Darbhanga & Gandhi
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
The relationship between the Maharajas of Darbhanga and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was very complex. They were close and knew each other too well. But the politics since the second decade of the twentieth century began to change.
Read Tejkar Jha’s “Darbhanga & Gandhi” to know how this relation that started in Africa paved an interaction between three Darbhanga Maharajas and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi over the decades during the struggle for independence.
The Permanent Settlement Act in 1793 brought a change in the socio-economic structure of India. With the change came, what may be called, a wave of agricultural industrialisation through the introduction of agro-industries such as sugar mills, jute mills, Indigo and opium manufacturing units and saltpetre production. Many erstwhile rulers who were forced into the permanent settlement like Darbhanga started investing in industrial ventures.
In the period of Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh (1879-1898) this investment in the industrial sector was taken up at global level with huge investments in South Africa, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, etc. Darbhanga had quite hefty financial investments in South Africa and a huge mass of indentured labourers working in Africa, West Indies, Fiji, etc. The indentured labourers were from Bihar, Bengal, and a few other states. Since labourers were also from Tirhut, the domain of Maharaja Darbhanga, he was naturally concerned about their welfare and safety.
Meanwhile, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had shifted to South Africa from the United Kingdom after completing his studies in Law. He took up the case of Indians with the government there and started a movement. In this context, Gandhi wrote to late Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh on 10th July, 1897 from Natal, South Africa  in which he writes,
“I beg to draw your attention to a copy sent to you of the Indian Petition to Mr Chamberlain regarding the anti-Indian Bills… It will not improve the Indian, unless we stop this unfair arrangement… we have but to request you to redouble your efforts on our behalf and we may yet hope to get justice.”
The reply to this letter was sent on 12th August 1897 . The Maharaja replied,
“Thank Mr Gandhi for all his… papers. Say that I feel deeply obliged to him for his letters and the papers he has been sending to me from time to time. Ask him to let me know what step he wishes to take for the redress of the grievances of the Indians in Natal and assure him that it will always be a most pleasant duty to me to cooperate with him in his laudable endeavours to the best of my ability.”
This was the first acquaintance of Gandhi with Darbhanga. None of the two would know that Gandhi would have a close relationship to the proceeding two Maharajas of Darbhanga too.
Almost two decades after the letter to Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh, Gandhi had his second encounter with the successive Maharaja, Maharaja Rameshwar Singh. An incident that happened on the occasion of the foundation laying ceremony of the Hindu University at Benares, brought Gandhi close to the Maharaja. On 4th February, 1916, the Foundation of Banaras Hindu University was laid by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge in the morning. The function was attended by more than 200 ruling chiefs and several hundred zamindars and it was presided by Maharaja of Darbhanga, Rameshwara Singh. In the evening, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a co-founder of the University, organized a conference chaired by Maharaja Rameshwara Singh and attended by a very distinguished crowd of ruling chiefs, zamindars, students and eminent citizens.