The political integration of India established a united nation for the first time in centuries from a plethora of princely states, colonial provinces and possessions. The process began in 1947, with the unification of 565 princely states through a critical series of political campaigns, sensitive diplomacy and military conflicts.
When the Indian independence movement succeeded in ending the British Raj on August 15, 1947, India’s leaders faced the prospect of inheriting a nation fragmented between medieval-era kingdoms and provinces organised by colonial powers.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of India’s most respected freedom fighters, as the new Minister of Home Affairs was the man responsible for employing political negotiations backed with the option (and the use) of military force to ensure the primacy of the Central government and of the Constitution then being drafted.
India’s constitution pronounced it a Union of States, exemplifying a federal system with a strong central government. Over the course of two decades following Independence, the Government reclaimed the possessions of the French and Portugal. But the trend changed as popular movements arose for the recognition of regional languages, and attention for the special issues of diverse regions. A backlash ensued against centralization — the lack of attention and respect for regional issues resulted in cultural alienation and violent separatism. The Central government attempted to balance the use of force on separatist extremists with the creation of new States in order to reduce the pressures on the Indian State. The map has been redrawn, as the nature of the federation transforms. Today, the Republic of India is a Union of 28 states and 7 territories.
Without the princely states, the Dominion of India would comprise the provinces of Bombay Presidency, Madras Presidency, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, the Central Provinces and Berar, Assam,Orissa, Bihar, and the chief commissioners’ provinces of Coorg, Ajmer-Merwara, Panth-Piploda, and Delhi. The North West Frontier Province, Sind, and the chief commissioners’ province of Baluchistan would go to Pakistan. The provinces of Bengal and Punjab had been partitioned in 1946, with India retaining West Bengal and East Punjab, the Hindu-majority portions of the larger provinces. West Punjab and East Bengal were heavily Muslim, and went to Pakistan. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Lakshadweep Islands would be turned over to the control of India.
The British government announced in the Indian Independence Act 1947 that with the transfer of power on August 15, 1947, all states would be freed of their obligations to the British Empire, and thus would be free to join either India or Pakistan, or to choose to become independent. The kingdom of Sikkim became a protectorate of India.
Apart from a few which were geographically unalienable from Pakistan, approximately 565 princely states were clearly linked to India, the largest nation. The largest of them included Hyderabad and Kashmir, while 222 states existed in the Kathiawar peninsula alone.
The states comprised more than half of the territory of India and a large proportion of its population. It was believed that without a single federal structure India would be susceptible to political, military and social conflicts.
The British had taken control of India piecemeal and over the course of a century; most of the states had signed different treaties at different times with the British East India Company and the British Crown, giving the British Raj varying degrees of control over foreign, inter-state relations and defence. Indian monarchs accepted the suzerainty of Britain in India, paid tribute and allowed British authorities to collect taxes and appropriate finances, and in many cases, manage the affairs of governance via the Raj’s Political Department.
The princes were represented in the Imperial Legislative Council and the Chamber of Princes, and under law enjoyed relationships described as that of allies, not subordinates. Thus the princes maintained a channel of influence with the British Raj.
The states of Gwalior, Bikaner, Patiala and Baroda were the first to join India on April 28, 1947. Others were wary, distrusting a democratic government led by revolutionaries of uncertain, and possibly radical views, and fearful of losing their influence as rulers.
Travancore and Hyderabad announced their desire for independence while the Nawab of Bhopal, Hamidullah Khan, expressed his desire to either negotiate with Pakistan or seek independence. The Nawab was a powerful influence on a number of princes, as he was the former chancellor of the Chamber of Princes. In addition, Jodhpur, Indore and Jaisalmer conducted a dialogue with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the slated Governor-General of Pakistan, to discuss terms for a possible accession to it.
While this surprised many in both India and Pakistan, neither party could ultimately ignore the fact that these kingdoms were Hindu-majority, which rendered their membership in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan untenable.
Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon devised a formula to propose to the monarchs. The Instrument of Accession was the official treaty to be signed between the Government of India or the Government of Pakistan and the accession candidates. According to the basic tenets of the treaty, the Government of India would control only foreign affairs, defence and communications, leaving all internal issues to be administered by the states. On July 5, 1947, the official policy of the Government of India was released, and stated:
While negotiating with the states, Patel and Menon also guaranteed that monarchs who signed on willingly would be retained as constitutional heads of state, although they would be ‘encouraged’ to hand their power over to an elected government. Once the Instrument of Accession was signed, the state would be represented in the Constituent Assembly of India, thus becoming an active participant in framing the new Constitution.
The princes feared that the Congress would be hostile to the princely order, attacking their property and, indeed, their civil liberties. They were moved to this concern by the fact that a large proportion of Congress was socialist inclination. Patel, no socialist himself, promised personally that the Congress, would not politically attack the Indian princes nor deprive them of any more political power or property than was ‘necessary’ for the stability and unity of India.
For the loss of income (from revenue), the monarchs would be compensated with a privy purse.
The princes were also worried that the guarantees offered by Patel while the British were still in charge would be scrapped after August 15. Patel thus had to promise to include the guarantees of privy purses and limited central powers in the as yet unframed Constitution.
Mountbatten stressed that he would act as the trustee of the princes’ commitment, as he would be serving as India’s head of state well into 1948. Mountbatten engaged in a personal dialogue with the Nawab of Bhopal. He asked through a confidential letter to him, that he sign the instrument of accession, which Mountbatten would keep locked up in his safe. It would be handed to the States Department on August 15 only if the Nawab did not change his mind before then, which he was free to do. The Nawab agreed, and did not renege over the deal.