On 5th September 1970, a bill to abolish the practice of Privy Purses in India lost by one vote to reach the one-third majority in Rajya Sabha. Simultaneously, the Supreme Court stated that the derecognition of Privy Purses is unconstitutional. This led to certain decisions which changed the fate of the country’s constitutional history. Right after the Supreme Court’s verdict, Indira Gandhi was furious with the non-conformist decision and called for fresh elections. The famous ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan was roaring across the country and the Iron Lady of India came back to power with a stunning 352 Lok Sabha seat mandate. This was the beginning of the infamous constitutional changes, one of them being the abolition of privy purses.
But this curious case has its beginning in the struggles of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon, two of the many unsung heroes, to bring India together. This is a curious case of the establishment of a nation known as India by bringing together more than 550 princely states.
The story begins when over 550 Princely States acceded to India on 15th August 1947. These Princely States covered 48% of the Indian territory and housed 28% of the Indian population. In addition, the cunning British Government passed legislation known as the India Independence Act, 1947 which gave the princely states the right that “They can either join the two dominions or stay separate.” Hence, the integration of India became the main agenda of the newly formed Government of India as well as of the Indian National Congress. V.P. Menon and Sardar Patel were given the task to integrate the princely states into a nation. Their diplomacy, pressure, threat and final resort to violence integrated the nation. The diplomacy gave rise to the middle ground called Privy Purses. As Dewan Jarmani Dass of Kapurthala says:
“Thus the rulers surrendered their sovereignty and as a quid pro quo they were granted handsome Privy Purses and other privileges.”
In general terms, Privy Purses were a bargain, majorly a monetary bargain to uphold the sovereignty of the Indian state. In his own words, Sardar Patel said that it is a small price for the integration of India.
According to Article 291 and 362 of the Indian Constitution, Privy Purse is a fixed, tax-free amount guaranteed to the former princely rulers and their successors. The sum was intended to cover all expenses of the former ruling families, including those incurred for religious and other ceremonies, and would be charged on the Consolidated Fund of India. Privy Purses were determined by several factors such as the state’s revenue, whether the state had been ranked as a salute state under the British Raj or not, the antiquity of the dynasty, and so on, which resulted in approx ¼ of their earlier earned revenue.
In Maharaja: The Lives, Loves, and Intrigues of the Maharajas of India, Jarmani Dass writes.
“Minor feudatories of the erstwhile princely states received whatever little allowances the princely governments had been providing them. For the 565 princely states, Privy Purses ranged from 5000 Rupees per annum to amounts in millions. 102 Privy Purses were of more than a lakh rupees with an upper ceiling of 2 lakh rupees for all except 11 states. Only six of the most important Princely states in India were provided with Privy Purses above 1,000,000 Rupees: Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Baroda, Jaipur, and Patiala. For certain other states, while certain amounts were guaranteed for the time being, it was liable to be reduced soon after. Thus Hyderabad which received initially a Privy Purse of Rs. 4,285,714 was a few years later guaranteed a Rs. 2,000,000 purse.”
As suggested, the government reduced the amount of allowance with every coming generation.
The idea to abolish the practice existed since independence, but Nehru explicitly said that the government will honour its side of the deal. But Indira Gandhi believed otherwise. She believed that these practices shouldn’t be part of the egalitarian system and are pro-rich policies. She started her attempt to abolish the Privy Purses but failed multiple times, to the level of frustration. Hence the Prime Minister received a lot of backlashes for the attempts. Many princes and royalties joined various political parties against Congress. Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, also known as Tiger Pataudi- the Nawab of Pataudi, Madhavrao Scindia, Vijyaraje Scindia of Gwalior are few to mention, who even contested elections against the amendment. With her General Assembly election’s astonishing win, she was roaring. Therefore, the 26th constitutional amendment formally abolished the practice of Privy Purses.
There was a lot of political turmoil which took place after the 1971 general election win. Indira Gandhi passed several other amendments to hinder the constitution directly. These amendments led to the famous Kesavanand Bharati Judgement, and then the Allahabad High Court Judgement and eventually, Emergency. The Emergency gave her the freedom to extend her power to an unprecedented reach. All this infamous history has its root in the quest to abolish Privy Purses and to nationalise the banks.
The royalty of England is still funded by the government for all the luxuries and necessities, as the queen is officially the head of the state. Whether it is fair or not on England’s part is their question to ask. Although, I believe it was a necessity in India to abolish the Privy Purse simply because of two arguments:
Firstly, India was a modern socialist economy and hence it should have given everyone the equal right to earn equally: Article 15. Privy purses were an arrangement made by our first Home and State affairs ministry, Sardar Patel, to integrate India. Therefore, it was crucial for India to change with time and not to live in the past.
Secondly, it impacted the revenue of the Government of India. During that time, there were droughts, famines, simultaneous need for the agricultural revolution, population growth and also the 1971 refugee influx. The country needed the capital which could be invested in the process of eradicating poverty and help in economic growth instead of fulfilling the decades-old bargain.
The amount was definitely a part of the bargain but would that bargain have been fair to the generation which would be impacted by this exchange of money? The answer is quite firm and clear: No. Nevertheless, the case of Privy Purse remains curious.