The Growth Of The Indian States System


One of our major problems in India today is that of the Princes of the Indian states. These states are unique of their kind in the world and they vary greatly in size and political and social conditions. Their number is 601. About fifteen of these may be considered major states, the biggest of these being Hyderabad, Kashmir, Mysore, Travancore, Baroda, Gwalior, Indore, Cochin, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikanir, Bhopal, and Patiala. Then follow a number of middling states and, lastly, several hundreds of very small areas, some not bigger than a pin’s point on the map. Most of these tiny states are in Kathiawar, western India, and the Punjab.

These states not only vary in size from that of France to almost that of an average farmer’s holding, but also differ in every other way. Mysore is industrially the most advanced; Mysore, Travancore, and Cochin are educationally far ahead of British India.* Most of the states are, however, very backward and some are completely feudal. All of them are autocracies, though some have started elected councils whose powers are strictly limited. Hyderabad, the premier state, still carries on with a typical feudal regime supported by an almost complete denial of civil liberties. So also most of the states in Rajputana and the Punjab. A lack of civil liberties is a common feature of the states.

These states do not form compact blocks; they are spread out all over India, islands surrounded by non-state areas. The vast majority of them are totally unable to support even a semi-independent economy; even the largest, situated as they are, can hardly hope to do so without the full co-operation of the surrounding areas. If there was any economic conflict between a state and non-state India, the former could be easily reduced to submission by tariff barriers and other economic sanctions. It is manifest that both politically and economically these states, even the largest of them, cannot be separated and treated as independent entities. As such they would not survive and the rest of India would also suffer greatly. They would become hostile enclaves all over India, and if they relied on some external power for protection, this in itself would be a continuous and serious menace to a free India. Indeed they would not have survived till today but for the fact that politically and economically the whole of India, including the states, is under one dominant power which protects them. Apart from the possible conflicts between a state and non-state India, it must be remembered that there is continuous pressure on the autocratic ruler of the state from his own people, who demand free institutions. Attempts to achieve this freedom are suppressed and kept back with the aid of the British power.

Even in the nineteenth century, these states, as constituted, became anachronisms. Under modern conditions it is impossible to conceive of India being split up into scores of separate independent entities. Not only would there be perpetual conflict but all planned economic and cultural progress would become impossible. We must remember that when these states took shape and entered into treaties with the East India Company, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europe was divided up into numerous small principalities. Many wars and revolutions have changed the face of Europe since then and are changing it today, but the face of India was set and petrified by external pressure imposed upon it and not allowed to change. It seems absurd to hold up some treaty drawn up 140 years ago, usually on the field of battle or immediately afterwards, between two rival commanders or their chiefs, and to say that this temporary settlement must last for ever. The people of the state of course had no say in that settlement, and the other party at the time was a commercial corporation concerned only with its own interests and profits. This commercial corporation, the East India Company, acted not as the agent of the British Crown or Parliament but, in theory, as the agent of the Delhi Emperor, from whom power and authority were supposed to flow, although he was himself quite powerless. The British Crown or Parliament had nothing whatever to do with these treaties. Parliament only considered Indian affairs when the charter of the East India Company came up for discussion from time to time. The fact that the East India Company was functioning in India under the authority conferred on it by the Diwani grant of the Mughal Emperor made it independent of any direct interference by the British Crown or Parliament. Indirectly Parliament could, if it so chose, cancel the charter or impose new conditions at the time of renewal. The idea that the English King or Parliament should even in theory function as agents and therefore as subordinates of the shadowy Emperor at Delhi was not liked in England and so they studiously kept aloof from the activities of the East India Company. The money spent in the Indian wars was Indian money raised and disposed of by the East India Company.

Subsequently, as the territory under the control of the East India Company increased in area and its rule was consolidated, the British Parliament began to take greater interest in Indian affairs. In 1858, after the shock of the Indian mutiny and revolt, the East India Company transferred its domain of India (for money paid by India) to the British crown. That transfer did not involve a separate transfer of the Indian states apart from the rest of India. The whole of India was treated as a unit and the British Parliament functioned in India through the Government of India which exercised a suzerainty over the states. The states had no separate relations with the British Crown or Parliament. They were part and parcel of the system of government, direct and indirect, represented by the Government of India. This government, in later years, ignored those old treaties whenever it suited its changing policy to do so, and exercised a very effective suzerainty over the states.

Thus the British Crown was not in the picture at all so far as the Indian states were concerned. It is only in recent years that the claim to some kind of independence has been raised on behalf of the states, and it has been further claimed that they have some special relations with the British Crown, apart from the Government of India. These treaties, it should be noted, are with very few of the states; there are only forty treaty states, the rest have ‘engagements and sanads.’ These forty states have three-fourths of the total Indian state population, and six of them have considerably more than one-third of this population.**

In the Government of India Act of 1935, for the first time, some distinction was made between the relations of the states and the rest of India with the British Parliament. The states were removed from the supervisory authority and direction of the Government of India and placed directly under the Viceroy who, for this purpose, was called the Crown representative. The Viceroy continued to be, at the same time, the head of the Government of India. The political department of the Government of India, which used to be responsible for the states, was now placed directly under the Viceroy and was no longer under his executive council.

How did these states come into existence? Some are quite new, created by the British; others were the vice-royalties of the Mughal Emperor, and their rulers were permitted to continue as feudatory chiefs by the British; yet others, notably the Maratha chiefs, were defeated by British armies and then made into feudatories. Nearly all these can be traced back to the beginnings of British rule; they have no earlier history. If some of them functioned independently for a while, that independence was of brief duration and ended in defeat in war or threat of war. Only a few of the states, and these are chiefly in Rajputana, date back to pre-Mughal times. Travancore has an ancient, 1,000-year-old historical continuity. Some of the proud Rajput clans trace back their genealogy to prehistoric times. The Maharana of Udaipur, of the Suryavansh or race of the sun, has a family tree comparable to that of the Mikado of Japan. But these Rajput chiefs became Mughal feudatories and then submitted to the Marathas, and finally to the British. The representatives of the East India Company, writes Edward Thompson, ‘now set the princes in their positions, lifting them out of the chaos in which they were submerged. When thus picked up and re-established, “the princes” were as completely helpless and derelict as any powers since the beginning of the world. Had the British Government not intervened, nothing but exstinction lay before the Rajput states, and disintegration before the Maratha states. As for such states as Oudh and the Nizam’s dominions, their very existence was bogus; they were kept in a semblance of life, only by means of the breath blown through them by the protecting power.’***

Hyderabad, the premier state today, was small, in area to begin with. Its boundaries were extended twice, after Tipu Sultan’s defeat by the British and the Maratha wars. These additions were at the instance of the British, and on the express stipulation that the Nizam was to function in a subordinate capacity to them. Indeed, on Tipu’s defeat, the offer of part of his territory was first made to the Peshwa, the Maratha leader, but he refused to accept it on those conditions.

Kashmir, the next largest state, was sold by the East India Company after the Sikh wars to the great-grandfather of the present ruler. It was subsequently taken under direct British control on a plea of misgovernment. Later the ruler’s powers were restored to them. The present state of Mysore was created by the British after Tipu’s wars. It was also under direct British rule for a lengthy period.

The only truly independent kingdom in India is Nepal on the north-eastern frontier, which occupies a position analogous to that of Afghanistan, though it is rather isolated. All the rest came within the scope of what was called the ‘subsidiary system,’ under which all real power lay with the British Government, exercised through a resident or agent. Often even the ministers of the ruler were British officials imposed upon him. But the entire responsibility for good government and reform lay with the ruler, who with the best will in the world (and he usually lacked that will as well as competence) could do little in the circumstances. Henry Lawrence wrote in 1846 about the Indian states system: ‘If there was a device for ensuring mal-government it is that of a native ruler and minister both relying on foreign bayonets, and directed by a British Resident; even if all these were able, virtuous, and considerate, still the wheels of government could hardly move smoothly. If it be difficult to select one man, European or native, with all the requisites of a just administrator, where are three who can or will work together to be found? Each of the three may work incalculable mischief, but no one of them can do good if thwarted by the other.’

Earlier still, in 1817, Sir Thomas Munro wrote to the Governor-General:

There are many weighty objections to the employment of a subsidiary force. It has a natural tendency to render the government of every country in which it exists weak and oppressive, to extinguish all honourable spirit among the higher classes of society, and to degrade and impoverish the whole people. The usual remedy of a bad government in India is a quiet revolution in the palace, or a violent one by rebellion or foreign conquests. But the presence of a British force cuts off every chance of remedy, by supporting the prince on the throne against every foreign and domestic enemy. It renders him indolent, by teaching him to trust to strangers for his security, and cruel and avaricious, by showing him that he has nothing to fear from the hatred of his subjects. Wherever the subsidiary system is introduced, unless the reigning prince be a man of great abilities, the country will soon bear the marks of it in decaying villages and decreasing population…. Even if the prince himself were disposed to adhere rigidly to the (British) alliance, there will always be some amongst his principal officers who will urge him to break it. As long as there remains in the country any high-minded independence, which seeks to throw off the control of strangers, such counsellors will be found. I have a better opinion of the natives of India than to think that this spirit will ever be completely extinguished; and I can therefore have no doubt that the subsidiary system must everywhere run its full course and destroy every government which it undertakes to protect.

In spite of such protests the subsidiary Indian state system was built up, and it brought, inevitably, corruption .and tyranny in its train. The governments of these states were often bad enough, but, in any event, they were almost powerless; a few of the British residents or agents in these states, like Metcalfe, were honest and conscientious, but more often they were neither, and they exercised the harlot’s privilege of having power without responsibility. Private English adventurers, secure in the knowledge of their race and of official backing, played havoc with the funds of the state. Some of the accounts of what took place in these states during the first half of the nineteenth century, especially in Oudh and Hyderabad, are almost incredible. Oudh was annexed to British India a little before the Mutiny of 1857.

British policy was then in favour of such annexations, and every pretext was taken advantage of for a ‘lapse’ of the state to British authority. But the Mutiny and great Revolt of 1857 demonstrated the value of the subsidiary state system to the British Government. Except for some minor defections the Indian princes not only remained aloof from the rising, but, in some instances, actually helped the British to crush it. This brought about a change in British policy towards them, and it was decided to keep them and even to strengthen them.

The doctrine of British ‘paramountcy’ was proclaimed, and in practice the control of the political department of the Government of India over the states has been strict and continuous. Rulers have been removed or deprived of their powers; ministers have been imposed upon them from the British services. Quite a large umber of such ministers are functioning now in the states, and they consider themselves answerable far more to British authority than to their nominal head, the prince.

Some of the princes are good, some are bad; even the good ones are thwarted and checked at every turn. As a class they are of necessity backward, feudal in outlook, and authoritarian in methods, except in their dealings with the British Government, when they show a becoming subservience. Shelvankar has rightly called the Indian states ‘Britain’s fifth column in India.’

* Travancore, Cochin, Mysore, and Baroda are, from the point of view of popular education, far in advance of British India. In Travancore, it is interesting to note that popular education began to be organized in 1801. (Compare England where it started in 1870.) The literacy percentage in Travancore is now 58 for men and 41 for women; this is over four limes higher than the British India percentage. Public health is also better organized in Travancore. Women play an important part in public service and activities in Travancore.

** These six are:

  1. Hyderabad, 12-13 million;
  2. Mysore, 7×1/2 million;
  3. Travancore, 6×1/4 million;
  4. Baroda, 4 million;
  5. Kashmir, 3 million;
  6. Gwalior, 3 million;

Totalling over 36 million. The total Indian states population is about 90 million.

*** The Making of the Indian Princes’, Edward Thompson, pp. 270-1. In this book as well as Thompson’s ‘Life of Lord Metcalfe,’ there are vivid pictures of Hyderabad and British control and graft there; also of Delhi and Ranjit Singh’s Punjab. The Butler Committee (1928-29), appointed by the British Government to consider the problem of the Indian States, said in its report: ‘It is not in accordance with historical facts that when the Indian States came into contact with the British power they were independent. Some were rescued, others were created by the British.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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