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Uneasy heads that wore the crown

In the middle of 1940s, while Indian leaders were hard at work uniting Hindus and Muslims, the British were opening another, "more explosive front", to divide India. Hitherto, their targets were the 562 princes for whom Indian independence meant running the risk of losing title, territory and royal privilege.

For Britain, the princes were sitting targets. Their royalty and their divine rights still swayed 90 million Indian subjects. Together they had with them an area larger than the size of Western Europe. Some of them had full nations to themselves - Kashmir, for instance, was larger than France, Travancore more populous than Portugal. Some even had their own armies and currencies. "Their interests needed to be protected in free India as much as the interest of the Muslim minorities in Hindu India."

Whereas the British continued to play the royal card in their attempt to postpone the transfer of power to India, they did not realize, until quite late, that the princes were unpopular and that Indian people had little sympathy left for their kings.

In fact, by the end of the 19th century, after the British had snatched the last vestiges of control from the Indian rulers, there were really no royal duties left for the latter. Though they had feudatory control over their territories, they were always under the watchful eyes of the colonizers. The princes were even barred from continuing their favourite pass time of waging war on their neighbours. Thus deprived, the out-of-work rulers fell upon wasteful ways and were cut-off completely from their subjects and their problems.

Some of the rulers directed their energies into building palaces modeled on Windsor or Versailles and stocking them with trophies from the jungle or luxury goods from Europe. They developed a reputation for eccentricity and depravity. The Nawab of Junagadh, who was loath to spend money on public projects, squandered a small fortune to celebrate the "wedding" of his favorite dog. Annoyed by a salesman's snub, the Maharajah of Bharatpur bought all the Rolls-Royces in a London showroom and turned them into garbage trucks back home. The Maharajah of Alwar, notorious as a sadist, poured kerosene over his polo pony and set the poor animal on fire. The Nizam of Hyderabad, acknowledged as the world's richest man, used egg-sized diamonds as paperweights, while the Maharajah of Gwalior built a 90,000-sq-m palace in which he never lived.

"The British systematically alienated us from the real world. They demolished the capability of the order," laments Arvind Singh of Udaipur, scion of a 1,400-year dynasty that could be the world's oldest.

So when the British realized the futility of their 'royal scheme', they withdrew their support and left the princes to devise their own ways of dealing with the new dispensation under Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.

Left without a mentor, the rulers were hopelessly outfoxed during the negotiations on the transfer of power in 1947. Finally, they had little choice but to cede their kingdoms to the new Indian union. They were allowed initially to retain administrative control, except over communications, defense and foreign affairs. But by 1949, contrary to the assurances given earlier by Nehru's government, they were forced to merge their territories with the Indian provinces.

Maharajas of free India
Unlike the sultans of Malaya, who retained a constitutional position after the British left in 1957, India's maharajahs could retain only their titles and personal assets. To make the surrender less painful, however, they were accorded a few privileges, such as exemption from income tax and the right to a state funeral.

The princes soon discovered, though, that they still could win the respect of their erstwhile subjects. Apart from renewing their claim to "descent" from gods and goddesses and placing themselves at the centre of religious ceremonies, many of the princes also began improving their image as annadata (grain-giver)

"My grandfather used to be under canvas (in a tent) for more than six months of the year, touring his kingdom. He was a man of the people," recalls Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior, a Congress politician who gets elected regularly to Parliament from the former capital of his princely state.

Feeling betrayed by New Delhi in 1949, the princes decided to show Nehru that they could be as adept at the game of democracy as at billiards or polo. When free India's first big elections were called in 1952, several maharajahs jumped into the fray. One even succeeded in giving Nehru's party a fright.

However, when Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi came to power in the late 1960s, she quickly moved against the royals. A public campaign was launched to tar the princes as exploitative and anti-democratic. Breaking pledges given at the time of independence, the government abolished all royal titles and privileges in 1971 and stopped payment of special pensions, called privy purses. Gandhi also set the tax sleuths on her blue-blooded opponents and threw a few in prison. Gayatri Devi was one royal who paid for annoying India's new empress: she served time in New Delhi's notorious Tihar Jail.

Consider the fate of Pravirchandra Bhanjdeo, the 20th Maharajah of Bastar in India's tribal heartland. The Bastar rulers trace their ancestry not just to the moon, but also to Prithviraj Chauhan, the last Hindu king to rule from Delhi in the 12th century. In the 1960s, Bhanjdeo organized impoverished tribals and became immensely popular. The government responded first by declaring him "insane" and stripping him of his royal title. Then, in 1966, as tribal supporters armed with bows and arrows milled around him in his crumbling palace, he was shot and killed in cold blood by police.

Despite such setbacks, the royals had shown they could play a role in democratic India. One study found that blue-blooded candidates enjoy an extraordinarily high success rate of 85% in elections. Amrinder Singh, whose father was the last ruling Maharajah of Patiala, resigned from the Indian Army to enter politics, serving briefly as a minister and working to help end Punjab's secessionist Sikh insurgency in the 1980s. Still an active politician--he left the Congress to join the regional Sikh party, the Akali Dal--he remains committed to his people. "The underlying cause for the insurgency remains," he says. "Educated unemployed youth have been beaten into submission, but how long can they be kept down?"

At the eastern extremity of a far-flung nation lies Tripura, a backward state long neglected by New Delhi and now threatened by angry tribals. As he examines a massive bust of Mussolini presented to his father by the Italian dictator in 1936, Kirit Bikram Dev Burman, former Maharajah of Tripura, observes sadly, "I joined politics because I thought I could help Tripura. After all, it was my state."

The 186th ruler in a thousand-year-old dynasty, Burman had stepped aside to let his second wife, Bibhukumari Devi, take the political spotlight. Though defeated in the Parliamentary elections because of a split within the Congress, she remains confident about her political future. "For a section of the people, we are very dear," she says. "Basically, they know we won't cheat them, won't make money at their expense." That point is endorsed by Jagat Mehta, former Indian foreign secretary whose father worked for the Maharajah of Udaipur: "Maharajahs appear so much more benign, so much more restrained than today's corrupt politicians."  



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