Threats at gunpoint, hectic negotiations, popular uprisings and eccentric maharajas and nawabs - it wasn’t easy to put together India, as we know it today.
While freedom fighter and India’s first Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s role in uniting India’s numerous principalities and helping establish a strong and powerful India is well known, what is often missed is what it took, how tough it was and in some cases how it almost didn’t happen!
We look at all the behind-the-scenes drama that transpired in the run-up to the making of India.
Before 15th August 1947, India was divided into 563 principalities of varying sizes, power and wealth. It ranged from the mighty Hyderabad, that was as large as Ireland at that time, to the principality of Vejanoness in Gujarat, which was just 0.76 sq km! These kingdoms had their own armies, postal services, railways, and varying degrees of judicial powers.
– Before Independence, India’s principalities included Vejanoness in Gujarat, which was just 0.76 sq km!
To make matters worse, even prominent kingdoms were not contiguous units but made up of different fragmented parts. Thus, in a place like Saurashtra, to travel from Junagadh to Ahmedabad, one would have to pass through 20 to 30 different jurisdictions. The relations of these kingdoms with the British Empire were governed by the various treaties that they had signed.
However, as Independence approached, the British Government announced that all these treaties would lapse and these kingdoms could join India, Pakistan or become independent, if they so chose to. Indian leaders were aghast. Giving the right to these principalities, to become independent nations would have led to chaos in the subcontinent. It was in early 1947, with the Independence date approaching, that Sardar Patel and his trusted aide, VP Menon decided on a plan, as per which these Kingdoms would be convinced to join the Indian Union.
– Sardar Patel and VP Menon decided on a plan to convince the different Kingdoms to join the Indian Union.
They drew up a legal document, called the ‘Instrument of Accession’ by which the rulers joined the Indian Union in exchange for certain rights and privileges. Now the herculean task was to go from state to state, and convince the rulers.
Their biggest obstacle was Nawab Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal, the chancellor of the Chamber of Princes, who was convincing his fellow rulers to establish ‘Rajasthan’ – a separate union of kingdoms that comprised of present day Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This was to function as an independent country, separate from India and Pakistan. Thankfully, Maharaja Sadul Singh of Bikaner saw through this diabolical plan and convinced other rulers to oppose this. Bikaner was one of the first states to join India.
Maharaja Hanuwant Singh of Jodhpur, accompanied by the Prince of Jaisalmer went to M A Jinnah to ask him what would they would gain if they joined Pakistan. A delighted Jinnah is said to have offered them a blank sheet of paper, telling them that he would agree to whatever they wanted. However, the Jaisalmer Prince remarked that in case of trouble between Hindus and Muslims, he would stand by the Hindus.
– Talks got so heated, that the Maharaja of Jodhpur once waved a pen pistol at Menon
This remark threw the Maharaja of Jodhpur off guard and he wavered and said he wanted some time to think. Taking advantage of this, Menon flew to Jodhpur and it was after much cajoling that Jodhpur joined the Indian union. However, not before the things got tense and Jodhpur Maharaja had threatened to shoot Menon. He took out a pen from his pocket, which was infact a secret pistol and pointed it at Menon. Thankfully, Lord Mountbatten walked in and defused the situation, calmly confiscating the the Pen-Pistol as a 'gift'. This unique weapon remained with the Mountbatten family and was sold in 2013.
Another ruler who made Menon nervous was Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar of Indore, one of the closest friends of Nawab of Bhopal. As Independence Day was approaching, there was no sign of Indore joining the union. After all the heart burn over this, came a surprise. It is hard to imagine the look on VP Menon’s face, when he one day opened an ordinary looking envelope that came by regular post, to find that it contained the signed Instruments of accession from the Maharaja of Indore. It did not even have a covering letter and was just crumpled in a ordinary brown envelope.
– The Maharaja of Indore sent his consent to accession in an ordinary brown envelope!
The Nawab Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal too gave in, but only after a strong public pro-India agitation in Bhopal, led by none other than Shankar Dayal Sharma, who later became the President of India. There was talk that Hamidullah Khan planned to move to Pakistan and would succeed Jinnah as the Governor General. However, for whatever reasons his plans never bore fruit. But his daughter and heir apparent Abida Sultan, did move to Pakistan and became a diplomat.
There was much drama in East and South too. In remote Tripura, in the North East, which was surrounded by East Pakistan (now Bangaldesh) on three sides, there was a palace conspiracy to force the Regent Maharani Kanchan Prabha Devi to join Pakistan. However, this was foiled by Sardar Patel and Menon and Tripura joined India. In June 11, 1947 itself, Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer , the Dewan of Travancore had announced that Travancore would declare itself as an independent nation.
– In Tripura, there was a palace conspiracy to force the Regent to join Pakistan, foiled by Sardar Patel and Menon
Interestingly, Travancore had huge deposits of Thorium, used in atomic bombs and hence had attracted considerable attention of United States and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Travancore State Congress launched a powerful agitation demanding that it join India. However, an assassination attempt on Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer, from which he narrowly escaped, is said to have turned the tide. Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma too joined the Indian union.
The Nawab of Junagadh Sir Muhammad Mahabat Khanji in present day Gujarat, under the influence of his Dewan Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto (Grandfather of Benazir Bhutto) announced his intention to join Pakistan. The Nawab was an eccentric man who spent more on his dogs and less on his subjects. In fact, he even spent lakhs of rupees on the marriage of his favourite dog named ‘Roshnara’.
– The Nawab of Junagadh fled with his favorite dogs and jewels to Karachi, leaving one of his wives behind!
His people soon rose in revolt and the Nawab of Junagadh packed his plane with jewels and his favourite dogs (though he left one of his wives behind) and fled to Karachi. He also took with him almost the entire treasury of the Junagadh state! The last remaining were the two largest states, Kashmir & Hyderabad. Both of them, dreamt of becoming independent sovereign nations. However, the Pakistan-backed tribal invasion of Kashmir in October 1947, put an end to Maharaja Hari Singh’s plans for an independent Kashmir.
In the case of Hyderabad, the militia known as Razakars committed terrible atrocities on the local population and led a sustained campaign of harassment of government officials to force the Nizam to declare independence.
Finally in October 1948, Indian army sent in its troops, and through military action named Operation Polo, Hyderabad too was merged into the Indian Union.
Today, looking back, the accession of the many kingdoms into the Indian state occupies just a para, in the story of India’s march to freedom. But it was hard won and one has to give credit to the steely resolve of Sardar Patel and the persistence of his efforts with V P Menon, to make it all happen.