On July 25 1947, nearly 100 rajas, maharajas, khans and nawabs, bedecked in bejewelled turbans, met in the Chamber of Princes in Delhi to ponder their future. India was beginning to burn with tens of thousands dying in the spreading sectarian violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
The 100 were just a fraction of the rulers of India’s 565 princely states, who under British paramountcy had ruled over nearly half of the country’s landmass and a third of its population. But now the time of reckoning had come.
In three weeks, Britain would be withdrawing from India, leaving the princely rulers at the mercy of the newly constituted governments of India and Pakistan.
So begins this gripping history – exhaustively researched, and written with all the pace and tension of a thriller – of how the fate of the princely states would be determined in the face of independence and Partition.
As one observer noted, the British had extended their Empire in India in “a fit of absent-mindedness”. Before independence the political map of India was “a jumble” of pinks representing British India and yellows representing the princely states of “Indian India”.
These states varied widely in size, from Hyderabad, with a population of some 16 million and an income rivalling that of Belgium, to the handkerchief-sized Bilbari with a population of just 27. While subject to British paramountcy, these mini-kingdoms enjoyed almost total autonomy, under the watchful eye of a British Resident, or political agent, their status ranked by a Ruritanian system, devised by the British, of gun salutes, ranging from 21 for the five largest states, down to nine. (The King Emperor was entitled to a 101-gun salute.)
Some rulers provided industry and infrastructure, others treated their people like feudal serfs. Extravagance was unbounded. Rolls Royces were two a rupee. The Maharajah of Indore commissioned Le Corbusier to design a tubular chaise-longue cover in leopard skin, while the Maharawal of Dungarpur travelled specially to Brighton to take lessons on how to do the foxtrot. The ruler of Junagadh, kept 3,000 dogs; his favourites had diamond-studded collars and a public holiday was declared when they mated. Gaekwar Pratap Singh of Baroda fired his salutes from a cannon made of solid gold.
From the moment the British announced their withdrawal from India, the days of the princely states were numbered. Jawarhal Nehru, the incoming prime minister of India, was driven to distraction by the prospect of “these puppet princes setting themselves up as independent monarchs” following the British withdrawal.
But it was two government officials who shouldered the fiendishly complicated problem of Partition and integrating the princely states into the newly constituted Dominions of India and Pakistan, by a mixture of persuasion, threat and blatant strong-arming.
One was Vallabhbhai Patel, described as “a rough diamond in an iron casket”, and the most powerful man in the Congress party after Nehru. The other was VP Menon – a man with a penchant for “Savile Row suits, Cuban cigars and slate-blue Cadillacs”, who, locked away in a guesthouse with a bottle of whiskey and smoking his way through packets of cigarettes, drew up the blueprint giving both countries independence as members of the Commonwealth.
The offer that Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, had made to the princely states provided for their accession on just three conditions: defence, foreign affairs and communications would devolve to the new Dominions. But their internal affairs would be left untouched. They would even continue to receive honours and titles from the king. That did not reckon with the steely resolve of Patel and Menon. In the end virtually all of the princely states acceded almost unconditionally to the new India, and 10 to Pakistan.
Among these was the 17-gun-salute state of Bashawlpur, whose ruler Sadiq Muhammed Khan could trace his ancestry back to an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad and who, Zubrzycki writes, ruled with a mixture of “piety and perversion”. When the Pakistani army took over his palace they uncovered his collection of 600 dildos, “some made of clay, some bought in England, some battery-operated”.
Some states continued in vain to dream of independence, some fought actively to resist accession. But as the journalist Ann Morrow wrote, the maharajas, khans and nawabs were “as vulnerable as the deer they had tied up between two lighted posts to be pounced on by a tiger at viceregal shoots”.
The Muslim majority state of Hyderabad was one of the last to hold out, eventually being brought to heel by military action by the Indian government resulting in the deaths of some 50,000 people (some estimates put the number at 200,000) with thousands more displaced. The territorial dispute between India and Pakistan would never be resolved, and has continued to fester to the present day.
It was Indihra Gandhi who as India’s third prime minister signed the states’ final death warrant. Gandhi harboured a pathological dislike for the princes, dating back to her hatred of a princess schoolmate, Gayatri Devi, who would spend her breaks surreptitiously smoking cigarettes behind the girls’ toilet block, while boasting of how she bagged her first leopard at 13. In 1971, Gandhi abolished the privy purses and privileges of the princely states, wiping out their remaining source of income and status at a stroke. She would later punish Devi by imprisoning her for violating currency laws, by not declaring £19 and a few Swiss francs found during a tax raid on one of her palaces.
Some royals proved more adaptable than others, entering politics with great success, while others saw their fortunes fade to nothing. Having once thrown banquets with battalions of servants and “monogrammed cigarettes for the ladies”, one maharajah was reduced to eating off a card-table in his crumbling palace. And spare a thought for Sawai Man Singh, the ruler of Jaipur, who was obliged not only to give up his railway and army, but also his Dakota aircraft that his wife used to fly to Delhi for her haircuts. One can only imagine how that went down.
Mick Brown’s latest book is The Nirvana Express: How the Search for Enlightenment Went West. Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States is published by Hurst at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books