The Downfall of Subcontinent’s Princely States

Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States By John Zubrzycki
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Book Review ‘Midnight’s Playboys’ by Pratinav Anil in The Literary Review: ‘Unruly schoolboys,’ Lord Curzon called them, but then again, he had a penchant for understatement. John Zubrzycki’s new book on India’s last princely rulers is, in fact, Lord of the Flies meets The 120 Days of Sodom. Had Zubrzycki repurposed his material for a novel, he would no doubt have had some stern reviewer scribbling ‘too on the nose’ or ‘uninspired orientalist caricature’ in the margins. Yet the rulers of India’s 562 princely states were for real, and the Raj, resolute on ruling with a light touch, much preferred coexisting with them to conquering them outright.

An index of how quickly they came down in the world is to be found in the fortunes of Hyderabad’s first family. The seventh nizam was possibly the richest man in the world; the ninth was a cameraman on the set of Basic Instinct. 

So it was that a good chunk of the subcontinent – just under half of it, where one in three lived – never came under direct British rule. The pink blotches on the map were offset by a thick impasto of yellow. Here, British ‘paramountcy’ was recognized through the agency of a ‘resident’, who advised the rulers on such matters as defense and foreign affairs. But for practically everything else, the princes were given a free hand. The Manual of Instructions to Officers of the Political Department of the Government of India recommended interference only in instances where misrule reached ‘a pitch which violates the elementary laws of civilization’.

Somehow it never did, which is why they got away with ‘inbred insanity, torture, prostitution, incest, enslavement, conspiracy to murder, and more’. Yes, Dethroned has it all. To be sure, some princes had fairly whimsical quirks. The forelock-tugging ruler of Gwalior, for instance, named his son George after the British king. His counterpart in Bahawalpur, apparently a descendant of the uncle of Prophet Muhammad, boasted a collection of six hundred dildos, which Pakistan’s generals solicitously buried when they deposed him.

Junagadh’s despot, meanwhile, spent a small fortune on the ‘marriage of his favorite bitch Roshana with a handsome golden retriever named Bobby’. Some fifty thousand attended to see the nuptials, the bride swaddled in pearls and the groom’s paws ‘bedecked with gold’. When in 1947 the Indian army sent the ruling family packing, high drama ensued on the runway as one of the prince’s four wives ‘suddenly remembered’ that she had left something behind in the palace. As she left to fetch their missing daughter, the prince promptly boarded two more canines into the private plane and took off without her.

Many more succumbed to the heady cocktail of absolutism and ennui. Even a roué as intimately au fait with the fleshpots of the Muslim world as the seventh nizam of Hyderabad couldn’t content himself with two hundred wives and concubines. Insatiable, incorrigible, he was also given over to voyeurism, though his unsuspecting European guests had no idea that hidden cameras were snapping nudes of them. He could have taught a trick or two to Kashmir’s craven ruler Hari Singh, who was caught with his pants down in Paris with a blonde called Mrs Robinson. The assignation cost him, or rather the public exchequer, £125,000 (£8 million today) in hush money.

Thankfully, taxpayers were spared further extortions, if only because in later years Hari Singh became too obese and indolent to even play polo. Khairpur’s gluttonous ruler, too, would have found himself in Dante’s third circle of Hell. He was so well upholstered that he couldn’t ‘get his face closer than 60 centimeters to the table’. Poor thing. An American journalist who encountered him in a hotel in Simla reported that ‘his paunch was bespattered with soup spilled on its way from the plate to his distant mouth’.

Others explored even darker recesses. In 1925, Alwar’s ruler mowed down five hundred farmers and then torched their village after they had the temerity to protest against his rapacious land tax – an episode far grislier than the Amritsar Massacre of six years earlier. The penultimate ruler of Patiala’s appetite for quail – he devoured twenty-five in a single sitting – was equaled only by his appetite for tax and sex. Some 60 per cent of the state’s income was spent on his sustenance. Bureaucrats were jailed for failing to supply him with a ‘constant stream of young peasant girls for his sexual gratification’. It was left to his son and successor, Yadavindra Singh, to deal with Partition. ‘Death to all Muslims,’ he intoned on learning in 1947 that Pakistan coveted his kingdom, in which Sikhs were the largest group, before leading a conga through his palace. As it was, his problem solved itself. Around the time of Partition, fear whittled down the Muslim population in the Punjab princely states from a million to under fifty thousand. Patiala went to India.

True, not all princes were tyrants. A few made early experiments in electoral democracy and public health care, though they did so in their own de haut en bas fashion. Some even outlawed bigamy, though in our age of polyamory that may no longer sound progressive. Most, however, were anachronistically batty. Small wonder Nehru’s nationalists set about expropriating them after India’s independence. In the 1930s, Gandhi came to the princes’ rescue, but by 1947, the consensus in the Congress party was that their time was up.

At the time power was transferred to Indians, Nehru himself had his plate full, what with shepherding the world’s longest constitution into existence and cavorting with the viceroy’s wife. On Nehru’s counsel, Mountbatten threw the princes under the Buick. The dirty work of ‘integrating’ the princely states fell to the dour, austere, glassy home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, and the Cadillac-driving and Cuban-cigar-smoking states secretary, V P Menon. Arms were twisted and armies thwarted. In the end, all but ten princely states were bullied and brigaded into India.

Decolonization wasn’t pretty, and it is to Zubrzycki’s credit that he controverts the received account of Patel ‘courteously decapitating hundreds of little King Charleses’, like a ‘Hindu Cromwell’. Travancore capitulated only when its dewan was knifed in the head. Hyderabad fell only after some twenty-five thousand Muslims were killed by an Islamophobic occupying army. Patel turned a blind eye to the murder of thirty thousand Muslims in Alwar and Bharatpur. Kashmiris were denied the plebiscite promised to them, their leader was imprisoned for a quarter of a century and a torture-loving gauleiter was installed in his stead.

Zubrzycki tells this tale in operatic mode, reveling in the unencumbered joys of narrative history. He picks up a few dubious sources along the way, including a book by a certain Kwasi Kwarteng (one of his three opuscules written as an MP in 2011 is treated as a vade mecum to Kashmir), but this does not in any way detract from what is a thoroughly entertaining account of decline and fall. In 1947, the princes were pensioned off and allowed to keep their titles, making a mockery of India’s republican pretensions. The coup de grâce was delivered in 1971 by Indira Gandhi, who brought all their privileges to an end. An index of how quickly they came down in the world is to be found in the fortunes of Hyderabad’s first family. The seventh nizam was possibly the richest man in the world; the ninth was a cameraman on the set of Basic Instinct