John ZubrzyckiNov 30, 2023
The Downfall of India’s Princely States
Post-independence India had a big problem–about 40% of its land wasn’t, well, India. Instead, this land was in the hands of the princely states: Rulers who had signed agreements accepting the rule of the British Empire, while getting a relatively free hand to rule their local jurisdictions.
And these weren’t small states. Hyderabad–whose ruler made noises about independence, at least initially–had a larger income than Belgium, and was bigger than all but twenty UN member countries.
But the power of the princes was so eroded over time that, by 1971, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could remove one of the last remaining public privileges of the prince. How did India (and its neighbor Pakistan) win the battle against the princes? John Zubrzycki in his book Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States (Hurst, 2024) explains how New Delhi persuaded, encouraged–and browbeat–the princes to accept a future with India.
In this interview, John and I talk about the major players in these negotiations, like Viceroy Montbatten and Sardar Patel, how they “encouraged” the princely states to join India, and whether any of these princes could really go it alone.
John Zubrzycki has worked in India as a foreign correspondent and diplomat. His other books are The House of Jaipur: The Inside Story of India s Most Glamorous Royal Family (Juggernaut: 2020); and Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic (Oxford University Press: 2018), chosen by William Dalrymple as a Book of the Year. He is also the author of The Shortest History of India.
Nicholas Gordon is an editor for a global magazine, and a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.