The saga of Indian princes

ByZoya Ansari

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


October 15, 2022

Zoya Ansari looks back at an interesting historical phenomenon

At the end of British Indian Empire in 1947 the subcontinent faced an interesting yet intriguing situation whereby three-fifths of its territory was not in direct administrative control of the British central government based in New Delhi but was managed through a unique system of indirect rule vested in residencies placed in capitals of princely states that were not less than 660-odd by the time the British left India. The British conquered India piecemeal as they were always in minority and heavily depended on locally employed Sepoy army upon whose loyalty not a great premium could be placed. The result was that consolidation and delegation became the classic bywords mostly overridden by caution. The saga of Indian princes was the only escape from the worries the British were consistently burdened with and it was only in the princely states that they could let their hair down.

Though completely out of tune with the evolving contours of democratic governance revolving around the principle of meritocracy, Princely India served its purpose admirably well and served the British right up to the end. In its entirety, it represented a unique system within a system partly born out of necessity and partly by historical accident. Princely India was one of its kinds of an aberration that never existed anywhere in the world. It was neither feudal nor federal although it contained similarities to both. It was not a confederacy in which major partner assumed special rights because it was admitted by all parties that constituent states had no rights of succession.

The political relationship between the British and princely states had deep roots. Mostly confined to the South, British were the first maritime power to enter India from three naval routes that provided them with utmost leverage in moving out of danger whenever local powers pressed them hard. Right from their first intervention in Arcot against the French in 1750-54 to battle of Buxar in 1764, East India Company remained subordinate to the Mughal Empire but after victory in Battle of Buxar it claimed and got Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa making it a stakeholder in the ruling structure of the subcontinent.

However, after the Revolt of 1857, the British abandoned annexation and replaced it by theory of paramountcy and the concept of usage as a uniform principle in relation to princely states. Such diversionary tactics provided them with unlimited opportunities to interfere in internal affairs of princely India whose climax was the extra-stringent viceroyalty of Lord Curzon who even controlled their visits abroad. Interestingly, Princely India included every variety of political community ranging from full-powered sovereign states such as Hyderabad and Gwalior whose rulers made, promulgated and enforced their laws and maintained their own armies to small chieftainships who were confined within their own palaces. Though the rulers of the bigger states were subordinate to central government, their laws were supreme in their own jurisdiction and there was no appeal from their courts even to the Privy Council.

The states varied in size and importance such as Jammu and Kashmir to little States in Kathiawar which consisted of a few acres of land. Princely states were scattered all over the subcontinent with Jammu and Kashmir in extreme north closer to Central Asia to Travancore in extreme south. The only unified strain running in Princely India was their absolute loyalty to the paramount power. The services of potentates of princely India were recognised with land grants and special honour institute by the British particularly for this purpose. The novel system of according gun salutes to rulers of princely India was much sought after privilege.

For about a quarter of a century the British fought with every local power and achieved victory. They pursued a mixture of aggressive and hesitant policies to enlarge their domain primarily by annexing princely states. After taking over Delhi in 1802 through the celebrated march of Lord Lake, virtually all major local powers were linked to company by treaty. The British devised a spectacular system of paramountcy reflected and carried through widespread and powerful presence of residents at princely courts overseeing their activity. They controlled succession and strictly regulated foreign affairs of princely states.

However, after the Revolt of 1857, the British abandoned annexation and replaced it by theory of paramountcy and the concept of ‘usage’ as a uniform principle in relation to princely states. Such diversionary tactics provided them with unlimited opportunities to interfere in internal affairs of princely India whose climax was the extra-stringent viceroyalty of Lord Curzon who even controlled their visits abroad!

The challenge of growing nationalism witnessed by mass agitation in the subcontinent in the twentieth century compelled the British to cultivate and politicise princely India. In recognition of their support in containing nationalism in their jurisdiction, Lord Minto announced in 1909 the policy of nonintervention in their internal affairs. The whole question of British relations with the princes was reconsidered and their long standing demand for establishment of a permanent body representing them was finally met in 1919 when the Government, as a part of its post-war reform package, announced establishment of Chamber of Princes. However, 1930s brought new troubles for princely India. The Butler Committee Report warned princes of interference if reports of misgovernment were received because it had become a huge issue in nationalistic politics of India popularly exploited by politicians.

Faced with powerful nationwide clamour for change the British had no recourse but to usher in a long period of constitutional reform. The Simon Commission Report, three Round Table Conferences and publishing of the main constitutional reforms in a White Paper gave way to Government of India Act 1935. The Act provided for a Federation of India which could not be formed unless the majority of the states signified their adherence to it.

The hollowness of the British pursuance of an anachronistic policy in respect of princely states came to the fore when they, in absence of protection of the treaty rights of the States in the Act of 1935, differences among themselves, changed attitude of political parties towards them, growing nationalistic agitation in their territories and shift in the governments’ policy refused to agree to federation formula sealing their fates for good.

The extremely altered situation after Second World War resulted in speedy decolonisation of the subcontinent and prematurely ended the age-old monarchical system enjoyed by princely India for ever. They were left with no option but to join two states formed after British withdrawal and their majority was annexed by India whereas a small number joined Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir however became bone of contention between Pakistan and India owing to puerile settlement pattern adopted by the British before scuttling their empire.

The saga of Indian princes ended after the end of the British rule in India in 1947 and they practically disappeared from the historical map. The former princely families opted to mostly stay out of the political arena and stayed under the radar remaining engaged in multifarious activities. They also kept the issues of their family properties and their distribution mostly private and it was not quite infrequent that such information came into the public domain. TW


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