Under the British, there were always two Indias: the India administered by the central government in Delhi and a separate India of the princes. Even as late as the end of the Second World War, the hereditary rulers of India – maharajas, nawabs and rajas – still held sway over a third of the land and a quarter of the population.
The situation dated from Britains’s haphazard conquest of India, when rulers who received the British with open arms or proved worthy foes, were allowed to remain on their thrones, provided they acknowledged Britain as the paramount power. The princes ceded to the Viceroy in New Delhi the collection of taxes and the control of foreign affairs and defence – the princely states were defended by the Indian Army. In return they received Britain’s guarantee of autonomy within their states and the continuance of princely law, except when it conflicted with British rules.
The idea was to leave the rulers as independent as possible. In case of trouble, Britain was to offer advice and if the problem remained, to intervene. In the event of gross totalitarianism or outright rebellion, the Raj would remove the prince and instal a more responsible member of the family. In practice, the system tended to safeguard the princes from any incursion of democracy. The Indian army not only repelled foreign invaders, but neutered any domestic challenge and suppressed discontent.
Indian princes could be among the richest men in the world, with states and populations as large as many nations in Western Europe. Hyderabad, for instance, had an income and expenditure equal to that of Belgium. At the other end of the scale, there were princes so poor they lived in stables and their entire kingdom was no bigger than a cow pasture.
Their governing credentials were similarly mixed. A few princes were despots and a few were better administrators than the British. Some behaved grossly and others were progressive in introducing land and legal reforms and compulsory education. Under the most enlightened rulers, subjects enjoyed benefits unknown to those administered directly by the British. The ruler of Bikaner, for instance, turned parts of his Rajasthan desert kingdom into a paradise of artificial lakes and gardens for his subjects’ use.
All of the princes, though, tended to be the Crown’s staunchest allies. In peacetime, they offered the British immense hospitality – banquets, tiger hunts, polo games and moonlit elephant rides – and in times of war, at their own expense they equipped forces to fight Britain’s enemies.
Some princes proved exceptionally brave men. The Maharaja of Jaipur was a major in the Lifeguards and led the First Jaipur Infantry up the slopes of Italy’s Monte Cassino in 1943. The Maharaja of Bundi won the Military Cross in action with his batallion in Burma.
When princes behaved badly, Britain tended to ignore it, even a discreet murder or two, as long as their loyalty remained. The result was grateful princely enclaves that could be reactionary in attitude and wholly against the radical winds blowing through the parts of India directly governed by the British. With the advent of independence, the most lurid details of past scandals going back five generations of princely behaviour and recorded by representatives of the Raj, were destroyed – four tons of documents burnt in a series of bonfires – so they could not become sources of blackmail in the hands of the new Indian and Pakistan administrations.
Independence brought huge change for the princely states. Since Indian princes had surrendered their powers to the British Crown, it was argued that those powers should revert to them when India became independent. Anything less would be a violation of the treaties that linked Britain to the states. But Britain couldn’t be seen to support the princes against their subjects; it would have undermined the transfer of power to democratic institutions. And they couldn’t enrol the princes and their states in the British Empire, even if the rulers had wanted it, because the princely states had never formally been a part of British territory. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and the first Governer-General of India, set out to persuade over five hundred states to sign the Act of Accession, whereby they renounced their temporal power and acceded to the Indian Union, abandoning their claim to independence.
For those unreconciled to the loss of privilege and the world of pomp and splendour to which they’d been born, the 15 August, 1947, Independence Day, was a day of mourning. Diehards complained they had been abandoned by their oldest ally. Some like Udaipur tried to form a federation with fellow princes of adjoining states. Four of the most important states – Hyderabad, Kashmir, Bhopal and Travancore – wanted to become independent nations. But their request for independent status was seen by the British administration as ‘fanciful’. In the end, most princes signed the Act and despite the opposition, those that didn’t were forcibly integrated into an independent India a few years later. After months of failed negotiation, India invaded Hyderabad in 1948, replacing the Nizam’s autocratic rule with parliamentary democracy. Later the Nizam’s title was abolished, along with those of all other princes, and their estates were subjected to crippling wealth taxes that forced them to sell most of their property. The last Nizam exiled himself to a sheep farm in Australia, but many other princes managed to find a place for themselves in the new India, a modern India that needed able administrators and experienced officers.