Sagacity, far-sightedness, and political awareness of Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla

Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla was not only a sagacious and benevolent ruler, but also had an uncanny grasp of political developments in India and the world over. While he carried out massive infrastructure works and numerous reforms for the welfare of his people, he kept up the advancement of his administration in line with events in India and internationally.  

It is sometimes said that the Indian royal families lived lives of luxury, hedonism and indolence, of fabulous palaces, exquisite Rolls-Royce cars, glittering diamonds and impeccable Basra pearls, and elegantly draped French chiffon.

This is far from the truth. Sweeping statements have been made from certain quarters, but the lives of the Indian princes were full of strife, of invasions, glorious triumphs and total annihilation, rising like a Phoenix, again and again, keeping intact their dynasties and indeed working for the welfare of their people for centuries until merger with the Indian Union.

Maharaja Vijaysinhji became one of the most famous racehorse owners in the world, winning the blue riband of the turf, Epsom Derby of England in 1934, thereby completing a hat-trick of Derbys besides winning several prestigious races around the world for over three decades. He carved out a polo ground and Gymkhana Club in Rajpipla.

At the same time he expanded the Rajpipla State Railway and set up steam railroads; built a large, well-equipped civil hospital, several dispensaries and a veterinary hospital; constructed a huge, stately high school besides several other schools; laid out a bustling bazaar, public garden, wadis for different communities, even an aerodrome; erected a power house and water works; gave pensions and scholarships; promoted sports and arts, and had plans to construct several dams across the rivers Narmada and Karjan when merger with the Indian Union took place in 1948.    

Right through the ancient and mediaeval times, there was constant threat of external aggression. Dynasties rose and fell, some took root and battled valiantly and faced squarely the vicissitudes of time. There was dominance in varying degrees by the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals, particularly from Akbar to Aurangzeb, and the Marathas, until the arrival of the English East India Company. 

Thus was formed the Gohil Rajput dynasty with the birth of Muhideosur Gohadit in 542 A.D. after the fall of the Vallabhi dynasty of Saurashtra. This was followed by the capture of Chittor fort by his descendant Kalbhoj or Bappa Rawal in 734 A.D. Then the Gohil chief Salivahan migrated to Marwar in 793 A.D. with part of the clan, leaving behind his son Shaktikumar in Mewar with the remaining part of the clan.

After fierce clashes with the Rathores in the middle of the 13th century, resulting in the deaths of his father Maheshdasji and the Rathore chief Siyaji, the Gohil chief Sejakji marched with the clan back to Saurashtra, to the court of the Solankis, a branch of the Chalukyas. There the Gohils became commanders and governors, before carving out their own kingdom once again in the southern part of Saurashtra, which came to be known as Gohilwar.

Around 1340 Samarsinhji, the younger son of Gohil chief Mokhdaji, was adopted by his maternal grandfather Chokrana Parmar, the ruler of Rajpipla. Samarsinhji succeeded to the gadi of Rajpipla, and assumed the name Arjunsinhji. The Gohil rulers of Rajpipla faced attacks by the Sultans of Ahmedabad, even lost their kingdom for a while, but regained it soon.

The army of Mughal Emperor Akbar then invaded Rajpipla in 1584, and took away the fertile Nandod Taluka. The courageous Maharana Verisalji I of Rajpipla allied with the Maratha commander Dhanaji Jadhav and defeated Aurangzeb’s army at Ratanpur (Limbodhra) in 1705. The next ruler of Rajpipla Jeetsinhji wrested back Nandod Taluka from the Mughal jagirdar, and shifted the capital to Nandod town in the plain on the banks of the River Karjan in 1730.       

Maratha power then was in the ascendant. The Gaekwars of Baroda dominated Rajpipla State for some time and exacted annual tribute.

Robert Clive and Warren Hastings laid the foundation to what was to become the British Empire in India. Lord Wellesley, Governor-General from 1798 to 1805, instituted a policy of subsidiary alliances with the Indian rulers, and installed a British resident in every State, who was often a source of much irritation. The Marquess of Hastings, Governor-General between 1813 and 1823, carried forward the military campaigns in north and central India, ultimately crushed the Marathas, giving shape to the British empire.

Maharana Verisalji II ascended the gadi of Rajpipla in 1821 at Junaraj. He signed the Subsidiary Alliance with the British. By 1825 a final settlement was reached with the Gaekwar. It was decided that a sum of Rs.7,30,000 (₤ 73,000) would be payable to the Gaekwar, and disbursed by 1833-34.

Verisalji II inherited a troubled legacy. His rule began in the backdrop of the great flood in the Narmada in September 1821. At the same time, a general uprising of the Bhils took place. This was contained in 1823. Soon there was an uprising in Khandesh, which was quelled.

Thanks to the Charter Act of 1833 the trading activities of the East India Company were abolished, and it assumed the functions of the government of India.

A vigorous annexationist policy was followed by the British. Lord Dalhousie conquered large territories. He went a step further by instituting the Doctrine of Lapse’. He annexed the States of Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi, Sambalpur, Bhagat and some others. He overran Punjab and pushed the boundaries of India to the base of the mountains of Afghanistan. He wanted to take over only the administration of Oudh, but the Court of Directors ordered complete annexation, which was carried out in 1856. Using the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’, Dalhousie snatched the titles and pensions of deposed rulers who died without any natural heirs.

In Oudh alone, well over a lakh troops and retainers hitherto engaged by the zamindars and nobility were rendered unemployed, which spread massive discontent and despair. These became some of the key factors that led to the Mutiny of 1857, which was suppressed ruthlessly.

Rajpipla under Maharana Verisalji II rebelled against the British during the Mutiny. It is said that Tantia Tope was co-ordinating the revolt in the entire area comprising Rajpipla, Godhra and Dahod. Rajpipla State was out of control of the British for many months before the Mutiny was quelled.

In 1858, power passed from the East India Company to the British Crown. The princely States could heave a sigh of relief. The East India Company was consigned to the ash heap of history. Came Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858:

“We desire no extension of our present territorial possessions; and while we will permit no aggression upon our dominions or our rights to be attempted with impunity, we shall sanction no encroachment on those of others. We shall respect the rights, dignity and honour of the Native Princes as our own; and we desire that they as well as our own subjects shall enjoy that prosperity and that social advancement which can only be secured by internal peace and good government.” Britain became the paramount power.

Two years later, sanads were granted to the Indian rulers whereby they could adopt their successors according to their law and custom in case of lack of natural heirs. Over the next half century, an elaborate administrative system was set up by the British in India.

In Rajpipla State, the Bhils of Sagbara rebelled yet again in 1859, and were finally suppressed in 1860. Verisalji II abdicated in favour of his son Gambhirsinhji on 17th November 1860. Apparently, the abdication of Maharana Verisalji II came about as a result of pressure from the British for the revolt during the Mutiny. A heavier price was paid by the Dewan of Rajpipla who was executed by the British. Maharana Verisalji II died at Nandod in 1868.

A Political Department was established by the British under the Governor General. It posted Residents and Political Agents in all important States and groups of States. Further, in 1884, the British Crown assumed the prerogative of recognizing succession in the case of natural heirs. Succession to a State was invalid until it received the sanction of the British authority.

The pattern of the relationship of the British Government of India with the Indian princely States had been formed when the First World War broke out in August 1914.

At the same time the fervour of national aspirations was growing fast around India. The Congress had not yet gained popularity but it was gradually attaining a degree of belligerence.

These were the circumstances when Maharaja Vijaysinhji succeeded his father Maharana Chhatrasinhji on 26th September 1915, and was formally installed on 10th December of that year.

In the summer of 1918, the Montagu-Chelmsford Report outlined reforms to bring in self-governing institutions gradually in India. They formed the basis of the Government of India Act 1919. Indian nationalists felt that the reforms did not go far enough, whereas British conservatives were disapproving of them.

Soon the British government passed the notorious Rowlatt Act on 21 March 1919, giving sweeping powers to the police to arrest any person without assigning any reason. The intent was to curb the growing nationalist surge in India. Mahatma Gandhi called upon the people to wage Satyagraha against such a tyrannical legislation.

Events were moving fast. The brutality of the martial law regime in the Punjab, and the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919 had inflamed passions among the masses. The Muslims in particularly were severely agitated over the draft terms of the Treaty of Sevres, which threatened the disintegration of the Caliphate, following the First World War.

Although the Montagu-Chelmsford Report was not of any far-reaching consequences for the princely States, it was the first major study into the relations of the princely States with the rest of India, and with the paramount power. They observed that the political stir in India could not be a matter of indifference to the princes, since hopes and aspirations were apt to overleap frontier lines, like sparks across a street. Reforms in the States could not be brought about as a direct result of constitutional changes in British India; they could come only through the permeation of ideas. They emphasized that the rulers of the States and the politicians in British India should respect each other’s bounds.

Gandhiji preached non-violence and launched the non-cooperation movement on 4 September 1920, in the wake of public restiveness with the aim of winning swaraj or self-governance. The Congress turned into a revolutionary organisation sworn to the triple boycott of the new legislatures, the courts and educational institutions, with the aim of launching mass civil disobedience. The Government was on edge in the face of this battle of direct action.

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Princes came into being through a Royal Proclamation on 8 February 1921. The Viceroy was the President of the Chamber and the members elected a Chancellor and a Pro-Chancellor annually from among themselves. The Chamber contained, in the first instance, 108 rulers who were members in their own right. These were rulers enjoying permanent dynastic salutes of eleven guns and over (Rajpipla was a 13-gun salute State), along with rulers of other States that exercised such full powers as, in the opinion of the Viceroy, qualified them for individual admission. By a system of group voting, the Chamber included 12 additional members elected by the rulers of 127 non-salute States. A few significant States like Mysore and Hyderabad refrained from joining the Chamber.

By now many of the princely States had made considerable progress in terms of administration. The establishment of the Chamber of Princes, which enabled the rulers to voice their needs and aspirations, had ended the phase of their isolation. It also gave the opportunity to the Government to secure the concurrence of the rulers, wherever possible, regarding the application of doctrines which were not part of the treaty framework. It helped ease feelings of tyrannical and whimsical interference by the British Government in the internal matters of the Indian princely States.

In 1923, consequent to the suspension of the non-cooperation movement and the arrest and conviction of Gandhiji, a section of Congresssmen led by Chittaranjan Das and Pandit Motilal Nehru formed within the Congress the ‘Swarajist Party’, with the object the wrecking the legislatures, both central and provincial, from within. This party won considerable success in the general elections of that year. In the Central Legislative Assembly the Swarajists put forward a demand for the immediate grant of Dominion Status. Regarding extending Dominion Status to the Indian princely States as well, Motilal Nehru asserted that if the States wanted to join in, their representatives would be welcome; otherwise not.   

Motilal Nehru’s declaration echoed the Congress attitude towards the princely States. At the Nagpur session in December 1920, the Congress has unequivocally laid out its policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of the princely States. While presiding over the Kathiawar Political Conference in January 1925, Gandhiji declared that “just as the National Congress cannot have an effective voice in the relations between the Indian States and the British Government, even will its interference be ineffective as to the relations between the Indian States and their subjects.” He even declared that all will be well if British India becomes self-governing. The Congress was not prepared for a fight on two fronts, and it had hardly any organization in the princely States.

In December 1927 the British Government appointed a committee of three members, headed by Sir Harcourt Butler to enquire into the relationship between the princely States and the paramount power and to suggest means for the more satisfactory adjustment of the existing economic relations between the princely States and British India. A year later the Committee visited sixteen princely States. Its proceedings were held in camera. They did not examine the representatives of the subjects of the princely States on the plea that it was not within the purview of their terms of reference. They did, though, accept a written statement from the All-India States’ Peoples Conference, which had been formed in December 1927 with the object of attaining ‘responsible government for the people in the Indian States through representative institutions under the aegis of their rulers’.

The Butler Committee held that the relationship of the paramount power with the princely States was not merely a contractual relationship resting on treaties made more than a century ago, but it was a living, growing relationship shaped by circumstances and policy, resting on a mixture of history, theory and modern fact. Nevertheless, it accepted that the rulers should not be handed over without prior agreement to an Indian government in British India responsible to an Indian legislature. It also proposed that the Viceroy, not the Governor-General in Council, should be the agent of the Crown in all the dealings with the States.

The rulers were certainly disappointed with the finding of the Butler Committee with regard to their main hope of being freed from the unfettered discretion of the Political Department to intervene in their internal affairs. The disappointment was all the greater because no effort or expense had been spared in preparing and presenting their case to the Committee. At the same time they were relieved that the status quo was to be maintained and that there was to be no immediate danger to their position.

Nationalist opinion in the country viewed the recommendations of the Butler Committee with grave apprehension. An emphatic protest was entered in the report of the Committee presided over by Pandit Motilal Nehru which had been appointed by the All India Parties Conference in 1928 to frame a Dominion Constitution for India. The report stressed the historical, religious, sociological and economic affinities between the people of British India and of the princely States and uttered the warning:

“It is inconceivable that the people of the States who are fired by the same ambitions and aspirations as the people of British India will quietly submit to existing conditions for ever, or that the people of British India bound by the closest ties of family, race and religion to their brethren on the other side of an imaginary line will never make common cause with them.”

The Nehru Committee was limited under its terms of reference to the framing of a constitution embracing British India alone. It, though, realized that it was necessary that the princely States should also be brought into the picture. It accepted the idea of an all-India federation and assured the princely States that if they were willing to join such a federation, ‘we shall heartily welcome their decision and do all that lies in our power to secure to them the full enjoyment of their rights and privileges. But it must be clearly borne in mind that it would necessitate, perhaps in varying degrees, a modification of the system of government and administration prevailing within their territories. We hope and trust that, in the light of the experience gained, the Indian States may make up their mind to join formally the Federation.’

The Nehru Committee accordingly provided in its draft constitution that all treaties made between the East India Company and the princely States, and any treaties still in force, should be binding on the new Government of British India and that the new government should exercise the same rights in relation to, and discharge the same obligations towards, the princely States as the Government of India has exercised and discharged hitherto.

In the meantime the Simon Commission was carrying out its enquiry. All the leading Indian political parties had decided not to cooperate with the Commission since not a single Indian had been included in it. The Central Legislative Assembly refused to appoint a committee to assist it. Its proceedings were rigidly boycotted; and the Commission encountered strong demonstrations all over the country. The situation in the spring of 1929 looked disturbing and bleak.

The Simon Commission suggested a scheme of procedure under which the Indian princely States would be brought in consultation, along with the British Government and representatives of different parties and interests in British India, with a view to seeking the full solution of the Indian problem as a whole.

The Viceroy Lord Irwin made an official pronouncement to the effect that ‘the natural issue of India’s constitutional progress is the attainment of Dominion Status.’ He also announced a Round Table Conference.

The first Round Table Conference was held in London in the winter of 1930. The Congress had refused the invitation to attend. The Lahore session of the Congress in December 1929 had voted for complete independence; and in April 1930 the Congress, under Gandhiji’s leadership, had launched a mass campaign of salt satyagraha and civil disobedience. The maintenance of law and order was seriously threatened, and it was against the background of an India seething with discontent that the First Round Table Conference met in London.

The three British political parties, fifty-seven political leaders from British India and sixteen delegates from the princely States, including rulers and their representatives, participated in the Round Table Conference. There was a general feeling towards an All-India federation among the Indian delegates. The princely States were inclined for a federation with a self-governing and federal British India.

This seemed a wise move as few princely States were left untouched by the mass awakening in British India. In some of them, disturbances had taken place, and authority had been challenged. The rulers realised that they would have a serious problem on their hands if a campaign of civil disobedience were launched in their States. They were also convinced that it would be more difficult to drive a good bargain if they waited till they were faced with a united and self-governing British India. Some rulers, though, wanted a confederation of princely States, or ‘Indian India’ as it was called, as a necessary preliminary to any association with British India.

Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla was in the thick of all this, for he was in the Standing Committee of the Chamber of Princes at the time.  

A Federal Structure Sub-Committee headed by Lord Sankey presented its report on 15 January 1931. It suggested a federal legislature comprising members from British India and representatives from the princely States nominated by the rulers.

A week after the adjournment of the first Round Table Conference, Lord Irwin ordered the unconditional release of all the members of the Congress Working Committee. Ultimately an understanding was reached between the Congress and the Government. The Gandhi-Irwin Pact, as it was called, was signed on 5 March 1931. The Government agreed to release all political prisoners and the Congress to suspend the civil disobedience movement. The Congress agreed to participate in the Second Round Table Conference. Gandhiji was appointed to represent the Congress ‘with the addition of such delegates as the Working Committee may appoint to act under his leadership.’

The Second Round Table Conference opened on 7 September 1931 and included, besides Gandhiji, newcomers like Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, Sir Ali Imam, Sir Muhammad Iqbal and G.D. Birla. Most of the leading personalities of the first session were back in their places and the composition of the British delegation was much the same as before.

The session was almost entirely dominated by Gandhiji, who was not opposed to the federal idea. He was, however, against diarchy at the centre even for a transitional period. He claimed complete control over defence and external affairs. He insisted that responsible government at the Centre must be established in full and at once. The British Government did not accept Gandhiji’s demand. At the end of the Conference, the Prime Minister announced His Majesty’s Government’s policy in the following words:

“The idea of a great All-India federation still holds the field. The principle of a responsible federal government, subject to certain reservations and safeguards through a transition period, remains unchanged. And we are all agreed that the Governors’ provinces of the future are to be responsibly governed units, enjoying the greatest possible measure of freedom from outside interference and dictation in carrying out their own policies in their own sphere.”

This session was overshadowed by the communal problem, for which Gandhiji tried hard to find a solution. In the end ‘with deep sorrow and deep humiliation’ he had to admit ‘utter failure to secure an agreed solution of the communal question.’

There were divisions in the princely ranks too. The main lines of cleavage were in regard to representation of the princely States in the federal legislature and the financial liabilities of the federating princely States.

As regards finance, the Federal Structure Sub-Committee’s findings killed any hope that the rulers could gain any financial profit by joining the federation. The apprehension that the princely States might probably have to contribute more, and not less, towards the All-India expenditure, that federal agencies might function in the princely States, and that the Federal Supreme Court might gradually extend its jurisdiction over princely States’ subjects disillusioned the rulers that they would be gainers by joining the federation.

While all this was happening, Maharaja Vijaysinhji was quietly carrying out reforms in Rajpipla. He formed a legislative assembly for the State, which was inaugurated on 10 December 1932, the 17th anniversary of his official accession.

The Third and last Round Table Conference assembled on 17 November 1932. It was smaller than its predecessors; only forty-six delegates participated. None of the important rulers was present. The opposition Labour Party refused to take part. The Congress had in the meantime launched another campaign of civil disobedience and was, naturally, absent.

The important question considered at this session was the composition of the federal legislature, and it could not settle the size of the federal chambers, the proportion of British Indian and princely States’ representation and the allocation of princely States’ seats.

The freedom struggle carried on. After independence began the process of integration of princely States into the Union of India.

When it came to the merger of Gujarat States, V.P. Menon, Secretary of States under Sardar Patel, decided that meetings would not be held at the Bombay Secretariat, and requested Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla to preside over and convene them at his own residence ‘Palm Beach’ on Nepeansea Road, Bombay. Maharaja Vijaysinhji played a major role in the merger of Gujarat States, but that is another story.

2 thoughts on “Sagacity, far-sightedness, and political awareness of Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla

  1. History was beautifully covered with all important event took place at that time with names,dates and places.It is only possible to write history so nicely it requires lot of research work refering many historical books.A film can be made on Rajpipla .I thank you very much for your hard work writing wonderfully in a very simple lenguage to make other understand easily.You covered a lot mantioning important events took place from petty old time and you summerized the history in such a manner it is really a praise worthy .

    • Thank you for your nice words, Mr. Patel. Yes, all this has taken years of research. And indeed, there are talks on regarding a film on Rajpipla, particularly the exhilarating Epsom Derby 1934 win of my grandfather Maharaja Vijaysinhji, on which I have written a book ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’.

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