As the date of Independence drew nearer, the fate of the 500-odd princely states under the British Raj in the Subcontinent remained to be decided. Both pampered and exploited by the colonisers, these semi-autonomous chiefdoms were in fact one of the toughest challenges at hand for an independent India and Pakistan. Historian Ramachandra Guha, in his book ‘India after Gandhi’, speaks of the princely states as a “geopolitical problem, the likes of which no independent state had ever faced (or is likely to face in the future).”
In July 1947, a month before the British were to leave, Viceroy Mountbatten delivered a speech in the Chamber of Princes in which he advised the princes to choose to accede to either India or Pakistan for their own good, and that the prospect of an efficient independent state devoid of chaos for them was nothing but an illusion. “You cannot run away from the Dominion Government which is your neighbour any more than you can run away from your subjects for whose welfare you are responsible,” he said categorically, as quoted by Guha.
By the the late 1930s itself, the Indian National Congress had made its stance clear on the future it sought for the states: “The Purna Swaraj or complete independence, which is the objective of the Congress, is for the whole of India, inclusive of the States, for the integrity and unity of India must be maintained in freedom as it has been maintained in subjection” (as noted by a statement in the 1938 Haripura session of the Congress).
In June 1947, a States Department was created with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as its minister in charge and V P Menon as his secretary. Together, they set about wooing, cajoling, convincing and sometimes pressuring the states to join the Indian Union. “Through the spring of 1947 Patel threw a series of lunch parties, where he urged his princely guests to help the Congress in framing a new constitution for India,” writes Guha.
Yet while India actively went about ensuring the states’ accession to the Indian Union, on the other side of the border the new born nation of Pakistan remained rather unconcerned about them. The counterpart of the States’ Department in Pakistan headed by Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar was largely inactive right upto the day of Independence. Complicating matters was the fact that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the new nation, kept to himself the intricate job of negotiating with the princes who wished to accede to Pakistan. “With his hands full with tasks associated with creating a new country, the issue of the states was a distant secondary problem for Jinnah for months,” notes historian Yakoob Khan Bangash in his essay, ‘Constructing the state: Constitutional integration of the princely states of Pakistan’.
The result was that by August 15, 1947, while a large majority of the princely states had acceded to the Indian Union, not a single one joined Pakistan. Later though, about nine principalities acceded to Pakistan. Together, they form more than half the landmass of Western Pakistan and are lying strategically on the borders of the country.
Why did most, if not all, states accede to India and not Pakistan? Indeed this question has been answered over and again in terms of demographics, that most of the states were populated with a non-Muslim majority, who could not imagine being part of an ‘Islamic’ Pakistan. There was also the matter of geography. While Mountbatten in his speech to the Chamber of Princes reiterated that the princes were free to join India or Pakistan, the Congress was quick to point out the problems that might arise from such a situation. Several of the princely states, including Hyderabad, Bhopal, Junagadh, Palanpur, Rampur and others had Muslim rulers, but they remained far removed geographically from the territory of what became Pakistan. “When I say that they are at liberty to link up with either of the Dominions, may I point out that there are certain geographical compulsions that cannot be evaded. Out of something like 565 states, the vast majority are irretrievably linked..with the dominion of India,” said Mountbatten in his July 1947 speech.
Yet, even by this logic which asserted that only those states neighbouring Pakistan were eligible to join it, one would assume that the new nation would embrace all 13 states in Punjab, Cooch Behar in Bengal and many of the states in Rajputana. But only two of the Punjab states- Khairpur and Bahawalpur, ended up acceding to Pakistan. Contrary to what one might think, not all of the border states were in support of the Congress either. Historian Ian Copland, in his 2010 published research paper explains that as late as July 1948 “Indian intelligence was still receiving reports from Rajasthan, and particularly from Jodhpur, of popular demonstrations in support of Pakistan.” Jodhpur in fact was a curious case of a Hindu king commanding a majority Hindu population, tilting towards Pakistan. Many of the border states also shared important economic ties with Sindh and West Punjab.
Copland asserts that the best possible answer to why Pakistan was not able to acquire more of the princely states lies in the “chequered history of the League’s relationship with the princes in the last three decades of the colonial period”.
“Plagued by internal dissension, low morale, and lack of funds, the League was hard pressed in the 1930s just to keep afloat; fully occupied in the provinces combatting the Congress, and trying to impose its authority on the Muslims of Punjab and Bengal, it had no desire to add to its problems by involvement in the internal affairs of the princely states,” writes Copland. The Muslim League, like the British Raj, saw the princes as valuable counterweight to the socialist tendencies of the Congress. “Why go out of the way to alienate potential allies?”
As late as June 1947 the Muslim League maintained its laissez faire attitude towards the princely states. Bangash notes that Jinnah was “content with giving maximum leeway to the princely states once paramountcy came to an end with the departure of the British.”
Jinnah was also not of the opinion that the states needed to restrict themselves to one of the two dominions. “In my opinion they are free to remain independent if they so desire. Neither the British government, nor the British Parliament nor any other power or body can compel them to do anything contrary to their free will and accord,” said Jinnah as quoted by Bangash.
This, despite the fact that there was some amount of campaigning from the side of the Muslim population in the princely states. In 1944, for instance, S M Zauqi, a member of the League from Ajmer told the League’s Committee of Action: “You cannot ignore your brothers in the Indian states…Pakistan will never be happy if so many brothers in Indian states and minority provinces are left in the lurch.”
Copland writes that until 1947 these appeals fell on deaf ears. “While Jinnah was willing to canvas the grievances of Kashmiri Muslims privately with the Viceroy — as he did in 1943 and 1945 — he was not prepared to support or sanction direct action against the Kashmiri darbar,” he writes. Even as late as July 1947, Jinnah is known to have told a delegation of Kashmiri Muslims to not campaign for the state to accede to Pakistan, but rather support Maharaja Hari Singh’s bid for independence.
The League’s stance began to change from June 1947. The catalyst was the publication of Mountbatten’s revised plan for the devolution of power. Contrary to what the League had expected, the new plan deprived Pakistan of half of its most productive agricultural regions and the industrial metropolis of Calcutta. On August 13, the League suffered a further blow when Sir Cyril Radcliffe awarded the Muslim majority district of Gurdaspur to India. “Under the circumstances, the notion of boosting Pakistan’s area and population by incorporating some, or all of the neighbouring princely states suddenly became very appealing,” writes Copland.
At first impulse the League made soft targets of the border princes making them promises of a favourable treatment if they decided to accede to Pakistan. This was the case with the Maharaja of Kashmir to whom Jinnah promised to allow the continuation of his autocratic governance if he were to join Pakistan. Similar gestures were made to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer as well. In Rampur, the League resorted to much stronger tactics. By early August a very harassed Nawab of the state is noted to have told the viceroy that Jinnah has been pressuring him in every possible way to stop him from acceding to the Indian Union.
As it became clearer to the League that more and more states were acceding to India, it decided to drop all pretense of non-interference and set about making direct inroads. “During July and August, League agents worked clandestinely in Alwar and Bharatpur, and the Poonch region of Kashmir, encouraged local Muslims to take up arms against their Hindu overlords; at the beginning of September, Pakistani authorities in the Punjab initiated a ‘private war’ against the still independent Kashmir darbar by stopping supplies of fuel and other essential commodities from crossing the border,” notes Copland.
The first state to accede to Pakistan was Junagadh in the Kathiawar region that was separated from West Pakistan by hundreds of miles. Its ruler, Nawab Mohammad Mahabat Khanji III was a Muslim ruling over a majority Hindu population. He was convinced to accede to Pakistan by his dewan Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, a member of the Muslim League. India did not react favourably to the situation and a blockade of Junagadh was organised apart from a general uprising in September 1947 under Samaldas Gandhi, a nephew of Mahatma Gandhi. With the breakdown of the economy in Junagadh, the situation deteriorated so much that the Nawab fled to Karachi leaving the state in the hands of the dewan who then surrendered to India by November 1947. Eventually, a plebiscite was also held in February 1948 wherein about 91 per cent of the voters chose to join India.
Bahawalpur in Punjab and Khairpur in Sindh lay on the border of Pakistan and India and could have therefore decided to accede to either. However, since they both comprised of a majority Muslim population, being govered by a Muslim ruler, India was not interested in these states. Both the states easily and without any hassle acceded to Pakistan in October 1947.
Chitral, Dir, Swat and Amb were four small states lying adjacent to the North West Frontier Province. As Bangash notes, “these states were mostly tribal, operated on subsistence economy and their rulers lacked the regal paraphernalia associated with other states.” Chitral, Swat and Amb were eager to join Pakistan, surrounded as they were by Pakistani territory. They signed the instruments of accession by the end of 1947.
The ruler of Dir, Sir Shah Jahan Khan, was hesitant in joining Pakistan, especially since his state shared a border with Afghanistan. He had insisted that his relations with the Pakistan government remain the same as that with the British. However, he did eventually accede to Pakistan by November 1947.
Two tiny states within the suzerainty of Kashmir, Hunza and Nagar, along with Gilgit, rebelled against the Maharaja of Kashmir after his accession to the Indian Union. Consequently, they acceded to Pakistan. “Since their legal state was never clear, however, Pakistan has still not incorporated them in its territory and they still remain outside the ambit of the constitution,” writes Bangash.
The princely state of Kalat which is located in modern day Balochistan gave the most amount of trouble to the Pakistan government. Its ruler, Ahmed Yar Khan, wished to remain an independent state along the lines of what Hyderabad and Travancore sought. “He thought that due to his close friendship with Jinnah, he would be able to convince the government of Pakistan of a friendship treaty instead of accession,” explains Bangash. He adds, “in the end Jinnah had to terminate his personal role in the process and turn over negotiations to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 1948.”
To put pressure on the state, its feudatory states, Las Bela, Kharan and Makran were dismembered from Kalat. They soon acceded to Pakistan. Further pressure was mounted upon Khan when the All India Radio reported a piece of unverified news conveying Kalat’s decision to join India. Eventually, he signed the instrument of accession to Pakistan on March 27, 1948. However, later, in July 1948, the brother of the ruler, Prince Abdul Karim, organised a revolt against the Pakistan government, which happened to be the first among the five Baloch insurgencies.
Bangash notes that the process of integration of the princely states after accession was markedly different in India and Pakistan. “For Pakistan, centralisation and the weakening of the ruling prince were far more important considerations than the development of democracy and representative institutions,” he writes. As a result, the newly formed nation further strengthened the hands of the military and bureaucracy. The effects of such an approach can still be felt in the country in the form of the military carrying an unusual amount of authority and an ongoing insurgency in Balochistan. As Bangash writes, “the ambivalent attitude of the government towards democracy still plagues Pakistan and the continuation of democracy in the country still remains fraught with challenges.”
Yaqoob Khan Bangash, ‘Constructing the state: Constitutional integration of the princely states of Pakistan’, in State and nation building in Pakistan: Beyond Islam and security, Roger D Long, Yunas Samad, Gurharpal Singh and Ian Talbot (ed), Routledge, 2016
Ian Copland, ‘The princely states, the Muslim League and the Partition of India in 1947’, The International History Review, 2010
Ramachandra Guha, ‘India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest democracy’, Picador, 2008