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Rajas during British Raj


When the British decided to leave India, the subcontinent was split between territories directly governed by them and over 565 kingdoms governed by various Rajas, Maharajas, princes, Nizams and Nawabs.  A lot of people ask why was India, once ruled by the Imperial Mughal family, was split into so many kingdoms!  This article gives a fairly high level view as to 'why' India was split up after the Mughal empire collapsed and 'why' it suited the British for India to be split into 565 kingdoms.


Mughal rule over India was conducted through a series of autonomous kingdoms and 'jagirs' (fiefdom) to various 'mansubedars' (warlords & landlords).  The Mughal kingdom expected the Jagirdar to supply arms, ammunition and trained soldiers to the empire in exchange for his autonomy and ability to collect taxes on behalf of the Empire.

In the West, Rajput kingdoms ruled over their ancestral lands and were only token jagirdars and mansubedars in Mughal court.  Rajputs formed a core of Mughal army might and were largely left to their own devices.  Mughal empire collapsed during & after Aurangzeb's rule when Rajputs were side-lined for ideological / religious reasons.

In the far East, Manipur, Tripura and various hill tribes were autonomous due to their remoteness.  They continued to rule their ancestral lands in relative peace through the turbulent centuries of islamic misrule of India.

During Aurangzeb’s time, though his armies reached the Southern ocean, Maratha kingdom blossomed into an empire within the West and heartland of India and it conquered lands once held by the Mughals. Within a couple of generations, they controlled much of South, Central and West India. They reached up to Calcutta and the British were very perturbed to have them so close to their trading posts of Calcutta, Madras and Mumbai. Once the Peshwas’s line was lost, Maratha empire split into several confederacies as powerful generals carved out kingdoms for themselves - Gayakwad, Gwalior, Indore etc. Initially the Maratha were opposed to the British and used French and Dutch to supply them with weapons. British, being excellent businessmen, undercut their competitors and won contracts with many Maratha chiefs. By the time of the 1847 war, most Maratha chiefs stood by the British and those who opposed them, lost - eg Nana Sahib and Tatia Tope.

In the South, Hydrabad had split from the Mughals and stayed as a reliable supporter of the British. They hated Tipu Sultan who was supplied by the French. End of French Empire led to collapse of their weapons trade into India and subsequent collapse of those who were allied with the French. Mysore and other kingdoms quickly formed in the wake of Tipu’s collapse. British facilitated this decentralisation of power.

British, broke the Sikh empire in the North East that had sprung up during the fag end of Mughal rule.  British encouraged several Sikh and Jat generals to established their own new kingdoms in the foothills of the Himalayas. They also broke up the kingdom of Oudh and similarly parceled out the land among warlords - big and small.

Once the Mughal power waned, Rajput, Jats, Maraths, Nizams and Nawabs stopped paying tribute to them and stopped supporting the Mughal army. This suited the British - having lots of small ineffectual armies was easier to deal with rather than one powerful one.  These smaller kingdoms created new treaties with the British so that they would be supplied with the latest weapons and trained soldiers to stave off attack from their neighbours and outsiders - such as the Persians and Afghans. The British happily made treaties with all the various rulers - big and small - to bring Pax Britannica to them - assuring no one will attack the other as all the troops (and weapons) among the different states were provided by the British. 

During the 1857 war, those kings and chiefs who stood by the British East India Company were confirmed as Native rulers and princes by the British Crown. They were given fancy titles and principalities - some smaller than Hyde Park - to reward them for their loyalties to the British. Even jagirdars could now dream of being 'hereditary Rajas’ of their own plot of land with gun salutes!!  BUT they all had to promise to stay under the thumb of the diminutive Queen Empress and suffer British interference in how they ran their kingdoms.  Apart from paying tribute & tax to GB, the British controlled their armies, security infrastructure and foreign affairs.

India, once a nation of powerful kingdoms was thus broken up into small principalities to suit Britain’s need for a peaceful British Raj - 1857 - 1947. Some ancient houses remained - such as Manipur. Some Medieval ones survived like the Sisodias of Udaipur. Some post Mughal ones, like Hydrabad flourished under the British. Many new ones came up like the Gayakwads of Baroda. Hundreds of smaller, nondescript ones came into being for the brief period that the British ruled their Raj.

In 1947, when British left India, the treaties they had with the 565 kingdoms were null and void.  Kings could dream of being truly independent, with no overlord at last!  But the 565 kings were not confident they could survive in post WWII world by themselves.  Viceroy Mountbatten did them a huge disservice by advising them all to sign their kingdoms over to India or Pakistan with no guarantees protecting of future.  Majority of the kingdoms, nearly 550, joined India.  15 went over to Pakistan.  Kashmir and Hydrabad tried to remain independent. 

Rest, as they say, is HISTORY !



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