Excerpt: Dethroned by John Zubrzycki - Hindustan Times
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Excerpt: Dethroned by John Zubrzycki

ByJohn Zubrzycki
Jul 25, 2023 07:31 PM IST

An extract from the prologue to a new book on Patel, Menon and the integration of princely India

India was beginning to burn. Communal violence was erupting across large swathes of the Punjab and Bengal... Yet the potentates who assembled in the Chamber of Princes (COP) in Delhi on 25 July 1947 seemed oblivious to the butchery. Nearly one hundred rajas, maharajas, maharaj ranas, khans, nawabs and dewans were meeting as a body for the last time in the Council House, the huge circular Herbert Baker-designed building that would house the future Parliament of independent India... In just three weeks, half a century of nationalist struggle would culminate in Britain’s departure. From his quarters in the Viceregal Estate, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was consulting census reports as he finalized the boundaries of the new dominions of India and Pakistan. In offices around the subcontinent, officials were furiously calculating the final division of everything from rolling stock to rice reserves, from typewriters to telephones. The only uncertainty that remained was how the 562 princely states – a motley collection once described as ‘the oddest political set-up that the world has ever seen’ – would fit into this new paradigm.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. “Today, Patel is often called the ‘Bismarck of India’ for repeating the German chancellor’s feat of cajoling a group of scattered and disparate princedoms into giving up their sovereignty and creating a cohesive nation state.” (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. “Today, Patel is often called the ‘Bismarck of India’ for repeating the German chancellor’s feat of cajoling a group of scattered and disparate princedoms into giving up their sovereignty and creating a cohesive nation state.” (HT Photo)

337pp, Rs799; Juggernaut
337pp, Rs799; Juggernaut

It was not just the heat on that day – a stifling 44.5 degrees Celsius – that was piling discomfort on an already prickly and politically charged summer. Just a week earlier, the Indian Independence Act had received royal assent. It provided for the handover of power to two new dominions on 15 August. All treaties with the British Crown would lapse, technically leaving the princes free to join either India or Pakistan, or if they chose, to declare themselves independent. Among the princes, the imminent departure of the Raj evoked a range of emotions. A handful had accepted the inevitability of Independence and the necessity of preparing for the new realities it would bring. Many palpably dreaded and resented what they saw as their future once Britain’s political and military protection was withdrawn. Despite the provisions of the Independence Act, they would, they feared, be absorbed into the new India against their will. Their autocratic powers and privileges would be washed away, their palaces and treasuries seized, their right to impose customs duties and earn royalties on their mineral wealth wrested from them, and their personal fortunes taxed. They could keep their Rolls-Royces and royal stables, but these would be empty symbols of lost prestige. Hallowed decorations and knighthoods bestowed by the King Emperor in return for their loyalty would be a thing of the past.

...

As the rulers and their representatives waited for the entrance of Lord Louis Mountbatten, conflicting rumours swept through the assemblage. Some heard that India’s last viceroy was about to declare the princes independent, others that he would make a dramatic announcement that would effectively sever the century-old sacred compact between the Crown and its feudatories. Entering the chamber, Mountbatten seemed to draw strength from the heat like a salamander. Dressed in his full viceregal ivory-white uniform, “his chest flashing with a breastplate of orders, decorations, and medals”, he looked every inch the cousin of the British monarch King George VI.

“The new dominion gained political cohesion, land and money. By the end of 1949, it had added 13 lakh square kilometres of territory and more than 9 crore subjects, easily offsetting what it had lost because of Partition. One estimate put the total value of public holdings transferred from the princes to the new Indian Union to be around ₹100 crore.” (Courtesy Dethroned by John Zubrzycki)
“The new dominion gained political cohesion, land and money. By the end of 1949, it had added 13 lakh square kilometres of territory and more than 9 crore subjects, easily offsetting what it had lost because of Partition. One estimate put the total value of public holdings transferred from the princes to the new Indian Union to be around ₹100 crore.” (Courtesy Dethroned by John Zubrzycki)

Walking on the red carpet alongside him was the imposing figure of Vallabhbhai Patel, the head of the recently formed States Department. His broad and heavy features and glassy, hooded eyes gave the impression of a man worn down by years of struggle. Yet the seventy-two-year-old politician, described by one nationalist leader as “a rough diamond in an iron casket”, was the most powerful figure inside the Congress party after the interim prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Patel kept the cogs of Congress turning by wooing industrialists to fill the party’s coffers, while acting as a brake against its more radical elements. Had he achieved his ambition of becoming India’s first prime minister, his centrist pro-market ideology would have seen the country take a radically different course from the socialist model espoused by Nehru. Today, Patel is often called the ‘Bismarck of India’ for repeating the German chancellor’s feat of cajoling a group of scattered and disparate princedoms into giving up their sovereignty and creating a cohesive nation-state. In reality, as his biographer DV Tahmankar notes: “the task in India was infinitely more difficult and complex” than Bismarck’s, with not dozens but hundreds of potentates “reluctant to give up ancestral estates, great privileges and ruling powers”. Writing a few months after Independence, a Western journalist described Patel as “a Hindu Cromwell courteously decapitating hundreds of little King Charleses”, in the process turning the princes into pensioners and giving their subjects political unity and a voice they had never known before...

VP Menon, States Ministry, Government of India. “It was the slightly rotund, balding and bespectacled Menon, the secretary of the States Department, who had come up with the deceptively simple plan of accession limited to three subjects – defence, foreign affairs and communications – which would be used, to great effect, to disarm the princes.” (HT Photo)
VP Menon, States Ministry, Government of India. “It was the slightly rotund, balding and bespectacled Menon, the secretary of the States Department, who had come up with the deceptively simple plan of accession limited to three subjects – defence, foreign affairs and communications – which would be used, to great effect, to disarm the princes.” (HT Photo)

The feat was not Patel’s alone. In fact, the real architect of the accession and integration of the states was a diminutive Malayali with a penchant for Savile Row suits, Cuban cigars and slate-blue Cadillacs. Over a remarkable three-decade-long career, Vappala Pangunni (VP) Menon had gone from being a coolie in the mines of the Kolar Gold Fields to holding the highest position in the government ever held by an Indian, serving as reforms commissioner and constitutional adviser to three viceroys, Lord Linlithgow, Lord Wavell and now Mountbatten. It was the slightly rotund, balding and bespectacled Menon, the secretary of the States Department, who had come up with the deceptively simple plan of accession limited to three subjects – defence, foreign affairs and communications – which would be used, to great effect, to disarm the princes. In the weeks and months to come, Patel’s powerful personality, which mixed fury with charm and persuasion with coercion, would complement Menon’s skills as a tactician. When Patel, in a rare moment of hesitation, expressed unease that the departure of the British would mean that treaties would be torn up and undertakings abandoned, Menon responded: “We start with a clean slate. It is now our turn to say how the princes will behave.” This frankness would appeal to Patel, who would increasingly rely on the man who became his deputy in the States Department to formulate and implement the policies that would ultimately redraw the map of India.

Missing from the historic conclave was the only British official who knew each of the rulers personally. Conrad Corfield, the viceroy’s adviser on the princely states until his position and powers were taken over by Patel and Menon, had submitted his resignation and boarded a plane for London just a few days earlier. Indian nationalists regarded Corfield as the man who wanted to Balkanize India by encouraging the states to exercise their legal right to choose between the two dominions or to become independent entities. After serving in the states for more than three decades, Corfield believed it was his job to protect the princes’ interests and their bargaining power. He was also convinced that Mountbatten was about to make a set of promises to the princes that he could not guarantee. One of Corfield’s final acts had been to destroy thousands of secret files maintained by the British on the often scandalous private lives of India’s potentates.

Also striking in their absence were the princes who had ignored Mountbatten’s invitation to attend the COP meeting. Chief among them were Indore’s ruler Yeshwant Rao Holkar and the nawab of Bhopal, Hamidullah Khan. The pair were viewed by Patel, Menon and others in the States Department as the co-conspirators of a scheme to plunge “a dagger into the very heart of India” by lobbying a slew of contiguous states to accede to Pakistan... Other notable absentees were the dewan ofTravancore, CP Ramaswami Aiyar, and the mightiest ruler of all, the dangerously eccentric Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad. Bhopal, Hyderabad and Travancore had declared their states would become independent once the British departed, with Aiyar adamant that his maharaja took orders from God and no one else. Inspired by the example of these three states, other headstrong potentates were re-evaluating their future too.

Louis Mountbatten at the All India Radio Broadcast office. “Using every weapon in his oratorical armoury, Mountbatten told the princes that he was about to present them with a ‘take it or leave it’ offer, which would not be repeated. They would be given instruments to sign, which provided for accession on just three subjects – defence, foreign affairs and communications. Their internal affairs would be left untouched.” (KL Luthra/HT Photo)
Louis Mountbatten at the All India Radio Broadcast office. “Using every weapon in his oratorical armoury, Mountbatten told the princes that he was about to present them with a ‘take it or leave it’ offer, which would not be repeated. They would be given instruments to sign, which provided for accession on just three subjects – defence, foreign affairs and communications. Their internal affairs would be left untouched.” (KL Luthra/HT Photo)

As Mountbatten took his place on the dais, the gloom seemed to lift, and a frisson of excitement mixed with anticipation filled the room where, for the past quarter century, India’s chiefs had tried in vain to overcome their divisions and petty feuds and face their challenges head-on. If there was anything resembling a consensus among them as they waited for Mountbatten to begin his speech, it was the view that as a blue-blooded royal with a passion for polo and pigsticking, Mountbatten would prove an ally when they needed one the most. He knew many of the princes personally, counting among his close friends the maharajas of Bikaner and Jaipur and the Nawab of Bhopal. Only the canniest of those present noticed a slight but significant departure from tradition. Normally, only the viceroy occupied the dais. This time a special seat was prepared for Patel – a placement the Maharawal of Dungarpur interpreted as a not-so-subtle signal that the tide was turning against the princes. After ruling over nearly half of India’s land mass and holding the power of life and death over a third of its population, their day of reckoning had come.

...Using every weapon in his oratorical armoury, Mountbatten told the princes that he was about to present them with a ‘take it or leave it’ offer, which would not be repeated. They would be given instruments to sign, which provided for accession on just three subjects – defence, foreign affairs and communications. Their internal affairs would be left untouched. There would be no financial liability on the part of the states, nor would the central government have any power to encroach on their internal autonomy or sovereignty. It was a bargain so advantageous, Mountbatten assured them, that he wasn’t even sure the Indian government would accept it. “My scheme leaves you with all the practical independence you can possibly use and makes you free of all those subjects which you cannot possibly manage on your own.”... Playing to their love of titles, Mountbatten told the assembled monarchs that if they signed on the dotted line, there was every likelihood that Patel and the Congress would not interfere with their receiving honours and titles from the king. He also issued a blunt reminder – one that would come back to haunt the Indian government as it grappled with the Kashmir crisis:

The States are theoretically free to link their future with whichever Dominion they may care [to]. But when I say that they are at liberty to link up with either of the Dominions, may I point out that there are certain geographical compulsions which cannot be evaded. Out of something like 565 States, the vast majority are irretrievably linked . . . with the Dominion of India.

“His control of the meeting never faltered,” writes Mountbatten’s biographer Philip Ziegler. “He sensed precisely when to curdle the blood with fearful prophesies, when to relieve them with a joke.” Answering questions from the floor, Mountbatten at one point resorted to pantomime, ‘reading’ an absent prince’s mind with the aid of a paperweight that he pretended was a crystal ball. Should this absent prince sign the Instrument of Accession? he asked the paperweight. The answer was, of course, yes. While the gag elicited some laughter from those assembled, by the end of the gathering, “the expression on the face of even the richest of them was the sad, lost look of men in defeat”. Buried beneath the gravitas was the fact that Mountbatten was making promises on behalf of entities that had yet to come into existence, namely, the dominions of India and Pakistan. Sessions of the COP normally lasted two days. This final one lasted less than two hours. The princes were told that the viceroy was preoccupied with other matters and had to leave.

Having observed the reaction to the speech, Mountbatten’s press secretary Alan Campbell-Johnson saw how the princes, ‘leaderless, riven with dynastic and political dissensions, tried desperately to hide behind opportunism and indecision, but events were moving much too fast and on too large a scale to allow of any such halting tactics’. Mountbatten’s immediate assessment of the gathering was blunter. “Very few of the Princes or their representatives seemed to have any idea of what was going on around them. Unless they accepted the Instrument they would be finished”, swept away by the forces of nationalism that were opposed to autocratic rule. That afternoon, Campbell-Johnson and Menon prepared a sanitized official transcript of the speech Mountbatten had delivered. “He threatened sanctions – such as withholding arms, ammunitions and other supplies – against States not agreeing to accede,” his joint private secretary, WHJ Christie noted in his diary. He also let Travancore’s absent dewan “have it” for daring to make overtures to Britain and the United Nations and pledged to do “everything in his power” to make life difficult for the state if it continued to resist joining India. Mountbatten was determined to go down in history as the man who brought the princes to heel. He would show no pity to those who dared oppose him.

Nizam Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad. “Also striking in their absence were the princes who had ignored Mountbatten’s invitation to attend the COP meeting. Chief among them were Indore’s ruler Yeshwant Rao Holkar and the nawab of Bhopal, Hamidullah Khan... Other notable absentees were the dewan of Travancore, CP Ramaswami Aiyar, and the mightiest ruler of all, the dangerously eccentric Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad. Bhopal, Hyderabad and Travancore had declared their states would become independent once the British departed.” (HT Photo)
Nizam Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad. “Also striking in their absence were the princes who had ignored Mountbatten’s invitation to attend the COP meeting. Chief among them were Indore’s ruler Yeshwant Rao Holkar and the nawab of Bhopal, Hamidullah Khan... Other notable absentees were the dewan of Travancore, CP Ramaswami Aiyar, and the mightiest ruler of all, the dangerously eccentric Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad. Bhopal, Hyderabad and Travancore had declared their states would become independent once the British departed.” (HT Photo)

While the viceroy projected unshakeable confidence, Patel and Menon were watchful. A slew of states from Travancore on the Malabar coast to tiny Bilaspur in the Himalayan foothills were daring to dream of independence. Filled with dread at the prospect of acceding to either India or Pakistan, Kashmir’s Maharaja Hari Singh was clinging to the belief that his state could become the “Switzerland of the East”. The leader of the Muslim League Muhammad Ali Jinnah was busy wooing future border states such as Jodhpur as well as Sikh princes, thrusting blank sheets of paper in front of them and promising to agree to any terms for accession they demanded. In Alwar and Bharatpur, Muslims were attempting to join forces with their co-religionists in the Punjab to form an independent Meostan, while the Jats hankered for a separate Jatistan. Dholpur’s ruler believed he had a divine right to do what he wanted. Kathiawar had to be brought to heel when word leaked out that several of this peninsula’s princely states might form a union and ally with Pakistan. In Rampur, the nawab briefly flirted with acceding only to be forced to appeal for outside intervention to prevent his state from descending into communal bloodshed when he rejected Jinnah’s overtures. Even Gwalior, a state so pro British that its ruler George Jiwajirao Scindia was named after the king of England, deviated from the path laid out by the viceroy by begging at the last moment to be allowed to determine its own future.

The urgency with which the princes were being dealt with stemmed from the very real fear that while an India deprived of its eastern and western wings because of Partition would survive, an India deprived of its states would lose “all coherence”. In an influential essay published in 1944, the constitutional expert Reginald Coupland wrote:

[The states] form a great cruciform barrier separating all four quarters of the country. If no more than the Central Indian States and Hyderabad and Mysore were excluded from the Union, the United Provinces would be almost completely cut off from Bombay, and Bombay completely from Sind. The strategic and economic implications are obvious enough. The practicability of Pakistan must be admitted, but the more the separation of the States from British India is considered, the more impracticable it seems. India could live if its Moslem limbs in the North-West and North-East were amputated, but could it live without its heart?

Mountbatten would later congratulate himself for giving Patel and Menon what they wanted: the accession of all but a handful of the hundreds of disparate states in the space of just a few weeks. The new dominion gained political cohesion, land and money. By the end of 1949, it had added 13 lakh square kilometres of territory and more than 9 crore subjects, easily offsetting what it had lost because of Partition. One estimate put the total value of public holdings transferred from the princes to the new Indian Union to be around 100 crore. But there were costs. The process was nowhere near as painless or as bloodless as its architects would assert – the most obvious exception to this claim being the thousands of lives lost during the misnamed “Police Action” in Hyderabad. The nizam’s doomed attempt to exercise his legal right to independence resulted in at least 25,000 lives lost and the displacement of many thousands more. And accession was not “in itself a final solution”, as Menon put it – an unfortunate choice of phrase, given its Nazi echoes – to the problem of the states. That would require Patel and him to roll back their promises not to interfere in the princes’ internal affairs. The map of India would have to be redrawn, ancient boundaries erased and once-proud lineages reduced to scraps of paper.

Author John Zubrzycki (Courtesy Juggernaut)
Author John Zubrzycki (Courtesy Juggernaut)

The motivations of the main players in this endgame of empire differed greatly. For Congress leaders, the princely states were bastions of despotism, debauchery and decay... Corfield and others who had served in them, including many Indian dewans, ministers and administrators, took a more nuanced view. Yes, there were tyrants who should have been deposed had it not been for their usefulness to the British, but there were also many states such as Mysore, Baroda and Aundh where indigenous rule was benevolent, devoid of communal friction, based on a stable social structure and carried out in an atmosphere of security and loyalty. Given time, it would be possible for the princes to put their houses in order. While Nehru was making no secret of his abhorrence of feudal autocracy, the father of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, saw the states as representing the true India, “portals to a pure, ancient past”, and even as “the foundation on which the future nation” could be launched. As for the princes, all but the most myopic had some inkling that the tide of history was turning against them, that the prospect of dozens of ‘mini Ulsters’ made up of larger states exercising their right to independence and of small states creating their own federations would never be tolerated by the leaders of a newly independent dominion of India or Pakistan.

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