India has a knack for being an oddity of sorts. Since early days, it has managed to absorb the best and the worst that the world had to offer, imbibe it, process it, and churn out something that made it greater than the sum of its parts. Its modern history is another such testament.
The first constitution of the United States was ditched within the first decade. China’s first republic broke up in 40 years. The geographically ambitious Pakistan split up. Winston Churchill predicted that once the British left it, “India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages”. Much before Churchill, Sir John Statchey had warned that never should the people of the sub-continent ever feel that they belong to one nation. Right since the time of the first general election, there has been an unending line of doomsdayers calling it the last general elections of India.
And how India defied everyone
A sovereign, democratic republic since 26th January 1950, it has defied all the naysayers who expected it to crash as a failed state in spectacular ways.
Though much before it was expected to fail, it would not have been seen possible by most that a Union of States like India could ever become a reality. India, at the time of the British rule was an amalgamation of several princely states and territories. While some were directly under British rule, others were under the suzerainty of the British Crown. Also, on the sub-continent were the colonies controlled by the French and the Portuguese.
The devious British in their long standing policy of divide and rule had perhaps expected to strike a death blow that India may never have been able to recover from. In an attempt at Balkanisation, they proposed that India become an independent dominion of the British Commonwealth, whereby it would have its own constitution and making allowance for any province to reject it and form another one with the agreement of the British Government. It allowed the rulers of the states to decide the destiny of the millions of the land. The Working Committee of the Indian National Congress saw this to be what it was – “negation of both democracy and self-determination”.
When the partition of India and the creation of two independent countries became more than just an abstract notion and a very tangible reality, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon began the mammoth task of ensuring that India as a Union of States becomes a reality, and within the span of a decade, they ensured that there was little difference between the map of erstwhile British India, and that of the Union.
With the princely states having the option to choose between India and Pakistan, the amalgamation of the grand alliance that is today India, is a feat surpassing any Herculean task. In his book, The Story of the Integration of the Indian States, V.P. Menon describes in detail the challenges and commitment that went into making modern India a reality.
From among the 550-plus princely states that were bound together by the Constitution of India, the cases of the most obstinate, Junagadh and Hyderabad, are well known, and that of Jammu and Kashmir is the enduring legacy of the Partition. In fact, these states have taken up so much print and mind space over the years due to the dramatic events that led to their accession to India, the equally interesting stories of some other states is often overlooked:
Bhopal: Bhopal remained independent from 1947 to 1949, and was amongst the last states to sign the Instrument of Accession with India. The largest state with a Muslim leadership, after Hyderabad, the state of Bhopal was founded by Dost Mohammad Khan – a Pashtun soldier in the Mughal army. Post India’s Independence, the last Nawab – Hamidullah Khan – chose to remain an independent state. After protests and agitations by several satyagrahi-s, including Shankar Dayal Sharma – the future president of India, the Nawab signed the agreement of merger on 30th April, 1949.
Jodhpur: Umaid Singh, the Maharaja of Jodhpur, had been very clear regarding joining the Indian union. However, as fate would have it, he died on 9th June, 1947, with independence looming in sight. His son, Hanwant Singh ascended the throne. Jodhpur was contiguous with Pakistan, and the new king thought that Pakistan could possibly give him a better deal that India and engaged with Jinnah. Jinnah, on his part, gave the king assurances of whatever deal he desired. Jodhpur was a Hindu majority state, but suddenly, religion made no difference to Pakistan and a Karachi-Jodhpur-Bhopal axis started taking shape, which Sardar Patel would go on to describe as a ‘dagger thrust into India’s heart’. He understood the importance of the third largest princely state and the possibility of Bikaner and Jaisalmer following suit, were Jodhpur to accede to Pakistan. Sardar Patel played the game wisely, promising the Maharaja what he needed in assurances with regard to better connectivity and access to arms and ammunition, while driving home the point that a Hindu majority state acceding to Pakistan would not only be against the core principle of the two-nation theory, it could also result in widespread communal flareups. The insecurity of the chieftains of Jodhpur of being in a Muslim majority country, coupled with the very real riots in Punjab and Bengal, helped shift Hanwant Singh’s stance, and he signed the Instrument of Accession on 11th August – four days before Independence.
Travancore: Constituting most of southern Kerala and Kanyakumari, Travancore was one of the most advanced princely states with a level of education perceived to be better than British India. It was the only state to have a navy strong enough to defeat a European country, along with international naval routes for trade. The discovery of Thorium – needed for the coming atomic age – made it a very valuable ally. The Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyyar, was a brilliant lawyer and it was widely regarded that he actually controlled and moulded the opinion of the King of Travancore. An ambitious man, he recommended a rejection of accession and a struggle, if it so be, against the Union and whatever other civil challenges that might arise from it. Despite trying in every way possible to persuade the King, the Maharaja saw that the welfare of the state would be better served with accession to Indi, and joined the Union.
Lakshadweep Islands: Then part of the Mysore Presidency, the islands were set to be part of India. During the last days before independence, it is said that Sardar Patel sent a navy frigate to Lakshadweep to hoist the Indian tricolour. Not long after the Indian ship reached there, another from Pakistan was seen approaching in the horizon. The islands had a 100 percent Muslim population and Pakistan planned on taking them over. However, on seeing the Indian frigate, they beat a hasty retreat, and the beautiful atolls remain a part of India.
Sikkim: While Sikkim was given the status of a Himalayan State and not taken as a kingdom that would be merged with the Indian Union, the Indian independence movement stirred democratic movements in the kingdom of Sikkim. The Sikkim State Congress launched a civil disobedience movement. The Chogyal kings of Sikkim asked for a small military police force to restore order, and agreed to having an Indian dewan. In 1950, Sikkim became a protectorate of India, wherein it came under the suzerainty of India, and India controlled defence, external affairs, diplomacy and communications for the kingdom, which otherwise retained administrative autonomy. Demands for democracy, however continued, and in 1973 anti-royalist riots took place in front of the palace. In 1975, the Prime Minster of Sikkim appealed to the Indian Parliament to become a state of India. A referendum was held in April 1975 where 97.5% of voters voted to abolish monarchy, and Sikkim became the twenty-second state of the Indian Union.
Article 1 of the Constitution states “India, that is, Bharat, shall be a Union of States”. That 565 states – comprising two-fifths of India’s land mass and a quarter of its population – were integrated into the union in the period between 1947 and 1956, is an achievement as momentous as that of India’s independence. “That there is today an India to think and talk about” wrote President Rajendra Prasad in his diary, “is very largely due to Sardar Patel’s statesmanship and firm administration.”