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Archived article from the January 2001 issue of Princely States Report

Editorial Note

We sincerely thank Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph for giving PSR permission to reprint this fine piece. It has been nearly 35 years since the article was first published, and it remains one of the key statements on the relationship between British and Princely administration in the region that was to become Rajasthan. The article first appeared in the Journal of Modern History (a University of Chicago Press publication), volume 38, number 2, 1966. It was subsequently included in the authors' book Essays on Rajputana: Reflections on History, Culture and Administration, published in 1984 by Concept Publishing Company of New Delhi. The Rudolphs are Professors of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
- Ron Rice
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Rajputana Under British Paramountcy
The Failure of Indirect Rule
- Susanne Hoeber Rudolph & Lloyd I. Rudoplh

When India became independent in 1947, nineteen princely states and three chiefships of Rajputana were amalgamated into a single political unit, Rajasthan, that became a state within the Indian union. The special form of indirect rule, paramountcy, which Britain exercised in the princely states had not prepared Rajputana for independence. Princely rule and legitimacy, based on birth, was abruptly replaced by parliamentary government and the authority of democracy. Institutional changes which had taken place in British India over more than one hundred years were brought into being in Rajasthan in less than five. This work was accomplished not by those who stood at the head of the old regime but by those who had opposed it from within and by the new men of the central government in Delhi.

Rajasthan succeeded states which, after the making of treaties with Britain in 1818, had lived under that ambiguous conception of sovereignty which deprived the princes of their foreign powers and left their domestic powers subject to certain supervision. The gentle breezes of change and British political influence modified Rajput monarchial and feudal institutions but did not replace or even fundamentally transform them. The princes and their administrators learned what makes a respectable modern state and began, often with British guidance to construct new institutions. Sometimes these were effective and meaningful; more often they had the insubstantiality of stage setting. The political community expanded very little, but newly aware groups did take shape and hover near its boundaries waiting to assert their claims. The gradual extension of the rule of law and a growing appreciation for modern administration began but did not complete the separation of the state and its public offices and finances from the private estate, retainers, and income of the prince. These changes contributed to a consciousness of political rights and liberties but failed to make them constitutional. Until the crises and traumas of 1947 revealed their hollowness and fragility, the traditional ideas and practices of legitimacy and rulership, which paramountcy was designed to protect from external and internal dangers, continued intact.

Vagueness concerning the limits of power is likely to be helpful to those who exercise it. The British Government studiously avoided precision in defining paramountcy, the exercise of power over princely states.1 Its meaning derived from a wide variety of treaties concluded with different princes and a system of case law and precedent whose interpretation lay with the paramount power. The Butler Commission concisely summarized the deliberate ambiguity of paramountcy in 1928 when, in response to a request from the princes to define the concept, it merely stated: "Paramountcy must remain paramount."2 Paramountcy implied that the governor-general of India would exercise power in the field of foreign affairs, defense, communications, and coinage on behalf of the princely states.3 It left the states internally autonomous while guaranteeing the rulers protection against enemies foreign and domestic. The guarantee against domestic enemies brought with it unsystematic intervention in domestic affairs to insure that there would not be too many of them. An agent or a resident drawn from the special administrative cadre known as the political service represented the governor-general in the state and exercised these powers.

The influence of the British on the states depended on the overall policy espoused by the governor-general and the respective qualities of the political agents and the princes.4 A hands-off policy toward the princely states followed the rebellion of 1857, which frightened the British government away from strong interventionism. This policy ended at the turn of the twentieth century when Lord Curzon began to impress the princes with their responsibilities. The example of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, who in 1899 sharply protested against the political agent's desire to review the dismissal of two petty state officials, was not exceptional in the Curzon era. "Nothing is further from my mind [the agent wrote] than interference with your orders, and I trust there will never be any greater need than there is now for contemplating such interference. It is, however, the duty of every political agent to satisfy himself that the state with which he is, is well and justly governed, or how it is governed, and he can only do this by occasionally asking for reports on selected petitions."5 Lord Minto's easy-going policy eased the pressures for reform and intervention that Curzon had applied, but Lord Linlithgow's viceroyalty in the 1930's once again brought an emphasis on administrative modernization and reform, and hence greater intervention.6

The British exercised influence through numerous channels even in areas beyond the ordinary concerns of paramountcy. The crown drew to itself the right to recognize the successor to the gaddi (throne) of any state, and thus became involved in settling succession disputes. Since legitimate successors were often minors, and since during succession disputes unprotected minors sometimes expired prematurely, the crown took some responsibility for the minority administration. It appointed the regent, often making its selection within the state, sometimes sending in a member of the political service to conduct the administration. Minority rule provided the occasion for strong, often creative, intervention and laid the basis for subsequent influence.7 At the end of a twenty-year minority administration exercised on behalf of Maharaja Umed Singh of Kotah by the political agent to that state, he offered the following "advice" to the newly invested ruler: "Your Highness will in all important matters consult the political agent, be guided by his advice, and obtain his concurrence before introducing any important change in the measures carried out during your minority."8 Similar "advice" was given at Bikaner at the same time, although in later years the maharaja of that state became notoriously independent.9

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