Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Patrick French - India: A Portrait

A young girl walks passed a fishing boat on Marina Beach in Chennai, India, on on March 20, 2010. Stretching for approximately 12 km, Marina Beach is listed as one of the longest beaches in the world. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

A young girl walks passed a fishing boat on Marina Beach in Chennai, India, on on March 20, 2010. Stretching for approximately 12 km, Marina Beach is listed as one of the longest beaches in the world. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

When the British gained control of the subcontinent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they often preferred to rule through a local potentate. They did not make a lot of converts to Christianity. By propping up client rulers and giving them imperial baubles and titles, they could secure influence at minimum cost. This strategy of containment succeeded until the early twentieth century, when a new class of Indian nationalists, stirred by ideals of liberty and democracy, used peaceful mass resistance to campaign for an end to foreign rule. The Indian National Congress had been established in 1885 by English-speaking professionals who wanted a greater involvement in government. Under the creative guidance of Mohandas Gandhi — the Mahatma, or "great soul" — the Congress became a popular movement of liberation from the British empire.

While this new political force challenged imperial control and promoted itself as the true voice of India, many Muslims, who made up nearly a quarter of the population, felt excluded by the largely Hindu idiom in which it operated. The Muslim elite, which still retained much of its influence after the decline of the Mughals and the rise of the European powers, was not attracted by what Gandhi represented. Many felt that for all the talk of inclusiveness, the Congress leadership was made up largely of Hindus from the higher end of the caste system who would, if India became independent, undermine the security and status of Muslims. With their homespun khadi clothing, their emphasis on Hindi rather than Urdu as the national language of India, their big rallies and their belief in profound social reform, the Congress leaders seemed like a threat. The Congress-run provincial governments which took office in parts of India in the 1930s were presented as the heralds of a new "Hindu Raj."

When political uncertainty grew during the Second World War, large numbers of Muslims turned to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who wanted to establish a homeland or a place of safety for their community in parts of north India where Muslims were in a majority. The Indian National Congress failed to acknowledge the gravity of this demand. As late as 1946, Jinnah's Muslim League was willing to accept a federation in which defence, foreign policy and communications remained under common control, rather than a fully independent Pakistan. During the final negotiations, Jinnah was boxed in by a triumphalist Congress and British incompetence: the result was the bloody and disastrous partition of the Indian empire into two dominions, Pakistan and India.

It was a time of accelerated history, when a political leader's decisions might have enormous and fateful consequences. In the largest mass migration in history, Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India and Muslims escaped to Pakistan. Even setting aside the vast, unexpected convulsion during the creation of the two new wings, East and West Pakistan, the shape of free India remained highly unclear. Most significantly, the status of India's princely rulers was left unresolved at independence. Each kingdom had its own treaty with London, and control could not legally be handed over to the successor government — controlled by the Congress — without a signature.

Take Jodhpur as an example: Hanwant Singh was a volatile young man, and like most princely rulers he was not accustomed to being told what to do. Tall and bulky with a toothbrush moustache, he was called "Big Boy" by his father. He liked playing polo, shooting sand grouse and performing magic tricks. As heir to the dry, flinty kingdom of Jodhpur in the west of India, a princely state not much smaller than England, his life had been mapped out for him. When he went to boarding school, he took with him two cars, a stable of horses and a retinue of servants, including a tailor and a barber.

In June 1947, life became more complicated. His father died, making him Maharaja of Jodhpur just as India was about to become free. On the personal side, the 23-year-old intended shortly to breach protocol by marrying a European, although not long before that he had taken a 16-year-old princess from Gujarat as his first bride. He dealt with the tension by going off on pig-sticking hunts, but the decisions facing him could not be postponed because he was in an unexpectedly important political position. Jodhpur bordered the emerging Muslim homeland of Pakistan, and its founder, Jinnah, had asked him to break with India and link his kingdom to the new nation. Unfortunately, the prince and most of his people were Hindu. Jinnah offered extraordinarily favourable terms: the maharaja could use Karachi as a free port, purchase whatever weapons he wanted, control the railway line to Sindh and receive free grain for famine relief. It sounded like a good deal. He agreed to sign up for Pakistan. Then, as he was about to touch his fountain pen to the paper, he learned that none of his fellow Rajput princes had yet thrown in their lot with the Pakistanis and he got cold feet. He told Jinnah he would go home and think about it.

India's capital had moved earlier in the century from Calcutta to a processional new city on the edge of ancient Delhi. A few days after he met Jinnah, the maharaja was staying at New Delhi's finest hotel, the Imperial. A short south Indian man appeared there and told him he must come to Government House and meet the viceroy. This was unexpected. Unlike other members of the princely order, the Maharaja of Jodhpur disliked the British, and was glad they were leaving, even if his late father had been made a Knight Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India by the King Emperor George V. He claimed that as a boy he had at night crept out of his marble and sandstone palace (which had been built by his father over 15 years, using 3,000 skeletal labourers) and put up anti-colonial wall posters. Hanwant Singh did as he was told, and accompanied the south Indian man to Government House.

Here the departing imperial power, in the form of the suave viceroy Mountbatten, told him it would be unwise to join Pakistan since his subjects could rise up in rebellion. The maharaja was incensed. It was clear that what the viceroy was really saying was that independent India's new rulers — lawyers, agitators, socialists, Gandhians; the sort of people who had never shot a sand grouse — would foment revolution against His Highness. He wanted the imperialists to leave, but he certainly did not want their power or his patrimony to be taken over by the Indian National Congress. So would the new Indian government, then, give him what Pakistan had promised? Mountbatten looked to his adviser. No, said the short south Indian man — V. P. Menon, the senior political reforms commissioner — but they might offer a donation of grain. The big prince argued and blustered at Lord Mountbatten, and prevaricated and argued some more, and finally signed the instrument of accession.

Copyright © 2011 by Patrick French. All rights reserved.