According to the narration of VP Menon, the integration of princely states into the rest of India was supervised not just by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his cabinet but by the Constituent Assembly in which the princely states held a considerable number of seats. Governor-General Earl Louis Mountbatten not only continued to live in New Delhi until June 1948 but signed the Instruments of Accession and Standstill Agreements on behalf of India.
Until 26 January 1950, India was a dominion under the United Kingdom and not a republic. Indian Army which is often claimed to be commanded by Sardar Patel was in fact under the control of Mountbatten (later under Rajaji) and it had British generals until January 1949. It was Mountbatten and Douglas Gracey (CoGS, Pakistan Army) who prevented the Pakistani Army’s direct involvement during the crucial early days of Kashmir Conflict. As is the case now, even in 1947 the Indian Army reported to the Ministry of Defense under Baldev Singh and not Sardar Patel’s Home Ministry.
The constitutional process for integrating the princely states into the then British India had begun with the Government of India Act of 1935. Linlithgow who championed the act through British Parliament became the Viceroy of India in 1936. VP Menon had served under Linlithgow during this time. As part of the implementation of the act, the elections for the provincial assemblies were held in 1937.
When it came to the princely states, however, Linlithgow was hamstrung by various treaties and agreements executed between the Crown and the rulers of those States. In the Discovery of India, Nehru characterized these treaties signed by some generals of a bygone era as irrelevant. None the less much of the formula down to the Privy Purses was established before World War and later resumed by Nehru’s government in which Sardar Patel was a minister who in turn appointed VP Menon as a deputy.
For all the evils of the Indian Independence Act of 1947, it also offered opportunities for India where most of the princely states were located. The first of those opportunities was that the act recognized two and only two dominions: India and Pakistan. Much is made of likes of Hyderabad Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan wanting to be independent and of Sardar Patel’s supposed heroism. That question was answered firmly and effectively by Mountbatten himself. Each monarch was told to execute the Instrument of Accession with one of the two dominions before 15th August to be treated fairly.
Until that meeting, every one of the 560 monarchs (not just Hyderabad or Kashmir) hoped to be independent of both dominions of India and Pakistan, and with the equal status under British Crown. Mountbatten had also stipulated that the accession should be subject to geographic contiguity, which sealed the fate of most princely states like Hyderabad since they had no geographic contiguity with Pakistan. But states like Kashmir which bordered both India and Pakistan had options and decisions to make.
The second implication of the Act of 1947 was that the Paramountcy of the Crown over the princely states would lapse, voiding all the treaties that constrained Linlithgow. Congress who already formed the interim government by September 1946 was at first nervous about the lapse of Paramountcy, which they wanted to be transferred to India. In theory, when Paramountcy expires, monarchs become independent and will not be obligated to join India or Pakistan for that matter.
But Mountbatten iterated that the Crown will have no relation with the princely states which makes their existence untenable. Pressure mounted on the monarchs even earlier when Nehru declared in his last (1946) Presidential Address at the All India States Peoples’ Conference (AISPC) that those princely states that refuse to merge with India and join the Constituent Assembly will be considered hostile states.
The instrument of Accession was only the first step in integration. The terms of Instrument of Accession gave great autonomy to the princely states, limiting Indian control to; Defense, External Affairs, and Communications. A series of events took place until the States Reorganization Act of 1956 which gave India an increased grip over these states and gradual integration. The integration of Sikkim would drag on until 1975 when the Prime Minister was Indira Gandhi.
The second major step in integration was to force each of the monarchs to depute a “responsible government” with autonomous powers that resembled the provincial governments under the direct rule of the central government. Detractors have often misrepresented this planned transformation from autocracy to democracy in Kashmir as Nehru favouring Sheikh Abdullah at the expense of Maharaja Hari Singh.
Within a few months, in the third major step, the central government began retiring the monarchs by offering them Privy Purses and ceremonial titles of “Rajpramukh“. Smaller states were grouped into confederations for ease of administration. While the central government had argued that the civil unrest in the princely states required direct involvement, the formula had been in the works since 1937. At later steps, these confederations were absorbed into neighbouring provinces which in turn were reorganized as linguistic states.
Sardar Patel, of course, was involved with these events until he died in 1950. As the minister in charge, his role was to manage the politics in Delhi and the Constituent Assembly. Given the sheer number of the princely states, this was an overwhelming task in itself. Patel was also the Minister of Home Affairs who had to manage the unparalleled unrest across the country that started with Jinnah’s Direct Action and continued for many months after the Partition.
The trench work was done by VP Menon, neighbouring provincial governments, and other colleagues in Constituent Assembly, Congress, and AISPC. For example, the Privy Purse negotiation with the Deccan States was delegated to Dr Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya and Rajendra Prasad. Having served earlier as an adviser to the Viceroy, VP Menon had direct access to Mountbatten who guided the process himself until his departure in June 1948. After the death of Sardar Patel, the work was continued by Gopalaswami Ayyangar who succeeded Patel as the Minister of States.
The population of the princely states was nearly equal to that of the British administered provinces. The people shared languages and customs across the boundaries, travelled for business and education, and intermarried. It is naive to believe that while everyone in the British administered provinces has given up their careers and families for freedom and self-determination, those living in the princely states simply waited for the arrival of Sardar Patel.
During the freedom struggle, the activities of the Indian National Congress were largely confined to the British administered provinces. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first national leader to recognize that the destiny of the Princely States was linked to Provincial India. While Mahatma Gandhi himself was born and raised in princely states of Porbandar and Rajkot, he confined his political struggles to Provincial India.
By 1939, Nehru became the permanent President of AISPC which was an umbrella organization for freedom struggles against the rulers of the princely states who were allies of the British. AISPC demanded not just participatory democracy within the states but integration with independent India.
One can only be delusional to argue that the Prime Minister of India as well as the popular leader of the people of the princely states, had no role in the integration of princely states. A Telugu proverb states, “not even ant bites without Mahadev’s orders”. Constituent Assembly had a States Committee of which Nehru was the Chairman. The very job of the States Committee was to negotiate with the princely states.
Note: Originally published here.