Under the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms the Princes were organised and the Chamber of Princes was constituted as a consultative body for the benefit of both the Princes and the Paramount Power
By June 1945, as the Second World War was winding down, like gravity, big events had begun to pull the globe in different directions. It had begun to dawn on the British Empire that the war effort over six years had crippled it for two new super powers to emerge from the ashes of history.
As both the United States and Soviet Russia rushed down to swoop on the big prize - Berlin, the map of Europe was to alter dramatically and unequivocally. As the US and Soviet Russia scrapped over who would get what, an invisible line was drawn on earth to signal the collision of two worlds - western Europe and eastern Europe cordoned off by what came to be know as the Iron Curtain. That was the sequestering of Europe, which was to begin shortly, far removed in one of the most outposts of the now enfeebled British Empire - India - there were other more pressing issues dominating mind space.
The countdown to independence had begun with the end of Hitler and still later the end of Japan with the use of the Atom Bomb. The process of decolonisation was triggered off by the war ending. Yet there was consternation in India over lack of clarity of how India would proceed since it was giant mass of land stretching from Afghanistan to Burma where the British ruled directly in the Provinces and indirectly through the axis of Paramountcy in the 565 Princely States. For the Indian National Congress, this was a time of great unease, for while it knew that Independence was coming, its form and shape was most uncertain. It was already combating the rise of a virulent Mohd. Ali Jinnah who was hell bent on carving a theological state out of the mass called India. To subjugate the clump of Princes, several of them extremely powerful, was another headache.
Against this backdrop, a new British offer had at last come to India and as usual there was to be no change in the position and the status of the Indian Princes. “I should make it clear”, thus ran the Viceroy’s (Lord Archibald Wavell) broadcast, “that these proposals affect British India only and do not make any alteration in the relations of the Princes with the Crown Representative. As of old Indian Princes ruling over ten crore Indians will remain a special and a privileged class and whatever constitutional reforms, whether interim or permanent, are proposed and enacted for the country their status and position must remain unchanged.” Surprising as it may seem, even the proposals put forward by various public bodies or private individuals have left the problem of Indian States untouched and have never suggested any basic or far reaching change in the structure and position of Indian Princes. It was amazing how these feudal relics of the past steeped in characteristic medieval garb and presenting shocking conditions of life to their populace are deliberately preserved to serve as imperialist bulwarks; to prevent the unity and socio-economic development of the country and in effect to check the growth of a strong anti-imperialist – movement. The Princes thus came to have a definite place within the imperialist machinery of Britain, for imperialism could not survive without the aid of feudal and reactionary elements. The Indian Princes therefore played their anti-national rump role to the hilt which ran counter to the revolutionary role of the INC while the departing British tried the Machiavellian position to create confusion. While they should have tried to maintain and preserve their Order howsoever primitive and uncivilised it was.
A hundred million Indians tied to the rest of India by the scared ties of race and religion, culture and behaviour were thus compelled to live in these medieval “kingdoms” under conditions, which was not only repugnant to one’s sense of dignity and self-respect but also inhuman and barbarous in the extreme. Irresponsible and autocratic governments ruled over fellow countrymen and the corrupt practices and misrule of their officers exposed yet another ghastly feature of British colonial administration. But “democratic” Britain toed the path of imperialism till the very end, while stoutly pledging their loyal support to the enslaved peoples of Europe to maintain their cruel grip over her dependencies and bolster a decaying system to strengthen that hold.
At this juncture, coming back to the constitutional advancement of India, one found that with the enactment of reforms for the country the Indian Princes were on each occasion given a special position and with the advance of years constituted into powerful reactionary blocs with an overriding and a dominating statutory position. This policy of favoring the Princes and other reactionary elements was not difficult to understand. As the anti-British political movement began to gain strength in India, the importance of Princes and other communal and vested interests began to be understood by the Government. Lord Minto (appointed the Viceroy of India in the year 1905 after the resignation of Lord Curzon and served office till 1910) was probably the first British statesman who realised the importance of the Princes and other communal elements and vested interests as brokers against the great tide of nationalism that had begun to gather momentum. After recognising the Muslims as a “separate entity” he had plans to constitute a council of Princes and had towards this end started discussing things with the prominent Princes. But these ideas did not materialise till after the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (The reforms take their name from Edwin Samuel Montagu, the Secretary of State for India during the latter part of World War I and Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India between 1916 and 1921. The reforms were outlined in the Montagu-Chelmsford Report - Mont-Ford - prepared in 1918 and formed the basis of the Government of India Act 1919) and many years of political upheaval had to pass before the essential significance of the Princely Order as British imperialist bulwarks came to be realized and recognized. While, therefore, under pressure of political action organized by the Indian National Congress, the British conceded certain constitutional reforms to India, they at the same time gradually enhanced the position of the Indian Princes and together with other communal and other interests constituted them into powerful blocs within the constitutional framework of India. No attempt was, however, made to insist upon any internal reforms within the States and the large masses of people living in these States were completely ignored.
Under the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms the Princes were organised and the Chamber of Princes was constituted to serve as a consultative body for the benefit of both the Princes and the Paramount Power. They were made conscious of their rights and position and the Chamber was intended to have “no concern with the internal affairs of the individual States or their rulers.”
With the enactment of the Act of 1935 the Indian Princes acquired still greater importance. To begin with their accession to the – federation was made voluntary which the ruler could do by executing an Instrument of Accession on behalf of “himself, his heirs and successors” only and, strange as it may seem, not on behalf of his people. Further, even after joining the federation, the Princes could reserve large powers to themselves with respect to their States and while enjoying full share of legislation and government in the federation were permitted to lay down “the matters on while the federations to have power to legislate for the State.” And further state the “limitations of that legislative power and of the federal executive power.” The State’s representatives in the federal legislature were to be their nominees while the strength of each State was determined by its population the people themselves were given no right to select these representatives. In the Upper House their strength was to be 40 per cent of the total while in the Lower House they were to have 33 per cent representation. With this statutory position in the federation and such a strong position in the government of the country the reactionary and anti-national role of the Indian Princes can easily be imagined. They held unparalleled power, appropriated over time with the help of British policies, which only strengthened them.
The Sir Stafford Cripps Offer (March 1942) went a step further and granted to the Princes the right to remain out of the Indian Union as autonomous sovereign bodies with direct relations with the Crown. They were to be represented on the Constitution Making Body by their own nominees and in whose selection their people were to have no hand or say. Secondly, while having an equal share in determining the future constitutional and political structure of India, they had the option to withdraw completely into their own States and not only to remain outside the Indian Union but even continue to govern their people autocratically and irresponsibly. The offer never insisted or even implied any change in the system of government in the States much less did it recognise even the existence of a large mass of people living in these States. Lastly, the Offer also implied the retention of foreign troops within the States presumably for the protection of the Princes themselves and as a standing threat to Indian independence and unity. Remarkably, the common folk did not matter and they lived a life in abject penury and serfdom.
This is was then the state of affairs in the Indian States. It raised important questions and grave doubts. Was the freedom of India worth anything without the simultaneous liberation of one fourth of Indian population from this feudal yoke? India’s constitutional or political advancement would have been impossible of achievement and much more difficult to maintain unless the people in the States were also free to exercise their right of self-determination. A nation could not exist half free and half slave and if India’s fight for freedom was to have any meaning it was necessary for us to try to understand the problems of the Indian States and then correlate them with the general problem of India as a whole. This is where Jawaharlal Nehru's role and contribution was invaluable. He understood that India had to be whole and one Union where the Provinces and the Princes were part of the ideal and idea of the new United India. He was fortunate in that Lord Wavell's replacement - Lord Mountbatten - shared his enthusiasm to shackle the Princes and bring them into the larger pool called India. That is why he personally charged three principalities - Nabha (as far back as 1923 where he was brutally incarcerated) Faridkot where the Raja realised it was better to settle with Nehru rather than fight him) and of course Jammu & Kashmir where he went to defend Sheikh Abdullah charged with sedition by the Maharaja, but was instead stopped at the border in Domel and taken into custody in Uri. The flint displayed by Nehru against the corrosive Princes was what led to the assemblage being tripped finally by Mountbatten who read them the riot act in July 1947.
It needs to be mentioned here that the general conditions in these States were shocking and deplorable. Their total number was about 565 while others reckoned it was 584 and only 21 of them had sufficient heft, size and revenues to be able to maintain modern standards of administration and to afford some comforts of life to their people. The rest of them were too small and it is in these small States that the worst form of personal rule prevailed. There was no distinction between the Privy Purse and other general expenses and often it was the ruling family, which consumed the major portion of the revenues. Agrarian reforms, labour legislation and medical relief and education – all facilities were nowhere adequately provided; and even in the big States like Hyderabad, Kashmir and many others there was no satisfactory provision for either medical relief or educational advancement or even rehabilitation and relief. The lives of the individuals had no value in these States and in the smaller States worst forms of official tyranny and despotism prevailed. In Pataudi, a very interesting case of personal misrule was brought to light about two years back. The ruler of the State was said to have taken a sum of Rs.21,000 from some banker of Gurgaon for his marriage and in return had given the banker the contract for Octroi Duties on goods coming into the State for a period for ten years. The case would never have come to public notice but for the newly appointed Chief Minister of the state who armed with the Defence of India Rules decided to terminate the agreement. Considering the size of some of these smaller States it was not difficult to imagine gross misrule and petty jealousies and official tyranny as their essential feature. A hundred or more miles of territory and a few thousands of revenue could not provide a modern State any genuine administration and while it satisfied the political requirements of the British Government, it hardly afforded any relief or comfort or even the very basic needs of life for the few thousands who lived therein.
Civil Liberties were practically non-existent in most of the States. Though many of them had popular political organisations, yet most of them were too small and weak to exercise the primary civic rights. Even among the big States, very few enjoyed full civil Liberties and there was actually no Indian State where Civil Liberties could be understood to have the same meaning as they had in England or America. In Hyderabad, which was said to be the premier Princely State of India, Civil Liberties were practically non-existent. The Government of the Nizam did not permit popular political organisation to function in the State and the history of the Hyderabad State Congress was a record of the successive struggles of the people of Hyderabad to form a broad based popular organisation. The Government dubbed the State Congress as communal while at the same time, all wings of half a dozen militant communal organisation were allowed to function openly. The only fault of the State Congress was that it claimed to be broad based for the people as a whole and further had the attainment of full Responsible Government under the Nizam’s aegis as its objective. The word “Responsible Government” and “popular” were offensive to the Nizam’s government and they expressed it in so many words. Similar political organisations in other States functioned under diverse other restrictions which took the shape of Registration of Societies Act, Defence of State Rules, Public Safety regulations or some other special ordinances. Non compliance with these regulations brought down official wrath on these organisations and made it impossible for them to exist even; while compliance with them meant endless delay and often the postponement or complete suspension of political activity. In another category of States, among which the great State of Hyderabad should be included, there were standing orders, which demanded that no public meeting be convened or no outsider be called in to address a public meeting without the previous written permission of the Government. Applications, for such a permission had to be submitted many days in advance and its operation in Hyderabad at least, had resulted in a severe setback to purely social and humanitarian activities also. It was autocracy at its worst where strong arm tactics were common place.
In the sphere of Constitutional advancement, the States were very much behind the times and though some of the Princes had introduced certain reforms in their States; yet almost all of them made no basic change in the structure or status of the State or the Ruler. With the exception of Aundh, no State Constitution contemplated any change in the position, powers and prerogatives of the ruler. The Cochin Constitution laid down that “all powers …..are hereby declared to be and to have always been inherent in…. and retained by His Highness and nothing…..shall affect…. The right and prerogative of the Ruler……” The Hyderabad Constitution – which was yet to be introduced after six years of announcement – advances a peculiar theory, which, “if accepted or persisted in, would make it impossible for ever to establish…any form of democratic government. “The head of the State”, thus ran the Constitution, “represents the people directly in his own person, and his connection with them, therefore, is more natural and abiding than that of any passing elected representatives. He is both the Supreme head of the State and embodiment of the ‘Peoples’ Sovereignty’. Hence…in such a polity the head of the State not merely retains the power to confirm or veto any piece of legislation, but also enjoys a special prerogative to make or unmake his own executive or change the machinery of government. “Compare with this the declaration of the Ruler of Aundh styling himself the “First Servant and conscience bearer of the people”, handing over the whole government to his people and retaining to himself the powers to conduct relations with the Paramount power and other States. Thus we see that with the exception of this small State, no Ruler had accepted the sovereignty of the people or agreed at least in principle the theory of Constitutional kingship. It was pure unadulterated theatre of the absurd where the Ruler ruled more or less by divine right.
Coming now to the legislatures in these States, one found that these contain important nominated and official elements and where ever official elements have been reduced, undue representation had been given to vested and other interests. Thus such of the States as had introduced any reforms were still in the pre-Montford stage of constitutional development. The powers of these legislatures were none too alluring and most of them had not progressed from the most elementary stage of legislative powers. Their powers were limited to mere interpolations and questions and none of them had the right to propose any financial measures or power or reject a money bill or a budget.
The Executives under these reforms continued to be irresponsible and directly appointed by the Ruler or his advisers. Though a few of them, like Cochin, Mysore, Kashmir and Gwalior, had started the practice of nominating one or two of the elected members of the legislature as the ministers of the State; yet these ministers held their office within the pleasure of the Ruler and had no responsibility to the legislature. The Executive in these “Reformed States” were thus as irresponsible as in the rest of them and the legislatures wherever they were merely mocked Parliaments with no real powers of legislation.
Lastly the franchise in all of them was very low and with the exception of Aundh the fundamental rights of the people had nowhere been recognised. Constitutionally the States were very backward and the few of them that had granted reforms had done so more under public pressure than with any desire to transfer real or even partial powers to the people. The Rulers also chose their Prime Ministers and Advisers well, the same band of cunning men sometimes popped up in different States as key advisers to the Ruler.
Sandeep Bamzai