The Profit-Seeking British Bureaucracy and the Personal Vanity of the Princes

This article is part 39 of 57 in the series Life and Legacy of DVG

Indeed, DVG himself had a firsthand taste of the real-life workings of this imperious British bureaucracy. The indefatigable imperialist, Sir Henry Cobb was the Resident of the Mysore State from 1916-20. A well-known foe of the freedom struggle and the nationalist spirit that was surging throughout British India, he kept a tight watch over similar sentiments spilling over to Mysore. One day at around four in the evening, he paid a surprise visit to the public library[1] at Cubbon Park. When he saw copies of The Bombay Chronicle, and Annie Beasant’s New India—both were highly influential publications and organs of the freedom movement—he erupted with fury and yelled at the staff: “Why are you subscribing to these poisonous tracts? Throw them out right now!”

An hour later when DVG paid his customary visit to the library, he learned what had happened. The very next day, he wrote a scathing editorial in the Karnataka: “What right does this British Resident have to interfere in this institution established by the Mysore Government for the public benefit of the citizens of Mysore? Who is he to meddle in this matter?”

In response, an incensed Cobb wrote to the Government directing it to punish the Karnataka paper. The Diwan, Sir M. Visvesvaraya sent Cobb’s letter to D.V.G through his secretary. DVG remained unfazed, unapologetic.

DVG dedicates an entire, brilliant section titled Education of the Princes that details[2] the sort of education that the Princes were getting at the hands of the aforementioned British bureaucrats. Indeed, they could “train a Prince to be everything but a constitutional ruler.” But what did they become? DVG answers:

[The Prince] might become a good Shikhar, a fine “society” man, an amiable post-prandial orator, a pompous stickler for ceremonies, and…a veritable incarnation of obstinacy in his dealings with his ministers. Nurtured upon the traditions of bureaucracy, and scrupulously shut out from the liberalizing influences of history, of the philosophy of politics, and of the literatures of modern national and democratic movements—it is small wonder that many a Prince suffers from a narrow outlook upon life and from an exaggerated notion of his own importance. These feelings naturally beget in him a partiality for honey-mouthed courtiers; and therein begin the troubles for his subjects.   

This stark criticism of both the British bureaucracy and the Princes has to be seen in a twofold context. The first was the incredibly high standards of governance, and sturdy administrative precedents that the earlier Diwans of Mysore had set. This process roughly began with stalwart Diwans like C.V. Rungacharlu and ended with the ascendancy of Sir Mirza Ismail, a period of about sixty years. As we have seen in the earlier chapters, Visvesvaraya’s resignation ushered in an era where these high standards were gradually diluted and the gradual decline of the Mysore State began. Added to this was the aforementioned sort of bureaucrats that the British thrust upon Mysore. DVG rues this situation in his characteristic style.

The [British] tutor should not be a member of the “heaven-born service” [the ICS]…with an axe to grind and…he should be a man devoted to study and thought, possessed of liberal culture and ripe experience…Such were Rangacharlu and Madhava Rao; and the luminous addresses which the latter delivered for the benefit of the Princes of Travancore on the science of government and the art of statecraft are models of lessons that should be instilled into the minds of kings.   

The second aspect relates to the tidal flood of changes unleashed in British India by the freedom movement. DVG was an eyewitness to the kind of energy, leadership and national renaissance that this movement produced. He also noted with anxious melancholy and righteous indignation that the Princely States not only ignored all this but, in many cases, actively fought it. In that respect, DVG was perfectly justified when he repeatedly remarked that the Native States were indeed truly loyal to the British. The final goal and aspiration of this loyalty was[3] to “gain nothing more substantial than rank and precedence and title to feed their own personal vanity.” This is reminiscent of Diwan Rangacharlu’s early warning, which[4] DVG quotes:

The weakness of a native Samsthanam is that, instead of the affairs of the People, the Palace becomes the chief object of thought and the governing principle.

Thus, by the time DVG wrote his renowned memorials to the Bikaner Maharaja, things had already gone far downhill. The Princely States which had been famed just three decades ago as the sanctuaries and refuges of art and literature were now[5] “conspicuous for their intellectual inanition and soullessness.” Even worse,

Among the greatest names of Modern India, not even one can be claimed by a Native State as its own. Our greatest politicians, public workers, historians, scientists, lawyers, orators, poets and novelists…all belong to some part or other of British India.

DVG spoke from experience. Included in his list of acquaintances and circle of friends were luminaries such “Right Honourable” V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, Sir S. Subrahmaniya Iyer, and Sir P.S. Shivaswamy Iyer, who had attained a mellow blend of the culturally-rooted Hindu life and contemporary Western learning. In addition, DVG was also keenly aware of the value and contributions of titans such as Jadunath Sarkar, J.C. Bose, Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, and Rabindranath Tagore about whom he wrote with great respect. As he notes, not one of these names hailed from the Princely States. However, this was not always the case.

Three decades ago when there was a keen rivalry between “natives” and outsiders for distinction in practical statecraft, and when men had to act in the light of their own independent judgement and had no precedent to follow, the States were able to produce…first-rate administrators and statesmen. But…the Dewan of to-day is generally a glorified clerk or a fussy amateur, or a hardened British Indian bureaucrat.

This bureaucracy had no power to produce[6] a “succession of Seshadri Iyers.” Instead, it had a self-power to make itself “doubly hateful and intolerable.” On the contrary, the Princely States had reached such a nadir that they had to import Diwans and officials from British India, a pathetic phenomenon that DVG acidly[7] censures:

The State that, after decades of education…is still unable to produce its own Dewan and councilors, is either confessing its poverty in brainpower and character, or is condemning its own policy of the past.    

Invariably, these imported bureaucrats were drawn from the ICS, which DVG dreaded from the bottom of his heart. In his words, these officers were “alien birds of passage and of prey.” However, as we have seen earlier, majority of the Princely States were not only content with such a bureaucracy but pretty much handed over the reins of administration to it.

As a civilisationally-rooted political philosopher speaking the tongue of a modern democrat, DVG foresaw two major dangers inherent in this fossilized autocracy of the Princely States. One, while the specific peculiarities and local conditions of each Princely State hugely differed from the other, the Princely States converged in the realm of problems and threats they faced precisely due to these conditions. Second, if the Princely States allowed the sweeping changes and turbulences that were occurring in British India to bypass them, their plight would become truly piteous when the British left. Which is exactly what happened.

But before we reach that phase of history, we can examine the nature and some details of solutions that DVG recommended so that the Princely States could reform their present condition.

To be continued


[1] Now known as the Sir Seshadri Iyer Memorial Library or the State Central Library.

[2] Ibid. Footnote 25

[3] Unreality of Advertised Progress, Selected Writings of D.V. Gundappa, Vol I, Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, 2020, Bangalore p 240.

[4] Native States and British Interference, Selected Writings of D.V. Gundappa, Vol I, Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, 2020, Bangalore p 261

[5] Ibid. Footnote 28

[6] Thoughts on Democracy, Selected Writings of D.V. Gundappa, Vol I, Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, 2020, Bangalore pp 267-8.

Seshadri Iyer was among the more eminent and farsighted Diwans of Mysore who pioneered an extraordinary range of reforms and development activities whose fruits the state of Karnataka continues to enjoy. He initiated the hydroelectric project at Shivanasamudra, the first in Asia. He is also known as the Maker of Modern Bangalore, among other distinctions.

[7] The States—Schools for Statesmanship, Selected Writings of D.V. Gundappa, Vol I, Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, 2020, Bangalore p 220.




Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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