The transfer of princely power

Princestan: How Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten made India
Author: Sandeep Bamzai
Publisher: Rupa
Price: Rs 600 
Pages:  247

Had Indira Gandhi not abolished privy purses in 1971 how would we have viewed the old rajas and maharajas? Sympathetically, as we do now? Or with revulsion, as we did before then?

Privy purse was the name given to the constitutionally guaranteed, fixed, tax-free income paid by other taxpayers to the 565 rajas and maharajas who had ruled areas not ruled by the British. It was a nonsensical and had to go.

The rulers of these princely “states”, with some exceptions, were awful fellows given to wine, women, and song. They were no better than the exploitative Russian landlords who Lenin and Stalin wiped out when they took Russia over in 1917.

But the Indian landlords or “princes” were luckier. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel guaranteed them large incomes in perpetuity, which was the carrot. The stick, of course, was always there — the raw power of the new Government of India.

These princes — not kings, mind, which is how raja or maharaja translates into English — wanted a separate entity that would be neither with India nor Pakistan. They would be a dominion where the British were the “paramount” power, offering protection. British India could go where it liked, but these fellows would remain where they were, vassals of the British.

The leader of this movement was the Nawab of Bhopal, who was encouraged by the British to pursue this course. Bhopal, sadly, was a nothing “state”. It, however, had pretensions that both the British and Jinnah exploited.

They never really had any chance of success. The Congress would have — as it indeed did in Hyderabad and Junagadh — made short work of them after the British left.

After all, it had inherited the army and the police. These fellows had nothing to match except nuisance value.

Two, please; not three: Sandeep Bamzai says he has written this book because of some top secret papers bequeathed to him by his grandfather and father. He has written a very readable book for interested laypeople in which he says it was Nehru, Patel, and Mountbatten who put paid to the foolish and unworkable idea of a third dominion comprising the princely states.

By March 1947 it was all over. The majority of these princes had seen how hopeless their enterprise was and signed up to be part of the new independent India or Pakistan, depending on the geography.

But dominion status for these princely states hadn’t seemed all that far-fetched when the idea was in play during 1944-47. The princes were up to all sorts of tricks, aided and abetted by an Indian Civil Service man called Sir Conrad Corfield, who was advisor to the Viceroy, Sir Archibald Wavell.

Corfield wasn’t necessarily a diabolical man, just a pedant who was needlessly concerned about the princely states, with which the British had signed treaties in the 19th century. He thought these princes would be ill-treated by the Congress. He became the link between the British and the princes.

Then, says Mr Bamzai, Mountbatten came and stopped him. He feared a civil war if the Corfield Plan was accepted. So in August 1947 two, not three, dominions were created.

Mr Bamzai also says Lady Edwina Mountbatten played a major role in scuttling the plan. Her influence on Nehru and his on her has been noted by many historians, journalists, and politicians of the time.

Don’t be silly: As mentioned above, the Nawab of Bhopal was very active. He was, to those who don’t know, the maternal grandfather of Mansoor Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, who was India’s cricket captain. Pataudi was the husband of Sharmila Tagore, father of Saif Ali Khan, and father-in-law of Kareena Kapoor.

These princes also drew strength from the sentence in the Indian Independence Act of the British Parliament that allowed them to not be part of the new India. Mountbatten, when asked by Hamidullah Khan, the Nawab of Bhopal, about it, told him it was “hypothetical”.

But the problem of getting the recalcitrant princes remained. Mr Bamzai says Patel “outsourced” integration to Mountbatten, who used V P Menon to get the job done. And when he couldn’t be persuasive enough, Patel sent in the army.

The most fascinating bits of the book are about the intrigues and plots of some of the rajas and nawabs. They are well known but Mr Bamzai has done well to put them all together for a good, quick read about an interesting period in modern Indian history.

I have just three minor quibbles. Mr Bamzai could have relied more on the diary of Alan Campbell-Johnson, Mountbatten’s aide-de-camp; the index could have been bigger; and the book could have been about Rs 300 cheaper so that more people would buy it.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel