What did the title dewan mean in British Raj? Was he superior to the ruler? What powers did the dewan have?

By Sunil Kumar

The original Persian title dewan meant an important government official, minister or ruler. It also refers to the chief revenue officer in a province or princely state. In the Indian context; the title of dewan or diwan became widely prevalent after several hundred years of the intermingling of Indian and Persian ideas in ruling and jurisprudence.

For example; my great-great grandfather was a dewan in Multan during the Sikh empire before 1849.

During the British raj; the title Diwan Bahadur was awarded as a honour; kind of like a local OBE(Order of the British Empire) to keep the locals happy and pliable. The title was accompanied by a medal called a Title Badge.

This title was above Rao Bahadur title and usually people with Rao Bahadur were elevated to status of Dewan Bahadur.

Depending on the king/ruling authority’s whims and fancies; the Dewan would play a role. In the Raj there were two types of territories – British India and the Native states or Princely states as per British Interpretation Act of 1889.

The term princely state specifically refers to a semi-sovereign principality on the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj that was not directly governed by the British, but rather by a local ruler under a form of indirect rule.

However, when there was a succession to the throne was a problem because the legal heir happened to be a minor or the ruler, in alliance was himself inefficient, the British rulers would interfere and appoint an agent or a Dewan. Dewan appointed to the troubled princely states would run the administration till a suitable ruler from the ruling royal family was able to take care of the kingdom on his own. Old Hindi movies often have references to Dewans of kingdoms; either malicious or very brave and sacrificing.

Some princely states during the British Raj had knowledgeable Dewans such as Mysore etc.

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