A little-known facet of India’s independence - Hindustan Times
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A little-known facet of India’s independence

Aug 19, 2023 10:25 PM IST

The integration of the princely states remains a pivotal but insufficiently understood aspect of India’s birth.

When CP Ramaswami Aiyar, the dewan of Travancore, stunned the Congress by declaring on June 11, 1947, that it would become an independent state, he received backing from an unexpected quarter. The father of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, praised Aiyar for his “courageous and far-sighted determination” to seek independence. “The Nizam, Muslim ruler of Hyderabad, has already proclaimed his independence and other Muslim states are likely to do so. Hindu states are bold enough to assert they have the same rights,” he wrote.

Founded in 1921, the Chamber of Princes brought the rulers of the leading states together for the first time (juggernaut books) PREMIUM
Founded in 1921, the Chamber of Princes brought the rulers of the leading states together for the first time (juggernaut books)

That Savarkar’s views were not shared among other freedom fighters highlights the contestations that characterised the very real problem of what to do about the 562 princely states in the lead-up to Independence. As my book Dethroned: Patel, Nehru and the Integration of Princely India shows, there were acute divisions within the nationalist movement on whether to support the democratic aspirations of the states’ peoples and how to deal with recalcitrants such as Travancore, Hyderabad, Bhopal and, later on, Junagadh and Kashmir.

Gandhi blasted Travancore’s bid as “tantamount to a declaration of war on the free millions of India”. Jawaharlal Nehru warned that the state “would be starved out”. Their threats were based on the fear that if more states exercised their right to independence, India would be balkanised, undermining the unity of the new Union and decades of nationalist struggle. Closely watching the developments was Muhammad Ali Jinnah who wired Aiyar on June 20, promising that a future Pakistan would be “ready to establish a relationship with Travancore which will be of mutual advantage”.

Aiyar would eventually back down, but not before VP Menon, the secretary of the states department, reminded him that Travancore was the main breeding ground for communism in India and if there was a communist uprising after August 15, there would be no aid from Delhi. Vallabhbhai Patel, the powerful states minister, reminded him that wealthy industrialist Seth Dalmia had given the local Congress party 5 lakh to stir up trouble. If Aiyar did not give up his idea of independence, his “life could be in danger”.

While there was unanimity among India’s nationalists that there was no place in a free India for islands of autocracy, there were differences in how this could be avoided. The views ranged from Nehru’s utter contempt for the princes who he derided as “sinks of reaction and incompetence”, to Savarkar’s view that the princely states were “portals to a pure, ancient past”, and even “the foundation on which the future nation” could be launched. Typically for Mahatma Gandhi, his opinions changed to suit the times. “My ideal of Indian states is Ram Rajya,” he declared in 1925 — a condition he believed the princes could achieve and should make their goal. He was an admirer of Mysore’s ruler Krishnaraja Wadiyar, a pious and progressive Hindu whom he referred to as a rajarshi, or saintly king.

Patel took a middle road. Although he once described the rulers as “worthless … sycophants”, who their slave-like subjects had “a right to dethrone”, he was careful to cultivate close links with the rulers of influential states such as Patiala and Gwalior while appealing to the princes’ proud, glorious past, when their ancestors “had played highly patriotic roles in the defence of their family honour and the freedom of their land.”

The official policy of the Indian National Congress towards the states, adopted at Nagpur in 1920, was one of non-intervention. It said the Congress could form committees in the states but not indulge in political activities. This stand was a rational one. The princely states enjoyed considerable autonomy. Involving itself in the affairs of the states would leave the Congress fighting battles on two fronts — with the British and with the princes — for which it was ill prepared.

When the prominent Left-wing Congressman NV Gadgil used the Jabalpur session of the All India Congress Committee in 1935 to move a resolution demanding that the people of the states should get full backing in the freedom struggle, he was opposed by Patel. For there to be constitutional progress, the cooperation of the people of the states would be required, Patel argued. Alienating them would, therefore, run counter to Congress interests.

The involvement of Hindu nationalist organisations in the states drew rulers such as Bhopal’s Hamidullah Khan closer to the Muslim League. For him, it was a matter of survival. A Muslim ruling over a Hindu-majority state, he had grown increasingly aware of the communal orientation of the other princes who were receiving funds from groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha for running schools and for office space and propaganda work. In 1946, Hamidullah became the chancellor of the Chamber of Princes and used his influence to try and draw the rulers of states such as Jodhpur and Indore into Pakistan’s orbit. In June 1947, he joined Travancore and Hyderabad in declaring his state would become independent on the transfer of power.

The end of the Raj would widen the rift between Nehru and Patel as they clashed over how to respond to threats to India’s territorial integrity thrown up by Junagadh’s accession to Pakistan, the tribal invasion of Kashmir and Hyderabad’s declaration of independence. Nehru’s reluctance to use force would infuriate Patel, who in turn, would be branded communalist for his insistence on sending in the Army to dethrone Hyderabad’s nizam.

Despite his antipathy towards the princes, Patel was determined to honour his promises to them by enshrining their privy purses, privileges and dignities in the Constitution, declaring that this was a small price to pay for the sacrifices they had made. A socialist to the core, Nehru baulked at the expenditure of public money on privy purses in perpetuity while millions of Indians were starving. Patel eventually got his way.

The outline of today’s map of India owes much to Patel and Menon’s success at arm twisting the states into acceding and then integrating them into viable units. But the cries of betrayal would echo through the empty darbar halls for decades to come, particularly after Indira Gandhi derecognised the princes in 1971.

To get the princes to accede they were promised complete autonomy aside from surrendering their rights over defence, foreign affairs and communications. This promise was broken in the months after Independence when their control over their internal affairs was taken away from them and even so-called viable states were merged into new units or neighbouring provinces. Those that resisted were sometimes threatened with armed intervention — the most extreme example being Hyderabad where at least 25,000 lives were lost.

For decades, the last word on the princes was Menon’s The Story of the Integration of the Indian States and its contentions, as summarised by Patel’s claim that he had engineered a bloodless revolution. The time for reappraisal is long overdue.

John Zubrzycki’s latest book Dethroned: Patel, Menon and the Integration of Princely India is published by Juggernaut. The views expressed are personal

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