Writing in the Last Days of the British Raj, Leonard Mosley provides a graphic account of the fluid state of play in the days and months prior to independence in the chapter "Downfall of Princes". Mosley wrote that that just before assuming his job as the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten was summoned by his cousin King George VI.
During the conversation, King George said that he was particularly worried about the position of the Indian princes in the coming negotiations, since they enjoyed direct treaty relations with Britain and these would inevitably be broken with the onset of independence. King George said that the princes would find themselves in a dangerous vacuum and urged Mountbatten to persuade them to accept the inevitability of the transfer of power and come to some arrangement with the new dispensation beyond their frontiers.
Mosley went onto say that Mountbatten did not have much time or admiration for the Indian princes whom he considered semi-enlightened autocrats at their best and squalid degenerates at their worst. He called them a bunch of nitwits for not taking the path of democratisation when they saw the rapid emergence of Congress-led nationalism. To quote Mosley: “The bold front which saw some of the princes, particularly the Nawab of Bhopal, had hoped to present to the politicians in British India was already in disarray by the time the Congress and Muslim League had agreed to accept the Indian independence plan. As chancellor of the chamber of princes, Bhopal was given a prior look at the general outline of the Independence Bill (even before the Congress and the Muslim League saw it), for it was felt his word not to divulge its contents was rather more likely to be kept than that of politicians.
“His immediate reaction was to ask whether it was the intention of His Majesty’s government to grant dominion status to individual princely states in the same way as Pakistan and India. The viceroy replied that it was not HMG’s intention.” Bhopal, thereafter bitterly complained that the British were once more letting the princely states down, and that he, as the Muslim ruler of a Hindu state would be at the mercy of the Congress. Three days later he resigned his position as chancellor and announced that he would consider himself free and independent the moment the British departed from India to choose the destiny of his state for himself. The scramble for shelter had begun. The wily princes and with their Machiavellian thinking wanted to carve out independent niches. In the hurly burly of independence and each man for himself type of credo, the maharaja of Bikaner was instrumental in gathering a considerable number of princes into a rump which expressed its willingness to join the Indian federation before independence.
The truth however, was that Indian princes were on the verge of panic and practically on the run. The political adviser Sir Conrad Cornfield, a convinced royalist himself was the centrifuge of the machinations. At the very core of his strategy was to save at least two to three of the bigger princely states from Congress engulfment, in the main Hyderabad and Bhopal.
As such he was at constant loggerheads with Mountbatten and blindsiding the viceroy began back channel dialogue. He opened a direct channel of communication with secretary of state for India in London, Lord Listowel. Listowel included a clause in the Indian Independence Bill, which lapsed paramountcy only on the day India became independent, so that India – unless it could make arrangements by agreement before hand – would be confronted on August 15 by nearly 600 princely states containing 100 million people, each state completely independent.
But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. On June 13, a meeting convened by the viceroy attended by Pandit Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Corfield among others saw Nehru boiling with rage and blasting Corfield for his shenanigans saying, “I charge the political department and Corfield particularly with misfeasance. I consider that a judicial enquiry at the highest level into their actions is necessary.” But Corfield’s sweet talk worked. First Travancore announced that he would become an independent sovereign state after August 15, going according to Corfield’s interpretation of the Indian Independence Bill. Travancore even said that he was appointing a trade agent with Pakistan. The next day, the Nizam of Hyderabad followed suit.
Corfield had not contended with Sardar Patel and his trusted lieutenant VP Menon who were not willing to give an inch. Their formula was simple: Approach each prince and negotiate by asking them to accede to the Indian union under three subjects only – defence, external affairs and communications. Further Sardar and Menon secured Lord Mountbatten’s assent to negotiate with the rulers which turned out to be a masterstroke.
Menon had devised an Instrument of Accession and on July 25, 1947, the princes were told that there was a "take it or leave it" political offer from the Congress which would not be repeated. One by one, the princes queued up to sign. Hyderabad stood aloof, as did Travancore, Bhopal, Indore and Jodhpur. As the ministry of states began to break new ground, Baroda signed, but Hyderabad, Mysore, Bhopal, Jodhpur and the Nawab of Junagadh held out. Maharaja Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur was more or less convinced by Corfield not to sign the Instrument of Accession, and instead choose Pakistan.
Menon was on the ball, he took the young Maharaja to meet Mountbatten where a decisive breakthrough was achieved. To foil the Nawab of Bhopal’s ambition of a combined state of princes on par with Pakistan and India, Sardar Patel moved with alacrity, parallel to Panditji’s activities at calling their bluff. Together they brought the vagrant princes around after they disclosed the role of Nawab of Bhopal as a saboteur. Congress used the Maharajas of Bikaner, Patiala and Cochin to frustrate Sir Hameedullah Khan of Bhopal who was using the chamber of princes as a bargaining lever to protect and perpetuate the princely order. Thus was born a united India.