The Kingdom of Mysore was among the larger and more significant kingdoms to fall to the British in the eighteenth century. In the fateful fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1799, Tipu Sultan defeat and death at British hands brought a mixed legacy to the future of Mysore. An accurate reading of history reveals that the Wodeyar dynasty, which had uninterruptedly ruled Mysore for about five centuries, had lost its freedom at the hands of a mercenary named Hyder Ali, father of Tipu Sultan. Thus, when the British liberated Mysore from these usurpers, they in a way, restored the old order of the Wodeyars at the cost of extinguishing their freedom. In doing this, the British were merely following the same formula that had yielded them great successes earlier in Bengal and Malabar: (1) demanding complete political subservience by appointing British Residents in these states (2) extorting substantial revenues as the cost for giving protection to these states. Both (1) and (2) were accomplished through treaties and agreements that were patently unjust to these states. While the now-nominal Maharajas and Princes scrupulously honoured these treaties in both letter and spirit, the British violated them at will and convenience.
After the fall of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839, the capitulation of the other kingdoms was swift to the extent that on the dawn of the 1857 national war of resistance, a British multinational corporation had become the de facto ruler of an entire country.
When the British crown took over the administration of India in 1858, it retained some of the key precedents that the East India Company had pioneered in order to administratively exploit India to the most effective extent possible. Of these, the aforementioned treaties occupied a top slot. The parts of India that the British controlled directly (known as British India) posed little problem initially. However, the Princely States (or Native States) were the source of infrequent friction for various reasons as we shall see.
Neither were these treaties and their terms uniform for all Princely States. It must be remembered that the treaties were the outcomes of war, and the circumstances of each war were different. However, what was uniform was the manner in which the British drafted these treaties to the permanent disadvantage of these States. In many cases, new “treaties” were invented on the spur even after the State was completely subjugated. The vile Doctrine of Lapse concocted by Dalhousie is a representative sample. In reality, this was an imperialist method, which under the veneer of respectability, was actually a trickery to enable the political annexation of a Princely State where the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir.” Needless, it was not difficult to find reasons to “prove” the said incompetency. In about thirty-five years, thirty-three Princely States were effortlessly annexed by the British using this alleged doctrine.
The other, equally vile facet of this trickery in peacetime was to make all sorts of unfair demands on the Princes citing some clause of a treaty as the justification for the demand as we shall see.
To get an overall estimate of the situation, we can recall the fact that the Princely States occupied one-third of (undivided) India’s landmass inhabited by one-fourth of her population. To put this in numbers, it was an area of about six lakh square miles with a population of seven crores. This vast geography was controlled by British Residents and British bureaucrats who had almost an autocratic veto over the Princely States. Indeed, there is an independent book waiting to be written on the kind of havoc these officials wreaked upon Indians. A favourite device the Residents used in order to torture the Prince or the Diwan was to write an unending stream of complaining letters to the Viceroy.
The press too, had to operate under truly extenuating circumstances. Even if an article or opinion piece was merely deemed offensive to the British, the press office itself would be seized and sealed and the editor thrown in prison with little or no redress.
On their part, a good number of Princes and Maharajas hadn’t exactly covered themselves in glory. As long as they toed the British line and kept the Resident and bureaucracy happy, they were quite free to do what they willed. In practice, this meant a combination of quasi autocracy and full-blown autocracy, for example, in the states of Hyderabad and Bhopal. The subjects of the Princely States ruled by Muslim Nizams and Nawabs suffered the most under this system.
On the other side were truly enlightened Princely States such as Mysore, Baroda, Travancore, and Bikaner. The rulers of these states delivered exemplary governance and ushered in modern systems without compromising on the ancient ideals and values despite the choking constraints imposed by the British. Yet, at every turn, the British reciprocated this cooperation and service of the Princely States with more unjust demands and plain ingratitude. We will be hard-pressed to find any other incident in history where in return for the enormous amount of money, manpower and resources the Princely States gave the British during World War I, the British gave…nothing other than platitudes and meaningless titles.
This is also the other backdrop in which DVG wrote his seminal five memorials to the Maharaja of Bikaner in October 1917.
Broadly speaking, these memorials and the combined volume of literature that DVG wrote on the Princely States encompasses these questions:
- The imperial British Government
- The subjects directly controlled by British India
- The rulers of the Princely States
- The citizens of Princely States
- The freedom struggle led by the Congress and its attitude towards the Princely States
In hindsight, it can also be argued that during the years of World War I, there was a great deal of anticipation in India that the British would quit after the war was over. DVG did not want to miss the opportunity.
In a cautionary essay in The Bombay Chronicle, DVG sounds the alarm bell to the Princely States regarding the vastly changed practical conditions of the present writing that
The social and political conditions which set limits to the power of the Hindu monarch under the ancient regime disappeared long ago and completely; and they can never be recreated.
In other words, the status quo that the Princely States would not last long. This in many ways presages his brilliant memorials to the Maharaja of Bikaner.
The full title of these memorials reads as follows:
THE PROBLEMS OF INDIAN NATIVE STATES
THEIR CLAIM FOR THE FULL RIGHTS OF MEMBERSHIP IN THE BRITISH COMMONWEALTH FOR JUSTICE, FREEDOM
OPPORTUNITY FOR INDIVIDUAL AND NATIONAL SELF-DEVELOPMENT
Characteristically, DVG minces no words in both approbation and criticism. His opening statement making the case for the invaluable role of the Princely States in the Indian national life, he says,
When the deluge of 1857 threatened to overwhelm the Empire in India, it is these States that acted as breakwaters and saved India for England.
Therefore, in the aftermath of their services to the British Empire during World War I, these States “are not a negligible factor in the economy of the Empire…and they stand no less than any other constituent of the Empire, to demand a higher status and to insist on a better treatment.” More vocally, DVG hammers the message of conscientiousness when he says,
Let no one suppose that what the States have to ask for…is a reward for loyalty. The performance of a duty has always been to India more than a commercial transaction…The Princes…ought to secure their immediate elevation from the position of meek dependents…to the position of responsible partners in the…imperial family.
This is at once a fearless and rousing call to self-confidence and a reflection of the true character of British rule in India.
To be continued
 The Problems of Indian Native States, Selected Writings of D.V. Gundappa, Vol I, Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, 2020, Bangalore p 192
 Ibid, pp 192-3