The princes in a socialist republic (09 February 2019)

(My column in Mint Lounge, February 09 2019)


In December 1971, Indira Gandhi famously abolished India’s princely order, terminating the privileges enjoyed by retired maharajas and nawabs since the integration of their states in 1949. To uphold titles, “customary rights, special privileges and privy purses without any relatable functions and responsibilities” was, in her mind, “incompatible” with “the spirit of the times”. Debate on this had begun well before, in fact, and, by 1967, there was considerable sparring in Parliament. The Bengali Communist leader, Bhupesh Gupta, for instance, described privy purses as “blood money” to feed a “parasitic class”, thundering that the Indian state was not an instrument to subsidize royal harems. Others, like Dahyabhai Patel of Gujarat, argued that reneging on a constitutional guarantee was not becoming of our nation. Would the government, he asked, “repudiate one by one all the agreement(s) that it has made, all the covenants it has entered into”? What authority would the state’s word possess in sensitive cases such as Kashmir, then?

Beyond contentious privileges—ranging from reserved pastures for their horses to immunity from legal prosecution—many were the constitutional issues involved in dissolving official recognition of India’s maharajas. In fact, Mrs Gandhi’s initial attempt had failed after the Supreme Court intervened, following which it was decided to amend the Constitution and discard the provisions standing in her way. And so it was that in the winter of 1971, the princes were relegated to the margins of history. Indeed, in one of her speeches in Parliament, Mrs Gandhi encouraged umbrageous maharajas to actually supporther—which, she averred, would leave them looking “considerably enhanced” in public estimation—instead of aching for gun salutes and vanities in a country so poor. The princes, predictably, were not pleased with her unsolicited advice, but it was too late: Mrs Gandhi carried the day, and with that the President ceased to recognize any more “rulers”.

Of course, India would not be India if broad legal positions translated immediately into lived reality. For there are still princes around the country who continue to be “recognized” and enjoy special rights despite Mrs Gandhi’s triumph in 1971. Indeed, even princely lines which were derecognized boast of public prestige and political power: Of the Scindias of Gwalior, the last maharani was a stalwart of the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, while her son and grandson went on to become leading politicians in Mrs Gandhi’s own party. In Mysore, a man was adopted in 2015 to “succeed” to what is strictly a non-existent title, essentially because the position retains religious and social significance. So too in Jaipur, the princely state whose maharani was at the receiving end of unusual hostility during Mrs Gandhi’s emergency rule, there is a 20-year-old titular maharaja, who holds in trust palaces and an extraordinary art collection, commanding considerable local reverence.

But if these are instances of princely descendants possessing respect for reasons of faith, custom or wealth, in Chennai resides a personage who is still recognized officially by the President. “His Highness the Prince of Arcot” is, even in 2019, a legal entity, with the perks of a Tamil Nadu cabinet minister. “Other special privileges,” a 1991 India Today feature noted, “include a full police escort, a state funeral” and some exemptions of income and motor vehicle tax. The arrangement may seem at odds with 1971, but Arcot was never affected by Mrs Gandhi’s zeal to begin with: That was aimed at princes who entered into agreements with the Indian union in 1949. Arcot’s status, as it happens, was decided well before. When, in 1855, the nawab of the Carnatic died, the East India Company annexed his territories under the notorious Doctrine of Lapse. The dead ruler’s uncle, who claimed succession under Islamic law, protested. And so, in 1871, a compromise was designed by which the uncle was created “Prince of Arcot”, with an allowance and specific prerogatives. The state’s obligations to his heirs were passed on by the British to independent India, the result of which is that the “prince” still enjoys legal sanctity in our anomalous democracy.

Kerala too is full of petty royalty with de facto recognition. For instance, while the privy purse of the Travancore maharaja was abolished in 1971, individual allowances settled on his family members by V.P. Menon, the civil servant who assisted Sardar Patel, are still disbursed: A niece of the maharaja, for instance, was aged 9 when the state merged with the Union. She was granted 833 per month then; today, at nearly 79, she still receives a stipend, raised to 3,250 in 2009. In north Kerala, meanwhile, treaties executed by the East India Company guide official obligations. When taking over Malabar, the Company had agreed to pay its princes certain sums in perpetuity. The Company disappeared after the rebellion of 1857, but its commitments were inherited by its successors: first, the British Crown and then the Indian Republic. So, even today, there is a “Zamorin of Calicut” entitled to about 5,000 per month according to an 1806 agreement; eight other title-holders in his 826-person family also receive pensions. As each incumbent dies, another succeeds and the state dutifully pays its legal dues to the newest arrival in this titular royal court.

The case of these surviving princes in our socialist republic is, in some ways, reflective of the countless ironies that make up Indian democracy. India remains, in many ways, a marriage of awkward histories and feudal legacies with the idealism of liberal thought and constitutional values. They do not sit easily with each other always, and sometimes jostle with force to make their presence felt. And yet the enterprise moves forward, one way or another: which perhaps explains why, even as we celebrate a Dalit president, newspapers descend into a frenzy at the advent of babies to freshly adopted maharajas; how even as a “chaiwallah” rises against the odds to become prime minister, there are princes and rajas to whom his government still owes a royal pension.

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