Gold cannons and a poison plot (19 October 2019)

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 19 2019)

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For a few hours on 28 April 1875, the capital of princely Baroda found itself gripped by an anti-British revolt. The state’s ruler, Malhar Rao Gaekwad, had been deposed less than a week before, with the wheels set in motion to adopt a new heir to the royal gaddi. But acolytes of the ex-maharaja made one final attempt to thwart the colonial establishment’s designs. With the aid of the palace guard, they took charge of the infant son of the junior maharani, Lakshmi Bai, and invigorated by the blessings of senior queen Mahalsa Bai, installed him on the throne. It was a hopeless enterprise, though, for no sooner did British troops appear at the gates than the rebellion was aborted. And in two days’ time, both maharanis and the would-be prince were put on a train and shipped out from Baroda into dignified oblivion.

Malhar Rao’s dramatic fall from power quite matched the colourful standards he had set in other areas of his life. Born in 1831, by his early 30s he had been incarcerated far from the palace after a botched attempt to murder his reigning brother. The latter was not a particularly talented ruler, but loyalty to the British during the great rebellion of 1857 prevented too much imperial interference, leaving the maharaja free to pursue his love of gems and jewels—in 1867, he purchased one of the largest diamonds in the world, becoming famous also for casting cannons made of pure silver. His death in 1870, however, meant his treacherous brother was released and propelled to power. And among the first things Malhar Rao ordered were two fresh cannons, this time made of gold.

Baroda under Malhar Rao went from bad to worse. In 1874, it was discovered, for instance, that though revenue stood at 94 lakh, the ruler had managed to spend nearly twice that figure: 40 lakh had been distributed to his favourites, and another 30 lakh had been spent on palaces. A little later, when the British agent at court inspected the treasury, he found less than 2,000 within, while 85 lakh was hidden in the harem. “Misgovernment at Baroda is the crying evil of Guzerath,” cried the weekly Hitechhu, noting more “caprice and savageness” in Malhar Rao than in “his barbarous predecessor”. The state troops had not been paid and were on the verge of mutiny, and even nobles at court were disgusted by the manner in which they were squeezed dry by the maharaja’s henchmen.

For Malhar Rao, things became particularly bad when the British appointed a colonel called Robert Phayre as their representative in 1873. As the viceroy himself later acknowledged, this man “did not show sufficient consideration” to the ruler and was most arrogant. But the maharaja’s conduct was not defensible either. He was sadistic in dealing with his predecessor’s servants: a minister, for instance, was deprived of all his property and made to “sweep the drains of the city”, after which he died mysteriously in prison. Complaints by the dozen were lodged with the British on how women had been seized and compelled to serve in the palace. Muslim as well as Brahmin girls, as young as 13 and 14, had been picked off the streets: in one instance, the wife of a merchant locked herself in a temple to escape this fate. Appalled, even the ruler’s daughter left the capital.

While, in 1873, Malhar Rao referred to Phayre as “my best friend”, it was clear from the onset that this relationship would not be anything but antagonistic. Startled by the latter’s reports, that year the British instituted a commission to inquire into conditions in Baroda, despite the maharaja’s appeals not to humiliate him in this fashion. In the end, while the commission noted some exaggerations in the 92 complaints against the ruler, it also found that much was true: 200 witnesses were cross-examined, and it was confirmed that “respectable married and unmarried women” had indeed been abducted; there was “unusual harshness” in the style of government; creditors were not being paid their dues; and force was used to wantonly harass bankers and wealthy citizens.

With newspapers, including the “native press”, clamouring for his removal, Malhar Rao grew nervous: In August that year, he had even fallen at Phayre’s feet and “taking off his cap, burst into a violent fit of sobbing”. Malhar Rao imported Dadabhai Naoroji to serve as minister, but with poor results: Boxed in by a domineering British official and a prince still in the hands of his favourites, Naoroji chose to resign. By late 1874, things were unusually bad, not least because the British refused to recognize Lakshmi Bai as a legitimate maharani: Her caste was questionable, she had allegedly been married before, and rumour had it that she was a mere labourer before being snatched for the harem. Before the end of the year, Malhar Rao wrote to the viceroy complaining about Phayre’s “uncompromising bias against me”, while the latter almost simultaneously sent in the ominous message: “Bold attempt to poison me…has been providentially frustrated.”

This, then, became the straw that broke the royal back. In 1875, a second commission came to Baroda to investigate this charge of attempted murder, featuring three British grandees as well as two maharajas and a leading Indian statesman. Over 50 witnesses were examined. It was confirmed that servants in Phayre’s household had indeed tried to poison him; that these men were in contact with the maharaja; and that they had been paid large sums. But whether this meant Malhar Rao had given the actual order split the commissioners: The Indian members felt there was no conclusive evidence, while their British colleagues held the ruler guilty. In the end, Malhar Rao was deposed anyway, not for attempted murder, but for “notorious misconduct” and “gross mismanagement of the State”. Quietly, the maharaja was sent into exile in Madras far away. And here he died an embittered pensioner in 1882, unmourned in the state where his gems and cannons remained.

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