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A princely state or native state was a feudal monarchy in British India ruled by a hereditary ruler, who was nominally sovereign. Unlike the British provinces of India -- such as Bengal, Punjab, Bombay, Madras, the United Provinces, Mysore, etc. -- which were ruled directly by the British government, the princes had treaty arrangements directly with the British monarch.
The princely states enjoyed a degree local autonomy and had their own laws, languages, holidays, ministers, and monarchs, but were under British protection and were essentially vassals. At independence, nearly 680 such states existed in British India, and were represented in a special chamber of the Indian legislative assembly called the Chamber of Princes .
These rulers bore various titles -- including maharaja ("emperor"), raja ("king"), nawab ("governor"), maharana , nizam, wali, and many others. Whatever the literal meaning of the ruler's actual title, the British government translated them all as "prince," in order to avoid the implication that the native rulers could be "kings" with status equal to that of the British monarch.
The least powerful Hindu rulers used the title "thakur ." Most Hindu rulers used the title "raja," or a variant such as "rana," "rao," "rawat" or "rawal." The most influential Hindu rulers used the prefix "maha" ("great"), as in "maharaja," "maharana," etc. Muslim rulers almost all used the title "nawab" (the title of a governor under Mughal rule) with the prominent exceptions of the nizam of Hyderabad & Berar and the wali/khan of Kalat.
Precedence and titles
The gun-salute system was used to determine the precedence of the rulers. Princely rulers were entitled to be saluted by the firing of an odd number of guns between three and 21, with a greater number of guns indicating greater prestige. (There were many minor rulers who were not entitled to any gun salutes, and for the rule the majority of gun-salute princes had at least nine, with numbers below that usually the prerogative of Arab coastal sheikhs also under British protection.) Generally, the number of guns was the same for all rulers of a particular state, but individuals were sometimes granted additional guns on personal bases. Furthermore, rulers were sometimes granted additional guns within their own territories only.
At the time of Indian independence, only five rulers — the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Maharaja of Mysore, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda and the Maharaja Sindhia of Gwalior — were entitled to 21-gun salutes. A further five rulers — the Nawab of Bhopal, the Maharaja Holkar of Indore, the Maharana of Udaipur, the Maharaja of Kolhapur and the Maharaja of Travancore — were entitled to 19-gun salutes. (For comparison, one may note that the Emperor of India was entitled to a 101-gun salute.)
The most senior princely ruler was the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was entitled to the style Exalted Highness. Other princely rulers entitled to salutes of 11 guns or more were entitled to the style Highness. No special style was used by rulers entitled to salutes of fewer than 11 guns. After India became independent, the Maharana of Udaipur displaced the Nizam of Hyderabad as the most senior one, and the style Highness was extended to all rulers entitled to 9-gun salutes.
All princely rulers were eligible to be appointed to certain British orders of chivalry associated with India, The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India and The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire. Even women could be appointed as "knights" of these orders. Rulers entitled to 21-gun and 19-gun salutes were normally appointed to the highest rank possible (Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India).
The doctrine of lapse
Until 1858, the East India Company maintained that it could assume the sovereignty of a state whose ruler was deemed incompetent or who died without a direct heir. This policy contradicted the traditional right of Indian rulers to adopt an heir when they had no progeny. The doctrine of lapse was pursued most vigorously by the Governor-General Sir James Ramsay, 10th Earl Dalhousie. Dalhousie annexed seven states, including the Maratha states of Nagpur, Jhansi, and Satara, and Awadh (Oudh), whose nawabs he had accused of misrule. Resentment over the annexation of these states, which turned to indignation when the heirlooms of the maharajas of Nagpur were auctioned off in Calcutta by the East India Company, contributed to the rising discontent which exploded in the Indian rebellion of 1857 (the "Indian Mutiny"). The last Mughal emperor, who was accused of aiding the rebellion, was deposed. The doctrine of lapse was discontinued in the aftermath of the rebellion, as was rule by the East India Company. Although none of the states were restored, no more princely states were annexed.
The four largest states — Hyderabad, Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir, and Baroda — were directly under the authority of the governor-general. Two agencies, Rajputana Agency and Central India Agency, oversaw 20 and 148 princely states, respectively. The remaining princely states had political officers, or agents, who answered to the administrators of India's provinces. Five princely states were under the authority of Madras, 354 of Bombay, 26 of Bengal, 2 of Assam, 34 of Punjab, 15 of Central Provinces and Berar; and 2 of United Provinces.
After independence in 1947, the princely states were forced to accede either to India or the new entity Pakistan. The accession was to be chosen by its ruling prince, not the residents, akin to the 16th century European principle of cuius regio eius religio. Most acceded peacefully, except for three: Junagadh, Hyderabad and Jammu & Kashmir. Junagadh, the largest state in the Kathiawar peninsula (now in Gujarat), with a Hindu majority, acceded to Pakistan on the wishes of its Nawab. However the people revolted, and Junagadh was invaded by the neighbouring micro-state of Mangrol . Finally, in 1948 Junagarh was annexed by India, and the Nawab fled to Karachi.
A similar fate befell the Nizam of Hyderabad. He had chosen to stay independent if not allowed to accede to Pakistan. After a lot of political wrangling, when the irregular militia of the Nizam's prime minister (the Razakars) began terrorising trains passing through the Hyderabad state, India annexed Hyderabad by a military invasion under the rubric of a "Police Action." The Nizam was deposed, though allowed to stay in Hyderabad.
Jammu and Kashmir, ruled by a Hindu raja, was infiltrated by Pakistani army regulars & tribesmen from the North-West Frontier Province, and under duress sought military help from India to repulse them. This was given only after the raja acceded his state to India. Until that time, the raja had avoided acceding either to India or to Pakistan, hoping that he could somehow maintain his sovereignty. This has led to one of the most famous territorial disputes of the world.
The princely states that acceded to India were absorbed into the administrative system, and all the princes were deposed peacefully. They were however given privy purses (an allowance) by the government in compensation until 1975, when the privy purses were abolished.
The princes have made many contributions to India. They were the ones to have established the game of cricket in India, culminating in the famous tour of England in the 1930s under the captainship of the now infamous Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy ). Another legendary cricketer was the even more notorious Ranjitsinghi, Jam Saheb (Maharaja) of Nawanagar (Jamnagar).
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