“Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States” by John Zubrzycki

John Zubrzycki John Zubrzycki

It is appropriate (and perhaps not entirely coincidental) that John Zubrzycki’s Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States—the story of how India came to be a unitary state rather than a patchwork of autonomous if not independent polities—appears during India’s 75 anniversary.

The granular, well-researched Dethroned is probably targeted at history junkies (and it in its insistence on using the lakhs and crores—100,000 and 10 million respectively of the Indian numbering system—South Asian ones). For anyone else, however, Dethroned is likely to prove a fascinating and thought-provoking narrative of nation-building which resonates beyond India down to the current century.

In the pre-independence India of 1947, princely states covered 40% of the area with 23% of the population.

Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States, by John Zubrzycki (Hurst, November 2023, Juggernaut, July 2023)
Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States, John Zubrzycki (Hurst, November 2023, Juggernaut, July 2023)

The conventional narrative (at least the one I had) is of a more or less undivided colonial India being partioned on independence into India and Pakistan. But the Raj was far from unitary: in the pre-independence India of 1947, princely states covered 40% of the area with 23% of the population.


Save for a narrow neck of land near Jhansi in central India, it would have been impossible to travel north to south without crossing into the territories of one of the princely states. Travelling east to west would have presented a similar set of obstacles.


The princely states were not really part of the Raj: they were governed by treaty.


When control of India had passed from the East India Company to the British Crown in 1858, a royal proclamation was read out in Queen Victoria’s name. It guaranteed the continued existence of the states without the Crown’s interference. All treaties and agreements made with them by the company would be ‘scrupulously observed’… With Queen Victoria’s proclamation, the political map of India was effectively frozen, a jumble of pinks representing British India and yellows representing Indian India or the princely states.


The princely states were considered part of “British India”, albeit subject to some rules that today seem downright bizarre:


To constitute the princes into a feudal hierarchy, the British devised a system of gun salutes, ranging from twenty-one for the five largest states down to nine. … Only five states enjoyed twenty-one-gun status – Hyderabad, Kashmir, Mysore, Gwalior and Baroda. But even they were a long way down in the imperial pecking order. The King Emperor was entitled to a 101-gun salute, while a viceroy was granted thirty-one.


The nawab of Bhopal sat on the Imperial War Cabinet during World War One, the only Indian to do so, and


attended the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, where he was one of the two signatories representing British India along with Secretary of State Edwin Montagu.


A century after Queen Victoria’s pronouncement, the Indian Independence Act


provided for the handover of power to two new dominions on 15 August [1948]. All treaties with the British Crown would lapse, technically leaving the princes free to join either India or Pakistan, or if they chose, to declare themselves independent.

In 1947, Hyderabad’s income and expenditure rivaled that of Belgium, and was larger than that of twenty members of the UN.

The problem was not so much that princely states (Kashmir aside) in India might conceivably join Pakistan, although that was occasionally mooted, but rather that they would opt for independence. Although some of the princely states were the size of postage stamps—Bilbari was 4.3 square kilometres with 27 people and Veja-no-ness was 2 square kilometres with a population of 184—some were large enough for independence not to be a wholly absurd idea.


Hyderabad’s income and expenditure rivalled that of Belgium, and in 1947 was larger than that of twenty members of the UN …


Hyderabad offered to buy Goa from the Portuguese to give itself a seaport.


News then surfaced of an arms supply agreement with the Birmingham Small Arms Company and of a Rs 4 crore order for ammunition with a Czech arms dealer… Hyderabad had appointed a trade commissioner in London, had begun discussions with France about establishing a Hyderabad diplomatic mission for Europe and had asked Britain’s retired air chief marshal, Sir Christopher Courtnay, for advice on creating a modern air force.


A plan for an independent “Rajastan” was also tabled. Travancore in the far south made clear its intention to declare independence.

The leaders of soon-to-be-independent India, Patel, Menon, Nehru, backed by Mountbatten, realized from the start that this threatened the viability of the new country; Dethroned is the story as to how the autocratic leaders of the princely states were cajoled, strong-armed and bamboozled into acceding to India. Zubrzycki provides some context.


The new dominion gained political cohesion, land and money. By the end of 1949, it had added 13 lakh square kilometres of territory and more than 9 crore subjects, easily offsetting what it had lost because of Partition.


Pakistan had a similar problem, but there were fewer princely states to deal with.

Once within India, the remaining powers were steadily whittled away, until Indira Gandhi abolished titles and subsidies completely in 1971. In hindsight, there now seems a sense of inevitability about the outcome, something only slightly dispelled by Zubrzycki’s account. Although he details all the political machinations, subterfuge and backroom deals, the only real question was the amount of force India would need to employ to achieve it. The construction of India as a unitary state was far from bloodless (“the killing of Muslims in Hyderabad remains the single largest massacre in the history of independent India,” writes Zubrzycki), but it was not for the most part military.


The political detail of Zubrzycki’s account is leavened with anecdote. He says of the nawab of Junadagh (a small state whose accession to India has still not to this day been recognized by Pakistan):


His favourite pooches had diamond-studded collars, and a public holiday was declared when they mated. Mahabat was reputed to have spent Rs 3 lakh on the marriage of his favourite bitch Roshana with a handsome golden retriever named Bobby in a state ceremony attended by 50,000 guests. Roshana wore pearls around her neck while the groom’s paws were bedecked with gold. The then viceroy, Lord Irwin, wisely turned down an invitation to attend.


There is much along these lines: playing hockey on a palace’s marble floors, rulers with a penchant for foreign white women, beds at each corner of which “was a life-size bronze figure of a naked woman with natural hair, movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horse tails.” This all quite good fun, and makes for good reading, but not very edifying.

Three-quarters of a century on, the princely states have for the most part been relegated to the role of historical curiosities, their contemporary relevance, Kashmir arguably apart, as veiled as that of Duchy of Parma or Schleswig-Holstein. But there is much in Dethroned that will seem familiar to those familiar with the winding down of the British presence in Hong Kong: broken promises (implied and explicit), a bowing to reality, a certain fecklessness and, once gone, a (perhaps understandable) reluctance to look back. One can also find echoes in the more recent American withdrawal from Afghanistan: those parts of society that had come to rely on the occupying power were left in the lurch when it upped and left.

Imperialism is messy, and no less so when it packs it bags.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.