Not surprisingly, the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was celebrated with much fervour by Prime Minister Modi yesterday. The day was commemorated as Rashtriya Ekta Diwas or National Unity Day, referencing Patel’s greatest achievement, the integration of the princely states. Irrespective of the politics around this issue, the integration of the princely states was a monumental achievement. As India moved towards freedom, its princely states also gained independence, freed from the paramountcy of the British crown. Most of these states were insignificant and even the largest ones such as Hyderabad, Travancore or Kashmir, were hollow administrations, atrophied from centuries of using British India as a crutch. However, their sheer numbers made them a headache for the new government: there were 562 Indian princely states and together they occupied two-fifths of the subcontinent’s land area.
However, by 1948, the States Department headed by Patel had managed to round each one of them up and integrate them with India, even the severely recalcitrant ones such as Hyderabad or Kashmir. Credit for this must, of course, go to Patel who oversaw the entire process. However, in this he was helped ably by an unlikely figure: the last Viceroy of British India, Lord Mountbatten. Mountbatten played a crucial role in this process, however, his contribution to integrating the states has largely been forgotten in the popular space.
Technically, Mountbatten, as a representative of the British Crown, was to maintain neutrality between India and the princely states. However, his close relations with Nehru as well as the Congress meant that as independence approached, he acted as India’s representative in order to get the states to merge with India. As the British Viceroy as well as a Royal himself (he was second cousin to King George VI), Mountbatten’s presence at the negotiating table was very helpful in intimidating princes into submission.
Mountbatten’s first move was to address the Chamber of Princes on July 25 1947, for the first and last time in his capacity as Crown Representative. Here, the Instrument of Accession was circulated and Mountbatten strongly urged the states to merge with India. By delegating only the subjects of defence, foreign affairs and communications to Delhi, Mountbatten argued that this was as good a deal they could ever hope to get (India would soon scrap the Instrument of Accession, however, and take over the entire administration of the states).
The first state to cause problems was Travancore (in modern-day Kerala) which, soon after the June 3 plan was announced, declared its intention to be independent. Mountbatten entered into negotiations with Travancore to persuade them to change their mind: a declaration of independence by a major state at this stage would have set a disastrous example for other rulers to follow. Soon, however, Mountbatten had prevailed and after only a few days of negations, Travancore agreed to sign the Instrument of Accession.
Mountbatten next tackled the state of Jodhpur. Because this was a border state, the Maharaja of Jodhpur was also being wooed aggressively by Pakistan. Again, a fairly short meeting with Mountbatten and the brilliant VP Menon convinced the Maharaja that he should side with India. With Bhopal, things were far simpler since Mountbatten was good friends with the Nawab and easily convinced the Nawab to choose India over independence. Kashmir and Hyderabad, in contrast, were tougher nuts to crack. Both were large states and hoped to enjoy their independence once the British had left the subcontinent. Again, Mountbatten was involved in the thick of things. He led extensive negations with the representatives of the Nizam of Hyderabad and came tantalisingly close to a settlement. For this he was even publicly thanked by Patel in the Constituent Assembly. However, in the end, the Indian Army had to launch an invasion to force Hyderabad to merge with the Union.
Military force was needed in Kashmir too, even as Mountbatten conducted negotiations with the Maharaja as well as Jinnah. It might also be noted that it was on Mountbatten’s advice that India took the Kashmir matter to the United Nations, a move many consider a tactical blunder. But of course, it’s easy to be wise after the event.
Mountbatten was very conscious of how others saw him and made sure to present an exalted image of himself and his achievements. He was an accomplished spin doctor and understood the value of self-propaganda. As the journalist Pothan Joseph once remarked, more often than not Mountbatten played the role of “his own Public Relations Office”. Nevertheless, it is ironic that his greatest—and, some would say, only—achievement in India has largely been forgotten by the very people who reaped the benefits of a united India.