The continuing vitality of the British monarchy, even after the passing of its longest reigning monarch, makes one wonder about the Indian royal houses that claimed greater antiquity than British monarchs but toppled in the wake of decolonisation.

The world’s largest empire in history that the houses of Hanover and Windsor presided over included possibly every race, geographical terrain and a vast array of languages and dialects that are spoken today.

But the whole empire was not governed by Whitehall – the centre of the United Kingdom government – or parliament. Large swathes of the empire in India and Africa were governed indirectly through treaty relationships with what the British pejoratively called “princely states” or “native states”.

An informal empire

According to the Indian States Committee Report of 1928, two-fifths of the British Empire in India (598,138 square miles, or 15,49,170 square kilometres) and one-fifth of its population (68,652,974 people) were under indirect rule.

This informal empire or empire by treaty was one of the most cost-efficient and risk-averse ways in which the British ruled its colonies and consolidated its empire.

In India, these were called Subsidiary Alliance treaties as they provided protection as well as an alliance in the event of any internal or external threat to the future of states. Though the British did not tax the subjects of the Indian states, they collected an annual subsidy that varied depending on the size and revenue of the state.

Indirect rule entailed internal independence as the government was run by Indians, but the absence of external sovereignty meant that these native states could not engage in foreign relations. There were about 560 princely states in India, some of them as large as Hyderabad or Kashmir – or bigger than most European states – and many as small as the Vatican City.

Influential states like Travancore in South India had a favorable balance of trade and higher social indicators than most British-ruled provinces. The crown had a significant part in carving up the princely states among rival native claimants, thereby increasing their numbers to farcical levels. In Western India alone there were more than 200 states, mostly petty, unviable territories spawned by the British.

The Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, greets Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in September 1952. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When the British crown abolished the rule of the East India Company and declared direct rule over India in 1858, these princely states were seen as allies of the empire for their valuable service in breaking the Revolt of 1857, in which Indians rose against the British.

By pledging to respect and protect the rights of these native states as their own, Queen Victoria ensued a new phase of indirect rule in India with no British intervention in the internal affairs of the states. In these protected states, there was never a rebellion against the crown and the princes ruled autocratically without fear of a popular uprising.

The British crown saw the continuance of dynastic rule as the utmost guarantee that the treaties granted the states and sought to protect the native rulers from internal uprisings, be it for a democratic government or a corruption-free administration.

A century of tutelage under the British crown had rendered most of these native monarchies venal and impervious to popular pressure. In Africa, local rulers were relegated to the status of paid servants of the British. In contrast, Indian rulers big and small retained their own courts, revenue, and entourage, and continued as princes and zamindars until independence in 1947.

A potrait of Queen Victoria. Credit: Alexander Bassano, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Political unity was the main trump card of the British colonial project in India. The British, who came to the subcontinent as lowly traders in the early 1600s under the reign of Elizabeth I, displaced Mughal rule and wrested control of much of Northern and Eastern India by the 1760s. This phenomenal rise and consolidation of the British Empire in India, as taught in schools and colleges, would not have been possible had Indians held their house together.

The British conquered the country mile by mile by striking up military alliances with Indian states and pitting one against another. The gradual rise of the British as the most powerful state in the subcontinent was a lesson in India’s own fractious disunity and its decadent, avaricious and self-serving rulers.

Stamps of the princely states of Bamra and Indore. Credit: Post of India, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons.

Age of Indian nationalism

At the turn of the 20th century, the growing tenor of Indian nationalism under the Indian National Congress led the British crown to look upon the princely states as bulwarks against anti-colonial nationalism.

Even as these ancient monarchies in India were reduced to the status of princes – for only the British crown could claim the title of the King or the Queen – and native courts were orientalised as durbars in official correspondence, they stood by the empire during World War I and II and supported the British cause with men and money.

The age of nationalism in India had to wrestle with not only the British but also the Indian princely states, which the nationalists saw as no different from the colonisers. In the nationalist narrative, the princely states were reminiscent of medieval feudalism and aberrations in modern India.

A power struggle ensued between the nationalists, the Muslims, and the princes. The princely states and Muslims would demand an Indian federation as a way to reconcile the legal and political diversity of India.

King George V and Queen Mary after the Delhi Durbar to mark their coronation in 1911. Credit: The historical record of the Imperial Visit to India 1911, in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

From a legal and constitutional point of view, the major Indian states were perfect candidates for independence in their own right. They possessed all the elements of a state: government, people, territory, and, in some contexts, even a distinct language and culture.

Moreover, the tutelage of the British and the continuing hold of colonial treaties led these states to believe that any future India that did not respect their rights would be illegal, as per the law of the time. The demand for an Indian federation was also to accommodate the sovereign demands of the princes and Muslims who saw India as a multinational federation of autonomous states governed by a common centre.

The Indian nationalists, on the other hand, saw federation as a way to continue the empire by other means. The growing demand for Pakistan and the impossibility of reaching an agreement among the three major groups derailed the federation plan and made way for the nation-states of India and Pakistan.

Left in the lurch

Even as the princely states were the intimate friends of the colonial rulers, they were the last to know that the British, under Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Lord Mountbatten, were all too ready to leave them in the lurch and focus on a friendly relationship with the new government of India.

Independence soon made these nascent states colonial masters in their own rights. India forcibly incorporated the princely states – which had a legal right to independence but were abandoned by the British – in a protracted process that went on for years. The long association of the princely states with the British crown had rendered them persona non grata in a democratic polity molded in anticolonial ethos.

When Queen Elizabeth II was preparing to accede to the throne, with her ailing father King George VI expected to not last long, the newly independent Indian state was starting on a tabula rasa, or what Jawaharlal Nehru called the Clean State Policy in 1933. The historical irony of this moment cannot be lost today when taking stock of the place of the British monarchy.

The British monarchy sapped some of the illustrious ruling houses in the colonial world and made them impervious to popular pressure by making them live by the adage “L’etat c’est moi”, or I’m the state – as Louis XIV famously said underlining his position as the absolute monarch. The princely states in India became far more authoritarian during the 19th and 20th centuries than perhaps any other time in their history, for never had a ruler’s legitimacy depended on a colonial treaty and not on the estimation of his people.

The disappearance of the princely states cannot be comprehended without understanding their relationship with the British crown. This relationship speaks to the complex ramshackle structure of the empire that thrived not only on direct rule but also by treaty relationships with the native states.

The Commonwealth was an attempt to continue this informal empire. India’s decision to become a republic was rooted in its mistrust of the monarchy, no less fostered by the fears of an informal empire persisting over India had the Indian monarchs continued to rule. As the British monarchy enters a new phase, one wonders what would have happened to the monarchies of the colonial world if their numbers were fewer and they did not have colonial treaties.

Sarath Pillai is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies the history of princely states and federalist ideas in colonial South Asia. His Twitter handle is @i_sarathpillai.