In one stroke, the word given by Sardar Patel and constitutionally committed as a sovereign guarantee was suddenly abolished.
As the din on the recent abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A ebbs with the assertion of its “temporary” proviso, another constitutional abrogation, entailing the privy purses in 1971, remains largely forgotten. Pre-Independence, there were 565 princely “states” of a feudatory nature that were officially recognised by the British Raj that included British India and these native “states”. About 117 of these “states” were accorded gun-salutes that ranged from three to 21, depending on the warrant of precedence setting their prestige, as assessed by the size, revenue, antiquity and other considerations. The largest of these was the 21 gun-salute of Jammu & Kashmir which included the regions of Gilgit, Baltistan, Ladakh and Poonch — with an area of 84,471 square miles, making it substantially larger than modern day European countries like Greece, Portugal or Hungary. These “states” had partial sovereignty and were ruled by their rulers who had a subsidiary alliance agreement between their independent “state” and the British paramountcy. This allowed some of the larger “states” to retain state military forces that were often requisitioned as part of the imperial service troops, and they partook action in the world wars. The unparallelled heroics of the Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers in attacking German and Turkish defences in the Mediterranean town of Haifa is recognised as the last great horse cavalry charge in history.
Pre-Independence, these princely “states” accounted for 48 per cent of the area and about 28 per cent of the total population, and managing their integration into the Dominion of India (or Pakistan) became an immediate challenge. From the Indian side, Sardar Vallahbhai Patel, aptly described by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as “the builder and consolidator of new India”, along with V.P. Menon who was the secretary of the newly-created ministry of states to overlook the herculean task of accession, undertook the same. From invoking patriotism, cajoling, reasoning, alluding to anarchy for failure to join, to even coercive means - all possible tact were deployed. The tireless efforts tested the patience, negotiation skills, persuasive powers and even decisiveness in tricky situations like Junagadh, Hyderabad and so on. To make the deal palatable, the duo initially required the princely states to accede only on the three matters of defence, external affairs and communications, and then offered the guarantee of privy purses in lieu of surrendering existing rights and culminated in the signing of the Instruments of Accession. As part of the promise the rulers gave up control of their lands, institutions, cash balances and even 12,000 miles of railways, without any compensation, other than the guarantees of the privy purse. It is important to remember that a lot of these rulers were immensely popular, progressive and commanded the respect of their people, who could have swung in their favour had they tried to be difficult. While today the geographical, political and emotional entity and imagination of a composite “India” is only natural, the sacrifice of many of the rulers of “states” who were given an option to join either of the two nations or remain independent, is unbeknownst to most citizenry.
The privy purse was defined under Articles 291 and 362 of the Constitution that guaranteed a fixed tax-free sum to the former princely rulers and their successors, and this was to be charged on the Consolidated Fund of India. While the total cost to the Indian exchequer was about six crores in 1947, it had come down progressively to about four crores annually, by the time it was suddenly abolished. Sardar Patel himself had realised the enormity of the sacrifice when he passionately spoke for the rulers: “Let us place ourselves in their position and then assess the value of their sacrifice. The rulers have now discharged their part of the obligations by transferring all ruling powers by agreeing to the integration of their states. The main part of our obligation under these agreements is to ensure that the guarantee given by us in respect of the privy purses are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stabilisation of the new order.” Importantly, Sardar Patel noted that just the cash received from the rulers of just the Madhya Bharat region alone, if invested, would generate enough interest to honour the entirety of privy purses, to all the rulers!
Subsequent politics of independent India would bear its own instincts, insecurities and morasses that often led to the convenient demonisation of the erstwhile rulers and the ostensible urge to build an “egalitarian social order”, positing this sovereign commitment as an unnecessary drain. Much of the political angst had to do with the fact that most of these rulers were driven towards C. Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party, which had become a major political opposition by then. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India was made stating, “the privy purse is abolished and all rights, liabilities and obligations in respect of privy purse are extinguished and accordingly the ruler or, as the case may be, the successor of such ruler, referred to in clause (a) or any other person shall not be paid any sum as privy purse”.
In one stroke, the word given by Sardar Patel and constitutionally committed as a sovereign guarantee was suddenly abolished. Today, questions of such privileges, titles and “purses” are frowned upon and ridiculed — but the question is of constitutional guarantee, morality and above all, the honour of the sovereign promise. In any case, the democratic throes were negating the feudal spirit, financial burden or even the societal relevance of these erstwhile rulers, but to renege on the commitment is tantamount to betrayal of trust. Today the resuscitation of the same may rightfully seem anachronistic, impractical and even unwarranted as much water has flown under the bridge, but it would do well for the government to introspect and acknowledge the wrong of backtracking on a constitutional commitment, and at least recognise the role of the former rulers towards the building of today’s India.