In the early 1900s, a young Indian looking woman was often seen outside the Hampton Court Palace selling copies of The Suffragette, a newspaper by the British Women’s Social and Political Union. Her name was Sophia Duleep Singh, born in England on 8 August 1876. She was the daughter of Bamba Muller and (deposed) Maharaja Duleep Singh.
Even though he was exiled from India, Maharaja Duleep Singh maintained extremely good relations with the Crown and Sophia was made Queen Victoria’s goddaughter. On the death of her parents, Sophia inherited a great amount of wealth and was also given the Faraday House as grace by the Queen.
Sophia always wanted to keep in touch with her Indian roots. She formed close ties with the Sikh community in London and frequently attended functions at the India Office. She also supported the Indian Women’s Education Association and travelled to India twice, once in 1907 when she visited her family in Lahore and Amritsar. She was strongly influenced by the Swadeshi Movement. The Indian freedom movement, particularly her meeting with leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, inspired her to move towards political activism.
She was one of the several Indian women who campaigned for women’s rights in Britain. She played major roles in both the Women’s Tax Resistance League and various women’s suffrage groups like the Women’s Social and Political Union and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
In 1910, Sophia took part in the march by suffragettes to Parliament Square. Commonly known as ‘Black Friday’, 18 November 1910 saw several women protestors being physically and sexually assaulted by the police. Although Sophia never took a royal position in British society, her social status protected her on this particular day. The Police recognized her and left her unharmed even though she had led the demonstration.
Sophia was deeply impacted by the events of the day but continued to participate in political campaigns. She played an active role in campaigns by the Women’s Tax League whose slogan was ‘No Vote, No Tax.’ She was prosecuted several times for not paying taxes that led to some of her valuables being confiscated. She continued to remain an active member of the suffrage movement and organised an event in 1912 promoting ‘Constitutional women’s suffrage work’.
During World War I, she volunteered at the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment serving Indian soldiers that on the British fleets. In 1918, the Representation of People Act gave all women over the age of 30 the right to vote. A year later, Sophia joined the Suffragette Fellowship where she remained a member till the end of her life. In 1928, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act finally placed women on equal terms with men.
Although Sophia wasn’t the only Indian woman who took part in the suffragette movement, she played a significant role by leveraging her privilege. She continued to fight for the advancement of women throughout her life. She passed away on 22 August 1948.