Conquering the Maharajas: India’s Princely States and the End of Empire, 1930-50

Under Contract – Studies in Imperialism, Manchester University Press

At independence in August 1947, both India and Pakistan confronted a vast mosaic of different political units: directly administered districts, largely unadministered tribal areas on British India’s northwestern and northeastern frontiers, enclaves ruled by different European powers such as Portuguese Goa and French-ruled Pondicherry, and hundreds of princely states ruled over by India’s maharajas, rajas, khans, and nawabs. The over 560 princely states dotting the political landscape of India were no minor or inconsequential feature of the British Raj, as they comprised around 40% of its total territory and contained nearly 100 million people.

Yet, the position of India’s princely states is a relatively under-studied aspect of the British withdrawal from the Subcontinent and the early years of Indian and Pakistani independence. Far from playing second fiddle to the nationalist parties in British India, the princely states played an integral role in the tumultuous events leading up to the transfer of power in 1947 and following it. Within the British Raj, the princely states were politically autonomous with recognized sovereignty through treaties with the British Crown, and therefore, the rulers of each state had to be convinced, cajoled, and, in some cases, forced to accede to either India or Pakistan. The princely states quickly became a thorn in British and Indian plans for the transfer of power. Many of the autocratic princes were only too happy to maintain the political status quo under British rule with many opposing the efforts of the democratically minded Indian National Congress and its plans for an independent India, fearing the repercussions for their sovereignty.

As the British hastened their exit from the Indian Subcontinent in the summer of 1947, ensuring the accession and political integration of the many princely states was one of the major challenges occupying the attention of the departing British officials and the new Indian and Pakistani governments. Goaded on by past British promises and the ambiguity of British policy, some princes contested the successor governments’ sovereignty over their states and asserted their right to declare independence. As Indian and Pakistani authorities sought to decolonize government institutions and assert the writ of the central government, the princes’ positions set the stage for political and military clashes with Indian and Pakistani authorities based in competing conceptions of state sovereignty. The post-colonial governments saw the princes’ efforts to preserve the layered sovereignty of British colonial rule as a threat to the security, political unity, and territorial integrity of the new nations.

Relying on extensive archival research and in-depth case studies of the four princely states most resolute in their opposition to accession to India or Pakistan (Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad, Junagadh, and Kalat), Conquering the Maharajas tells the often-overlooked history of Princely India through the tumultuous end of British Empire in South Asia and the early years of Indian and Pakistani independence. As the noted Indian diplomat K.M. Panikkar once remarked, “Any account of the last days of princely rule will sound incredible today.”