Order of the Star of India

Order of the Star of India was introduced by Queen Victoria as an imperial title by Letters Patent dated the 23 February 1861. The Order consisted of titles for one Grand Master, 25 Knights and uncertain number of Honorary Knights. The title was intended to be a mark of public honour on the part of the recipients British and Indian. The Order was particularly addressed to distinguished subjects of British India and native princes well known for their loyalty, virtue, merit, and contributions to the success of the Raj. The purpose of the Order has been mentioned in the Letters Patent, which goes:

Order of the Star of India

It had been the custom of Princes to distinguish merit, virtue and loyalty by public marks of honour in order that eminent services may be acknowledged and to create in others a laudable emulation, and we being desirous of affording public and signal testimony of our regard by the institution of an order of knighthood, whereby our resolution to take upon ourselves the government of our territories in India.

Until 1858, when the government of the East India Company was abolished and direct British rule established, the basis of British authority in India was ambiguous. The East India Company ruled India with the consent of the British Government. Theoretically, the company was a subject of the Mughal emperor. The company honoured the eminent and loyal Indian subjects with the Mughal titles, such as Nawab Bahadur, Roy Bahadur, Khan Bahadur, and so on. The titles of honoures were conferred on the distinguished subjects who were ennobled with the robes of honour in a formal function called Durbar. The Letters Patent of 1861 replaced the institution of khilat by the Order of the Star of India.

The background of the introduction of the Star of India was the sepoy revolt of 1857. The event was followed by the abolition of the East India Company Rule and its replacement by the direct rule of the crown through parliament. The Revolt was thought to be caused by the lack of communication between the rulers and the ruled. One of the measures that the government undertook to close up the social and political gap was the introduction of the Order of Knighthood designated as 'The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India'. It was intended to be a mark of public honour on the part of the recipient. The Order was particularly addressed to distinguished subjects of British India and native princes well known for their merit, contributions and most importantly, loyalty to the raj.'

Initially, the Order was limited to 25 persons, British and Indian. Four years after its establishment, the structure of the Order was broadened up to three ranked classes of Knight Grand Commander (KGCSI), Knight Commander (KCSI), and Companion (CSI). Subsequently the numbers of the awardees were greatly increased. The old titles of honours were also kept in operation in order to show respect to the Mughal heritage. The old titles like Nawab, Roy, Khan etc. were awarded to local gentry who rendered good services to the conservation of the British rule. The governors, Lt. governors, district magistrates were delegated to confer these titles by holding Durbars locally.

The award ceremony or Durbar of the highest honours was presided over by the Governor General and Viceroy. The awardees of the highest order were invited to receive the Orders personally from the hands of the Governor General. The governors and Lt. Governors of the provinces were asked to hold Durbars at provincial capitals and distribute the titles of the intermediate level. The lowest level honours were distributed at district level by the District Collectors and Magistrates. Besides these categories of honours, local dignitaries were invited to receive certificates of honours from the District Collectors and Magistrates. However, the certificates of honours of all categories were issued in the name of the British monarch. The award ceremony was most gorgeously organized so as to impress the peoples across the empire.'

For the ceremony of the first category, an awardees was decorated with mantle, insignia, collar and pendant. The mantle was light blue fabric linen in white silk and it fully covered the body. On the left side of the mantle was decorated with blue and silver tassels. It was embroidered in gold thread giving the impact of rays of the sun. The mantle was superimposed in diamonds inscribing the motto, 'Heavens light our guide' and a star. The collar was decorated with a large gold chain with palm fronds and lotuses. In the centre of mantle was an emblem of the Crown of Great Britain. From it hung an adorned locket with a portrait of the monarch of Great Britain and Ireland.

The recipients of the Knighthood, however, had to sign a pledge that the mantle and its accompaniments must be returned immediately after the demise of the recipient. This condition sounded quite offensive to the Indian recipients because under the Mughals, the Khilat was never returned. It was preserved in the recipient's toshakhana (wardrobe) from generation to generation as a mark of the honour received from the sovereign.

The earliest among the Bengal elite to be honoured with the Order of the Star of India were Maharaja of Burdwan, Khawaja Abdul Ghani and Abdool Luteef. The imperial titles and awards ceased to operate since 1947. [Sirajul Islam]

See also khilat.