As one who believed in Britain’s duty to civilise the world, Lord Curzon could not brook an independent-minded maharajah. In 1900, in fact, when the maharajah of Baroda, Sayaji Rao, left for one of his many European trips, Curzon issued a circular requiring all rulers to apply for permission in future. Generally seen as a rebuke to Baroda, the maharajah was tempted to register a protest, but his counsellors, including Naoroji in London – to whose historic election campaign he had donated years before – dissuaded him.

He did find an opportunity to pay Curzon back in kind, though. When Edward VII came to the throne after Victoria’s death, the viceroy ordered a durbar, with a procession of princes. It was demeaning, for this was really a homage to Curzon than the sovereign. Sayaji Rao, therefore, tried to avoid it. “I am afraid,” he wrote, “it would seriously inconvenience me to join it.”

Not prepared to take this lying down, Curzon insisted: the maharajah would have to come. Sayaji Rao gave in, but not without stating that this was “forced upon him”. And in the last minute he absented himself anyway: an old widow had died in the palace, giving him an excuse to turn up several days late. Naturally, Curzon was not pleased: in his eyes, Baroda was the “sole important Prince” who was “not loyal”. Undefeated, when in 1905 the viceroy left, the maharajah is said to have sent him a telegram dripping with sarcasm: “Bon Voyage,” it read, “may India never see the like of you again.”

In the final assessment, there have been mixed reviews about Sayaji Rao. To some, his fame is inflated, because – as the British suspected – the Indian press needed heroes and latched on to the first one they could find. And as soon as his power was threatened, as we shall see, the man sobered his rhetoric.

To others, however, even if his forthrightness later petered out, for two decades the maharajah did challenge the British. His speeches certainly did not lack intensity. In 1902, for example, he declared that India’s poverty was directly connected to colonialism. Only a “great national movement in which each man will work for the nation and not for himself or for his caste” could reinvigorate the country.

A nationalist culture would, he argued, birth a “national art and a national literature and a flourishing commerce”, which in turn would pave the way for “national government”. It is noteworthy that this speech was written by a Bengali aide: a firebrand who would later achieve fame as Sri Aurobindo.

So too one of the maharajah’s Dewans, RC Dutt, was a Congress ex-president, whose economic criticisms had agitated even Curzon into personally writing a rejoinder. When Dutt died in 1909, the ruler eulogised him as “a great patriot” and a “staunch and fearless supporter” of the rights of “every Indian”. So, while critics may say that the maharajah only “dabbled with nationalism” and was never “serious”, it would not be easy to find another major prince even using terms like “nation” and “national” half as often as Sayaji Rao did.

For its part, the Raj punished the maharajah. From the 1880s he had been ruffling feathers, so over time, elements for a showdown were in place. The dramatis personae on the British side had also changed. Between 1905 and 1910 Lord Minto, famous for the Morley-Minto reforms, which conceded a measure of power to Indians, was viceroy. Two years into his arrival, Sayaji Rao openly told him that “whereas one would have expected the control of Native States to have been relaxed as the years went on”, it had in fact “become stricter”, doing the princes a real injustice.

All along, revolutionary activity was gaining pace, and the maharajah’s response was not unequivocal. For instance, while condemning violence in a speech in 1909, Sayaji Rao could not also help add that “discontent [itself ] is not an evil”, and that to calm political agitation, its root causes would have to be addressed. It did not take much to put two and two together in blaming the Raj for these causes.

Later in the year, when the viceroy was on his way to Baroda, bombs were flung at his carriage. They did not go off, but the British were jolted. Minto had just announced that the princely states must “bar the entrance of sedition” into their realms. And yet, on arriving in Sayaji Rao’s capital, he learnt of graffiti warning, “You may bring as many British troops as you like...but they will not deter us from our purpose.” By early 1910, in fact, pro-establishment newspapers began to warn that not only was Baroda a staging point for sedition, the maharajah was in cahoots with shady groups.

When Lord Hardinge succeeded Minto, things got even worse. Grown angry on a diet of secret updates from the Resident, the viceroy believed that Baroda afforded “direct support and encouragement” to anti-British forces. Sayaji Rao himself had, at different times, met all kinds of dangerous types: by now his ex-employee Aurobindo was a confirmed seditionist, and during trips overseas the ruler met the revolutionaries Tarak Nath Das in Vancouver, Madame Cama in Paris and Shyamji Krishna Varma in London.

Varma, in particular, was notorious as the founder of India House, one of whose members carried out a high-profile assassination, while another, VD Savarkar, was convicted for conspiracy. Questioned about his contacts with revolutionaries, Sayaji Rao “provided innocent excuses”, but also realised that he was under surveillance. Then, to further aggravate matters, in the winter of 1911 two Baroda officials were implicated in sedition.

Revolutionary propaganda was being published in areas under them, and at one site, hundreds of copies of a banned book were unearthed, camouflaged under the title Vegetable Medicines. The officials, in British eyes, were suspect, but one of them, instead of showing contrition, asked the Bombay police on whose permission they had raided Baroda in the first place. This was too much for the viceroy: the ruler’s man was talking jurisdiction instead of answering questions. So, in the end Hardinge attacked Sayaji Rao all daggers drawn, sending to London a full indictment.

Hardinge marvelled at the “exaggerated idea of his own importance” and the “pretensions to equality” Sayaji Rao showed. This may yet have been forgiven were it not for the fact that he was now “actively disloyal”. He had not sent in Baroda soldiers to the Imperial Service Troops, but, despite British objections, was raising the strength of his army. In his government, he hosted known critics of the Raj, and was too energetic a supporter of the Congress.

On revolutionary activities, even the palace was not free from dangerous influences. Sayaji Rao’s public statements, moreover, were often a “thinly veiled disparagement of British rule”, and during the viceroy’s visit in 1909, he had had to be pressed by the Resident to even affirm loyalty – evidently, the ruler wished to pay homage to the Crown, not the government. The discovery of seditious material was only the last straw, for the fact was that of 167 books proscribed by the Raj, seventeen had emerged from Baroda. “His Highness now stands,” the viceroy concluded, “without excuse”.

If indeed he was a loyal feudatory, and not a “patron of sedition”, he must prove it. Or as Hardinge proposed, he should do the following: deliver a pre-approved condemnation of revolutionaries; close all legal loopholes allowing the publication of seditious writing in Baroda; place his police under a British officer; and banish officials who did not enjoy imperial confidence. If, however, instead of obeying, Sayaji Rao threatened to abdicate, it should be allowed despite risk of “hostile criticism”.

While this letter was sent off to London in November 1911, the maharajah was in no mood to bend. For instance, the district officials who provoked the Bombay police were not banished, but only demoted; indeed, when one of them decided to resign, Sayaji Rao gave him a purse of 10,000 rupees.

Things were still bad and the viceroy’s animosity an open secret when the maharajah went to Delhi for the famous 1911 durbar soon afterwards. Here, for the first and only time, the British monarch, George V, was personally present. As heir to the throne, he had visited India six years before – at that time, the maharajah had gone abroad, grumbling that he was not a “servant” to cancel his plans for the prince. Now, however, with this talk of sedition, a gesture of loyalty seemed wise.

Except, however, that this is not what happened. On the morning of the durbar, Sayaji Rao was agitated for personal reasons. Hours later, as rulers began paying homage to George V, the maharajah messed up. He was meant to go up to the enthroned king and his wife, bow separately and take seven steps back, before returning to his place. But as a newspaper put it, “he walked up jauntily swinging a stick in his hand – in itself a gross breach of etiquette – and as he passed before their Majesties, he saluted in the most perfunctory manner” before showing them his back.

That it was an innocent error would not fly, for earlier too, when the viceroy entered, apparently “the Gaekwar rose from his seat for barely a moment...and then reseated himself, ostentatiously stretching out his legs”. Everyone else had remained standing till Hardinge took a seat.

There were exaggerations in this account, but within days the episode was politicised. It was true that Sayaji Rao, having missed a rehearsal, was lost at the durbar, but he had not been swinging his stick. Nor did he turn his back discourteously – in his confusion, instead of going seven paces backwards, he turned too soon. Even so, it did not strike him that anything was wrong, and indeed, in video footage of the event, other princes also pay homage in a manner not unlike Sayaji Rao.

The next day, however, the maharajah found that he was accused of insulting George V, writing at once to apologise. It was not an enviable place to be in, given how in Hardinge’s eyes everything Sayaji Rao did was a slight. This combined with the pro-British press baying for blood meant that, in a rare display, the maharajah dished out loyalty in obsequious language. “To the British Government the Baroda State owes everything, and to that Government my State and I myself personally will always be truly grateful and loyal,” he explained.

Gleeful, Hardinge released the letter to The Times, which while publishing it, also carried a column listing the maharajah’s many sins. Another publication admonished this “son of a small cultivator” for the “gross insult” he gave “his Suzerain before all India”. Interestingly, one of the crimes the maharajah was guilty of was not appearing in state jewellery, or the sash, robes and other insignia of his British honours; he had presented himself in “everyday dress”.

At last, the British had Sayaji Rao where they wanted him, and the possibility of deposition was real. For once, it also did not help that nationalist editors turned Sayaji Rao into a hero for slighting the British king. In fact, the “durbar incident” would feature in the press whenever the maharajah was mentioned for the next many years, a Sword of Damocles over his head.

Not only did the ruler have to issue multiple clarifications, but letters were also sent out to everyone from the Resident upwards to conciliate them. This was why, early in 1912, Sayaji Rao issued orders that his officials and subjects must hereon view “every misguided person who attempted to excite ill-will, hatred, or contempt against the British Government” as an enemy. In the same year, he also sacked a state servant who had seen Aurobindo recently.

On international trips in the aftermath, the Resident would hand the maharajah lists of people he absolutely could not meet, and Sayaji Rao accepted – unimaginable two years earlier. The whole experience – being watched by the police, the dressing-down, the denial of even a meeting with the viceroy until he apologised and slander in the press – led to a muted tone in the maharajah’s remaining career. It also did not help that he was having family troubles during the same period: the death of his eldest son, the determination of his daughter to marry an unsuitable man and so on.

What is ironic is that all these years, the maharajah had managed to say and, indeed, do things derogatory to the British and get away with it. But then, when he did not intend offence, that episode offered the means with which to threaten punishment for all his previous transgressions.

This is not to say that Sayaji Rao sold his principles and became subservient; what did happen, however, was that he rarely again bared rhetorical fangs against the Raj, and even if he had a message to deliver, enlisted subordinates instead of putting his own head on the line. At the end of the day, the maharajah calculated, there was no point being kicked off the throne and rendered unable to do anything; so, after years as a nationalist icon, the maharajah took a back seat.

False Allies

Excerpted with permission from False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma, Manu S Pillai, Juggernaut Books.