Author – Sandeep Bamzai
By Ghulam Suhrawardi 7 March 2021
During India’s partition, Pakistan carved out as a Muslim country; little is known about the 565 princely states and what is to be done about them? Some of these states were smaller than 1 square mile. A group of princes did not want to join India or Pakistan. The chancellor of the chamber of princes, the Nawab of Bhopal Hamidullah Khan under Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s patronage, Winston Churchill and Lord Wavell, was pursuing a third dominion called Princestan wherein these princely states would remain outside the ambit of the newly created states of India and Pakistan. However, three leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Mountbatten, and Sardar Patel, fought through every twist and turns to prevent India’s balkanization.
Gandhi was more accommodative with the monarchists. Nehru was an anglophile and was associated with London’s socialists and was also influenced by George Bernard Shaw.
Churchill used Mohammed Ali Jinnah and wanted to write off India. The appointment of Louis Mountbatten as the Viceroy of India paved the way for India to realize Patel and Nehru’s wishes.
Attlee wrote to Mountbatten on 18 March 1947: “It is, of course, important that the Indian States should adjust their relations with the authorities to whom it is intended to hand over power in British India; but as was explicitly stated by the Cabinet Mission His Majesty’s Government do not intend to hand over their powers and obligations under paramountcy to any successor Government. It is not intended to bring paramountcy as a system to a conclusion earlier than the date of the final transfer of power, but you are authorised, at such time as you think appropriate, to enter into negotiations with individual States for adjusting their relations with the Crown. The princely states would be free from orders and treaties of British Rule in India. They can either join the two dominions or stay separate”.
Encompassing various chapters, Sandeep presents a perspective of the different lives caught in this crossfire between the newly independent nation India and its princely states. The book covers how the prince’s plans would have balkanized India and the program to vivisect India was foiled. Churchill called Wavell to his office before he lost the election and told him to make sure that we keep a bid for India alive with a “Princestan.” Sandeep had dug deep into the archives, unpublished materials, and letters while concluding his well-researched book. Mountbatten castigated the princes and told them that they have to sign a standstill agreement with either India or Pakistan as the Dominion is formed.
Nehru emerged as a strong anti-monarchist while Patel demanded Viceroy Mountbatten to get all 565 princely states into the same basket. All these princely states with multiple Presidencies would be quasi-sovereign with sovereignty laid with the British government. VP Menon termed it as the union of the unwilling having a delusion to create Princestan. It appeared like a grand conspiracy against nascent India. Suzerainty cannot return to the entity that is not a sovereign anymore.
Most of these princes were having a lazy life and lived off of the others. If they joined India or Pakistan, they would lose this lifestyle. Once it was getting more explicit about their predicament, some of these princes wanted to enter India and some Pakistan. Nawab of Bhopal wished to join Pakistan. Jinnah offered him the Prime Ministership of Pakistan.
India emerged as a republic. Nehru and Patel did not appreciate the niceties and patience to dialogue with the chamber of princes and their supporters. About Kashmir, Nehru took it as a part of a greater India where one could travel anywhere. But he was open to a referendum on a later date. This is where Patel and Nehru’s breaking point where the former was for outright annexation of Kashmir. They toyed with the idea of keeping Hyderabad and let go of Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah, Nehru, and Congress were against the monarchs, whereas the Muslim League had a cozy relationship with the princes. The Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, negotiated a limited accession maintaining defense, currency, and communication with the center.
Nehru agreed to a plebiscite of Kashmir in 1948. With Sheikh Abdullah on his side, India would have won hands down. The people were against Pakistan as their army raped and pillaged the population. Later India came away from the plebiscite and referendum issue. Kashmir remains a significant dispute between Pakistan and India. There seems to be no resolution of this problem anytime soon.
The British ruled 80 princely states directly. For the princes, it was not an easy option to convert from ruler to a subject. They tried all options to retain their hold onto their states, including becoming a part of a union where the center would cover defense, foreign affairs, and currency. The union of princes agreed to this option, but these got obliterated eventually.
It was the union of India and not the United States of India or a federation of India. The founding fathers believed it should be a union of India. India will not be a federal system. There will continue to be cracks that need to be filled to make the union stronger and solidify India’s unification.
Even though Patel and Nehru had differences in their views, they had tremendous respect for each other. After Gandhi’s death, they had their differences and feelings as to what Gandhi wanted.
The book covers aspects that have been overlooked elsewhere in the history books. Sandeep feels the freedom archives projects should be brought from the UK to India. Materials are scattered all over, including Nehru Memorial Museum & Library and private archives. It is crucial to have a single archive where materials could be collated and provide materials on how India emerged as a republic. Sandeep credits his grandfather, the special correspondent of Blitz between 1944 and 1946, who exposed the Third Dominion story, including in the works of the biographers of Nehru, Patel, and Mountbatten.
The book’s critiques would not like to glorify Patel, credited with India’s partition. Lord Mountbatten nearly united both adherents of India and Pakistan, except Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir. The ripples of the partition still vibrate amongst the peoples of India and Pakistan. Will the younger generation cement the fissures and bring the peoples of old India to some loose federation? We are yet to see.
It is difficult to critique the book. It is a chronology of materials Sandeep dug into both from his grandfather’s and other archives to compile a beautiful piece, an eye-opener to many.