Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blast from the Past: Accession of Princely States

Here is the account of Durga Das in his book, "India: From Curzon to Nehru and after"

The integration of the Princely states with the rest of India was not planned in advance. Patel told me it was more the result of fortuitous circumstances which were helped by the wave of nationalism in which the Princes were caught up. To this, however, may be added the prestige and authority of Patel himself. The merger of the smaller States began in Orissa by accident and the process spread from there to other areas.

Narrating the story of the first merger, Patel told me that the idea had originated with Hare Krushna Mahatab, who formed in 1938 the State Praja Mandal, an organization of the people living in the States of Orissa. This Orissa Congress leader proposed that the small States be merged with the provinces under British administration, and the States Peoples Conference appointed a committee with Mahatab as its chairman to study the proposal in relation to Orissa. The committee recommended that the States be brought under the provincial Government as reforms in them, while they maintained their separateness, would have no value. Mahatab took up this matter with Cripps when he came to India in 1942. The Political Department agreed that this was the only feasible solution of the problem but did nothing about it. When India became independent, the British departed leaving the States as they were. Mahatab convinced Gandhi and Patel of the soundness of his scheme, and he suggested to Patel in November 1947 that he should set the process in motion in Orissa.

V.P. Menon, on the contrary, proposed to Patel that a system of joint control, leaving some administrative powers in the hands of the Princes, should be evolved. Mahatab objected, saying this would only cause confusion and insisted that complete merger was the only solution. Patel agreed, and when the two leaders met in Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar the entire memorandum relating to the merger of States was redrafted with the help of the Chief Secretary of the provincial Government and, what is more, reprinted overnight.

The next day, when the rulers of Orissa conferred with Patel and Mahatab, they referred to the earlier memorandum of association which had been sent to them. Patel and Mahatab disowned knowledge of it. Patel then told the rulers: "If you do not accept our proposal, I do not take responsibility for law and order in your State. You take care of yourself." As the Praja Mandal leaders were ready to overthrow the Princes and effect merger by force, the rulers accepted the new scheme. Thus the first merger of States went through without a single incident in Orissa, to be followed in Chattisgarh, where the States were merged with the Central Provinces.

The Congress leaders were prepared to consider eighteen States viable and permit them to continue as autonomous units under the Instrument of Accession. These included Alwar and Bharatpur, but Gandhi's assassination set in motion the second wave of integration. The pistol which fired the fatal shot was alleged to have belonged to the Maharaja of Alwar's collection of firearms, and volunteers belonging to the R.S.S. were said to have been trained in the use of arms in the State. Dr. N.B. Khare was then the Chief Minister of Alwar and the suspicion that the ruler had a hand in the shooting grew stronger because Khare was known to bear Gandhi a grudge for getting him ousted from the chief ministership of the Central Provinces.

K.B. Lall, Special Administrator for Alwar, meanwhile, sent to the Home Ministry a report on the basis of available evidence which allowed that the rulers of Alwar and Bharatpur were implicated in a plot to topple the Government. Patel decided that the two Princes should be tried by their peers and five of the leading rulers were summoned to Delhi.

As soon as the Princes arrived, they anxiously sought the reason for the call. They were told that the summons was in connection with Gandhi's assassination. This disclosure caused them much alarm. They were taken to Mountbatten, who told them to their great relief that they were personally not suspected of complicity. They had been called to judge the role of Alwar and Bharatpur. The evidence collected was placed before them and they readily agreed that the two Princes should be punished by depriving them of their powers. Matsya Union thus came to be formed and states considered viable were merged for the first time. Then followed other mergers.

The Maharajas of Alwar and Bharatpur might not have been stripped of their powers and Matsya Union created but for the allegations that they had taken part in the massacre and forcible eviction from their lands of Meos, Muslim peasants. This greatly angered Nehru and he was not willing to show sympathy to the two rulers. In fact, Patel told me that had Nehru not reacted angrily, Mountbatten might not have been as helpful as he was in depriving the Princes of their powers and in effecting the changes.

That, however, was not the end of the story. Later the rulers in the Matsya Union planned a secret meeting to consider joint action to regain their powers. As soon as Lall received the news, he rang up the Maharaja of Dholpur, at whose headquarters the meeting was to be held, and said he would like to join him in a hunt for big game. The Prince invited him over at once and Lall reached Dholpur on the day fixed for the secret meeting. His presence acted as a damper to the princely plotters and rung the curtain on further conspiracy. Incidentally, Congress leaders of the area complained to Delhi that Lall was too fond of the company of the former rulers, with whom he ate and drank frequently. They did not realise, however, that by approaching the Princes at the social level Lall had not only got them to do the things the Government wanted but scotched a major plot.

The Sardar also used the proverbial carrot to persuade the rulers of the larger States to sign instruments transferring their powers to the Union Government. He offered them the prospect of becoming a Raj Pramukh, an office similar to that of Governor and the move worked. Rulers like Jamnagar and Patiala, for instance, saw in this an opportunity to become leaders among the Princes and to extend their authority over larger territories than their own hereditary princedoms, The rulers saw from the fate of Alwar and Bharatpur that the new Government would intervene effectively when law and order were threatened and would encourage the growth of democracy. At the same time, they realised that their best bet for retaining personal status, palaces and privy purses lay in giving up their powers as rulers.

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