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The unnoticed war between Gandhi and the princely states

A new book offers striking insights into the murder of the Mahatma and the range of players involved

A studio photograph of M.K. Gandhi taken in London at the request of Lord Irwin, in 1931.
A studio photograph of M.K. Gandhi taken in London at the request of Lord Irwin, in 1931. (Wikimedia Commons)

It was the month of August in 1947 that brought together the different actors who were suspected of planning Gandhi’s assassination.

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N.B. Khare started the All India Hindu National Front in Delhi in August 1947, which was presided over by (V.D.) Savarkar. It was a meeting of important leaders, including some princes. According to the Kapur Commission reports, Khare couldn’t be present at the meeting because of trouble in Alwar. Nor was the Maharaja of Alwar present. However, this does not mean that Khare did not have the opportunity to meet with Savarkar before the assassination; they met in November 1947 in Bombay.

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The Alwar episode raises the question: Why would the princely states want Gandhi assassinated? The answer lies in the views Gandhi expressed in the years closer to Independence. The first clue is in a letter Gandhi wrote to (economist) Shriman Narayan on 1 December 1945 while on board a train to Calcutta: ‘It is worth considering if Pakistan and the Princes can have any place in my conception [of India]. Remember that the Gandhian plan can be successful only if it can be achieved through non-violent means.’...

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Also Read: Savarkar, the patriot with a tunnel vision

Gandhi’s position vis-à-vis the princes and the princely states is made clearer in his later letters. His letter to Sir Stafford Cripps, who led the Cripps Mission to India in 1942, on 12 April 1946 was a step closer to the hardening stand one observes in his writings ahead of Independence.

Dear Sir Stafford,

What I wanted to say and forgot last night was about the States of India. Pandit Nehru is the President of the States’ People’s Conference and Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir its Vice-President. I met the committee of the Conference last Wednesday. Their complaint was that they were ignored by the Cabinet Delegation whereas the Princes were receiving more than their due attention. Of course this may be good policy. It may also be bad policy and morally indefensible. The ultimate result may be quite good, as it must be, if the whole of India becomes independent. It will then be bad to irritate the people of the States by ignoring them. After all the people are everything and the Princes, apart from them, nothing. They owe their artificial status to the Government of India but their existence to the people residing in the respective States. This may be shared with your colleagues or not as you wish. It is wholly unofficial as our talk last night was.

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Yours sincerely,

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M. K. GANDHI

An expert political strategist, Gandhi’s letter to Sir Stafford was no coincidence as the Cabinet Delegation to discuss transfer of power from the British to the Indian leaders, which included Cripps, had arrived in Delhi three weeks ago on 24 March 1946.

With independence in sight, Gandhi’s attention was focused on the post-colonial governance. This was also the time that Gandhi was formulating his thoughts on trusteeship, which ran diametrically opposite to the economic interests of the elite, particularly the Hindu elite represented by the princely states.

The Murderer, The Monarch And The Fakir; by Appu Ethose Suresh and Priyanka Kotamraju, HarperCollins India, 240 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
The Murderer, The Monarch And The Fakir; by Appu Ethose Suresh and Priyanka Kotamraju, HarperCollins India, 240 pages, 399.

Before these letters, Gandhi had aired his views on ‘trusteeship’ in an article about him in The Hindu on 9 September 1945, a week after the Second World War ended on 2 September 1945. The war had broken the back of the British empire and it was no secret that the British government was inclined to hand over the reins to India.

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On the question of trusteeship, which was absent from the constitution of the Sangh, Mahatma Gandhi is said to have pointed out that since the theory of trusteeship was stressed by him and had a permanent association with his name, it was legitimate to make it a matter of dispute. He said that he did not want to accentuate class-struggle. The owners should become trustees. They might insist that they should become trustees and yet they might choose to remain owners. We shall then have to oppose and fight them. Satyagraha will then be our weapon. Even if we want a classless society we should not engage in a civil war. Non-violence should be depended upon to bring a classless society.

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The Hindu elite, particularly the Hindu Mahasabha, were of the view that the princely states were the custodians of Indian culture. Contrast the Gandhian view, as explicitly expressed in his letter to Narayan, with that of the Hindu Mahasabha, led by Savarkar’s effort to strategically position the princely states in the future of India.

Also Read: Gandhi through the lens of cancel culture

Since the electoral debacle for the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937 and the heightened focus on militarization of Hindus, the princely states had become a strategic partner to the Hindu right. In April 1944, the Mahasabha under Savarkar organized three major conferences on the topic of the role of princely states in the idea of India.

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Dr Balkrishna Shivram Moonje, Savarkar’s close aide and a prominent Mahasabha leader as well as the man leading the efforts to militarize the Hindus, in his presidential address to the Baroda Hindu Sabha in April 1944, one of the three aforementioned conferences, laid out the Mahasabha vision.

The Prince who is ruling the States is a representative of the Hindu Raj of the past and as such incorporates in himself all traditions of dignity and is suffering and fighting for maintaining the Hindu Raj against foreign opponents who were opposing them during the past 500 years or so … The Hindu Mahasabha therefore calls upon all Hindus to respect and love their Hindu Princes as embodiments of Hindu pride and Hindu achievements in the political world of the past and as hopeful in the future.

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The princely state was not a single unit. There was the Prince or Maharaja who was an inheritor of the right to rule and a princely bureaucracy comprising officials such as Khare who had more clout than the inheritor himself. Gandhi correctly identified that the princely bureaucracy was interested in continuing to hold power in a post-colonial structure.

In an article in Harijan on 4 August 1946, Gandhi called out the princes but his target was the princely bureaucracy.

... Princes have taken the lead only in copying the bad points of the British system. They allow themselves to be led by the nose by their Ministers, whose administrative talent consists only in extorting money from their dumb, helpless subjects....

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In the mêlée of Hindu-Muslim conflict and the partition politics, an unnoticed war was being waged between Gandhi and the princely states, even as the ideologues of Hindutva courted the princely states, some led by Savarkar and others by Moonje. The ten-year period between 1937 and 1947 saw the perfect marriage between the militant Hindu nationalism of Savarkar–Moonje and the princely states.

Edited and excerpted from The Murderer, The Monarch And The Fakir: A New Investigation Of Mahatma Gandhi’s Assassination, with permission from HarperCollins India.

Also Read: What modern India owes its maharajahs

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    03.10.2021 | 09:30 AM IST

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