There were so many princely states in India that there was a disagreement even as to their number. Some historians say that there were 521 provinces, while some put the number over 550. On one end of the scale were the massive states of Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagarh, each of the size of an European country; on the other end, tiny chiefdoms, or Jagirs, comprising a dozen or fewer villages.
These states owed their mid-twentieth-century shape and powers to the British. Starting as a group of traders, the East India Company had eventually moved towards a more authoritative position. The political dependence of these princely states was controlled entirely by the British. From the 1920’s, the Congress leaders pressed the former to at least beseech the British in being allowed a small political representation. Under the Congress, umbrella rested the All India States People Conference.
When, on June 3rd, 1947, it was announced that India would be liberated, the princely states were given a choice: they could either remain independent or join the new Dominion of India or the soon to be born state of Pakistan. The decision received a very ambivalent reaction: for some, it was a no-brainer—they decided to be part of the new Dominion of India; for others, however, the decision presented a dilemma. Under the pressure of the popular State People’s Movements and guided by the masterful diplomacy of Sardar Vallabhai Patel and V.P. Menon, most states acceded to India. Sardar Patel handled efficiently the integration of the princely states with his diplomatic skills and foresightedness. The problem of amalgamating over 550 independent states with a democratic self-governing India was difficult and delicate. He broke the unity of separatist princes. By August 15, 1947, all states except Hyderabad, Junagarh and Kashmir acceded to India.
Hyderabad began life as a Mughal vassal state in 1713. Its ruler was conventionally known as the Nizam. 85% of the state’s population was Hindu, but Muslims dominated the army, police and bureaucracy. The Nizam, Osman Ali Khan Asif Jah VII, a Muslim ruler who presided over a largely Hindu population, choose to continue as an Independent state. His ambitions, if realized, would virtually have cut off north India from the south. Sardar Patel, in his own words, called an independent Hyderabad a “cancer in the belly of India”. The state congress, however, demanded that Hyderabad fall into line with the rest of India. The Nizam had the Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, which wished to safeguard the position of Muslims in administration and politics. Kasim Rizvi, the leader of the Razakars (volunteers of Ittehad-ul-muslimeen), told Sardar Patel that if the government pressurized the Nizam into signing the instrument of succession, the Hindu community in the state would face the consequence.
When the Nizam boasted of anti-India feelings and let loose a blood bath spearheaded by the Razakars, Patel decided upon police action. He ordered the army to march into Hyderabad. Indian forces took over in just five days. The mission, called ‘Operation POLO’, led to massive communal violence, with hundreds losing their lives. Eventually, however, the Nizam surrendered, and Hyderabad acceded to India.
Kashmir, being a border state, had yet to decide its fate. The then monarch, Maharaja Hari Singh, a Hindu ruler of a majority of Muslim population, decided that Kashmir would remain an independent state. On 22nd October 1947, however, locals and tribal men backed by Pakistan invaded Kashmir. The Maharaja tried to ward off the attack, but at last appealed for assistance to the Governor General Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten agreed to help on the condition that Kashmir had to accede to the Indian dominion.
The instrument of accession was signed on 26 October 1947 and accepted the next day. Once the document was cemented, Indian soldiers entered Kashmir in order to evict the raiders.
This, however, was one of the many relationships that saw a dead end amidst political agony. Kashmir still sees the conflict on a daily basis and has been a major bone of contention between the nations of India and Pakistan.
Among the states that had not signed the Instrument of Accession was Junagadh, which lay in the peninsula of Kathiawar in western India. Like Hyderabad, Junagarh had a Muslim ruler and a primarily Hindu population. Its main port was 325 nautical miles from the Pakistani capital of Karachi, which was another reason that sparked the new government’s worry.
The Nawab of Junagadh, Mohammad Mahabat Khanji III, was an eccentric character. In the summer of 1947, while he was on holiday in Europe, the existing Diwan was replaced by Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, a leading Muslim League politician from Sindh, who had close associations with the Pakistan government. After the Nawab returned, Bhutto pressed him to join Pakistan and stay out of the Indian union.
On 14th August 1947, Nawab Khanji chose to accede to Pakistan, citing that Junagadh adjoined Pakistan by sea. V.P. Menon went to negotiate with the Nawab, but the ruler refused to see him due to an illness. Menon met with Diwan Shah Nawaz instead, who said that he would favour the issue being decided upon by a referendum.
After the meetings failed, a provisional government was setup in Junagadh. The government became the wheel of popular agitation against the Nawab, who had, in the meanwhile, fled to Pakistan. After a few days of contentions, the Diwan announced that the administration of Junagarh would officially be handed over to the Indian government. The Indian government organized the plebiscite. Consequently, a referendum in February 1948 resulted in over 90% of the electorate votes being in favour of the state acceding to India.
With great skill and diplomacy, and using both persuasion and pressure, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel succeeded in integrating hundreds of princely states into the Indian union. However, one must not forget the considerable role played here by the existence, or at least the potential presence, of mass pressures. Some states had shown realism and nationalism by joining the Union in 1947. The majority of princes, however, had stayed away and a few, such as those of Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad, had publicly announced their desire to claim an independent status. The former rulers were given the title of “Raj Pramukhs”. Additionally, they were allowed to retain their personal privileges, along with tax free privy purses.
This is largely how the present India came into existence. After attaining independence from the foreign rulers, as well as from the Indian ones, the people of India established their own rule, that is, democracy.
Today, with faith in their own ability and their will to succeed, the people of India are set to change the face of their country and build a just, egalitarian and good society.