Has India failed the Maharajahs in some way?

Has India failed the Maharajahs in some way?

They arrived in the capital city of Delhi to the sound of thundering gun salutes, lived in enchanted palaces, acquired vast riches in jewels and precious stones, maintained fleets of Rolls-Royces, and rode in luxuriously outfitted train cars. Over their people, they had the power of life and death, and hundreds of servants saw to their every whim.

Nearly half of India’s territory was under the control of India’s 562 princes on the eve of independence in 1947. Because of their status as Britain’s most devoted supporters, very few of them were ever punished for wrongdoing or even removed from office. Three-quarters of a century after the collapse of the empire, everyone except the wealthiest and the most politically engaged lived regular and humdrum lives.

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While researching my new book, I looked carefully at the chaotic events leading up to and after independence, and it became evident that the princes were let down by the authority they trusted the most while being gravely weakened by division and delusion.

The monarchs’ only hope for survival in the face of an independent and democratic India was to adopt more democratic practices themselves. The British government, however, exerted little, if any, pressure for these kinds of changes, giving the princes a false feeling of safety.

The Maharajas have returned, as shown here in a 1993 photograph of Madhavrao Scindia on the throne in Jaipur, India.

The princes believed their rescue had come in the form of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy. Surely a gentleman of his station wouldn’t abandon them to the nationalists. Unfortunately, Mountbatten’s scant knowledge of the subcontinent meant he put off figuring out how to deal with the region’s princely kingdoms until it was too late. In addition to sending mixed signals, he went behind the backs of London’s India Office officials to bring the princes to heel, despite publicly saying that Britain would never “tear up” its treaties with the states or force them to join India or Pakistan.

There was never much support for the princes among the patriots. Prime Minister-to-be Jawaharlal Nehru despised the “sinks of conservatism and ineptitude and uncontrolled dictatorial authority, often wielded by wicked and degraded persons” that existed in India before independence.

Vallabhbhai Patel, leader of the Congress party and the man who, as states minister, would ultimately deal with the princes, was less visceral in his reactions but adamant that the princely states had to be a part of India if it was to be a territorially and politically viable nation. Any departure from this objective would be like “putting a knife into the very heart of India.”

Once the treaties binding them to the British Crown expired at the transfer of power, the princes theoretically would have the option of either acceding to India or Pakistan or declaring independence.

On February 8, 2020, in Ahmedabad, the Gujarat Historic and Classic Car Club (GVCCC) hosted an exhibition of historic vehicles and motorcycles. Pictured here is Maharaja Bhagirath Singh of Idar, posing next to his 1948 Buick Eight Supercar from the United States.

But they soon saw that the space they had available was dwindling in the face of the combined juggernaut of Mountbatten, Patel, and his deputy, the bureaucratic and master-tactician VP Menon. If they accepted India, they would be able to govern all areas except military, foreign policy, and communications. Nothing will change inside you. If you refuse, your citizens may topple you with no help from the outside world.

Most signed accession treaties out of a feeling of hopelessness and despair. In the end, gunmen conquered the remaining holdouts, most notably Junagadh, Kashmir, and Hyderabad, with 25,000 lives lost in a so-called “police operation” in Hyderabad.

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The princes signed contracts that quickly turned out to be a lie. In order to survive, smaller states either merged with larger provinces like Orissa or formed unions of states like Rajasthan. Even bigger, better-governed kingdoms like Gwalior, Mysore, Jodhpur, and Jaipur, which Patel and Menon had pledged would remain independent units, were absorbed by larger entities until the geography of India looked much as it does now.

Integration was undeniably fruitful, but only for the fortunate few who benefited from it. While India lost land and people to Pakistan’s establishment, it gained almost a billion rupees (equivalent to 84 billion rupees or £80 billion now) in cash and investments. While the lavish Maharaja of Mysore received £20,000 per year in tax-free privy purses, the modest Talukdar of Katodia, who worked as a clerk and cycled everywhere on a bicycle to conserve money, received just around £40.

Photographer VP Menon (right) meets Jamnagar’s prince, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja.

There wouldn’t be more than twenty years of this arrangement. Several members of India’s royal dynasties have joined politics, with Nehru’s daughter Indira being at the helm of the Congress party. Indira, like her father, had nothing but contempt for the princes, and the fact that they were so adept in deposing Congress candidates was slowly chipping away at her legislative majority. She thought it would be a good step for her populist program, so she sought to find a cooperative president to derecognize the princes, but the Supreme Court said that she couldn’t do it.

A close relationship between the Indian boy king and the British monarch

Gandhi was undeterred and, following the 1971 elections had a two-thirds legislative majority, so he filed a bill into the Lok Sabha to modify the constitution and remove the titles, rights, and secret purses of the princes. She felt that it was now time to put an end to “a system that has no relevance in our society.”

Few Indians wept over the decline of the royal order, and the wails of treachery that once echoed through the durbar rooms now seem hollow. India is a republic, not a monarchy, like the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, the methods to achieve the objective were often skewed. There was a blatant bias in the dealing of the cards against the princes.

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