Hyderabad Liberation Day: How VP Menon planned to integrate princely states

Menon planned that the Princely States should be convinced to join the Constituent Assembly, as they could then participate in defining the relationship between India and the States.

By Pankaj Sethi  Published on  15 Sep 2022 12:20 PM GMT
Hyderabad Liberation Day: How VP Menon planned to integrate princely states

Hyderabad: VP Menon, Secretary in the Ministry of States, was the man tasked by Sardar Patel to ensure the merger of Princely States into the Indian union. Menon later wrote a book on the history of how 500+ Princely States came to become part of India. He titled this definitive account "The History of the Integration of Indian States".

Why this particular title?

To answer this it is necessary to understand the relationship between the Government of (British) India and the Princely States as it existed in 1947.

Menon recounts:

"On 20 February 1947, Prime Minister Attlee made a declaration in the House of Commons in the course of which he set a date not later than June 1948 by which Britain would transfer power to responsible Indian hands". The ball had been set rolling. Independence of India, which many had long fought for, was now within reach!

Atlee's statement implied that a Constituent Assembly would immediately be elected. This Assembly would take up the task of drawing up a Constitution for India. Once the Constitution was adopted, a government elected under the Constitution would be "responsible" for running India. Britain would then transfer power to this "responsible" government.

But what would happen to the Princely States, which together comprised 40% of India? So far, relations between the Princely States and the Government of India were governed by various treaties between the two, signed over more than a century. A common factor was that all Princely States had accepted that the (British) Government of India would have "paramount" powers in their State. So while States could have their laws, succession rules for their rulers, and even their armies and currencies, the Government of India had the power to intervene in the state through British "Residents" (or "Agents") stationed in the state.

In his speech on 20th February 1947, Atlee said the following about the question of "paramountcy":

"His Majesty's Government does not intend to hand over their powers and obligations under paramountcy to any government of British India. It is not intended to bring paramountcy, as a system, to a conclusion earlier than the date of the final transfer of power, but it is contemplated that for the intervening period the relations of the Crown with individual States may be adjusted by agreement."

This British intent, therefore, was that their paramountcy would not be "transferred" when they handed over power to a responsible government in India, but would "lapse". However, Atlee's speech did not say anything specific about what would happen to the treaties which the Princely States had signed with the Government of India and its predecessor, the East India Company.

This looming "lapse of paramountcy" threw the rulers of princely states into a tizzy. What would happen to their states when the British left? Would they be compelled to join India or Pakistan? Could they proclaim their independence from both? What would happen to the State's laws and police? And the uppermost questions in the rulers' minds - what would happen to their wealth, family, and dynasty?

Many meetings of the princes took place after Atlee's announcement. Many views were expressed in these meetings. There was much divergence of views among the Princes. There was also a divergence of views among the political formations of the day. Nehru felt that representatives of the Princely States should join the Constituent Assembly and participate in the making of the new Constitution. Jinnah, on the other hand, felt that after the lapse of paramountcy a State would be sovereign, and could decide to either join India's or Pakistan's Constituent Assembly or be independent.

In the middle of all this, on 3rd June 1947, Britain made another announcement. Power would be transferred on 15 August 1947 itself. A mere two months hence! Since a Constitution would not be ready in two months, this meant that Britain would be handing over power not to a government elected under an adopted constitution, but to the interim government running the country while the Constitution was being prepared.

For the Princes, this meant further confusion. They would first have to deal with an interim government, and later, with a government elected under a new Constitution which was yet to be drafted and adopted. Unsure of the future, many Princely States adopted hard positions. Travancore announced on June 11th, that it would be independent - the Dewan went to the extent of announcing his intention to appoint a Trade Agent in Pakistan. The next day Hyderabad followed suit. In Congress circles, there was a strong cry against what was widely perceived as this impending "balkanization" of the country.

It was at this time that the Government of India decided to set up a new "Department of States" under Sardar Patel to deal with the Princely States. Patel invited V P Menon to be Secretary of this Department. Menon had earlier been Constitutional Advisor to Lord Mountbatten and had met Patel only a few times. He was initially hesitant to take on the new role, but Patel convinced him to do so.

According to Menon, Patel felt that "hard-earned freedom might disappear through the States' door" if something was not done quickly. Menon's primary concern was also to preserve the integrity of the country. He pointed out to Patel that the Cabinet Mission Plan a year ago had recommended that a Princely State could join either India or Pakistan, or "could have particular arrangements with the Government of the Dominion to which they were geographically contiguous". He felt that this suggested a way forward.

Menon planned that the Princely States should be convinced to join the Constituent Assembly, as they could then participate in defining the relationship between India and the States. But in the interim, while the Constitution was being drafted, the "particular arrangement" envisaged by the Cabinet Mission Plan could be invoked to have the State accede to India on at least three fundamental subjects - Defence, External Affairs and Communications. Menon was sure that if States which were geographically contiguous with India acceded to India on these three counts, the basic unity of India would be achieved. He knew that Defence, anyway, was something no state could handle by itself. External Affairs was linked to Defence. And Communication was the lifeline of every State.

Menon also pointed out that communal disturbances, especially in north India, had made many rulers turn away from Pakistan.

He writes: ".. the time at our disposal was extremely short and if we planned for accession we should get it implemented before 15 August. My most important consideration was the overall security of the country. If the rulers acceded to 'defence', the Government of India obtained a right of entry into any State where internal stability was threatened. 'Defence' covered not only external aggression but internal security as well."

Patel agreed with Menon's plan. Menon then suggested that Patel should verbally take Nehru's approval of the plan as well (anything in writing could be leaked!). Patel did that. Menon then suggested that they should take Mountbatten's help in getting the states to accede, as Mountbatten had the stature and also knew many of the Princes personally. Patel agreed to this, too.

Menon worked out a plan in those crucial days in June 1947:

- He planned to achieve the unity and integrity of India through a step-by-step process of "integrating" the Princely States into India.

- He would tackle the immediate danger of balkanization by getting the States to accede to India on the three critical issues of Defence, External Affairs, and Communication.

- Then, to address the apprehensions of the rulers about their future, and to get them to contribute towards building a new India, he would try to persuade them to participate in the drawing up of the nation's Constitution.

Menon's book goes on to record the execution of the plan and its success and failures over the next few months in Junagadh, Orissa and Chattisgarh state, Saurashtra, The Deccan and Gujarat States, Vindhya Pradesh, Madhya Bharat, Patiala, and East Punjab States Union, Travancore-Cochin, Mysore, Miscellaneous states, Hyderabad (3 of the 22 chapters in the book are devoted to Hyderabad), Jammu & Kashmir and Baroda.

Amazingly, the Menon-Patel plan worked so well that most Princely States had acceded to India by 15 August 1947. The remaining States held out for some time, but were also, ultimately, integrated.

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