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Indian Princely States

Starting with the Anglo-French rivalry with the coming of Dupleix in 1751, the East India Company asserted political identity with capture of Arcot (1751).

With the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company acquired political power next only to the Bengal Nawabs. In 1765 with the acquisition of the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the East India Company became a significant political power.


The Princely States represented a unique system of polity, that had developed in India, partly as a result of policy and partly as a result of historical accident. The princely States of India and their relations with the British Government offer no parallel or analogy to any institution known to history. It was neither feudal nor federal, though in some aspects it showed similarities to both. The principal States in India were bound to the British Government by solemn treaties and were spoken of in official documents as allies.

The Indian States included among them every variety of political community ranging from “full-powered sovereign States” of India. They varied in size and importance too—from Jammu and Kashmir, which was bigger than France and Hyderabad, and had a population of 12,000,000, to little States in Kathiawad which consisted of a few acres of land.

Though the rulers of the bigger States were subordinate to the Government of India, their laws were supreme in their own States, and there was no appeal from their courts even to the Privy Council.”

Time and again, at critical junctures, the princes showed themselves as loyal and useful friends of the British. Princely money, princely forces and princely charismatic authority lent vital material and moral support to the imperial cause. ConverselyTheir services were recognized with land grants and special honour. The political relationship between the British and the States had deep roots.

When Lord Cornwallis succeeded to the Governor Generalship, the Company had attained the position of equality with the Indian powers. The main States at that time in India were the Marathas of central and western India, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of Arcot and the Sultan of Mysore. The British maintained relations of a friendly character with the Marathas, who ruled almost whole of central and western India, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Nawab of Arcot; while with Mysore their relations were hardly friendly.

The relative position of the States continued to be the same until the arrival of Wellesley. But among themselves their power and authority had undergone considerable change. The Nizam was reduced to impotence. In the Maratha Empire itself, the balance of power had altered. The central authority of the Peshwa had weakened. The Company after defeating the tripartite alliance of Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh, Shah Alam-II, the fugitive ruler of Mughal Empire, and Mir Qasim of Bengal in the battle of Buxar on 22 October, 1764, got the Dewani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Scindia alone remained a power of first class military importance in Western India and the forces of Holkar held Central India.

The East India Company finally defeated Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799. The position of Hyderabad was also made subordinate when the Nizam was made to sign a subsidiary treaty in 1800. With the Marquis of Hastings, a new period opened in the relations of Indian States with the East India Company.

Though the Company had won in war, it was necessary for the peace of its own territories that neighboring powers should not fight each other on its borders; it assumed the right to arbitrate in disputes of princely States and deprived them of the right to make war. Rulers now signed treaties with the Company not as equals making arrangements of mutual benefit, but as subordinates who would cooperate with the Company in return for its “protection”.

This “protection” extended at that time only to the external affairs of the States. Under the ‘subsidiary system’ the Company forced on the States, a subsidiary force which was to be maintained by the States. The subsidiary force besides demoralizing the administration also provided the Company the opportunity to force the States to give away the portions of their territories to the Company.

When Lord Hastings left India in 1823, the broad outline of what came o be known as princely or Indian India, in contrast to British India, had been defined on British maps. There were three great blocks of what were called native States’ territories. The largest one was the massive conglomeration of Rajput and Maratha-ruled States which spread from Gujarat in the west through Rajasthan to Malwa and Rewa. There was also the outlying group of smaller states north of Delhi, the states of Punjab and some Rajput-ruled States in the Himalayan foothills.

The British were nevertheless anxious to control most coastal tracts, and economically productive area such as the Gangetic plains.

The Government of India pursued, in several marked periods of spectacular aggression followed by periods of hesitation and rest, a policy of enlarging the empire by annexing princely States. The Court of Directors in 1841 enunciated the policy of ‘abandoning no just and honourable accession of territory or revenue as may from time to time present.’

Lord Dalhousie carried this theory into practice with such a determination that ‘he changed the map (of India) with speed and thoroughness. With the result, Awadh, Satara, Nagpur, Tanjore and numerous other States were annexed and became part of the territories of the Company. The additions he made to the British territory in India increased its revenue by four millions and a half sterhng and its area by districts equal to Russia in Europe.

Thus by the second decade of the nineteenth century virtually all the major ‘country powers’ had been linked to the company by treaties. What is more, the essential elements of British paramountcy—the system of residents at the princely courts, the regulation of successions, and control over the States’ foreign affairs—were all laid down in this period. Indeed, by the 1850s, the only big question that still remained to be settled in regard to the States was how many ought to be left intact.

As the British Raj grew more secure, and as the philosophies of evangelicalism and utilitarianism cast their spell, officials who had once cautiously advocated keeping a “ring fence” of friendly States around the company’s territories, now argued forcefully for their extinction on the grounds that native rule—”oriental despotism”—fell short of the “standards of the civilizations” to which the people of India were entitled.

If events had not intervened, the remaining States would probably have suffered the same fate as befell Satara, Jhansi, Nagpur, Awadh and the Punjab between 1848-1856.

Policy of Ring Fence (1765-1813)

This policy was reflected in Warren Hastings’ wars against the Marathas and Mysore, and aimed at creating buffer zones to defend the Company’s frontiers.

The main threat was from the Marathas and Afghan invaders (the Company undertook to organise Awadh’s defence to safeguard Bengal’s security). Major powers such as Hyderabad, Awadh and the Marathas accepted subsidiary alliance. Thus, British supremacy was established.

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