The maharajas' emasculation

The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire, 1917-47
August 14, 1998

Ian Copland's story of the Indian princes from 1917 to the British withdrawal from India in 1947, gives far greater importance to the role played by the princes in the endgame of empire than was really the case. In fact, but for a brief period in the 1930s, when the British tried to push them to the fore, the princes were a side-show to the struggle being waged by the nationalists for India's independence and to the Muslim League's diplomatic struggle for partition.

Under the All-India federal scheme launched in 1935, the British sought to pack the federal legislature with the princes and their nominees. The aim was to bypass the Congress "firebrands" agitating for instant independence. After the princes failed to capitalise on this offer, the British virtually gave them up. So much so that on the eve of independence the viceroy dangled the princely territories before the same Congress agitators, in a trade-off, to persuade the latter to accept partition - the land to be gained being larger than that to be given up in the establishment of Pakistan.

Lord Mountbatten, the viceroy, on whose staff I served as an aide-de-camp, used to say that by arranging the accession of the princes to India and Pakistan he had saved them from a worse fate. Which brings me to the other question raised in the book. Since the author asserts that despite the princes' obvious blemishes - their disunity, myopic vision and erratic behaviour - he found "no empirical evidence that the states were about to self-destruct", was the princely doom so certain and inevitable? For the success of the federal scheme, the princes had to cooperate with moderate Indian politicians in British India, present a united front and introduce some representational government in their territories, which only a few were willing to do. Out of nearly 350 states (leaving out the sub-states in western India), only 18 were considered viable units; the rest would have to be grouped into larger units, their rulers losing powers and territories, which they wished to avoid. In any case, many of the bigger princes, on whose manoeuvrings the author has focused, saw the federal scheme above all as an escape from the rigours of paramountcy and the political department's interference in their administrative and private affairs. My father told me why the scheme failed. Rulers who attended the Round Table Conferences in London in the early 1930s - at which, together with the raja of Sangli, my father represented nearly 200 small states - became convinced that the British were too strong to be shaken by the Congress agitators and therefore there was no need to disturb the status quo.

Influenced by the "anti-constitutional advance'' lobby in England led by Churchill, the officials of the Indian political department also showed no great zeal to push the princes. For example, in Bundelkhand, central India, the only initiative taken by the British resident was to start tournaments of cricket, tennis and squash during Christmas, called the Bundelkhand Week; the idea being that the coming together of the princes on the playing field might help them to take a unified view on the proposed federation. The rulers of middling and small states were totally in the British grip and if the whip had been cracked even lightly, most would have fallen in line, as they did under the more focused policy of the successor Indian state a few years later.

The situation changed drastically after the commencement of the war. The launching of the Quit India movement by the Congress Party in 1942 was seen in Britain as a stab in the back at the moment of Britain's direst peril and decisively turned the British towards the Muslim League and Jinnah, who was quick to offer them the loyalty of Muslim soldiers - 40 per cent of the Indian Army. As the British dependence on Jinnah, in order to counter the Congress pressure, increased, the need to depend on the princes lost importance. The war was also transforming the world, strengthening plebeian ideologies, not the least in Britain itself, and this, taken together with the inability of the princes to negotiate in a realistic way, made it inevitable - and easier - to abandon them.

It is true, as Copland hints, that Mountbatten bullied the princes into signing the instruments of accession in 1947. But there was indeed no other way to save them from a worse fate. Mountbatten knew the next step would be mergers into larger unions or with provinces, ending princely rule. But after he helped the Indian leaders to rope in the princes, the leaders did listen to him, which helped to make the princes' landing as soft as possible. Otherwise, the rulers of a majority of small states would have been uprooted by mobs including those from outside their borders. Only some bigger states could have resisted - but with the Crown Reserve Police gone, for how long?

The princes, as individuals, were not unpopular, as was proved when they won practically every election they fought after independence. But partition had created a psychosis of fear-cum-nationalism. And any impression given at that time that they were obstructing the country's unity would have been disastrous.

Certain princes themselves were swept by a patriotic fervour which made some big states such as Bikaner and Patiala take the lead in signing the instrument of accession. The Punjab rulers went further: their armed men joined in the anti-Pakistan frenzy, which Copland has ignored. On the other hand the chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, Hidayatullah of Bhopal, openly aligned himself with Jinnah, and was disowned by the majority of the rulers, thus paralysing the chamber. In circumstances akin to civil war, the accessions arranged by Mountbatten helped to limit the chaos and protect the princes.

To become suzerains under the greatest power then existing on earth had been heady stuff for the maharajas. Earlier, in order to rule and prosecute wars, they had been compelled to cultivate popular goodwill, maintain an efficient administration and practice thrift. But after the princes' position was guaranteed by the British crown, there was no absolute necessity for all this. "We have emasculated them," said Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy. In 1947 the princely order was indeed ripe for collapse - if not all of us individually with it.

No other book has dealt so meticulously and sympathetically with the princes and their preoccupations before the deluge. The book's bibliography is the most complete on the subject that I have seen.

Raja Narendra Singh of Sarila was formerly India's ambassador to France.

The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire, 1917-47

Author - Ian Copland
ISBN - 0 521 57179 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 302

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