Uneasy heads that wore the crown
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
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
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
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