Still keeping Victoria’s promise

But breaking Sardar Patel’s

There were over 554 Princely States within India’s boundaries in 1947. By the time the Constitution came into force on January 26th, 1950, every one of them had acceded to the Republic of India. That feat was made possible by the energy and ingenuity of two men: V P Menon, the secretary of the States department, and his political boss, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the Home Minister. Together the cajoled, coerced or convinced the Maharajas, Nawabs and other rulers to hand over political power to the Indian Union. In return the Republic of India made them solemn promises: their pensions, special privileges and rights were enshrined in the Constitution.

On October 12th, 1949, defending the guarantees that the Indian Union gave the former rulers, Sardar Patel told the Constituent Assembly: “These guarantees form part of the historic settlements which enshrine in them the consummation of the great ideal of geographical, political and economic unification of India, an ideal which, for centuries, remained a distant dream and which appeared as remote and as difficult of attainment as ever even after the advent of Indian independence… the minimum which we could offer to them as quid pro quo for parting with their ruling powers was to guaranteed to them privy purses and certain privileges on a reasonable and defined basis. the privy purse settlements are therefore in the nature of consideration for the surrender by the Rulers of all their ruling powers and also for the dissolution of the States as separate units… The Rulers have now discharged their part of the obligations to by transferring all ruling powers and by agreeing to the integration of their States. The main part of our obligation under these agreements is to ensure that the guarantees given by us in respect of Privy Purses are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stability of the new order.”

Just two decades later, the Indira Gandhi government breached that faith. On December 28th, 1971, the 26th amendment to the Constitution abolished the privy purses and withdrew the recognition granted to all former rulers.

All, that is, except the Prince of Arcot.

Why the exception? Because, it turns out, that the Government of India is honouring a pledge made by Queen Victoria in 1867. The British colonial government, after applying the notorious doctrine of lapse, appointed Azim Jah as the Prince of Arcot, and awarded him a tax-free pension in perpetuity.

The Indian republic broke the promise it made. But it’s still keeping the one Queen Victoria made. Now isn’t that something?

6 thoughts on “Still keeping Victoria’s promise”

  1. Yes, that is the way we work as a nation. If you look up the pages of history you will find several other such cases that would sound absolutely ridiculous to just about anybody. Laws that should have been abolished at least a century ago, are not just in existence even today, our dear old system finds it appropriate to spends crores worth of resources on pretences to administer them in pathetically vain attempts.

  2. Any other source besides Wikipedia about the exception apparently granted to the “Prince of Arcot”?

    An article in The Hindu also says that the status is protected by the Constitution. I am looking for the exact provision that does so. A free-text search in the Constitution doesn’t return any results for “arcot”.

    An aside about Kunwar Natwar Singh.. apparently he changed his name legally so that “Kunwar” became his legal first name.. and nobody had any choice but to call him KNS rather than Mr. NS. But that doesn’t mean that his title of crown prince was recognized.

    Time for you to become Maharaja Nitin Pai? 😉

  3. Did the Indian constitution guarantee privy purses to only the rulers or their progeny as well for perpetuity?

    If the latter is true and it was promised that all future generations of the Indian population would continue to pay future generations of ‘princes’ for a peaceful integration and transition to democracy effected between 1947-50, I wonder if it would have been a fair bargain.

    And I wonder if the state needs to keep a bargain (even if it is in the constitution) if it is considered unfair in the long run. I wonder if the privy purses, even if they were not abolished in 1971, would have gone unchallenged in the courts till now.

  4. Vimal,

    In his book, VP Menon states that the privy purses were guaranteed to the rulers for life. As for their successors, it varies. But generally it was that these would be decided by governments at the time, and in no case would exceed Rs 10 lakhs per year. (Menon estimates that the total privy purse bill at that time amounted to Rs 20 crores a year. No adjustment for inflation. But excluding the richest states of Mysore and Hyderabad, the Indian Union had already received about Rs 77 crores when the cash balances of the rulers was transferred to the state governments).

    As for the fair bargain—well, a contract is a contract. If the terms under which the princes had acceded were so, then the Indian republic had to keep its side of the bargain. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Indian republic have consistently shown their contempt for private property rights and sanctity of contracts.

  5. BOK,

    That was a clever thing for KNS to do. I think it’s harder for Mr Ali to change his first name to “Prince of Arcot”. As for Maharaja Nitin Pai, well, that would be just the thing to do when I consider an alternate career as a cook, priest or yoga master. Needless to say, I have no such plans at this time.

  6. Nitin,

    Very true about contracts and private property rights, especially when it comes to those of its own citizens. This brings me to another question on whether you can consider the jagirs of erstwhile kings as their personal properties – they were most certainly developed / built / bought using taxes they collected from their subjects or just snatched away.

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