Sunday, April 02, 2023

The Maharaja who was the Best of Men

 Maharaja Rajendra Narayan Singh Deo, born to a royal family in the Bihar and Orissa Province of British India was adopted by the Maharaja of Patna state and served diligently as its last monarch. What is even more impressive is that he became the first ruler of a princely state to sign the merger agreement for accession into the Union of India, indicating a measure of dignity and grace that seemed to have characterised his political and personal life as well. His is a story of duty, temperance and compassion that makes for interesting reading thanks to the painstaking efforts of Pabitra Mohan Nayak and V.R. Singh. 

The reader is treated to a fascinating glimpse of the turbulent history of Odisha in the aftermath of Independence, the bloody upheaval that came in its wake and intermittent power struggles that followed which came to define the political and cultural landscape as we know it today. The Maharaja’s ascent to the throne itself was not without drama. A particularly harrowing passage outlines the palace intrigues that plagued this highly desired seat of absolute power, the path to which seemed riven with bloodlust, betrayal and unspeakable tragedy. The authors eschew unnecessary sensationalism and steer clear from scandal which is a tasteful touch, preferring to let their subject’s meritorious conduct and exemplary record speak for itself.

Affectionately addressed as the Maharaja, even after he stepped down, Rajendra Narayan was a progressive thinker who worked hard for socio – economic and cultural reforms in his state. He continued to serve his people by entering politics and eventually becoming the CM, a hugely popular and effective one at that. What is even more impressive as narrated by the authors is the Maharaja’s earnest appeal to lend his voice in support of the most downtrodden in society be they poor farmers, exploited women or the untouchables. It is to his credit that while addressing the rights of a Brahmin widow, he went on record to state: ‘The harshness of the social laws on the weaker sex is so obviously inequitable that one cannot help wondering whether these are laws of a civilized nation or narrow prejudices.’ He similarly believed that ‘if man was indeed the temple of the living God, there was no place for discrimination.’ 

The Maharaja was also a man of action. It was he, who welcomed the Harijans into Patna and threw open the gates of Raghunath temple, the main Palace temple to let them in, in a move that was the first of its kind in the state. In addition to this, the Maharaja worked to eradicate child marriage and was instrumental in implementing better healthcare services, quality education for all, modern infrastructure, and farm reform among other things, he deemed would be for the betterment of his people. 

Based on the existing evidence, Rajendra Narayan appears to have been a man of sound principles and good sense. However, despite his erudition and determination, he wasn’t always successful in his endeavours. A particularly painful defeat was the failure to restore the broken limbs of Orissa, which was the loss of the districts of Seraikela (where he was born) and Kharsawan which had formally been merged with Bihar, though many felt that historically, culturally as well as linguistically, it made more sense to integrate them with Orissa. The Maharaja worked hard to restore these lost districts to his state and made a powerful case but all efforts by him and others like another famous CM of Orissa, BijuPatnaik were in vain and to this day, they remain outside Orissa and come under the jurisdiction of Jharkhand.

The Maharaja and his wife

In their bid to do justice to this remarkable person, the authors tend to treat the Maharaja with a level of reverence that makes this a hagiography. He is even credited with being a practitioner of esoteric Tantric arts who could cure snakebites, while remaining a secular Hindu. One cannot help but think that it impossible for even the saintliest of saints to be as saintly as their devotees insist, they are. An unflinching portrait with the warts and all might have served the Maharaja better. Even so, there is no denying that he clearly was a legend.

An edited version of this book review was published in TNIE Magazine