Thursday, January 31, 2013

Myth of a unified India left behind by the British

Despite all the ills of British (mal)administration and loot of the Indian subcontinent, despite the fact that they (the British) irreversibly shattered the country into three, most people believe they unified the country and provided uniform administration. Most  people believe the British left behind a nice India shaped country for the Independent Government of India to govern. Nothing could be farther from the truth! It is also one of the most interesting, most important, and most compelling events in the modern, post-independence history of India, that is often left untold to us as school children.

What the British left behind apart from the horror of Partition was a fractured country made up of British India and what they termed as "States". What the Congress inherited was British ruled territories  surrounded by or surrounding no less than 562 - yep, five hundred and sixty two - princely states,  large as the Principality of Hyderabad (approx 83000 square miles, a 11 million population majority Hindu with a Muslim ruler, and an annual revenue of 35million rupees) and some as small as Vejanoness in Kathiawar (modern Gujarat) (area 0.29 square mile, 206 population, annual revenue of 500 rupees [yep, zero-point-two-nine, two-hundred-and-six, five-hundred - no typo there]). This, not including French held (Puducherri, Chandranagore, Yanam, Mahe, Karikal and other minor enclaves) and Portuguese held territories (Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli). Why the British let the French and Portuguese hold on to these enclaves is unclear.

Map shows British India and the princely states:

Most to all of these princely states were protectorates of the British (Paramountcy, as they called it - technically a nebulous agreement between the Crown and the princely states, intentionally not clearly defined by the Crown). With paramountcy, the British (originally the East India Company, later the crown itself) were paid 'protection tribute' (in plain language, hafta vasooli)  in exchange for providing Foreign Policy, Defence and Communications. The 'defence' component included protection from without and within. The "Communication" component included Transport and Posts & Telegraph.

In effect, the princely-state rulers were weak, ineffective, and incapable of actually administering their states/provinces. They had no Foreign Policy experience, no capable defences to speak of (except for a couple of the larger states - then too just a land army), and certainly no direct control over communications. It suited the British to keep the princely rulers this way, so they would cause less trouble in the long run.

Initially, when the country was in the hands of the ambitious East India Company, they captured, cheated or snatched territory all over the place. Policies such as Subsidiary Alliances and the Doctrine of Lapse were put in place to usurp entire native states.

[Note: While Dalhousie is credited with instigating the Doctrine of Lapse in 1848, whereby a kingdom/princely state without a natural heir automatically fell into British hands, it had been in practice for a long time before then and Dalhousie only put it on paper. Case in point, the Kingdom of Kittur, which was snatched in 1824 through the Doctrine of Lapse]

After the Indian War of Independence of 1857, they wised up and figured out that conquering the whole country would not be possible, and would always leave the gate open for rebellion. Once the holdings of the East India Company transferred to the Crown in the post-1857 era, they followed a different tack: that of keeping the princes weak and ineffective, thereby also controlling all that went on in their states, ergo paramountcy.

With the transfer of power in 1947, the British did not transfer the paramountcy to the new Government of India. Instead their stated policy (per then British Prime Minister Clement Atlee) regarding the paramountcy:
As was explicitly stated by the Cabinet Mission, His Majesty's Government does not intend to hand over their powers and obligations under paramountcy to any government of British India. 
What this meant was that when the British gave India its independence, they would not only break it in three, but would also let the princely states do their own thing. In other words, rulers of little principalities such as Vejanoness, who had thus far only exercised petty judicial powers, such as trying criminal cases involving sentence of not more than three months' imprisonment or Rs 20 fine, would, literally overnight, acquire the powers of life and death.

The princes were free to do as they wanted. The British would allow them to join either India or Pakistan or assert independence. That many of these States had Muslim rulers with a majority Hindu population (the reverse was far less common with one notable exception), and were free to join Pakistan was dangerous. That some of these States were in contiguous Indian territory (surrounded by India on all sides) was horrific. That the princes didn't need to consult or take into account the wishes of the people was down-right atrocious. That such sudden 'independence' would go to their heads was inevitable.

[It is interesting to note that despite Jinnah and the British being ardent two-nation theory proponents, the British would let, and Jinnah would encourage Muslim-ruler Hindu-majority states to join Pakistan]

The task before the new Government of India was three-fold:

1. Accession of the Princely States to the Indian Dominion
2. Unification of the States (particularly the smaller ones) and cashiering the Princes, Rajas, Nawabs, Nizams and Ranas
3. Administering the unified provinces

Things were not made easy by Jinnah objecting to the accession policy and guaranteeing complete independence to principalities inside Pakistan (a false promise). The princes resisted accession initially (accession implied quite literally transfer of the paramountcy to the Government of India), later they haggled over their privy purses; the privy purse being based on the revenue of the principality which itself was an issue because records were scant, incorrect or fudged. Despite the privy-purse, they wanted a hand in administration, and it would be difficult to accommodate this in a democracy.

[Note: Privy purse was a euphemism for the annual bribe paid to the princes in order to get them to throw their kingdoms into greater India for common governance rather than just Defence, Communication and Foreign Affairs. This amount was not taxable either at the Central level or at the state level. To be fair, this was supposed to be in lieu of the revenues they would have had from their states. The amount was reduced with each succession in the family. Privy purse was abolished by Indira Gandhi in 1971]

Overall, none of it was easy. It took over two years, a lot of coaxing, cajoling and threatening of the princes (especially Orissa and Chattisgarh), Carrot-and-stick (Kathiawar and Saurashtra), realpolitik and a war with Pakistan ( Junagarh and Kashmir respectively), a forced invasion (Hyderabad), just being the first to land (Lakshadweep) and handling of all sorts of weird and complicated situations.

The principal actors in this drama apart from the Princes themselves were Sardar Valllabhbhai Patel (Home Minister), V P Menon (Secretary of the Department of States) and Lord Mountbatten (who stayed on for about a year after Indian independence as the Governor-General 'because of his love for India' as Menon himself puts it).

By January 1950, just over two years after independence, a united, unified India (except French and Portuguese enclaves and Sikkim) came into being as the Republic Of India (this, compared to the EU (European Union) trying to wrangle itself together - a process ongoing for the past 20 years; the EU was built up from the EEC (European Economic Community) which itself started in the1950s - and a union that already seems threatened) with a brand new Constitution Of India which replaced the defunct Government Of India act of 1935. This granted uniform laws, uniform currency, and most importantly, universal adult franchise (one person one vote, each person one vote) - a concept that came to a 'advanced' nation such as the United States only in 1965 - just shy of 200 years after its own independence, and a concept that didn't come to the UK until 1948 (Magna Carta, UK's turning point from absolute monarchy, c. 1215AD).

Castesim? Discrimination?
Human Rights violations because of the above? Get your facts right!

In any case, after the 1956 States Reorganization Act (on a linguistic basis), a political India map - very similar to the one we see today came into being. Changes continued through  the second half of the 20th century and into the new millenium, when in 2000, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Uttarkhand were carved out of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh respectively. In the meanwhile, several Union Territories had been converted to States (Delhi, Goa, Mizoram).

As regards other colonial enclaves, the French turned over the last of their enclaves to India in 1954, and made it official in 1962. The Portuguese, however, were adamant that Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli  - "Estado da India" (State of India) - were integral parts of Portugal. After failed diplomatic efforts, popular sentiment and internal pressure and strong encouragement from the African quarter [African countries were also under Portuguese yoke and looked to India to start the domino effect] forced India to move in on these enclaves militarily, and liberate Portuguese India colonies forcibly in 1961 after a 2 day war. Lastly, the State of Sikkim abolished monarchy and joined the Indian Union in 1975 following a referendum.

Gripping reading:
The Story of the Integration of the Indian States by V.P Menon

See the Junagarh, Hyderabad and Kashmir chapters specifically for first hand, in-depth information.

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