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  • Print publication year: 1997
  • Online publication date: October 2009

2 - The shackles of paramountcy


Paramountcy must remain paramount …

The Indian States Committee, March 1929

The new order questioned

The first two decades of the twentieth century had been singularly good ones for the Indian princes. In 1900 the darbars had been isolated from one another and from British India, firmly under the bureaucratic thumb of the political department, a butt for Curzon's paternalist rhetoric; by 1921 they had emerged from the shadows into the sunlight as acknowledged partners of the British raj, no longer scorned but lauded as repositories of tradition and loyalty and political wisdom. Mere onlookers twenty years before, they had become the ‘steady goal-keepers in the great Indian game’.

By comparison, the decade of the 1920s was laden with disappointments. To some extent the princes brought this on themselves by aiming too high. Buoyed with success, and relishing their new sense of empowerment, the rulers were primed, as it were, for disillusionment. Yet the main reason why the 1920s proved such a testing time for the Indian states was that the political environment, so benevolent from 1916 to 1921, suddenly became a lot more hostile. Why was this?

On one level, the transformation can be explained with reference to three significant departures from high office in Delhi and London. The first of these changes, chronologically, took place at viceregal lodge, where the mild, patrician Chelmsford gave way in 1921 to the Jewish advocate Lord Reading – the first ennobled commoner to hold the viceroyalty since John Lawrence in the 1860s.