x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Once a year, peasant rulers are given the royal treatment

The five kings of The Dangs, a tribal area in the state of Gujarat, survive on farming and a meagre annual government pension.

New Delhi // British colonial rulers had kneeled down before their bravery and 60 years ago their forebears ruled more than 300 villages, but now the five kings of The Dangs, a tribal area in the state of Gujarat, survive on farming and a meagre annual government pension. Bhavarsingh Hasusingh Suryawanshi, 54, the King of Linga, does not enjoy the luxuries of typical Indian royalty. A thatched hut, toiling hard in his fields, a 7km walk to board a local bus and a beeri (Indian cigarette) is all he remembers during his years of majesty.

But every year during Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, Mr Suryawanshi and the four other kings get a taste of royalty. During the festival yesterday they were carried on decorated horse carts along with their chieftains in a procession to the district headquarters of Ahwa to receive their pension from the state governor. The procession was led by tribal musicians and dancers who skipped around the royal horse carts. Government officials stood at attention as the procession passed by as an acknowledgement that this is the kings' court, at least for a day. The kings were draped in shawls, white kurtas and dhoti, and a red turban.

With its five kingdoms of Gadhvi, Linga, Daher, Pimpri and Vasurna, The Dangs is located in south Gujarat, bordering Maharashtra state. Spread over 1,400 sq km of rich teak forests, the district comprises 311 villages with an estimated population of 200,000 people. The British could not conquer the area because of its hilly terrain and the great warrior skills of its men. In 1842, after much deliberation, the British entered into an accord with the five kings for the lease of forest land in lieu of an annual sum.

"The amount was paid at public courts and the five kings were felicitated. The function was attended by thousands of people and other dignitaries from neighbouring kingdoms," said S K Nanda, the forest and environment secretary for Gujarat. The Dangs never became part of British India, and neither was its territory occupied by any other neighbouring kingdom. In 1947, when India gained independence, they were made part of the former state of Bombay without signing any merger agreement with the kings, prompting them to pass two resolutions against the amalgamation, an arrangement that continued after the subsequent inclusion of The Dangs into Gujarat in 1960.

In 1954 the government passed a resolution that took away all the rights and privileges of the kings, granting them a hereditary political pension instead. In 1971, the official recognition of the titles of about 400 kings and maharajas was abolished by the Indira Gandhi government to reduce the growing revenue deficit. However, the government continued to give political pensions to The Dangs kings along with the endorsement of their title.

The pension amount has been revised seven times since independence, however, the annual amount is not enough to meet their monthly needs. Kiransingh Yashwantrao Pawar, 29, the King of Gadhvi, is the highest paid with an annual pension of US$1,526 (Dh5,600). Now the kings are asking the government to increase their pensions. Dhanrajsingh Chandrasingh Suryawanshi, 60, the King of Vasurna, gets a pension of $935. He cannot afford a college education for his children. "Where will the money come from? Who will do the farming if the children continue their studies? Earning is the most important thing in our life as it is linked to survival," he said.

Tapatrao Anandrao Pawar, 42, the King of Daher, is distraught about the government's treatment of the kings. King Pawar, who gets $1,018 a year, said: "We don't get to live a respectable life despite being kings. Though the government pays us the pension, it is meagre than what we used to get from the British." The King of Pimpri, Trikamrao Sahebrao Pawar, 44, has to support a family of 21 on his pension of $1,230. "It should be at least 15,000 rupees (Dh1,070) per month so that all in my family can get enough to live a respectable life. Just 5,000 per month in the family of 21 is like peanuts," he said.

The King of Linga gets $1,130 a year and the 687 Dangi nobles share $36,272. The kings live in austere surroundings like their tribal subjects, only their superior land holdings allow for a slightly better lifestyle. The kings work in their fields and the queens take charge of the house. Most of their earnings come from cutting plantations in the forest. There is not much difference between them and the ordinary Dangis, except for the respect the royals get from their subjects.

Once back in The Dangs, the traditions continue. "When they enter the villages of their domain, the princely feeling follows them, they are always accompanied by a soldier with a red cross belt across his shoulders and a copper plate inscribed with the name of the erstwhile state and royal chief secretary. "The villagers are dutifully submissive, their respects real, as they gift the king with a hen or, at the least, a minimum currency note," said Dheeraj Bakul, a villager from Linga.