“Manuscript uploaded,” said the message. I was outside my children’s school, waiting for them to come bounding out. There was not much time to spare but curiosity got the better of me. A few clicks later the manuscript began rendering on the screen. As I magnified the image, my heart began racing. The neat handwriting…could it be?

I nervously swiped forward, and the next page rendered, ever so slowly. A table of contents appeared on the screen. I immediately knew. This was it. I had found it. The manuscript I had almost given up hope of finding. “Dad, dad, are we leaving?”. In a daze I looked up to see two beaming faces, ready for the weekend road trip to Dubai. “There’s been a complication”, I haltingly replied.

Governance and maharajas

Rewind to three years earlier. In 2016, I was immersed in building Ideas of India, an index of every English-language periodical published in colonial-era India (a laborious process I described in an essay for Scroll). Trawling through the archives, I came across the quaint sounding Feudatory and Zemindari India: An Illustrated Monthly Journal Published in the Interests of the Ruling Princes, Chiefs and Zemindars, etc. Upon diving in, it became clear that far from being some amusing gallery of exaggerated pomp and pageantry, Feudatory and Zemindari India had in fact been a significant publication, serving as a platform for voices from the semi-autonomous Native States that comprised “Indian India”.

I was especially struck by a short article entitled “The Education of the Ruling Princes: A Note by the Late Raja Sir T Madhava Rao KCSI”, which called for Maharajas to be given a “special education” that would enable them to live up to their “duties and responsibilities”. Who was this highly decorated figure? And what had become of his plea?

I soon learnt how little I knew about “Indian India”. The Raja Sir, it turned out, was one of the towering personalities of nineteenth-century India, and as Dewan of Baroda he had been responsible for the Maharaja’s “special education” in government. I was fascinated because Rao’s enterprise appeared a unique modern example of what is known as the “mirror of princes” – a stand of political ethics in which writers directly address rulers on the tricky business of exercising power.

Excited, I acquired a copy of a book called Minor Hints, which apparently contained a facsimile of the lectures that Rao had delivered to Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, the ruler of Baroda. A swift inspection left me with mixed feelings. The content was certainly original and striking but the book was unpolished. It lacked an introduction, the lectures were obviously printed out of sequence, and there were no supporting materials.

What prompted the lectures? Why were they printed out of order? Did they have the intended effect? The absence of any contextual information made it difficult to ascertain the lectures’ significance.

‘Minor Hints’

I cast about for answers to little avail. There were a handful of marvellous works of the Native States, most notably by Robin Jeffrey, Barbara Ramusack, Ian Copland, Manu Bhagavan, Caroline Keen, and Manu Pillai, but none of these addressed Minor Hints. Widening the search, I eventually came upon Lessons on Raja Neeti, a little-noticed book, published in 2011 by M Rama Jois, the former Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana.

The volume reprinted Rao’s lectures and sang its paeans, describing it as a “treasure of knowledge”. Imagine my surprise when Jois revealed that Minor Hints had been recommended to him by Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Imagine my amazement when I discovered that Modi had written a Foreword to Jois’s volume, in which he urged the “political class to spare a little thought and time” for the “teachings of the great administrator, Raja Sir T Madhava Rao”.

Minor Hints, it turned out, had been circulating in Gujarat since 1985 due to the efforts of its Education Department, which had quietly reprinted the out-of-print book. Modi had taken a shine to the book, a copy of which he had gifted to every bureaucrat posted to Gujarat.

Astonishing as this discovery was, I was still no closer to figuring out the story behind Minor Hints. Seemingly at a dead end, I set the material aside to rest. Then, a few months later, I came across “The Constitution of Native States: An Important Memorandum of the Late Rajah Sir T Madhava Rao”. Published in 1906 in Indian Review, one of the most influential periodicals of the era, it explained, in admirably clear language, why Maharajas ought to establish a constitutional order that would give them a symbolic, dignified role while placing actual administration in the hands of experienced and impartial officials.

Like the article in Feudatory and Zemindari India, this memorandum was elegantly constructed and carefully argued. This suggested that the haphazard Minor Hints was printed without Madhava Rao’s involvement. But, if so, how had the lectures actually unfolded? Where was the original manuscript? Compelled by growing admiration for Rao’s intellect, I began searching for answers.

Why Madhava Rao was important

Over the past five years I have systematically collected every available scrap of information on Madhava Rao. It has not been easy because many of the records the Native States produced have perished due to neglect and folly. Still, with the aid of long hours in the archives, the growing digitisation of records, and a far-flung team of devoted research assistants, I have been able to collect a very substantial number of never-seen-before records from libraries and archives around the world. All this allowed me to assemble a comprehensive picture of Rao’s life and times, and of the Native States in which he served as Dewan.

I now began to understand why Madhava Rao had cared so deeply about Sayaji Rao’s education. The broader context was this: Over the first half of the 19th century, the British had agonised over how to manage the approximately 600 Native States that remained. It was no minor matter because Native States covered 1/3rd of the subcontinent and constituted 1/5th of population and 1/4th of its economy. As a point of comparison, Baroda was equivalent in revenue (a little over £1 million) and population (approximately 2.2 million) to contemporary Greece.

After the beating they received in 1857, the British vowed not to “extinguish” any Native States. But the emergence of newspapers and periodicals made it increasingly difficult for them to ignore “despotic” behaviour. They were horrified, for instance, by credible reports that Malhar Rao, the Maharaja of Baroda, was snatching up women to serve as his “laundis” (enslaved concubines). Such conduct was not easily remedied or countered by “advice”, and when the British deposed Malhar Rao on grounds of “maladministration”, the process was so miserably contentious that the Viceroy swore never to do it again.

Thus it was that the British decided to take heed of the example set by Travancore, which had, decades prior, hired Madhava Rao to serve as the English tutor to its princes, Ayilyam Thirunal and Vishakham Thirunal, who had then gone on to become celebrated “progressive” Maharajas. In short order, the leading royal families were “urged” to appoint British tutors for their wards, and there sprung up “Chiefs Colleges” to collectively educate those who could not afford expensive British tutors of their own.

None of this satisfied Rao. His long and varied experiences had taught him, he privately told the Viceroy, that a “liberal education” cultivated breadth and rationality, but it did not provide Maharajas with what they truly needed, which was a “special education” in the “art and science of government”. And even this might not be enough. Surrounded by sycophants and traditionalists, even a “modern” Maharaja could succumb to baseness or outdated ideas, which is why, Rao pleaded, the Native States ought to be strongly urged to enact constitutions that would limit and regulate authority. To wit, he put forward a constitution for Baroda (the first such constitution in modern India, which I described in another essay for Scroll).

The latter proposal was a step too far for the British. With the Russians drawing ever closer to the subcontinent, the Viceroys were becoming ever more wary of meddling in the Native States. Nor were members of the Baroda durbar (court) pleased to hear about Rao’s proposed constitution because they saw it as undermining precisely what was distinctive about the Native States – the age-old tradition of absolute but “sympathetic” rule. Both sides were, however, willing to let Rao try his hand at giving Sayaji Rao a “special education”.

And so came about the lectures that come down to us as Hints on the Arts and Science of Government. The lectures detailed the “fundamental principles” that ought to guide Baroda and outlined the “conduct” befitting a “progressive” Maharaja. The deeper purpose was to explain to the Gaekwad why curbing his power would secure happiness for Baroda and fame for himself. Hints should be read, in short, as a plea for constitutionalism.

The discovery

The reams of documents I had uncovered had certainly helped me understand what Rao was trying to achieve. But none of this brought me any closer to the original manuscript, which was essential, if I was to truly comprehend Rao’s original plan. Then came the stroke of luck.

In October 2019, as Ideas of India was about to be launched, I decided to conduct a last-minute search for some missing items. Among the sources I double-checked was the catalog of the Mythic Society in Bengaluru. I did not find the periodicals I was searching for. On a whim, I searched for items labelled ‘Baroda’. All the results were familiar – except for one.

The unusual entry was titled ‘Readministration of Baroda’ and dated 1881. I guessed this was the widely distributed Baroda Administration Report for 1881. But, not wanting to leave a stone unturned, I asked my research assistant in Bengaluru, Sachin Tiwari, to call up the document. He replied a day later saying it was a lengthy “handwritten” document. This did not add up because I knew the Baroda Administration Report was a printed document. Perhaps it was an early draft of the Report. If so, what was it doing in Bengaluru? “Could you send me photographs of the first few pages of the manuscript”, I asked.

The contents page of the handwritten manuscript.

The family trip to Dubai was short-lived. As soon as we reached, I pored over the document I had received. A stamp revealed that the manuscript made its way to the Mythic Society via Sir T Ananda Rao. This was Madhava Rao’s celebrated son, who had lived in Bengaluru during his long service in Mysore, which included being Dewan between 1909-1912.

After kicking myself for overlooking this angle, I was consumed with questions. Was the entire manuscript there? What if it were misplaced when being returned to the shelves? What if, what then, what now? By that evening I had begged my family to excuse me, and I was on a flight to Bengaluru and the next day, I was at the Mythic Society where V Nagaraj, the Honorary Secretary, kindly allowed me to make archival-quality copies of the original manuscript.

And so concluded, on an unexpectedly triumphant note, my quest to uncover the story behind the article in Feudatory and Zemindari India. The fortuitous discovery at the Mythic Society confirmed that the book currently in circulation as Minor Hints was a terrible facsimile of Rao’s lectures. It was hastily printed by the Baroda durbar solely “for private circulation”. Its shoddiness did not matter until pirated copies entered public circulation in the early twentieth century.

These copies have done Rao a great disservice, because they garble his ideas and obscure the significance of his contribution. Having now painstakingly edited Rao’s lectures, I place them before the public in the form and manner they deserve. I have, after much deliberation, titled them Hints on the Art and Science of Government. Based on Rao’s correspondence, I am certain this is the title he would have chosen for them.

Because it teaches whoever governs – be it Maharajas or mantris – to advance happiness, Hints is timeless. Because it shows how much sound judgment depends on experience, it will always be timely. I hope that its rediscovery will prompt reflection on how to advance good government.

The first page of the manuscript.

Rahul Sagar is Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at New York University Abu Dhabi. His new book is The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government