It is interesting to compare Britain’s public mourning for its monarch with the general indifference in India for the lives of our monarchs. When Queen Elizabeth was born, the “native states” covered a third of the subcontinent, constituted a quarter of its economy and contained a fifth of its population. Yet today these are generally remembered for their extravagance and eccentricity, or for relatively minor acts of patronage. It is a terrible oversight. Indigenous states deserve a central place in our collective memory because they played a significant role in shaping modern India.
For example, how many people in contemporary India are aware that the first concerted push for constitutionalism took place not in British India but in “Indian India”? The story goes like this. By the first half of the 19th century, the British had come to the conclusion that the native states were a swamp where ‘despotic’ rulers treated their subjects as ‘mere cash cows’. Since interference openly generated resentment, the British tried to use education to produce “responsible” leaders. Baroda became a test for this approach. After Malhar Rao was deposed for mismanagement in 1875, the British chose Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, then a 12-year-old illiterate, and set about grooming him for the job. Under the supervision of his Oxford-educated tutor, Frederick Elliot, Sayaji Rao was introduced to various “gentlemanly” pursuits. But on the eve of his ascension, fierce debate erupted over the legitimate role of a maharaja.
The traditional view in the native states was that a Maharaja was entitled to absolute absolute rule for the benefit of his dynasty. This view has now been attacked by ambitious and patriotic young men in the Bombay Presidency, who had received a modern education. Hoping to see the back of the British, they urged Sayaji Rao to “strengthen his state”. Remarkably, Elliot nurtured these views. Because he wanted to make Sayaji Rao, whom he cherished, a figurehead of western India, he let his parish mingle with Maratha embers. This is how Sayaji Rao came into possession of Niccolò Machiavelli’s “Prince”, whom he “immediately adopted as his political guide”.
This development shocked the British who set out to try to oust Elliot. This also alarmed the famous Dewan of Baroda, Sir Madhava Rao. It was all very well to be moved by Machiavelli’s exhortation to liberate his homeland (fatherland) from the “barbarians”, but much depended on knowing how to do it. Having devoted his career to preserving the native states from the grip of the British, Rao was only too aware of their relative weakness. So in 1881, the anxious Dewan convinced the British to allow him to give Sayaji Rao a “special education” in the form of lectures on “the art and science of government”.
In his lectures, Rao urged Sayaji to see that the circumstances he faced were quite different from those of Machiavelli’s Prince. What kept the British in India was public credit and public opinion: the Indians were willing to lend them money and obey their laws because they expected them to improve their lives – and did not foresee a better alternative. Therefore, violence could accomplish little, as the great masses were unlikely to side with the native states. To supplant the British, the native states would have to surpass them. And in a time when newspapers watched the leader’s every move, half measures would fool few. “A fierce light beats on the throne,” warned Rao. Only in-depth reform would suffice: the native states had to establish a constitutional order in which governance depended not on the inclinations of the maharaja but on impartial and competent public institutions.
Rao struggled to make himself heard. The constitution he proposed to Gaekwad was denounced by traditionalists and activists. Sardars and bais mocked him as a “Madrasi” who wanted to turn Baroda into Britain, while hotheads in Bombay, including young Bal Gangadhar Tilak, reportedly circulated anonymous pamphlets accusing him of timidity. But the story does not end there. Rao’s pleas sparked a much wider debate in western India. This led to dozens of publications on the importance of constitutionalism, which decisively shaped the worldview of liberals grouped in the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha and the Indian National Social Conference, including MG Ranade and GK Gokhale. These figures then shaped the “moderate” wing of the Indian National Congress, which made constitutional reform its signature.
This is just one example of how indigenous states have contributed to the ideas and policies that have shaped contemporary India. There are many more stories to tell: of Mysore and Travancore fostering representation, Tanjore and Vizianagaram revitalizing culture, Bhavnagar and Gondal fostering education, Indore and Mayurbhanj facilitating enterprise, and Kapurthala and Bikaner advancing diplomacy . As we continue to dig into these stories, we will see that Indigenous states were patrons of broader national progress, serving as incubators of talent, arenas for debate, and laboratories for policy. And perhaps then we will give them their due by celebrating their contribution to the construction of modern India.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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