The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919 marked the end of the First World War. Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner was one of the signatories, and the sole Indian present at this event that changed the course of the world. In the painting ‘The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919‘ you can spot the Maharaja in the center donning a military uniform. He stands close to the US President Woodrow Wilson, one of the ‘Big Four’ (France, Great Britain, Italy, US) that dominated the formulation of the treaty. What one wonders about, is the painter’s choice of placing the Indian Maharaja in a prominent and central position.
for the first time, the signature of an Indian Prince appeared on a document the most fateful in the history of the worldMaharaja Ganga Singh, in a dictation to his Secretary as he sailed back home from Paris on the SS Manora
32 nations participated in signing the treaty, represented by 66 people. Amidst these, British India was represented by the then Secretary of State Edwin Samuel Montagu, Satyendra Sinha (later, Lord) and Maharaja Ganga Singh. Initially, the Maharaja was an ‘Advisor’ but eventually became one of the two signatories representing India.
At the face of it, the painting captures a moment in world history that altered Europe; but look deeper and you’d also find the story of India’s emergence in international diplomacy and the shaping of an independent nation-to-be.
Ever since the Imperial Conferences began in 1887, India had struggled for representation. It was India’s support to Britain during the First World War that changed the British attitude : the army was one of the two largest volunteer armies; aside from the cost of the army, India accorded a 100 million pounds towards the war effort. In New Delhi stands the iconic India Gate, commemorating the 70,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the WW1.
In January 1917, as the First World War intensified, the Maharaja of Bikaner, H.H Ganga Singh was inducted onto the Imperial War Cabinet alongside representatives from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada. This was followed by a decision to include India in all future conferences including the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.
As a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles (and other peace treaties), India became a founding member of the League of Nations – the only colony to do so. The League of Nations was an international peacekeeping organization tasked with resolving international disputes without resorting to military force. Its members included Dominions of the British Empire (such as Canada).
But before we go deeper into the significance of India’s representation in the League of Nations, and other diplomatic events, let us turn our focus towards the man at the center of it all.
Who was Maharaja Ganga Singh, and why was he so important to this international event?
The Ruler of a feudal desert kingdom
The fall of the Mughal Empire was followed by a treaty of friendship and alliance between the British Government and the Princely states which formed nearly 40% of the Indian subcontinent. Bikaner was one of the princely states that entered into a similar friendly alliance with the British in 1818. Ganga Singh (b.1880) was only 7 years old when he succeeded his half-brother, Maharaja Dungar Singh. As was the norm, until the young prince came of age, the State of Bikaner was ruled by a council presided over by the British Political Agent, Charles Bayley.
Apart from his formal education at Mayo School (Ajmer), Maharaja Ganga Singh, the 21st ruler of Bikaner, was also tutored by Sir Brian Egerton KCIE, which had an immense influence on his personality and helped shape his vision. In Bikaner, H.H. Ganga Singh’s reign was marked by a series of reforms in railways, electricity, land, judiciary, healthcare, education; he established Sri Ganganagar, one of the first well-planned cities of India, introduced prison reforms and successfully dealt with the famine of 1899. He is thus credited with transforming a drought-prone and impoverished state into a prosperous one with modern infrastructure.
Maharaja Ganga Singh : the visionary military strategist who established the ‘Bikaner Camel Corps’.
Sir William Orpen’s painting The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors highlights Maharaja Ganga Singh’s role as a statesman but is also a reminder that he was a soldier at heart.
‘Ganga Risala’ or the Bikaner Camel Corps was established by the Maharaja in 1889. The unit served in China during the Boxer Rebellion (1900), in Somaliland (1902-1904), in Egypt during the First World War and later in the Middle East during the Second World War. Its achievements catapulted the Maharaja into international prominence, who was one of the rare princes to have participated in the war-action.
The Boxer Rebellion was a peasant uprising in China against Imperialist rule; to crush the rebellion, armies of eight countries headed to China. The Maharaja of Bikaner too, departed for China in September 1900. As the Commander of the Ganga Risala, he became “the first Indian Prince to go overseas to fight under British flag”. Later during the First World War, the Maharaja served in France and in Egypt where he defended the Suez Canal from Turkish advances. Additionally, he placed the resources of his state at Britain’s disposal. For his services, the Maharaja received the rank of KCB (Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath) and Hon. Major-General in the British Army (a first for an Indian).
Maharaja Ganga Singh : a friend of the British Raj
Upon the Maharaja’s return from China, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India played a key role in cementing the relationship between the British Monarchs and Singh. Sir Ganga Singh’s influence and network within the Imperial circle was evident from his invitation to London in 1902 for King Edward VII’s coronation & his subsequent appointment as the aide-de-camp of the Prince of Wales (future King George V).
A visit to the Lallgarh Palace in Bikaner reveals the Maharaja’s “international relations” – gifts were exchanged in abundance because the Maharaja understood very well, the political and social significance of these.
Statesmen of World War I, James Guthrie.
‘Bikaner’, as he was familiarly and affectionately called—the Indian Prince —was a magnificent specimen of manhood of his great country. We soon found he was one of “the wise men that came from the East”. More and more did we come to rely on his advice, especially on all matters that affected India.Lloyd George, Prime Minister of UK in ‘War Memoirs’ 
By this time the Maharaja had become in his own words “not only a ruler of a great state, but an Indian statesman”. He had conceived the Council of Princes, an important power bloc that came into effect in 1920. Singh served as its first Chancellor.
Maharaja Ganga Singh and the Chamber of Princes
In a speech that the Maharaja gave at the Parliamentary Association in London, in April 1917, he spelt out the agenda of the Chamber of Princes:
“Our aspiration is to see our country attaining, under the standard of the King-Emperor, the self- government and autonomy which you in this country secured long ago and which our more fortunate sister Dominions (the so-called White Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) have enjoyed for some time past.”
The British, impressed by Singh’s advocacy for reforms in India committed to the cause of developing self-government in the Montagu reforms announced in August 1917. However, Ganga Singh’s vision of the Princely States playing an important and bigger role in India’s policy matters was subjected to criticism back home.
After the Round Table Conference (1930-32), the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi felt the Maharaja’s pursuit of federating British and Princely India had detracted attention from the goal of Dominion status.
Eventually, as India became independent, Bikaner (under Singh’s son) became the first Princely State to sign an Instrument of Accession, on 7 August 1947.
A study of this painting is important to understand Indian Nationalism in the international context during the 20th century
The 20th century saw the rise of diverse Indian voices on the international stage. This included activists, intellectuals, and royals, like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Rabindranath Tagore, Maharaja Ganga Singh – each one of them represented a distinct idea of nationalism. The appointment of an Indian prince as a cultural diplomat in the League of Nations played a crucial role in bringing the political entities (British and India) closer and shifting attention towards Indian Independence. Even as Indian delegates functioned under British control at these international forums, they used whatever little autonomy they possessed for the benefit of India and her interests.
It cannot be ignored that Maharaja Ganga Singh’s efforts to win India a position on the League helped develop her international persona. Indian Political Department members were sent as British Ministers to Afghanistan and Nepal. Consular Officers from India were despatched to many parts of the world like Kashgar, Persia, Muscat, Jeddah, etc. and by 1927, India entered into commercial treaties without British backing. That Britain wanted to be seen in the “right light”, worked for India. Britain, keen to disprove allegations that it added India to the League for “voting rights” in order to serve British interests, sought more than ever to grant India autonomy. The League-membership thus provided impetus for India’s constitutional development.
As a Member of the League of Nations, India was also invited to be part of the Permanent Court of International Justice, the International Labour Organisation, the International Committee of Intellectual Cooperation (J.C Bose was a member of this committee that sought to develop “the interchange of knowledge and ideas among peoples and improving the conditions of intellectual work”). These opportunities enabled India to craft an image for herself in the world and gain its support as she rallied for Independence back home.