Status of Princely States: Myths and Realities
Status of Princely States, Treaty of Amritsar: Myths and Realities
By Nayyar Niaz Khan
Part I, Concept of a Nation State and Indian Princely States:
The nation states developed not long ago in the known political history. Prior to the 1500 in Europe, the nation-state as we know, did not exist. If anything, people were more likely to recognize themselves with their constituency or local lord. At the same time, the rulers of states normally had slight rheostat over their countries. Instead, local feudal lords had a great deal of power, and kings often had to be contingent on the goodwill of their dependents to rule. Laws and their practices freckled differently in different parts of a country. After the Treaty of Westphalia the concept of nation states emerged on the global political scene. After the birth of nation states monarchs encouraged their subjects to be loyal towards their nation. It took almost two centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia to establish the integrated nation states in Europe.
This was not all true with regards to princely states of India (562 as most historian agreed on this number). Princely states of India were merely subordinate units of British India but some of them enjoyed greater internal autonomy as compared to others because of the size of the area and other factors. To call them sovereign states per Westphalia Treaty is politically incorrect because if that was the case there would have been 562 nation states in the greater sub-continent.
Hasan Ahmed in an academic paper notes with references and citations that princely states were internally autonomous entities of India during the British Raj, which were not under direct rule of British but rather ruled by their local ruler which was subject to the subsidiary alliance agreement between princes and British paramountcy. Malleson, G. B. in his book “ Historical Sketch of the Native States of India in Subsidiary Alliance with the British Government, Published by Longmans in1875 writes that “ The Indian princely states were not fully sovereign, but remained under the British Raj. Their sovereignty was mainly affected by the acceptance of subsidiary alliance and the suzerainty or paramountcy of the British Crown.
In other words Princely States enjoyed the internal autonomy instead of the sovereignty and the autocratic rulers were the masters of their states answerable to East India Company and later the British Raj. This mechanism was introduced by the Viceroy Lord Wellesley. According to the agreement between the rulers of the Princely States and British Colonial government in India Princely States were barred from maintaining troops in their states and had to allow British troops in their states known as Imperial Service Troops, had to allow a British Resident in their states, they were not allowed to enter into agreements with any other power nor could they declare war on any other state without approval from British Indian government. (Malleson 1875). Malleson further notes that “the rulers of the princely states had to acknowledge East India Company as a paramount power in India, if they failed to pay British troop maintenance fee a part of their territory would be acquired by British as a penalty and in return they were guaranteed protection from internal disorders and external dangers”
In a historical book “India’s Road to Nationhood” (1973), Pochhammer Wilhelm von writes that: “British India consisted of two types of territories: British India and the Princely states. The British Parliament adopted the following definitions in Act 1889: The expression "British India" shall mean all territories and places within Her Majesty's dominions which are for the time being governed by Her Majesty through the Governor-General of India or through any governor or other officer subordinate to the Governor-General of India. According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. IV 1907, page 85 “The armies of the Princely States were bound by many restrictions that were imposed by subsidiary alliances. They existed mainly for ceremonial use and for internal policing.”
According to the World Heritage Encyclopedia: A provocative aspect of East India Company instructions was the doctrine of lapse, a policy under which lands whose feudal ruler died without a male biological heir would become straightly controlled by the Company and an adopted son would not become the monarch of the princely state. The Governor-General Sir James Ramsay pursued the doctrine of lapse most vigorously. This practice turned to outrage when the heirlooms of the Maharajas of Nagpur were auctioned off in Calcutta. Dalhousie's actions fueled to the rising displeasure amongst the upper castes which played a key role in the outburst of the Indian revolt of 1857.
This doctrine was discontinued with the end of Company rule and the British Parliament's assumption of direct power over India. Beginning 1857 till 1935, British Raj exercised the policy of subordinate union. In 1858, the fiction of the authority of Mughal emperor ended and Crown assumed the direct responsibility. State’s loyalty during the 1857 revolt was keenly judged and British changed their policies in the wake of political storms of the future. The Crown stood forth as the unchallenged ruler and the paramount power.
The fiction of some princely states standing in a status of equality with the Crown as independent, states ended with the Queen adopting the title of “Kaiser-i-Hind” (Queen Empress of India). The paramount supremacy implied on the subordination of the states. After 1858 British government interfered in the internal matters of the states challenging even the internal autonomy.
According to the recommendations of Montford
Reforms (1921), a Chamber of Princes (Narendra Mandal) was
set up as a consultative and advisory body. For the purpose
of the chamber the Indian states were divided into three
categories: 1. Directly represented, 2. Represented through
representatives and 3. Recognized as feudal holdings or
The Butler Committee (1927) was set up to examine the nature of relationship between the states and Government gave the recommendation that “Paramountcy must remain supreme and must fulfil its obligations, adopting and defining itself according to the shifting necessities of time and progressive development of states”
Government of India Act, 1935 proposed a Federal Assembly with 125 out of 375 seats for the princes and the Council of States with 104 out of 160 seats for the princes, under its scheme of an all-India federation, which was subject to ratification by states and entitled to more than half of the seats in the Council of States. This scheme never came into existence and after the outbreak of World War II it was dropped altogether.
After World War II began and a position of non- cooperation was adopted by the Congress, the British Government tried to break the deadlock through the Cripps Mission (1942), Wavell Plan (1945), Cabinet Mission (1946) and Attlee’s statement (February 1947).
Part II: The State of Jammu and Kashmir
The state of Jammu and Kashmir was also one of the Indian Princely States and many of the articles of treaties with regard to internal and external affairs were almost the same as with other Princely States. However, a political and historical belief that the State of Jammu and Kashmir as it existed on 15th of August 1947 was a direct outcome of the “Treaty of Amritsar 1846” varies amongst different regions and schools of thought across the State.
Jyeshtha Shukla and Kaliyug Varsha discussed in an academic paper on the political history of Jammu Kashmir in 2012 explored that historical facts that “the present day Gilgit Baltistan with some other areas of present Jammu and Kashmir were under Kushan dynasty and part of emperor Lalitaditya’s empire from 724 to 761 AD. Subsequently Sultan Shihabuddin, Sultan Zain ul Abedin and Ghazi Shah ruled the State including Gilgit Baltistan as an integral part. However during the Mughal rule and early period of Afghan rule, Baltistan remained part of Kashmir Empire though Dardic territory remained out of it”
the areas of Ladakh and present day Gilgit Baltistan were
conquered by Sikh Empire (1819-1846). There have been series
of wars between the Sikh Empire and the local Rajas of the
smaller states in the north for the ownership of these
areas. Sikh Empire had been engaged in trans-Himalayan
conquests in order to recapture the northern areas that were
once the part of Kashmir State centuries ago. General
Zorawar Singh, governor of Kishtwar, conquered the Suru
valley and Kargil (1835), the rest of Ladakh (1836-40), and
Baltistan (1840). In 1841 a Sikh-Sino war broke out. The
Sino-Sikh War was fought from May 1841 to August 1842,
between the forces of Qing Dynasty of China and the forces
of the Sikh Empire after General Zorawar Singh Kahluria
invaded western Tibet. Zorawar Singh was defeated but he
successfully managed to defend the territories of Ladakh and
present day Gilgit Baltistan. A treaty by the name of
“Treaty of Chushal” was signed to end the war between
Sikh Empire and the Qing Dynasty of China where the
ownership of these areas was given to Sikh Empire. So the
Ladakh and Tibet were settled by the Treaty of Chushul in 1842.
Gulab Singh played a vital
role in this Sino-Sikh war for being a loyal commander of
Lahore Darbar. For his loyalty (1831-39) Ranjit Singh
bestowed on Gulab Singh the royalty of the salt mines in
northern Punjab, and the nearby Punjabi towns of Bhera,
Jhelum, Rohtas, and Gujrat. On the death of Ranjit Singh in
1839, Lahore became a center of conspiracies and intrigue
and the three Jamwal brothers also became involved. They
succeeded in inserting the administration in the hands of
Prince Nao Nihal Singh with Raja Dhian Singh as prime
The Treaty of Amritsar, signed on 16 March 1846, formalized the provisions in the Treaty of Lahore between the British East India Company and Gulab Singh after the First Anglo-Sikh War. In accordance with Article 1 of the Treaty, Gulab Singh acquired "all the hilly or mountainous country with its dependencies situated to the eastward of the river Indus and the westward of the river Ravi including Chamba and excluding Lahul, being part of the territories ceded to the British Government by the Lahore State according to the provisions of Article IV of the Treaty of Lahore, dated 9th March, 1846." Under Article 3, Gulab Singh was to pay 75 lakhs (7.5 million) of Nanak Shahi rupees (the ruling currency of the Sikh Empire) to the British Government, along with other annual tributes. Gulab Singh, after becoming the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir state began treating the people viciously and when the news reached to the Governor General in India, he warned on January 7, 1948 with the following words: “Your Highness is aware of the principle by which the British Government is guided in its treaties with Eastern Princes where cessions of territory are involved that whilst it will scrupulously fulfill all its obligations for the protection of its ally, it never can consent to incur the reproach of becoming indirectly instrument of the oppression of the people committed to the Prince's charge.”
The wording of the
above letter clearly indicates the subordinate nature of
Gulab Singh as it was the case with other Indian Princely
States. This sub-ordinate state of affairs is very much
highlighted in the following letter dated September 18, 1885
by Maharaja Partab Singh. He writes to the Viceroy after the
appointment of Political Resident “ It has, however,
pained me extremely to learn that exactly at the time when I
have made up my mind to deserve and win your Excellency's
approbation and encouragement by proving myself equal to the
onerous and responsible duties of a good ruler, your
Excellency has changing the status of the British officer on
special Duty in Kashmir to that of a political Resident, and
thus lowering me in the eyes of my subjects and in the
estimation of the public. On another occasion (September 25,
1885, while addressing in Durbar Maharaja Partab Singh
reaffirmed his loyalty in the following words “I take this
fitting opportunity to declare publicly, that of the many
arduous and responsible duties which I shall have to perform
as the ruler of this State, the foremost under all
circumstances will be the duty of following in the footsteps
of fray illustrious grandfather and the lamented Highness,
in giving substantial proofs of unswerving and devoted
loyalty to Her Imperial Majesty's Government, and, when the
necessity will arise, of placing all the resources of my
state at the disposal of His Excellency the Viceroy and of
personally joining the British army”
The treaties of Chushul and Amritsar had defined the borders of the Kingdom in the east, south and west but the northern border was still undefined. In 1850 the fort of Chilas (Dardistan) was conquered. During this war Gilgit was lost to rebellion in 1852 but was reconquered in 1862.Dogras, however, lost the control of Gilgit Baltistan on several occasions and the entire Gilgit Baltistan again came under the rule of Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1870 by virtue of separate treaties with Rajas of Hunza and Nagar.
The matters of State of Poonch also varied legally and historically. It is not important to go into details of the history prior to 1846. In 1850, Raja Moti Singh who was son of Raja Dhian Singh, the Prime Minister of Khalsa Darbar set up its separate principality known as Poonch state. Poonch was promoted to a Princely State (separate than Jammu and Kashmir State) by the British authorities in 1901, but it was reduced to a Jagir (minor form of state) in 1935 and merged with Jammu and Kashmir State. During the period state of Poonch had its own postal stamps and currency. (George Harell 2013)
By the beginning of the 20th century, Governor-General of India took the direct control of the four largest states — Hyderabad, Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir, and Baroda —, through the presence of a British Resident. 148 princely states were overseen by two agencies of Rajputana and Central India respectively. The other princely states had their own British political officers and agents under the administrators of India's provinces. The Agents of five princely states were then under the authority of Madras, 354 under Bombay, 26 of Bengal, two under Assam, 34 under Punjab, fifteen under Central Provinces and Berar and two under United Provinces.
Thus it could be stated precisely that neither of the princely state was a sovereign country in British India and that the geographical boundaries of State of Jammu and Kashmir did not become one unit under the treaty of Amritsar. Rather these units had been together centuries ago and also having different mechanisms in different phases of the history before and after the treaty of Amritsar. However, as of 15th August 1947, the legitimate geographical area under Hari Singh was 84471Square Miles and all of it is disputed by virtue of International Law. Its future is yet to be decided by the free will of the people and not separately by different ethnic and geographical units.
(Nayyar N Khan is a US based political
analyst, peace activist and a freelance journalist. His area
of expertise is International Peace and Conflict Resolution.
He can be contacted at