Princely states unwilling to accede to India

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


August 20, 2023

Princely states

Zoya Ansari recapitulates the difficulties of territorial
adjustments at the partition

Pakistan and India achieved independence in August 1947 amidst tremendous feelings of acrimony and conflict. The partition deprived the Muslims of the subcontinent of vast swathes of land that could have become parts of Pakistan. The most relevant areas to have been parts of Pakistan were the princely states that were forced to accede to India much against the principles under which the subcontinent was partitioned. As a backdrop it is worthwhile to keep in view that the British Empire was an unnatural mix of ordered central rule and small islands of self-governing units bound by treaties with the paramount power resting in Calcutta. The intense dichotomy was evident to all and sundry but the British neither had the spirit nor the wherewithal to rectify it. Always negligible in numbers ruling a very large population they heavily depended on titled aristocracy controlling large territories and loyal to their sovereign power. By the beginning of the 20th century the British became target of self-denuding complacency hoping that their ruling structure will hold good.


Even after declaring future of India as a federation they did not devise means to ensure avoidance of schism between the central authority and autonomous units. They were caught up in deciding the levels of constitutional rule to be adopted when governing the areas, they directly controlled but did not insist that same provisions were needed to be applied to the territories left in the hands of semi-independent hereditary princes who, though accepted British suzerainty, applied their own forms of rule on their states. The problem was very complex as these princely states were numerous numbering more than five hundred with tremendous variation in their size, population and economic state of affairs. The result was that the British left a yawning vacuum when they abandoned India and the classic example of their misconstrued belief in their system is the lingering Kashmir issue that has since held peace of the region to ransom.

The princely states were pampered by the British particularly after the mutiny of the British Indian army during which the princes stayed loyal to their rule assisted them wherever they could. As a result, the ruling princes were allowed to maintain their semi-autonomy as counter-poise to rising political movement for independence. The British colonial officials claimed princes as faithful military allies, praised them as natural leaders of their subjects and took advantage of their lavish hospitality. The princes were given autonomy over their territories but the British acquired for themselves the right to appoint ministers and get military support as and when required.

The litmus test of the duplicitous ruling pattern came at the transfer of power to a partitioned subcontinent. It was found possible to divide British India through laid-down constitutional provisions and democratic consensual formula but adhoc provisions were devised regrading princely India. Though the discretion of joining either Pakistan or India was given to the ruling prince as legally he or she was the sole authority having decided to enter into an agreement with the British monarch yet the ruling princes were not comfortable with the arrangement and ferociously objected to it but their resistance carried no credible weight as by the time of partition the British were powerless to help them at all. Disappointed but defiant they chose the only option available to them and many princely states refused to sign instrument of accession with India putting the newly created both independent states to trouble. Much has been written about Kashmir as the contentious state that wanted to remain independent. While Kashmir is a well-known issue, not much attention is paid to similar other states which did not want to accede to India.

Travancore, the southern Indian maritime state was one of the first princely states to refuse accession to Indian union and questioned the Congress’ leadership. The state was strategically placed for maritime trade and was rich in both human and mineral resources. Its Diwan, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, in 1946 declared his intention of forming an independent state of Travancore and kept the prospects opened for signing treaty with Indian union in future. Travancore was rich in deposits of monazite, a mineral used in making atom bomb. Travancore resisted till the Diwan survived an assassination attempt and, fearful of his life and that of the princely house, capitulated and signed treaty of accession.

Jodhpur was interested in joining Pakistan despite being a Hindu-majority state with a Hindu ruler. Maharaja Hanvant Singh considered joining Pakistan because of its physical proximity as it shared borders with Pakistan. Quaid-e-Azam offered him full port facilities in Karachi along with military and agrarian support. But Vallabhbhai Patel rushed to the state, met the maharaja and with a mixture of incentives and coercion made him to accede to India.

Bhopal intended declaring independence but the difficulty was that its Nawab Hamidullah Khan ruled over a majority Hindu population. A close friend of Quaid-e-Azam, Nawab Hamidullah Khan staunchly opposed Congress. He brought property in Karachi probably for coming over. Bhopal House still exists in Clifton Karachi. Lord Mountbatten persuaded him to accede to India by pointing out that his independence will be short lived as he would be surrounded by Indian territory. Mountbatten wrote that “no ruler could run away from the dominion closest to him”. His daughter Princess Abida Sultan was against her father’s decision to join India and migrated to Pakistan with her only child Shahryar Khan who later became Foreign Secretary and Chairman Pakistan Cricket Board.

Hyderabad Deccan proved to be hard nut to crack. As large as France in territory Hyderabad had an old tradition of being ruled by Nizams of Turkish descent. Two of the sons of Nizam of Hyderabad were married to the last Ottoman sultan’s daughters. Lying in the Deccan plateau, the state covered a large portion of the centre of India. On the eve of departure of the British, Nizam openly declared his policy of remaining independent and becoming part of the British Commonwealth. Lord Mountbatten, however, made it very clear that the Crown would not agree to Hyderabad becoming member of the British

Commonwealth, except through either of the two new dominions. The situation in Hyderabad worsened when a popular militia organised by Syed Qasim Rizvi challenged the Union of India for a fight. Just after the departure of Lord Mountbatten in 1948, Indian government authorized its armed forces to launch Operation Polo and subjugate the state. In an armed encounter lasting four days, Indian army captured Hyderabad and divested Nizam of his power. However, just to compensate him, Indian government made him the governor of his former state.

Gujrati state of Junagadh was the most important among the group of Kathiawar states. Muslim Nawab Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III ruled over a large Hindu population. Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, member of state council of ministers advised the Nawab to accede to Pakistan and Pakistan accepted Junagadh’s request for accession. India was understandably furious and created unrest in the state compelling the Nawab to flee to Pakistan. Indian armed forces moved into the state and it was accordingly annexed in February 1948. The Weekender


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