"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

The Black Prince brings out last Sikh emperor's resistance to British occupation

Indian film icon Shabani Azmi plays the mother of Duleep Singh in The Black Prince. Indian film icon Shabani Azmi plays the mother of Duleep Singh in The Black Prince.

 

Gurpreet Singh

Breaking the myth about the passive involvement of Sikhs in the liberation movement of India, The Black Prince gives a fresh perspective on the struggle against the British occupation of their homeland.

It's based on the story of last Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh's son Duleep Singh, who was exiled to England following the annexation of Punjab in the mid-19th century.

Until now it has been widely believed that Sikhs were largely loyal to the British, who ruled India until 1947. 

This is despite the fact that the British were only able to occupy Punjab in 1849, 10 years after Ranjit Singh died. Since then there have been two Anglo-Sikh wars.

Yet many historians influenced by European schools of thought have tried to make us believe that Sikhs were one of Britain's most favoured communities in India—and that Sikhs helped the colonial power suppress the first rebellion in 1857.

This movie, written and directed by former St. Elsewhere cast member Kavi Raz, sets the record straight, challenging this history that's been told through a Eurocentric lens.

The Sikh empire eventually fell as the British took over Punjab. In the film young Duleep Singh is separated from his mother, Maharani Jindan, and exiled to England.

In this English environment, Duleep Singh is forced to give up his religion and become Christian. As he grows older, he realizes that England is not where he belongs and insists on meeting his mother.

Once he reconnects with Jindan, Singh—played by Satinder Sartaaj—gradually comes to understand more about the theft of their homeland by the British and starts talking back against colonialism and racism.

Inspired by his mother, Singh reconverts to Sikhism and, with the help of other nations, makes a failed attempt to overthrow British rule. Years later, other political activists tried to follow the same route.

It's sad that Duleep Singh's contribution to the freedom struggle remains unacknowledged.

Undoubtedly, he wanted his kingdom back. His father Maharaja Ranjit Singh's state was very progressive and secular. The father abolished capital punishment and treated non-Sikhs fairly.

Duleep Singh's fight needs to be situated in the broader context of the struggle against foreign occupation of India. Jindan, for instance, never accepted British rule and despised their deception. Her reference to Ranjit Singh as sarkar (ruler) still resonates with many Sikh elders.

Writer Gurpreet Singh's great-grandfather, Sham Singh, was in Ranjit Singh's army.

 

My own great-grandfather, Sham Singh, was in Ranjit Singh's army and he and other Sikhs refused to work under the British when this was offered. I learned from my father that they clearly told the British that they could not work for anyone other than sarkar as they considered him the real ruler.

In the film Jindan is played by famous Bollywood actor Shabana Azmi. As the story suggests, she inspired her son to give up the Christian identity that was forced upon him and to see how their valuables, including the Kohinoor diamond donned by Queen Victoria, was robbed from the Sikh kingdom under the guise of justice and fairness.

It is important for those who want to understand the perspective of a colonized nation to watch The Black Prince. It's a good attempt to bring to light a truth hidden under the shadows of history and created by the builders of an empire that not only suppressed resistance, but also the reality of it.

 Gurpreet Singh is an independent journalist and one of the founders of Radical Desi.

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Last modified on Friday, 28 July 2017 16:20
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