New Delhi: Some people are born with a golden spoon, and undoubtedly, Dr Karan Singh falls in this category.
Born to a maharaja, things relatively, came to him easy. And though he did not get to rule over the state of Jammu and Kashmir for long, he certainly was never of the temperament to be ruled over either.
Born on March 9, 1931, into the royal family, Singh is the son of Maharaja of J&K, Hari Singh and Maharani Tara Devi. His birth was an event that matches fairy tales of the yore.
Much has changed in Kashmir Valley over the years and the state has undergone several upheavals. And from being termed as ‘Paradise on Earth’ to a ‘land of terrorism’, the state saw ups and downs. But no event can match the arrival of Singh, the prince, who upon his birth became the apple of eye of every Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri citizen in the state.
Elderly people still recall the occasion how they greeted Singh’s birth with extravagant enthusiasm. Irrespective of caste or religion, all rejoiced. This was because the princely order in India still had a lot of glory and the birth of a yuvaraj (heir apparent) was a moment to celebrate.
Not only that, in this case the expectations were much more higher. Singh’s father had ascended the throne in 1925 on the passing away of his uncle Maharaja Pratap Singh, who had ruled the state for 40 years.
His father, Hari Singh, had married thrice earlier — twice in Saurashtra, Gujarat, and once in the hill state of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. While his first wife died with a child still in her womb, the other two marriages were childless.
Hari Singh had married the fourth time, raising hope among the people that a heir to the throne would be born. The bride, Tara Devi was from a remote village on the banks of the river Beas in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. Excitement mounted, when news spread that the maharani was expecting a child.
Hari Singh took her to Europe for the delivery and Singh, was born in Cannes, France. News of the birth of a baby boy spread like wild fire and official proclamations were made. While three days were declared as public holidays by the state, feasts went on for days. The entire state was in a cheerful mood and owners held free cinema shows and music performances. In addition, offerings were made at religious places and people prayed for the long life of the prince.
The family’s arrival back in the state was an extravagant affair and celebrations just did not seem to stop. Singh spent his early childhood at two separate homes — at Srinagar in summer and Jammu in winter.
Being the only son of his parents, he was heir apparent and destined to succeed his father and become a ruler. But education was not to be taken lightly. Initially, he studied in a state school, but was later sent to the Doon School, Dehradun, and passed his Senior Cambridge in 1945. But as was the norm, no privileged treatment was given to him or other children of maharajahs and VIPs in the school.
Soon after, in 1946, Singh developed a medical complication, became immobilised due to hip problem, and was confined to a wheel chair for 18 months. People prayed for his well being and on recovery, he graduated from Sri Pratap Singh College, Srinagar, J& K University. He completed his Masters in political science from Delhi University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Delhi University.
In 1949, at the age of 18, Singh was appointed Sadar-i-Riyasat, regent and governor of J&K. He remained active in politics and handled critical issues with expertise equivalent to a veteran politician.
Singh was married to Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, after the two had met just briefly. Since she was barely 13 and he 19-year-old, the two virtually grew up together and, at times, even studied together.
An epitome of beauty, Yasho Rajya was revered in J&K as a maharani (queen). But then, she was not an ordinary, or rather a common woman. She was born in Nepal into the royal family of Maharaja Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana, who was her grandfather. Her father was General Sharda Shamsher Singh.
It is said that the ancestors of Jammu’s royal family were the rulers of Jaipur, while the ancestors of the royal family of Nepal had ruled over Udaipur. For Yasho Rajya, a Nepali-speaking girl, who grew up with five brothers and sisters and spoke Nepali, it was a challenge to speak another language in her new home.
But within a short span, she had begun performing her role as the wife of the head of state and played a perfect hostess to several dignitaries. Soon she was devoted to the cause of the poor and weaker sections of the society and undertook various welfare activities along with army personnel during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. During her interaction with the rural people, she would even share food with them and had no qualms eating simple food. Singh never objected and rather supported her activities.
When he was Sadr-i-Riyasat, as chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board, his wife undertook several important activities in various parts of the state, including setting up of work centres, crèches and social welfare projects. All these generosities paid in the long run and the couple was always held in high esteem.
In 1967, Singh resigned as governor of J&K and became the youngest-ever member of the Federal Cabinet, holding the portfolios of Tourism and Civil Aviation at the behest of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The couple moved to Delhi and named their Nyaya Marg, Chanakyapuri residence Mansarovar. Singh supported his wife whole-heartedly when she founded the Delhi Society for the mentally handicapped children. In their own subtle ways, the two touched several lives — be it the people of their home state or Singh’s constituency, Udhampur.
In the 26th amendment to the Constitution of India promulgated in 1971, the government abolished all official symbols of princely states, including the titles, privileges and privy purses (remuneration). While the maharajahs and maharanis of other states made a lot of hue and cry about it, Singh voluntarily surrendered his privy purse, which he was entitled to since the death of his father in 1961.
He was quite a favourite with the Prime Minister and given the Health and Family Planning portfolio in 1973.
Though considered a staunch loyalist of Gandhi, he, however, turned against her, following the Emergency in 1977. With it disappeared his love and respect towards her and when she lost the elections that year, he went a step ahead and testified against her before the Shah Commission, ardently opposing her return to power.
Singh was elected to the Lok Sabha from Udhampur constituency in the 1977 elections and served as Minister for Education and Culture in the defectors’ regime of Lok Dal Party chief Charan Singh, who became the Prime Minister from July 1979 to January 1980.
Call it political opportunism or going by the saying that there are no permanent enemies in politics, Singh, however, sought to regain Gandhi’s trust when she returned to power in 1980. He is known to have sent copies of his articles and press reports of his speeches, besides gifting her books and boxes of cherries. But the experience of 1977 had made Gandhi wiser.
It is evident that Gandhi, considered an astute politician, who neither believed in forgiving, nor forgetting, saw through Singh’s games and did not give him much leverage. When he felt that his feelers were not cutting much ice, Singh resigned from the Congress in 1980 and sat in the Lok Sabha as an independent candidate.
Although he denied it, Singh’s tilt towards the Hindutva forces was becoming evident. In 1981, he floated the Virat Hindu Sammelan and held rallies, with some prominent Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders participating in them.
And strangely, though, the same year he complained to the Prime Minister about speeches by J&K chief minister Sheikh Abdullah and his son Farooq, stating that the former was paving the way for his son to become the future master of the ignorant Kashmiris, Singh saw no problem when his 30-year-old son Ajatshatru Singh became a minister in Farooq’s government in 1996.
In the meanwhile, Singh himself served as Indian Ambassador to the US in 1989-90 and ever since 1996 has been a member of the Rajya Sabha.
That Singh had high political ambitions is backed by reports that he was among the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) candidates for the Presidentship in 2007, but owing to opposition from some alliance partners, he had to face disappointment. With age not on his side, he is ruled out as a future contender.