How India dethroned its princes

A new book examines the men, motives and labyrinthine plots that shaped Indian Union

68-Author-John-Zubrzycki Unveiling the past: Author John Zubrzycki |

Otto von Bismarck had to trigger three wars to forge peace across Germany. A Prussian master of strategy, Bismarck manoeuvred Denmark, Austria and France into fighting a loose alliance of 39 quarrelling German states. In the end, he got what he wanted: three war victories that fused the states into a unified Germany, making it a major European power.

Zubrzycki brings his own twist to a fairly well-known incident―the Jodhpur maharaja pointing a gun at v.p. Menon after being forced to sign the instrument of accession.

Much has been written about India’s own Bismarck, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who accomplished a far bigger national unification project with nary a battle. In the weeks before and after India’s independence, Patel coaxed, cajoled, threatened and arm-twisted 562 princely states into joining the Indian Union. But the birth of India was not entirely without bloodshed―the “police action” in Hyderabad, for instance, resulted in at least 25,000 deaths.

All things considered, though, the unification was orderly enough to make Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev wonder: “How did you Indians manage to liquidate the princely states without liquidating the princes?”

As it happens, John Zubrzycki has the answer. A scholar, journalist and former diplomat, Zubrzycki has written Dethroned: Patel, Menon and the Integration of Princely India, which tells the remarkable tale of how India’s dhoti-clad, no-nonsense first home minister―together with his political aide V.P. Menon―negotiated the accession of the princely states.

Zubrzycki takes the tale into the 1970s, when prime minister Indira Gandhi dealt the final blow to the princely order. She abolished the privy purse―a sort of political pension for the royals―thereby erasing the last Bismarckian touch in India’s political integration. It was Bismarck who had invented pensions.

At 337 pages, Dethroned reads like a breeze. Unsurprising, considering Zubrzycki has had practice condensing history and making it entertaining. His last effort was The Shortest History of India, a rundown on 5,000 years of Indian history in less than 300 pages.

So which was the more difficult book to write? “Oh, it is very hard to condense 5,000 years of history into, say, 250 pages,” Zubrzycki tells THE WEEK in an interview, “but telling the story of what happened to 562 princely states at the time of independence and afterwards was equally hard. The story of the princely states, even though it takes place over just a few decades, is quite a complex one. And, there are many competing narratives at play.”

Indeed, there are competing narratives but the competition remains thin. There is surprising dearth of accessible books in India that focus solely on the political evolution of princely states. K.M. Panikkar’s Relations of Indian States with the Government of India (1927) is a foundational study, while Menon’s post-retirement Story of Integration of Indian States (1957) remains a go-to book for researchers. But there is a view that the strength of these books double as their weakness as well―both are first-hand accounts rich with, and corrupted by, personal and often partisan observations. Panikkar was the dewan of Bikaner, and Menon was a debonair civil servant who wanted history to make him look good.

629580923 Ushering in a new india: Mountbatten addresses a press conference in New Delhi in June 1947, as Patel (to his right) and Menon (front row, extreme left) look on | Getty Images

While there have been excellent studies of specific states―Manu Pillai’s The Ivory Throne on Travancore, Rahul Sagar’s The Progressive Maharaja on Baroda―few mainstream historians have written in detail about the events and people who midwifed India’s birth. In Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial India After Gandhi, the integration of states is a subplot that serves the wider narrative.

With Dethroned, Zubrzycki fills a crucial gap. “While there has been some books dealing the accession of princely states,” he says, “most of those were written many decades ago, and none of them focuses also on what happened to the states after independence. None of them focuses on states that found themselves in Pakistan, and none of them focuses on what happened in the lead-up to Indira Gandhi’s de-recognition of the princes in 1971…. So this is a first in that sense.”

Before he became a full-time writer, Zubrzycki was deputy foreign editor of The Australian. The nose for news has served him well in producing such works as The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family, Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India, and The Last Nizam: The Rise and Fall of India’s Greatest Princely State.

“I studied Indian history and Hindi in university,” Zubrzycki says. “I travelled to India several times, worked in India as a diplomat, as a journalist…. It was as a journalist that I started to think about going deeper into Indian history, and not just writing news or feature articles about what was going on around me, which was fascinating in itself, but delving really deeper into what is an extraordinary history. I mean, there are so many aspects of Indian history that are just waiting to be analysed, researched, written and presented to the public in a way that is accessible.”

Journalistic flair shines through in Dethroned. In one of the more exciting chapters in the book, Zubrzycki brings his own twist to a fairly well-known incident―the Jodhpur maharaja pointing a gun at Menon after being forced to sign the instrument of accession. According to Menon, the maharaja “whipped out a revolver” and said, “I refuse to accept your dictation.” Menon would later write that he stayed calm and told the maharaja that threatening him would not get the accession abrogated. “Don’t indulge in juvenile theatricals,” Menon reportedly said.

There are different accounts. As Zubrzycki writes, one historian described the stunt as a joke. The ‘revolver’ was actually a seven-centimetre, gold-plated pen with a 22-calibre bore made in the maharaja’s magic props workshop. Mountbatten made light of the incident, and it became a standing joke among the three men.

Zubrzycki writes that the maharaja later sought a reconciliation, asking Menon to contest elections from Jodhpur. The pen gun was gifted to Mountbatten, who donated it to the Magic Circle in London. In 2013, it was sold for £13,000 to the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

In Dethroned, Zubrzycki weaves such anecdotes, trivia and some razor-sharp sketches of people and places into a silky smooth yarn. He not just illuminates the labyrinthine plots and counterplots that determined India’s borders, but also delves into the motivations of people who played pivotal roles. The book has both brains and a beating heart.


By John Zubrzycki

Published by Juggernaut

Price Rs799; pages 337