The world’s tallest statue, Vallabhbhai Patel’s memorial, around two and a half times the height of Delhi’s Qutub Minar, has been named the “Statue of Unity” for his role in integrating princely states into the Indian Union after 1947.

TV advertisements about the statue put out by the Union government declaim: “If he wasn’t there, then today India would have been divided into 562 small countries and you would need a visa to go to each country.”

Since he emphasised strong nationalism and saw private enterprise positively, Patel is generally considered to have been on the right of the pre-independence Congress. So, by highlighting his integration of princely states, the Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to tap into the freedom movement, even as it repudiates Jawaharlal Nehru. (The Congress, for most of its history, did little to commemorate Patel.)

Partisan politics aside, there is little to quibble about how significant the integration of princely states was. The stability of the Indian Union, divided neatly into linguistic states and revolving around a strong Centre, was far from inevitable considering how complex British India was. Since India was simply a constituent of the British Empire, the colonial rulers did not make much effort to organise it along the lines of a modern country, preferring to keep it a patchwork of provinces and princely states.

In his effort, Patel was assisted by a rather unlikely figure: Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India. Mountbatten’s role in the integration of princely states has been largely forgotten in modern India, but it was crucial.

British strategy

“The suzerainty of His Majesty over the Indian States lapses,” declared the Indian Independence Act, the legal instrument that granted freedom to India and Pakistan. This meant that rather than passing on British paramount over princely states to India and Pakistan, the Raj withdrew it, technically allowing them to become free countries. This, naturally, alarmed the Congress, which was now dealing with the very real threat of a balkanised subcontinent.

Then, Mountbatten arrived as the British Raj’s last viceroy. Appointed in February 1947, Mountbatten, as the representative of the British crown, was supposed to be neutral between India, Pakistan and princely states. But in the final negotiations, the Congress managed to grab most of Mountbatten’s attention. Partly, this was due to Nehru’s skillful use of his personal relationship with Mountbatten for political ends. Partly, it was in keeping with Britain’s strategic interests. “If the Raj had to be divided, it was the larger part – the larger, the better – that mattered for British purposes, so conceived,” the historian Perry Anderson wrote, explaining why the “Congress was now the preferred partner in planning the future of the subcontinent”.

Mountbatten’s role

To this end, Mountbatten fired his first salvo on July 25, 1947, when he addressed the Chamber of Princes. He strongly urged the princes to sign the Instrument of Accession, an agreement that would hand over control of their states’ defence and foreign affairs and communications to the new dominion of India – and, crucially, make it clear these states were not sovereign. Mountbatten threatened the princes with chaos if they did not do so while offering them the carrot of being able to control their internal administrations.

According to the historian Ramachandra Guha, Mounbatten’s speech was a “tour de force”. Not only was Mountbatten the British crown’s representative, he was also the king’s cousin (with characteristic lack of modesty, he made sure to remind the princes of his close relationship with the monarch in his speech). Such strong words from him signalled to the princes that the British had abandoned them. By the time power was transferred to the Dominion of India on August 15, almost all princely states had signed the Instrument of Accession without much trouble.

A few states, however, had other plans. Travancore, now in Kerala, for example, pluckily declared on July 14 that it would be independent. Mountbatten’s meeting with the state’s dewan helped change his mind and Travancore soon telegraphed the Instrument of Accession to the viceroy. “The adherence of Travancore after [dewan] CP’s declaration of independence has had a profound effect on all the states and is sure to shake the Nizam,” Mounbatten noted smugly.

Carrot and stick

The state of Jodhpur was on the border between India and Pakistan, and the latter offered it very favourable terms for accession. Mountbatten argued that if Jodhpur acceded to Pakistan, the maharaja would risk communal riots given the state had a majority Hindu population. The maharaja soon signed the Instrument of Accession, but, in a moment of drama, took out a pistol and threatened to shoot down Mountbatten’s political advisor VP Menon “like a dog” if India were to retract any promise made to Jodhpur. Menon dove under a table and shouted for Mountbatten, who ran in and confiscated the pistol.

It wasn’t all threats though. To convince the recalcitrant Holkar maharaja of Indore to join the Indian Union, Mountbatten used his close contacts with India’s royalty and assembled a team of fellow Maratha princes led by Gaekwad of Baroda. It worked.

With Hyderabad, India’s most populous and richest princely state, Mountbatten was deeply involved in diplomatic parleys even after power had been transferred, going so far as to send his press attaché, Alan Campbell-Johnson, to the Nizam in May 1948 for consultations.

In Kashmir, Mountbatten again played a major role, even supervising Indian military operations against intruders from Pakistan. In November 1947, Mountbatten, in his capacity as governor general of India, met Muhammad Ali Jinnah, governor general of Pakistan, and put up a proposal for a plebiscite in Kashmir. While Jinnah rejected the offer, that Mounbatten led such a critical negotiation shows the role he played in the Indian administration even after August 15.

Friendship with Britain

Mountbatten’s interest in promoting the integration of princely states lay in securing British interests in the post-1947 order. In a telegram to the British prime minister in July 1947, the viceroy wrote, “I am trying my very best to create an integrated India which, while securing stability, will ensure friendship with Great Britain”. It was for reason Mountbatten persuaded India to stay in the British Commonwealth even after independence, although, until then, the Congress had opposed such an arrangement.

Curtailing princes’ powers

Once India had integrated princely states, it moved to further curtail the powers of the princes, bringing democratic government to the states. The final nail in the coffin was the Indira Gandhi government’s decision in 1967 to abolish the royal privy purses and titles as she turned towards the left. At this, Mountbatten felt a “deep sense of personal responsibility” since it was he who had convinced the princes to accept these privileges in return for signing the Instrument of Accession in 1947. In an effort to stop this, Mountbatten wrote to Gandhi (his letter was debated in Parliament) and bizarrely even discussed the matter with Robert McNamara, the president of the World Bank. While Mountbatten received some support from within India – “India’s integrity is once again in your hands,” C Rajagopalachari, the head of the liberal Swatantra Party told him in November 1968 – in the end, his efforts failed and all privy purses and privileges were withdrawn by a 1971 Constitutional amendment.