Princely India in the Freedom Struggle
By the middle of the 19th century, the British government had established treaty relations with most of the Princely States in India. Under British paramountcy, the internal administration of the States was left to the Princes. British residencies were established as channels for communication with the British government. In theory, the rulers had absolute power but in practice, they were subject to the dictates of the British Resident and dependent on the British government for internal and external protection. Succession policies in the States were also laid down by the Resident.
Most of the States were autocratically ruled. The economic burden on the people was heavy with high taxation, education and social services were backward and civil rights were restricted. State revenues were expended on the luxurious life-styles of the rulers and since the British provided immunity from domestic and external aggression, they felt free to ignore the interests of their people. The British government expected the States to support them in their imperialist policies, thereby acting against the development of nationalist sentiments.
Thus, most of the Princes were hostile and suspicious towards the nationalist forces. The exceptions to this were States like Baroda and Mysore which sympathized with the nationalists and promoted internal political reform.
The onset of the nationalist movement in British India also had an impact on the people of the Princely States. Many revolutionary nationalists fleeing British authority came to the Princely States in the first and second decades of the 20th century and initiated political activities there.
The launching of the non-cooperation and Khilafat movements stirred the entire Indian population cutting across the borders of British India. A large number of people’s organizations in the Princely States were established in Mysore, Hyderabad, Baroda, Kathiawad, Jamnagar, Indore, Nawanagar, etc. Praja Mandals or States’ People’s Conferences were established. In December 1927, an All India States’ People’s Conference was held and attended by about 700 delegates from different States. Balwantrai Mehta, Maniklal Kothari and G.R. Abhayankar assumed the leadership of the movement.
The Congress, for the first time at its Nagpur Session in 1920, enunciated its policy towards the peoples’ movement in the Princely States. It called upon the Princes to grant full responsible government in their States. However, it was pointed out that though the people belonging to the States could enroll themselves as members of the Congress, they could not initiate political activity in the State in the name of the Congress. They could carry on political activity in their individual capacity as members of the local Praja Mandals.
This position continued till 1935 though the cooperation between the leaders of the States’ People’s Conferences and the Congress leaders gradually increased. Finally, it was decided that Congress Committees could be formed in the Indian States but they were not to engage in any unparliamentary activity or direct action. This compromise formula helped to bring about harmony between the Congress and the freedom movement in the States.
From the mid-20s, the Congress started taking keen interest in the states’ people’s movements. In 1929, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his presidential address observed, “The Indian States cannot live apart from the rest of India…. The only people who have a right to determine the future of the States must be the people of those States.”
Two developments in the mid-30s brought a radical change in the relations between the Princely States and British India. The Government of India Act of 1935 projected a scheme of federation in which the States were brought into a direct constitutional relationship with British India. The States were to send representatives to the upper house of the Central Legislature called the Council of States. However, all these representatives were to be nominated by the rulers of the States rather than elected by their peoples. It would deprive the people of their rights and also create a band of hand-picked persons to stand by the British Government in the Federal legislature at any crucial time.
The decision to leave the choice to the rulers to join or not to join the federation was another feature of the Act which undermined the people’s legislative representation. The second major impact on the States was created by the acceptance of office by the Congress in majority of the British Indian provinces in 1937. The installation of the Congress ministries in the neighbouring British Indian provinces encouraged the Praja Mandal leaders to step up their political activities for demanding responsible government in the Princely States.
In Rajkot, the Satyagraha movement drew personalities like Gandhiji and Sardar Patel. Though Gandhiji ultimately withdrew the Satyagraha accepting his failure to change the heart of the ruler, its impact was far reaching. In Hyderabad also, a very powerful people’s movement built up. In Kashmir, under Sheikh Abdullah the people organized themselves.
The Congress also started showing more interest in various political activities in the States, though adhering to its old stand that the movement in the Princely States should not be conducted in the name of the Congress but in the name of the local organizations.
In a resolution passed at the Lucknow session of Congress in 1936, it was observed that, “Congress… desires to make it clear that, in its opinion, the people of the States should have the same rights of self-determination as those of the rest of India, and that the Congress stands for the same political, civil and democratic liberties for every part of India.
The Congress, however, desires to point out that the struggle for liberty within the States has, in the very nature of things, to be carried on by the people of the State themselves.” After this, the Haripura session of Congress in 1938 dealt with the problems of the States in detail. It considered the states to be integral parts of India and desired the same political, social and economic freedom in the States as in the rest of India. The demand for ‘Purna Swaraj’ put forward by the Congress was for the whole of India inclusive of the States.
Jawaharlal Nehru was elected president of the All India States’ People’s Conference in 1939 at its session held in Ludhiana. He exhorted the Praja Mandals to step up the agitations in the States to uphold the rights and dignities of the people. Important leaders like Ramanand Tirtha and Ravi Narayan Reddy of Hyderabad, U.N. Debar and Balwantrai Mehta in Saurashtra and Kathiawad region and Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir spearheaded the movement in these States.
During the Quit India movement, Congress formally extended the call for launching a struggle to the people of the States as well. The constitutional changes, likely to take place in the near future also underlined the necessity of having an organic relationship between the Princely States and the Government of India. In the post-World War II period, when the withdrawal of the British from India became increasingly clear, the future of the Princely States occupied the attention of national leaders both in the Congress and in the Muslim League.
The Cabinet Mission of 1946 had proposed a federal scheme for free India. In the memorandum of 12 May 1946, while explaining the consequences of the withdrawal of British power and the emergence of independent India, it had observed, “Thus, as a logical consequence and in view of the desires expressed to them on behalf of the Indian States, His Majesty’s Government will cease to exercise the powers of paramountcy. This means that the rights of the States which flow from the relationship to the Crown will no longer exist and that all the rights surrendered by the States to the paramount power will return to the States.”
Though the Congress never agreed to this interpretation of paramountcy, some of the Princely States decided to declare independence. They hoped that the British Government would come to their aid and they found support in Jinnah.
He emphasized that the Indian States were sovereign states, except in so far as they had entered into treaties with the Crown. British India could do nothing to them. To say that the Governor General or the British Parliament could lay down that every Indian State was bound to enter one Constituent Assembly or the other was not constitutional. If the States liked to come in, they could do so by agreement, but there was no way of forcing them in.
Nehru reacted to this strongly and pointed out that by no test of sovereignty could an Indian State be defined as sovereign. Congress pressure forced the British government to act and the Political Department was taken away from British control and was placed under two new State Departments of the two future Dominions. Sardar Patel headed the States Department of India. Both Nehru and Patel acted firmly on this issue. They were fortified by the support of the States’ people. So, when the Nizam of Hyderabad and Travancore-Cochin expressed their desire to declare independence, Sardar Patel acted swiftly.
The Mountbatten Plan of June 1947 envisaged a division of India into two dominions with the Princely States choosing their course of action. The definition, scope and relevance of paramountcy came into question. Since paramountcy was going to lapse, technically, the States would have the choice to join either dominion or even be independent.
However, Mountbatten and the British government ruled out the possibility of independence for the States by giving their support to the integration of States in the Dominions. In the few instances where rulers expressed a tendency towards independence, for instance in Hyderabad, Travancore and Junagadh, popular movements for responsible governance came into play against independence.
The AICC, in its resolution of 15 June 1947, made the position of the States quite clear by stating, “The arrangements made under paramountcy in the past dealt, inter alia, with the security of India as a whole. In the interests of that security, various arrangements were agreed to limit the power of the States’ authorities and at the same time grant them protection. The question of the security of India, as well as other matters, are as important today as at any time previously and cannot be ignored in deciding the future of the States.
The AICC cannot admit the right of any State of India to declare its independence and to live in isolation from the rest of India. That would be a denial of the course of Indian history and of the objectives of Indian people today. The AICC trusts that the rulers of the States will appreciate fully the situation, as it exists today, and will, in full cooperation with their people, enter as democratic units in the Indian Union, thereby serving the cause of their own people as well as India as a whole.”
During the next few weeks, the ground was prepared to bring in all the 565 States into the Indian Union. Through the people’s organizations in various States the Congress secured public support from the States in favour of the Indian Union. Most of the rulers saw the writing on the wall and gave up the hope of separate States. Most of the States took their decisions before 15 August 1947, except Jammu & Kashmir and Hyderabad. Hyderabad came into the Indian Union after police action and the Maharaja of Kashmir eventually joined the Indian Union in the wake of invasion from Pakistan.
In the transitory provisions of the Constitution which came to exist from the 26 January 1950, some of the bigger States like Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore-Cochin, were given the status of “B” Category States. A number of small States were clubbed together to form States’ unions like Saurashtra and Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU). After the reorganization of the States on linguistic basis in the mid-50s, the integration of Princely States with India was complete. The Congress under the leadership of Nehru and Patel had successfully integrated the Princely States with the rest of India and thereby contributed enormously to the unity of the Indian nation.