Why didn’t the British capture or invade the 584 princely states during the pre-independence era?

By Sunil Kumar

Simple answer- It suited them. And, they didn’t want a repeat of 1857.

Refresher 101 on Indian History- After the revolt in 1857, the British were shit scared, literally. So in 1858, India came under direct control of the Crown.

Read a few of Dalrymple’s books if you want to know about how inspired and enamoured the early British were with the North Indian cultural milieu of the time, especially the luxury and the multiple wives of the Mughals and the Maharajas. Coming from a repressed, hypocritical Puritan Christian environment (at the time) exposed to India’s famed wealth and decadence, the initial British settlers were fond of intermarriage, concubines, nautch girls, Persian and poetry.

By 1857 however, the strict and clever Scotsman Dalhousie had succeeded in annexing many erstwhile kingdoms and supporters of the East India Company on flimsy pretexts. Since Indians were easy to bribe and manipulate, the British were handed some easy victories. This made them arrogant and secure in the superiority of their language, religion and culture. The final straw was offending the religious sentiments of both the Hindus and Muslims with cartridges smeared with beef and pork. The revolt and brutal reprisals have been discussed by me in other answers.

Now your question is from the period from 1858 to 1947. The British were more afraid of the reemergence of the Mughals and the Muslims rather than the Hindus. So, initially favours were extended to this community as long as it suited the interests of empire. When the Bengali Babus(effective clerks for the Empire) started rebelling and demanding rights, the British courted rich Muslim landowners, and were instrumental in the partition of Bengal and also assured support to the Muslim League against what was a ‘Hindu’ dominated Congress.

As for the princely states, most of them were nothing but effective puppets who danced at the master’s beckoning. Impressed by the opulence of the Mughals, the British held Durbars at periodic intervals in Delhi, where all the princes of India kowtowed to the visiting British royal. Regardless of religion, language and caste, most of the princes respected the Raj and did its bidding. All the standard stereotypes of India come into play here. The debauched womanizing Sikh princes of the Punjab, the sycophantic South Indians in Mysore or the arrogant, puritan Nizam of Hyderabad who was the richest man in the world for some time.

Whenever the British needed funding, the princes were eager and ready to offer assistance. Indian princes contributed for the World Wars, Victoria Memorial, the Railways, infrastructure projects in India and even distant parts of the Empire. Importance was measured in the number of salutes.

Whatever your personal feelings, the British ran an effective empire. It was one of the most effective money grabs in history. While famines wrecked the population, the princes and the British population were largely oblivious to the misery of India(Further reading- Tharoor- An Era of Darkness). The divisions they engineered in the Indian population on the basis of language, religion, geography were already present- it was only a matter of emphasising them whenever London needed them.

They were played down whenever it did not suit them. The British certainly did not like the Indian princes cavorting with white women in England or France, but tolerated it as long as the men(princes) involved were useful and crushed any revolt in their parts.

This script was followed by most of the princes, barring a very small section. Why would the British Raj attempt to take over the princely states then? Governing British India with its presidencies and multiple cities was enough of a headache, so if the princes were effective cronies, Whitehall did not think it was wise to interfere.

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