The Mischief Mongers

As the Indian National Congress dragnet began to swoop down on the Princely States with Jawaharlal Nehru at its vanguard, the Order which walked all over its subjects living a life of great opulence and ostentation, a fear factor began to creep in. All wasn’t kosher with the British Raj’s last defensive line in India linked as it was  with the Paramount Power through various types of treaties. In the revolt of 1857, it was a large swathe of princes who actually helped the British repel the mutiny. This wasn’t forgotten and the British were smart enough to realign with their princely subjects through a form of Magna Carta which only strengthened the position of the Indian princes vis a vis their support from the British Monarchy. This further angered a rampaging Congress in the years closer to Independence, even as it emboldened the bigger princes into thinking that they would eventually escape the Congress plan of bringing them into a new Union of India. And for most part, the British aided and abetted this thinking of the princes. Somewhere along the way, a communal cleave among the princes changed some of these perceptions but not in its entirety. 

During the critical days of the first Great War (1914-15) Lord Charles Hardinge of Penshurst inaugurated the plan of calling some of the ruling princes together to discuss matters of common concern to the states and to British India. This idea, which coincided with the desires of the princes themselves, was further developed by Lord Chelmsford. As a result, when Edwin Samuel Montagu, secretary of State for India and Lord Chelmsford, Governor General and Viceroy of India were engaged in making their survery  of the Indian situation towards the close of the war (what came to be known as the Government of India Act 1919 — Mont-Ford Reforms), a number of princes notably the late Highnesses of Baroda, Gwalior, Patiala, Bikaner and Nawanagar, placed before them a scheme for the better adjustment of their relations with the Paramount Power. 

This scheme comprised three principal features. In the first place, it was designed to give the princes some voice in the discussion and formulation of policies applicable to the whole of India; for this purpose, contemplated the creation of a Chamber of Princes which would at once enable the states to speak with a common voice, and would provide the basis for some machinery by which matters of common concern to the states and to British India might be investigated and settled. In the next place, it was designed to associate with the political department  a standing body representative of the states, whose function it would be to bring to the notice of the Viceroy and all his officers the collective opinion of the princes upon important matters. In the third place, it was to provide a system of arbitral machinery, which would enable an impartial decision to be arrived at when disputes across regarding their respective rights between states and the Government of India. The Narendra Mandal or Chamber of Princes, thus came into existence as one of the results of the Montagu-Chelmsford Report on Indian Constitutional reform presented to Parliament in 1919. It armed the princes and gave them an enlarged protective shield. 

The Chamber of Princes was formally inaugurated by HRH the Duke of Connaught on February 6, 1921, on behalf of His Imperial Majesty, with the following message from the King-Emperor:

“My Viceroy will take its (Chamber of Princes’) counsel freely in matters relating to the territories of the Indian States generally and in matters that effect those territories jointly with British India or with the rest of my Empire.”

The Crown Representative is the president of the Chamber of Princes and the Constitution provides that its members shall be (i) Rulers of States who enjoyed permanent dynastic salutes of 11 guns or over the January 1, 1920, and (2) Rulers of States who exercise such full or practically full internal powers as in the opinion of the Crown Representative qualify them for admission to the Chamber.

The function of the chamber are thus described in the Constitution:

(i)  To initiate in accordance with the Ruler of Business proposals and to make recommendations relating to the preservation and maintenance of Treaties, and of the rights and interests, dignities and powers, privileges and prerogatives of the princes and chiefs, their states and the members of their families;

(ii) To discuss and make representations upon matters of imperial or common concern, and subjects referred to the chamber for consideration by the Crown Representative;

(iii) To appoint committees of experts and others to advise the chamber upon technical or other intricate questions;

(iv) To appoint a chancellor and a pro-chancellor of the chamber and a standing committee, such appointments to be made in accordance with the regulations, by which the functions of the chancellor, the pro-chancellor and the standing committee will also be defined;

(v) To propose for the consideration of the Crown Representative, regulations for any purpose connected with the chamber or Rules of Business, or amendments, or alterations of the regulations or rules; and

(vi) To deal with any other matter provided for by the regulations or rules.

The Secretary of the chamber is appointed by the Crown Representative, to whom all recommendations of the chamber are submitted for such action as he may see fit. Copies of all such recommendations are also sent by the secretary to all members and representative members of the chamber.

Attendance and voting in the chamber is voluntary, treaties and internal affairs of individual states and of the rulers thereof cannot be discussed in the chamber nor does the institution of the chamber prejudice the engagements or relation of any state with the Crown Representative. The Chamber is thus a deliberative, consultative and advisory body but not an executive body and its recommendations do not prejudice the rights or restrict the freedom of action in any individual state.

The main work of the Chamber of Princes is conducted by the standing committee and its various sub-committees. The members of this committee, 35 in number, were originally elected at an open session of the chamber by all its members. This constitution has now been revised and, under the scheme of reorganisation,  adequate representation has been assured to all categories of states and to the various regional groups. Permanent and semi-permanent seats have been allotted to the 18 major states and the rest of the seats have been thrown open to election by regional groups. Moreover, a standing committee of ministers has also been set up as a part of the machinery of the Chamber of Princes.

The total membership of the chamber was 140, in addition to eight representative members on behalf of about 100 constituent voters.

The following was the list of states the rulers of who became members of the Chamber of Princes in their own rights: Hyderabad, Mysore, Kashmir, Baroda, Gwalior, Travancore, Jaipur Jodhpur Patiala, Udaipur, Rewa, Indore, Cochin, Bahawalpur, Bikaner, Kolhapur, Mayurbhanj, Alwar, Bhopal, Kotah, Bhavnagar, Junagadh, Cooch Behar, Bastar, Patna, Bharatpur, Surguja, Tehri-Garhwal, Keonjhar, Kalahandi, Tripura, Manipur, Nawanagar, Kutch, Rampur, Banares and Pudukottai.

History will tell us that this duplicitous rump created by the British, as always with great vision and foresight, prove to be a gargantuan body of mischief as the second World War wound down. By 1945, the sun was setting on the emasculated British Empire  and the clarion call for Indian independence had been given by one and all. The rump though proved a handful to contain as it displayed every tactic involving trickery, intrigue, chicanery, subterfuge, sabotage and plain doggedness to stay out of the ambit of the Congress call for nationalism and self rule.


Sandeep Bamzai