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  • The Indian Princes and their States by Barbara N. Ramusack
  • Christiane Hurtig
The Indian Princes and their States by Barbara N. Ramusack. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

This outstanding book fills a glaring gap in Indian historiography ; it is the result of thorough research in archives and the literature and is very likely to achieve the status of a classic contribution, worthy of the prestigious Cambridge series in which it is published . Though they were in direct control of the 2/5 of Indian territory which constituted the “Indian India” under indirect British rule, the princes had been more talked about, dreamt of, criticized and, at times, vilified, than really studied. From the 1930s onwards, public discourses often depicted them as mere instruments of British policies as their political survival, and even their existence, apparently owed everything to British military support and the political mapping of Indian territories (as they were before Partition). Since most of the major States had been parts or feudatories of the Mughal empire, while others (such as Mysore) had been reinstated or (in the case of Jammu and Kashmir), rebuilt, they could easily be dismissed as “creatures of the British” for all times and social purposes.

The word “prince” was, indeed, imported by the British and remained imprecise. Before the creation of the Chamber of Princes, it could apply to local rajahs or nawabs who were dependents of the larger Indian States or even former zamindars as well as to real rulers. Ramusack limits her analysis to the States represented in the Chamber of Princes and leaves most of Eastern India outside the scope of her work. Even though the status of Orissa rajas was not clear — they were generally considered zamindars — one can regret that choice as comparing their authority with that of unquestioned rulers of smaller Indian States of Central India could have been enlightening.

But whatever the geographical extension of her study and in spite of the colonial power’s expectations, the usual clichés only conceal a caricatured perception of much more complex realities. As she demonstrates, “the British did not create the Indian princes. Before and during the European penetration of India, indigenous rulers achieved dominance through the military protection they provided to dependants and their skill in acquiring revenues to maintain their military and administrative organizations. Major Indian rulers exercised varying degrees and types of sovereign powers before they entered treaty relations with the British” (85). This is particularly important because one cannot understand what happened in 1947 and later without taking into account what remained of princely legitimacy. The misinterpretation originates from British policies towards the Indian States as well as from socio—political facts inside the States. Both varied greatly in time and space. This is recounted in two series of masterly, all—inclusive developments about a/ the contrasting aspects of indirect rule and b/ the no less variegated situations of princes, States, State societies and economies and the roles assumed by leading princes in the construction of today’s India.

The description of indirect rule and States as parts of the Empire runs in four chapters that delineate the subject matter, elaborate on a typology of State formation inspired by Bernard Cohn’s and study the interactions between the changing States and changing British doctrines and practices. The comprehensive syntheses of the two chapters on the “construction of indirect rule” and “indirect rule in colonial India” provide a well-documented history of colonialism in India from a new perspective. They include important surveys of research done or still missing, of discrepancies in British administration and diversity of the Indian States. The author’s rigorous sense of nuances helps her to draw an authoritative picture of many aspects of the often over-simplified princely positions. By analyzing the legitimation of princely authority, Ramusack is able to show how British interference with Indian practices transformed princely notions of how a good prince should behave. As for the colonial power, its doctrine with respect to paramountcy and rules of succession was much less clear-cut and permanent.

The second part of the book consists of illustrating developments on “Princes as men, women, rulers, patrons,” the “Administrative and economic...

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