Daily Archives: 11 December 2008

British India’s Problem of 565 Princely States

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 221-225:

Each of the 565 princely states in India had a separate agreement with the government, ensuring the paramountcy of the British Crown over its affairs. It had taken centuries to bring the states under paramountcy, and many still operated through arcane systems of government and society. It was the boast of the empire’s supporters that the reassuring eminence of the Indian civil service, staffed almost entirely with public-school-educated British men, kept things on track. Some thought this the pinnacle of British achievement, allowing the states their freedom of cultural diversity while tempering the worst excesses of absolute rule. The idea was to leave rulers as independent as possible; in case of trouble, for the British to offer the ruler in question “private counsel”; and, should that not fix the trouble, to intervene. In the event of gross totalitarianism or outright rebellion, the British raj would remove the individual prince who had proved to be a bad egg, install a more responsible scion of his family and leave the dynasty intact.

Unfortunately, this appealing portrait of a smooth, tolerant and accountable system was a fiction. In reality, the British presence in India was relatively small and unable to keep watch over so many princes. The notion that the “British race” had a monopoly on freedom and democracy was unsupportable with regard to the lengthy traditions of public debate, heterogeneous government and freedom of conscience that had existed for centuries in the Indias of Asoka and Akbar. If anything, the presence of the British damaged these traditions and actually safeguarded the princes from any new incursion of democracy. The British army was always on hand to give succor to each imperiled tyrant and stamp out any attempts by the people to express their discontent. As one staunch imperialist boasted, the princes had been “mostly rescued from imminent destruction by British protection.” And so imperialists were able to perfect a classic piece of doublethink: railing against what they called “Oriental despotism” on one hand, while propping it up with the other.

Even the illiberal Lord Curzon had been appalled by the standard of princely behavior during his viceroyalty, half a century before. he had written to Queen Victoria: “For all these failures we are responsible. We have allowed the chiefs when young to fall into bad hands. We have condoned their extravagances, we have worked at their vices.” … “As Your Majesty knows,” he added, “the Maharaja Holkar is half mad and is addicted to horrible vices.” This last was a particularly pointed comment—Victoria liked Holkar, because he had once sent her a telegram on her birthday—though “half mad” underestimated his insanity by around 50 percent. He would stand at a high window overlooking his subjects and issue random edicts as they popped into his head, once ordering the abduction of every man wearing a black coat. Once, he harnessed the bankers of Indore to a state coach and whipped them soundly as he drove them around the city.

During his tour of India in 1921, the young Dickie Mountbatten had admired the princely states but was shocked by their inequality. In Udaipur, he wondered at the habit of feeding pigs when people were starving, an injustice that prompted him to note, “There are times when I do sympathize with the Bolsheviks.” Princely excesses were common in states where the vast majority of people were destitute. The Jam Sahib of Nawanagar had 157 cars and a wife with 1,700 saris. The Nawab of Junagadh spent twenty-one thousand pounds on a wedding for two of his dogs. The Maharaja of Patiala moved into London’s Savoy Hotel, occupying all thirty-five suites on the fifth floor, and ordered that three thousand fresh roses be brought to decorate his rooms every day. Visitors to the miserly Nizam of Hyderabad would have seen that he used what looked like a crumpled ball of old newspaper as a paperweight—little suspecting that wrapped in it was the 185-carat Jacob Diamond, twice the size of the Koh-i-Noor. The Gaekwar of Baroda’s second wife, Sita Devi, earned herself the nickname “India’s Wallis Simpson” when she plundered the state treasury to finance her jewelry habit. Sita Devi made away to Switzerland with untold riches, including the incomparable Baroda pearl carpet. This remarkable object measured six feet by seven and a half feet, and was made up of 1.4 million pearls, 2,520 rose-cut diamonds and hundreds of emeralds and rubies, embroidered onto deerskin and silk in delicate arabesques….

These are some of the grosser examples of princely behavior and should not be taken as a slander against every individual prince. Some among them were men and women of great intelligence, ability and compassion. A Gaekwar of Baroda introduced the first free, compulsory education in India in 1894. A Maharaja of Travancore introduced progressive land reforms in the early 1880s. One turn-of-the-century Maharaja of Cochin was greatly admired for his modernizing legal reforms—though he became so frustrated at the complacency of his British patrons that he abdicated in 1914. But the existence of a few commendable examples does not vindicate the system. The reason that the Indian princely states were uniquely badly ruled was the very fact of British protection. Aside from their consciences, the princes had no incentive to govern well. Foreign invaders would be dealt with, domestic challenges neutered and the ravening mob readily suppressed, all by the might of the British Indian army.

UPDATE: The blogger at Blood & Treasure comments that this sounds like “a sort of best case scenario for Afghanistan”!

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