In January 1948, VP Menon asked Louis Mountbatten to work his considerable charm on a gathering of 18 prominent princes worried about the recent mergers of dozens of small states and their integration into Orissa and the Central Provinces. The mergers were a breach of the promises made by Patel in his first address as states minister on July , 1947, and then by Mountbatten in his speech to the Chamber of Princes three weeks later, that there would be no interference in the internal affairs of the states. Now Menon was being accused of threatening states that refused to merge with armed intervention. To the assembled potentates, these actions seemed a throwback to the despised Doctrine of Lapse propounded by Lord Dalhousie and one of the causes of the 1857 uprising.

Aside from the creation of West Pakistan and East Pakistan, the political map of India as it began its first full year of independence still resembled the tessellated pavement that Sir Bampfylde Fuller had described almost half a century earlier. The difference was that the stone tesserae represented the approximately 550 princely states that had given up their control of foreign affairs, defence, and communications and had acceded, while the plain stone filling represented the 11 provinces that now made up the Indian Union.

India was a single country, but it was fragmented geographically and politically. While several larger princely states were making strides towards representative government, the vast majority remained outposts of autocracy, too small to introduce efficient administrations, too conservative to contemplate democratic reform. Only by a process of integration could India hope to become a functional nation state. Menon and Patel would achieve this aim through a two-stage process – creating unions of states and merging smaller states with existing provinces such as Bombay or Orissa. Only the larger states, 17 in number, among them Gwalior and Baroda, would remain as separate entities. However, even this promise, made by Menon when he met with their representatives on December 8, 1947, in New Delhi, would end up being broken.

Luckily for Menon, Mountbatten not only wholeheartedly endorsed the need for the mergers of the small states, he also claimed the idea as his own, likening it to the annexation of the Grand Duchy of Hesse in Germany by Napoleon in 1806. Just as small states had no place in Europe 140 years ago, they had no place in India today, he told those present. He pointed out that the German princes gave up their powers but retained their palaces, private possessions and civil lists, leaving them better off than the larger states, which continued in power until they were annihilated by the revolution in Germany in 1918. He also was careful to exonerate Menon, despite knowing the extent to which he had been twisting arms to prevent the Balkanisation of the subcontinent.

According to Hodson, he told the gathering, “Any suspicions which anyone might have had that he was putting excessive pressure on any Rulers to induce them to sign the various Instruments would have been amply dissipated if they could have heard the unanimous praise which the Rulers showered on Mr VP Menon.” Nor, he said, was there any intention of applying the merger system to the larger and viable states.

When it was Menon’s turn to address the meeting, he promised that those states that had individual representation in the Constituent Assembly “and which obviously had a future and possibilities of development” would continue to enjoy the same status as the provinces. After listening to the speeches, the Maharaja of Alwar curtly observed: “If they wanted to live in Hell they should not be compelled to live in Paradise.”

Perhaps moved by a sudden rush of empathy with the rulers, Mountbatten wanted to organise a larger gathering three days after his January meeting with the 18 princes, to give an indication of the number of states that would be affected by integration. But Menon, ever the master tactician, stopped him, saying it was “out of the question” for the governor-general to commit himself. He was instructed to confine himself to broad policy and to say only, without mentioning names or numbers, that while viable states would continue, non-viable states would be “mediatised” – the jargon-laden term being used to describe the integration process. Among the princes seeking clarification of their position was the Raja of Jawhar. He would be one of the first to be “gobbled up”.

The Instruments of Accession signed just a few months earlier contained clear safeguards – or so the rulers believed. Article 5 stipulated that the Instrument’s terms could not be varied without the ruler’s acceptance conveyed by a supplementary instrument. Article 6 prohibited the new government from the compulsory acquisition of land within the state. The stoutest of bulwarks was Article 7, which read: “Nothing in this Instrument shall be deemed to commit me in any way to acceptance of any future constitution of India or to fetter my discretion to enter into agreements with the Government of India under any such future constitution.”

The ink had been hardly allowed to dry on these Instruments before the States Department began to fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of British paramountcy. 12 months after Independence, all but a handful of the big states would either be merged into new unions or attached to existing provinces, sacrificing whatever identity they had on the altar of political unity. Patel made his stand clear after the first round of mergers in Orissa and Chhattisgarh had been completed in December 1947, asserting that “Indian states could not long remain the citadels of autocracy”.

Excerpted with permission from Dethroned: Patel, Menon and The Integration of Princely India, John Zubrzycki, Juggernaut Books.