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John Zubrzycki’s Dethroned review: Co-opting the princely states

A new book highlights the compromises involved in Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon's work in delivering a ‘bloodless’ revolution

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (centre) and V.P. Menon (right), May 1950.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (centre) and V.P. Menon (right), May 1950. (Hindustan Times Archives)

Writing in 1877, the maharaja of Indore paid tribute to the Raj in the most glorifying terms. “India,” he proclaimed, “has been till now a vast heap of stones.” It was thanks to the British that “the house is built, and from roof to basement each stone…is in the right place.” That is, until the coming of the white man, the country was a mess; so, its people actively owed the Raj their loyalty.

To many, these words may not be surprising—the maharajas, after all, are saddled with a reputation for slavishness to the British and parked on the wrong side of history. But what if one suggests this is a stereotype? After all, the Raj’s own files reveal that, behind all the grandiloquence, inaction, Indore’s ruler was “notorious” for his “disloyalty”; who, by “intriguing in every possible manner”, showed his overlords “persistent opposition”. In other words, with India’s princely states, what we glimpse on the surface may not reflect its inner substance. This was a more complex, interesting place than caricaturised narratives allow.

The world of the princes, despite layered dynamics around power and authority, communalism and caste, political mobilisation, reform, and more, has typically been neglected in mainstream histories. Though studies have appeared since the 1970s, these are still very few compared to the voluminous writings covering that segment of India which was under direct colonial rule.

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Naturally, every fresh contribution is welcome. John Zubrzycki’s Dethroned: Patel, Menon And The Integration Of Princely India is a new study which, as its title indicates, focuses on the end of the Raj and the dissolution of the princely order. It is history, chiefly from 1947-50, as catalysed by two figures serving newly liberated India. The placement of Vallabhbhai Patel, who was states minister, and V.P. Menon, his chief aide, in the book’s subtitle is logical: Together, they delivered to the Indian Union some 1.3 million sq. km of real estate and 90 million citizens in a “bloodless revolution”. Without them, India might have turned into a politically fractured, strategically unviable project.

And yet the process was hardly neat. The best parts ofDethronedare those highlighting the moral and legal compromises involved in Patel and Menon’s work. Almost from the start, we find, guarantees given to the princes were jettisoned. On the eve of independence, Patel confirmed that the maharajas were signing over rights only around foreign policy, communications and defence; but soon, this was deemed inconvenient—for the Union, that is, which, reeling from partition and fears of Balkanisation, encroached into other areas.Similarly, the states were assured their boundaries would be respected, but beginning with tiny principalities inOdisha, by 1949-50 even major states were erased from the maps via “integration”—an end achieved through a mix of persuasion and coercion. Contrary to what we might think—of the happy replacement of archaic systems with modern institutions—this was also not so black and white. For the incoming set-up could be inferior to what existed. In Mayurbhanj, thus, “the new regime managed to turn its finances from a position of surplus to virtual bankruptcy” in a year.

At the same time, Zubrzycki notes, Patel was not above utilising princely resources for goals of a more sinister type. For all his mighty achievements, this was a man who believed the “vast majority” of Indian Muslims were disloyal and should “go to Pakistan”. Jawaharlal Nehru declared him a “communalist” andDethroneddemonstrates why the charge holds some water. Thus, in Punjab, where the Congress decried Sikh princes as anachronisms, it nevertheless utilised them to coordinate post-Partition violence. Patel looked away as these maharajas armed Sikhs to expel Muslims from the area.With Alwar, where the prime minister (a Hindu Mahasabha man) was convinced that Muslims were a Pakistani fifth column, the Sardar gave his assent to a violent “clearing up” campaign. At different scales, the annexations of Junagadh and Hyderabad were followed by communal strife, much of it due to calculated inaction; in the latter, thousands of Muslims were slaughtered. So much for a “bloodless” revolution.

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This is not to say that Zubrzycki is unduly harsh on Patel or Menon, or sympathetic to princes. With the former, we see the difficult choices confronting them. As for the maharajas, for the most part we encounter a quite hopeless set. This, however, is also the book’s principal flaw: a largely uncritical acceptance of British perceptions in portraying princely India. There are the usual stories: Alwar tied widows to trees as tiger bait; Patiala kept sex slaves; Hyderabad’snizamwas difficult, etc. But as studies have shown, a focus on personal excesses (many of them wild exaggerations if not fiction) was a means to delegitimise, infantilise and dismiss “native” authority. The British, for imperial reasons, deliberately held up more rotten apples to sully the basket as a whole—a strategy that eclipsed the fact that most maharajas were reasonable, serious figures. The penultimate ruler of Gondal, for instance, was a doctor; Cochin’s maharajas were Sanskrit scholars; Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda was a nationalist; Aundh gave its people a “Gandhian constitution”. Zubrzycki does occasionally refer to “progressive” rulers but still falls back on a dated, cliché-ridden framework.

For instance, we read how the British “pandered” to the maharajas’ love of ceremony. When, in fact, this was a two-way street, ceremony being a critical instrument in inventing the Raj’s legitimacy. Indeed, Indian rulers were often forced to attend imperial durbars—they were not fools who willingly bartered real power for hollow ritual.Similarly, an official’s dismissive views on petty jealousies around status is accepted wholesale. But this was hardly exclusive to brown men: Queen Victoria did not want her son gaining too much prominence during his 1875-76 India tour, fearing, as Miles Taylor notes, he would overshadow her in “native” imagination.Elsewhere,Dethronedwithout scrutiny cites K.M. Panikkar on how the Raj policed language. Maharajas could not use the term “throne”, onlygaddi; they “ruled” but never “reigned”. Yet this is only what the British wanted; reality must be gauged from whether they were obeyed.A key Travancore publication from 1906, thus, uses “gaddi” once; everywhere else it is “throne”. All its rulers are described as reigning.Indeed, though Travancore was permitted only a salute of 19 guns, its rulers awarded themselves 21 (the highest) anyway. The British pretended not to notice because the Raj’s equation with the princes was never one of master and slave but a more testy (even if unequal) negotiation.


The front cover of the book.
The front cover of the book.

Given this complex situation, to represent princely India through official writings on the British side (backed by what nationalists believed in the closing years of the Raj, even though in earlier phases the relationship had been surprisingly friendly) gives us a sense of what they thought, not how the maharajas perceived themselves or how most Indians viewed the states. Broadly, then, Zubrzycki perpetuates a Eurocentric picture. It is akin to us taking the Indore maharaja’s fawning letter at face value without uncovering his actual (wholly disloyal) views.

While this is disappointing, it is, however, forgivable. The focus of the book is ultimately those rulers who gave trouble to the Indian Union after 1947; while hundreds of maharajas acceded willingly, those that did not happened to be of the less pleasant variety. Junagadh’s nawab—famous for loving dogs more than his wives—does appear to have left behind at least one lady when fleeing. Hyderabad’s nizam, whose Muslim subjects suffered after the state’s annexation, did preside over a backward regime that discriminated against non-Muslims. So, while I was not entirely sold on the book’s early chapters, about 100 pages in—as it arrived at its core themes—Dethroned offered better reading.

The writing, as is Zubrzycki’s hallmark, flows well, though the text has minor errors. One that amused me is a quote from my own book False Allies, ascribed to Panikkar. I would also have liked deeper investigation; there is a feeling of incompleteness to some portions. We know, for instance, that fear of fragmentation was a motive for the states’ integration. But further digging would show how many states enjoyed popular legitimacy and, thus, posed a threat to the Congress’ ambitions. As Ian Copland observes, even bad rulers like Alwar’s commanded real loyalty. In Pudukkottai, people demanded a plebiscite when integration was proposed. This too explains the portrayal of maharajas as silly dictators whose sole accomplishments were riding elephants and chasing dancing girls—to admit that many possessed real cultural capital was unacceptable at an intellectual and political level (even if it is this that allows royal descendants electoral advantages to this day). Still, read the book, not to know the world of the maharajas—which it does not reconstruct with adequate care—but to understand those critical years when the Indian state broke that order to ensure its own survival. For if the broader context in which Zubrzycki builds the story has shortcomings, here he is on firmer ground.

Manu S. Pillai is a historian and author, most recently, ofFalse Allies: India’s Maharajahs In The Age Of Ravi Varma.

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