Published: November 19, 2013
Arvind P. Datar
ONE NATION: It was primarily on the assurance of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel that the rulers signed the Instruments of Accession which in turn created a united India. Photo: The Hindu Archives
Sardar Patel persuaded the Constituent Assembly to guarantee payment of Privy Purses and preserve the rights of the erstwhile rulers. But the Congress betrayed him.
In the recent media coverage on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, there was not one word about the greatest insult to his memory: the abolition of the Privy Purses, first by a Presidential Order and, later, by a constitutional amendment.
Article 1 of the Constitution states that India, that is, Bharat, shall be a Union of States. No person can claim greater credit for the creation of Bharat than Sardar Patel, ably assisted by V.P. Menon (Constitutional Adviser to Lord Mountbatten). In 1947, princely states numbering 555 covered 48 per cent of the area of pre-Independent India and constituted 28 per cent of its population. Legally, the princely states were not a part of British India and the people of these states were not treated as British subjects. But, in reality, they were completely subordinate to the British Crown.
The Indian Independence Act, 1947, provided for the lapse of paramountcy of the British Crown over the Indian states. Each ruler had the option to accede to the dominion of India or to Pakistan, or continue as an independent sovereign mini-state. The rulers were often seen, perhaps rightly, as lackeys and stooges of the British Empire. Even in the “mutiny” of 1857, many of them actively assisted the British. Lord Canning acknowledged their role as “breakwaters in the storm which would have swept over us in one great wave.” From the beginning, therefore, several members of the Congress were totally opposed to the payment of Privy Purses.
The tireless efforts of Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon resulted in the princes agreeing to the dissolution of their respective states. They surrendered several villages, thousands of acres of scattered jagir land, palaces, museums, buildings, aircraft, and cash balances and investments amounting to Rs.77 crore. In addition, there was the railway system of about 12,000 miles which the states surrendered to the Centre without receiving any compensation.
In consideration of their agreeing to integrate with India, the princes were to be paid a Privy Purse, which was approximately 8.5 per cent of the annual revenue of each princely state. The amounts varied from Rs.43 lakh a year to the Nizam of Hyderabad to just Rs.192 a year to the ruler of Katodia. Of the 555 rulers, 398 were to get less than Rs.50,000 a year. The total cost to the Indian exchequer in 1947 was Rs.6 crore, which was to be progressively reduced. At the time of abolition in 1970, the total amount payable to all the erstwhile princes was just Rs.4 crore a year.
On October 12, 1949, Sardar Patel persuaded the Constituent Assembly to include Articles 291 and 362 in the Constitution to guarantee the payment of Privy Purses and also preserve the personal rights, privileges and dignities of the rulers. His brilliant speech bears clear testimony to his statesmanship and deserves to be carefully read:
“The privy purse settlements are, therefore, in the nature of consideration for the surrender by the rulers of all their ruling powers and also for the dissolution of the States as separate units … Need we cavil then at the small — I purposely use the word small — price we have paid for the bloodless revolution which has affected the destinies of millions of our people? …