DYĀL SIṄGH MAJĪṬHĪĀ, (1849-98), Sikh aristocrat and philanthropist, was the son of Lahiṇā Siṅgh Majīṭhīā and grandson of Desā Siṅgh Majīṭhīā, both of whom had served Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh with distinction in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was born in 1849 at Banāras. His extensive education came from a dual source - from the family's keen interest in science and religion as well as from English tutors appointed by the court of wards which became responsible for Dyāl Siṅgh's upbringing after Lahiṇā Siṅgh's death in Banāras in 1854.
Dyāl Siṅgh was among the first Sikhs exposed to the Western systems of thought. Thereafter he lived in two worlds - not one Eastern and the other Western, as one might assume - but rather one of solitary experience, searching after ideas through reading, and the other a whirl of Punjabi culture not without its Westernized elements, which spun round Dyāl Siṅgh daily as a prominent raīs, an urban entrepreneur, a patron of social reform and sponsor of political causes. Nevertheless, as Punjabi Sikhs faced the task of reconstructing self-respect and identity following the British occupation of the Punjab, Dyāl Siṅgh's youth caught the full force of exposure to Westernization which included study of the Bible, and a journey to England. All these were reflected in his education. Yet intellectual interests and alterations in lifestyle did not end in conversion to any new creed or in desertion of Sikhism. Rather it was orthodoxy of all kinds and devotion to any single dogma that Dyāl Siṅgh had left behind. Comparative theology became his passion. He knew the elements of Sikhism well, had a great reverence in his heart for the Sikh Gurūs, read with a Fīrozpur paṇḍit the Bhagavad-gītā, discussed (then rejected) the tenets of the Ārya Samāj with its founder Swāmī Dayānand, and refused to side with any faction of the Brahmo Samāj. He became and remained in essence his own man.
Dyāl Siṅgh cannot be termed a typical nineteenth-century raīs, aristocrat, of the Punjab, yet he did not seek to avoid the various traditional roles consequent upon such influence and wealth as were his. Rather, he intensified those roles and gave them modern currency.
The brief biographical notes left behind reporting his daily life indicate a mercantile sagacity, a particular attention to detail, an accumulation of urban property during a successful career as financer. During his younger years even more 'typical' activities occupied Dyāl Siṅgh, the nobleman. He demonstrated a ". . . keen interest in sports, [became] an expert at kite-flying, spent large sums of money holding wrestling contests, liberally patronized musicians, offered magnificent hospitality and arranged poetical symposiums. . . "
Dyāl Siṅgh Majīthīā is remembered, however, as anything but a typical nobleman of his day. Rather, his name is linked with reform, institutions of higher education, the founding of the Punjab branch of the Indian National Congress and perhaps above all with the Hindu reformist society, the Brahmo Samāj. He often had been claimed by Brahmos as a Brahmo and certainly he became their saviour through patronage.
In other words, Dyāl Siṅgh became a grand patron of many causes. When issues or ideas of importance impressed him he gave support - money, to aid the fervent (but often penniless) students, journalists, reformers, teachers - Punjabis as well as Bengalis. He supported men of words and ideas who had set about trying to alter, establish and build institutions, belief-systems and socio-political reforms in a Punjab struggling to express itself to find its identity, while the law was dominated by the British whose rule was despotic though inclined to be benevolent. It would be a mistake to consider him as confined to a single creed, society or dogma.
Dyāl Siṅgh patronized a half century of causes and institutions. He served as a member of the managing committee of the Darbār Sāhib (Golden Temple), Amritsar, and he accepted to be president of the standing committee of the Indian National Congress. He sponsored a number of prominent social roles, but occupied the stations of an honoured patron and not an activist. His short book, Nationalism (1895) is filled with moderate admiration and protestations of loyalty to the order and progress which British rule brought to the Punjab - not with slogans for ending imperialism. This would be a job for the activists of the next century. But such a man could take exception and he did take exception to what he regarded as the excesses and omissions of British authority.
On 27 December 1893, the Indian National Congress met in Lahore for its ninth annual convention. As reception committee chairman, Dyāl Siṅgh was to speak first. He could not, however, speak for he was racked with pain. Nevertheless, he appeared on the platform and sat stiffly as another read his carefully chosen words. While the Sardār spoke of the literary influence of England, it would be premature in those times to voice the demand for sharing political power. His was the role of a man born to multiple privileges, taking up the task of reform and to initiate action in the educational and cultural spheres. In his address he said :
We happily live under a constitution whose watchword is freedom, and whose main pillar is toleration. We look back complacently on our past history, and glory in it. Can we then in the midst of this national upheaval remain quiescent and indifferent?
He was a pioneer in those nation-building activities, like the spread of Western Education (viz. his founding of the Dyāl Siṅgh College and Dyāl Siṅgh Library) and the establishment, in 1881, of a daily paper in English, The Tribune, that built up the nationalist cause in the Punjab, as a matter of fact in northwestern India as a whole. In this respect, his is a significant role as one of the builders of modern Punjab.
Dyāl Siṅgh Majīṭhīā died on 9 September 1898.