When reading about the Princely States of the Indian Empire one often comes across an estimation that there were about 500 states. This isn’t really an accurate analysis, as most of these entities were not “states” in the general sense of the word and were more like large (and some not so large) landholdings with a hereditary owner who happened to have a title. Of this total number of about 500 only a hundred or so actually fitted the description of a state, or a political entity with its own government, in this case ruled by a prince. The Muslim princely states in the Northwestern part of the Empire all acceded to Pakistan. But there were a few Hindu Rajput states which also came very close to becoming part of the new country of Pakistan!
A bit of commentary on the situation of the states in general is pertinent. According to the Partition plan, the princes theoretically had three options: to join India, join Pakistan or remain independent. The British made it clear that they did not support any state excerising the third option, that of independence, and neither did the Indian National Congress. The Muslim League was a little more relaxed in their approach to the princes and Jinnah was willing to let the states retain the internal independence they had enjoyed under the Raj. In truth, though, only the largest and richest of the princely states could have actually been able to maintain themselves as sovereign nations, so despite the fact that many rulers secretly wanted to declare independence, most knew this was not an option and that they would have to come to some settlement with either India or Pakistan.
Only three took the option of independence seriously: Travancore, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Travancore was an ancient Hindu kingdom along the Malabar Coast of South India, comprising most of what is today Kerala. With its flourishing ports conducting international trade and its rich fertile land producing an abundance of rice, coconuts, tea and coffee Travancore would have been able to sustain itself. Its geographical position with the Arabian Sea in front and the high ridges of the Western Ghats behind it would have been easy to defend. The second was Hyderabad. His Exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad was the richest man in the world at that time and ruled over the second largest state, area wise, and his state had all of the institutions required to run a sovereign country in place. His only problem was that Hyderabad was landlocked and without access to the sea, and with India surrounding the state, it would be difficult to maintain an international identity. For a while the Nizam even toyed with the idea of joining Pakistan, but then stuck to his original idea and asked for Pakistani diplomatic support on the world stage. Within a year both joined India, Travancore through a mixture of astute diplomacy and political agitation by India and Hyderabad through an all-out military invasion.
His Highness Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir was in the best position be a sovereign monarch and this was his intention until the last minute when Brigadier Sam Manekshaw and V.P. Menon made it clear to him that he would have to accede to India if he wanted military support. Thus the Pakistani position is that his accession was under duress. Jammu & Kashmir had no intention of acceding to Pakistan but there were a few Maharajas who almost did!
One of the rulers who entertained ideas of independence was Nawab Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal. He dreamed of a federation of smaller princely states in Central India led by himself and the Maharaja of Indore, something along the lines of today’s United Arab Emirates or Malaysia. As he was also pro-Muslim League and a close associate of the Quaid Muhammad Ali Jinnah, he acted as the go-between for Mr. Jinnah and three of the most important Maharajas of Rajputana who were playing with the idea of acceding to Pakistan.
The principle of geographical contiguity was one of the main issues that Vallabhai Patel, the Congress leader who had been tasked by Nehru to deal with the states, always stressed in regards to states joining India or Pakistan. Due to this reason most of the Muslim princely states, which lay within the boundaries of modern India, could not join Pakistan. Jinnah Sahib used this very principle against him when he reached out to three rulers in Western Rajputana, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner. All of these states were geographically contiguous with Pakistan and were in many ways linked historically and culturally with the Indus Valley. The Rathores of Jodhpur and Bikaner and the Bhattis of Jaisalmer were also among the oldest and proudest of the states of Rajputana and they did not want to see their ancient legacy fade away under the Congress. Mr. Jinnah was offering a way for them to stay politically relevant and internally autonomous.
Bikaner had a practical reason for joining Pakistan. The headworks for the canals which fed the agricultural regions of the State around Sri Ganganagar were going to be awarded to Pakistan under the Radcliffe Award, so fearing access to the waters from the Sutlej, the Maharaja of Bikaner told Nawab Hamidullah to convey it to Jinnah that Bikaner may join Pakistan to ensure their water rights. The Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, got wind of this development and made sure that the headworks which provided water to Sir Ganganagar would go to East Punjab instead of West Punjab. Thus Bikaner acceded to India and the Maharaja did not meet Jinnah. H.H. Maharaja Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur, though, was extremely anti-Congress and agreed to meet Jinnah where he famously offered him a signed blank piece of paper to write whatever conditions he wanted to for accession! Jodhpur agreed to accede on the basis that internal autonomy and religious freedom would be guaranteed, Jodhpur would be allowed to import arms and maintain an armed force and would have free access to the port of Karachi for international trade. Subsequently Hanwant Singh even managed to get his neighbor the Maharawal of Jaisalmer, whose ancient desert kingdom bordered two Pakistani princely states, Bahawalpur and Khairpur, interested in acceding. In a second meeting with Jinnah the Yuvraj (heir apparent) of Jaisalmer accompanied the Maharaja of Jodhpur but was unable to agree upon joining, based on the fact that he was a proud Hindu and if war broke out he would have to side with Hindu-majority India. Eventually V.P. Menon and Vallabhai Patel were able to strong-arm Hanwant Singh into acceding to India after a long dramatic process which including a scene where the hot blooded Rajput Maharaja threatened Menon and put pistol to his head! Hanwant Singh never gave up his grudge against the Congress and in a subsequent election he defeated one of Mahatma Gandhi’s main Sewaks (who supposedly took care of Gandhi’s goats and milked them for him) in a landslide victory for a seat in the Lok Sabha.
The story of the Princely States is a long and fascinating one but in those last days of the Raj one could see a glimpse of the mastery of politics it required for those monarchs to have survived so long into the modern world. The Rajputs in the past had often allied with Muslims, the Mughal era being a prime example, and if things had worked out slightly differently, half of Rajasthan would have today been a part of Pakistan.
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk