NOVEMBER 20th was Universal Children’s Day, a day set aside by the United Nations to promote the welfare of children globally, established with the adoption of the transformative doctrine on childhood rights, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959.
India celebrated the day together with the rest of the world until Nehru’s death, when it was decided to honour the first Prime Minister of India and his love for children by celebrating his birthday, November 14, as Bal Diwas.
“The children of today will make the India of tomorrow. The way we bring them up will determine the future of the country,” said Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
We’re happy to report that while Nehru brought the need to preserve the rights, care and education of children to the forefront during his time, other Indians had been quietly living by this ideal for years.
One such Indian was Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar. At the beginning of World War II, Sir Digvijaysinhji used his role on the Imperial War Cabinet to change the fortunes of Polish refugees, specifically 1,000 orphans living in war-torn, occupied Poland and Soviet gulags in Siberia.
“India, though not sovereign at the time and not at all prosperous, became the first country in the world to accept and offer war-duration at her own cost to the hapless Polish population rendered homeless and subsequently stateless,” said scholar and author Anuradha Bhattacharjee of Second Homeland.
In 1942, the maharajah, fondly known as Jam Saheb, built boarding facilities to house the child refugees near his summer palace in Balachadi, Gujarat, sparing no expense to care for them over the course of the next four years until they were able to return home.
Understanding the importance of respecting the children and their heritage while maintaining their education and wellbeing, he maintained a Polish library of books, found Polish teachers to teach their lessons and flew in Goan chefs to cook non-spicy cuisine fit for the children’s palette.
He told the young refugees: “You are no longer orphans. From now on you are Nawangarians, and I am Bapu, father of all Nawangarians, so I’m your father as well.”
A far-reaching impact
Eight of the WWII survivors recently returned to Balachadi to celebrate Poland’s 100th Independence Day and reminisce about the Maharaja’s good deed that gave them a second chance at childhood. Sharing stories of their time in India, it is clear how this one man’s actions changed the trajectory of these individuals’ lives.
While the Maharaja had the resources and capacity to take in these refugees, he did so in the midst of a global war, during a time of severe drought and famine and against the general will of the colonial government.
It is particularly important to remember Jam Saheb’s generosity at a time when the world is going through a refugee crisis – with more than 100,000 children orphaned in the Syria – and governments refusing entry or deporting people ravaged by war or persecution.
You never know how kindnesses, whether big or small, could change someone’s life.
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