner since its foundation in 1465. The project was decades in the making, but in 1927, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin (later Lord Halifax) opened the Gang canal which ran 89 miles and irrigated some 300,000 hectares of Bikaner, an important service it continues to render today.
When Singh died in 1943 he was just 62. The obituary The Times of India praised his “fine record of heroic and permanent achievement… exemplary single-mindedness to the service of his people, his country and the British Commonwealth. In so doing he placed Bikaner on the map and himself became a figure of world distinction.”
On the centenary of Singh’s birth in 1980, the vice-president of India, Mohammad Hidayatullah, paid tribute. “Maharaja Ganga Singh’s services to the cause of Indian nationalism are such as to entitle him to an honoured place among the ranks of the great Indian patriots,” he said.
So, the next time you call at the Imperial War Museum, do seek him out. Meanwhile you might pick up my new Drabble and Harris book – Enemy of the Raj – in which Singh appears.
He was “an elder statesman of the British Empire”, declared Panikkar, “one of India’s greatest assets”. He was also a prodigious sportsman and shot more than 200 tigers. I know, you can’t make it up.
Alec Marsh is an author and journalist and was editor of Spear’s until June, 2020, when he became the magazine’s editor-at-large. His first Drabble and Harris book was Rule Britannia, set during the time of the Abication Crisis.
Read more about Enemy of the Raj.
The Signing of the Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June, 1919 by William Orpen: via Wikimedia
The Lalgarh Palace, built for Ganga Singh: via Wikimedia
The Maharajah Ganga Singh of Bikaner by Carl Vandyk (c1930): via Wikimedia
The Imperial war cabinet, London, 1917: via Wikimedia