Princely States in India
When India became independent there were more than 500 princely states, big and small. Some like Travancore, Cochin and Mysore in the South and Gwalior, Baroda and Patiala in the North, had done a great deal for their people, like beautifying the state and opening educational institutions, especially for girls.
Culture and architecture flourished. In 1910, the Maharaja of Baroda founded the Central Library and started the Library Movement. He also reorganized in 1912 the Cooperative Movement started in 1905.
In Mysore, limited compulsory education was started in 1913, and in 1916 local self-governing bodies were reformed. In 1916, the first university was founded in Mysore.
Great irrigation schemes were started in Mysore, Travancore and Baroda.
Osmania University of Hyderabad was started in 1918 and English was made compulsory.
Industrial development was given a boost in the princely states of Gwalior, Mysore, Baroda, Indore, Rampur, Bhopal, Travancore and Mayurbhanj. Ports were opened in Cochin and Bhavnagar. Jodhpur and Bikaner ensured the development of railways.
But many backward and weak princely states felt threatened. They looked up to Britain as the paramount power, which would come to their rescue whenever they required to be defended.
All the rulers were under the Political Department of the government of India, which reserved unto itself the right to use and control all titles and honors of the rulers, and the issue of all licenses for arms and ammunitions in these states. The Political Department had to approve appointments of diwans or ministers in the states. No ruler could accept any foreign title or deal with British firms directly. No European could be employed in the states without clearance from the GOI.
In actual fact, the princely states had a very good time during British ‘paramountcy’ as the British did not interfere unless the situation became critical. Each state was recognized as a separate unit, independent internally but could not form associations with other states. States came into being in different ways. Many of the territories had been annexed by the British and restored to the rightful ruler.
When India’s freedom struggle intensified in the early twentieth century, the princes became jittery as they were afraid of the unknown. Many of the viceroys held periodic conferences with the princes. The Montford Report had recommended that these conferences be formalized and made into a permanent body called the Council of Princes. After consulting the princes, a Chamber of Princes was set up in 1921 by Royal Proclamation with 120 princes: 12 members represented 127 states and others were there in their own right. This was a forum where exchange of views was possible and as the once-a-year meeting was presided over by the viceroy, consultation was also possible in matters of All India Policy.
In 1927, the Butler Committee which was set up to advice on securing better economic relations between Indian states and British India stated inter alia that the princes should relate directly to the Crown and not to the GOI. The Committee also stated that the relations between the Crown and the princes should not be transferred to the new government without the consent of the princes. In fact, it went to the extent of recommending for the princely states separate recruitment and training of political officers drawn from universities in England. The Committee’s recommendations were very unpopular.
At the Round Table Conference in 1930, the Indian princes were agreeable to an All India Federation. In the Government of India Act, 1935, Indian states could voluntarily join the Federation. Lord Linlithgow prepared an Instrument of Accession and this was sent with written instructions through his emissary to the princes. But the princes were apprehensive of not being able to escape after joining the Federation. They simply parried acceptance. And then the War broke out. They met Sir Stafford Cripps, leader of the House of Commons, when he came to India, stating that they would be willing to contribute to the framing of a Constitution for the motherland, consistent with their sovereignty and integrity. If they could not adhere, however, the non-adhering states should have the right to form a union of their own with full sovereign status according to an agreed procedure to be drawn up for the purpose. Our first prime minister Pandit Nehru was quite categoric that all treaties with Indian states must be scrapped, even though assurances kept coming from-the British side. For instance, Lord Wavell told the princes that their rights would not be interfered with. However, realizing the criticism against the recommendations of the Butler Report, he advised the rulers to modernize their administration for the welfare of their people. This could be done only by following the three fundamental criteria for good government; ensuring political stability, adequate financial resources, and associating the people with administration. Small states were asked to pool their resources and form political entities of a viable size.
When the Cabinet Mission came in 1946, it dropped a bombshell by telling the Standing Committee of the Chamber of Princes that if British India became independent, ‘paramountcy’ would end. The states thus would have to negotiate with the new government their future relationship. The princes set up a negotiating committee, authorizing its head, the chancellor, to negotiate with the Constituent Assembly. The princes were invited to join the Constituent Assembly straightaway. While the chancellor was tentative and hesitant, states like Bikaner and Patiala joined it without ado. In April 1947, Pandit Nehru made it very clear that any state which kept out of the Constituent Assembly, would be declared and treated as a hostile state. The chancellor – Nawab of Bhopal – resigned, and the Maharaja of Patiala took his place. Baroda, Bikaner, Patiala, Jaipur and Rewa took their seats in the Assembly. But C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, diwan of Travancore declared on 11 June 1947 that Travancore would remain independent. So did the Nizam of Hyderabad on 12 June 1947. The Congress rejected the claims of these states to be independent and invited them again to join the Constituent Assembly.
The Indian Independence Act of 1947 said nothing about the states. Immediately, on attaining independence, the states ministry was set up. A very reasonable ‘Instrument of Accession’ was drawn up which was likely to be accepted by many of them for they were required to hand over only the subjects of defense, foreign relations and communications, to the GOI. In other matters, their autonomy was to be respected.
Sardar Patel, the home minister and secretary V.P. Menon as well as Lord Mountbatten, (first Governor-General of India after 15 August 1947) worked hard to convince the princes of the need to integrate, through a scheme which would safeguard the interest of the princely states as much as it would of the Dominion of India.
Since the Instrument of Accession was simple and straight forward, in less than three weeks practically all concerned had signed before August 1947. Junagadh and Hyderabad had to be coerced through army and police action respectively.
Kashmir’s position was unique for while it delayed accession to India, forces from Pakistan attacked it suddenly and India had to rush to defend Kashmir. A special provision was made in the Constitution. Article 370, laid down that the Constitution would not for the time being, provide for the internal constitution of the state. However, it deals with the state of Jammu & Kashmir as a unit of the Indian Union and provides for the legislative authority of the parliament and the executive authority of the Union government in relation to the state.
Over the years, the privileged position and special status enjoyed by the princes have all been withdrawn. The bloodless revolution monitored in the early stages by Sardar Patel enabled the integration of 500 odd states into sizeable units to become a part of India.