The Round Table Conference
BY EDWARD THOMPSON
[On this page Dr. Edward Thompson will discuss Indian problems weekly during the Round Table Conference.—En., Spectator.]
SINCE the plenary session, which showed how united was the demand for full national status, and that the Princes too were Nationalists, the Conference has been busied with Federation problems. The issues are now more confused ; little has emerged, except that a " unitary " government is unpopular, and that the Princes want an end of •` paramountcy." A brief historical statement may clear up these rather technical questions, both (as is the way with Indian questions) deeply involved with sentiment and considerations of self-respect and honour.
Those who argue for the Crown usually reject the States' claim to have possessed independent rank when the British Brat came into relations with them. It is pointed out that nearly all of them (there are exceptions) acknowledge some degree of Mogul suzerainty. Unfortunately for this argument, so did the East India Company in those days. Its sovereign career began with acceptance of the Diwani (civil administra- tion) of Bengal, in 1765, which legalised its position, as one of many subordinate systems of the Mogul Empire. When that Empire's overlordship rights lapsed through weakness, they must be presumed to have lapsed for all these subordinate systems. This was the view of the early Governors-General. They negotiated with the other States on a basis of equality as regards internal sovereignty. Lord Hastings (1818-28) refused to intervene in Hyderabad against misgovernment :
" Over States which have, by particular engagements, rendered themselves professedly feudatory, the British Government does exercise supremacy ; but it has never been claimed, and certainly never hex been acknowledged, in the case of Native Powers standing within the denomination of allies."
On the eve of the Mutiny, Dalhousie, again with respect to Hyderabad, wrote :
" The British Government is bound by the solemn obligations of a treaty to abstain from all interference in His Highness's internal affairs . . . we acknowledge the Nizam as an inde- pendent Prince."
Only " the continuance of general peace " and the prevention of " injury of the subjects or of the allies of the British Govern- ment " were objects entitling the latter to " interfere in the administration of Native Princes." If he had held this view less strongly there would have been fewer annexations, and possibly no 1857 Mutiny. He seized every opportunity of annexation, precisely because bad government seemed to him the usual condition of Native States yet a condition that he could not change by interference.
After the Mutiny the set in the direction of a " unitary " State began. For decades the administration were convinced that India was still a powder magazine. The services rendered during the outbreak by the Princes were too conspicuous to be-Overlooked. On the other hand there was plenty of evidence that their subjects, and especially their armed forces, had desired to join with the mutineers. These conflicting facts resulted in a mixed policy. At first the troops of the States were watched with suspicion. There was a tendency to claim the right to veto a Prince's choice of Ministers thought to be unfriendly to the British Government. A time of vigorous railway expansion followed the Mutiny. The railways knit the country together, and helped on the process of centraliza- tion. Sometimes lines through a Native State were desirable ; the State surrendered the land free, and also jurisdiction along it. The States lost revenue, as the Central Government gathered up the salt monopoly in Native as well as in British India, rights of coinage, and postal crevices (Dalhousie's doctrine of " lapse," banished from the field of annexation, reappearing here), the right to compel acceptance'of a League MJNations' decision to reduce opium production. As a unitary government was built up, the theory of paramountcy emerged. The new Government did what Dalhousie thought ultra wires, deposed for maladministration. (On 'the other hand, annexa- tion was done with.) The pammottntcy' deictrine reached its height in Lord Curzon's words, when installing' the Nawab of BLawalptir
" The sovereignty of tho Crown is everywhere unchallenged, It has itself laid down the limitations of its own prerogative."
He went so far as to assert that no Prince could leave his State without the Viceroy's permission.
This paramountcy doctrine the Princes are determined to have set aside, for a judicial ascertainment of the limits within which their sovereignty is to be kept unimpaired. To their thinking it is not only illegal in the light of their treaties, it is also vague and capable of infinite expansion. It puts the Central Government in the " heads I win, tails you lose " position. Their decision to join a Federated India has taken both our own and the Indian Government by surprise, a fact in itself illuminating—for it has been for some time obvious that the Princes were moving to this decision, and moving quickly. In 1926 Lord Reading decisively rejected the Nizam's claim, based on a century and a half of close alliance, to independence except in external matters, and informed him that he was not " in a category separate from that of other States under the paramountcy of the British Crown." As I have written elsewhere, the Princes
"would not have raised their claim to fully independent rank had not self-determination for British India so plainly risen above the horizon of probability. There have been few more impressive incidents than this one, of the Premier State boldly claiming equality with the Suzerain Power, before that background of Indian Princes silently observing and listening."
The Princes countered Lord Reading's letter by energetic and united action and consultation among themselves.
We have all heard stories of this or that Prince who ex- pressed his intention to " clean up " adjacent British India, as soon as the British went. At the opposite pole is the view, popular in extreme Nationalist circles, that British India could absorb Native India, if Britain permitted. Both legends are built on a partial, instead of a comprehensive consideration of the facts. It is true that only about a score of the seven hundred States are really important. But the principle of sovereignty is tenaciously held, and the extreme Nationalists over-rate their own strength, and under-rate that of the greater States. Against the Government the Princes have a case ; I think their contention that it has often gone beyond its treaty rights is unanswerable. But they would admit that vexing and unreasonable interference has been offset by many examples of patience and tolerance. And, though anxious to get back to their old position vis-d-vis the Central Govern- ment, they know that more than legal interpretation has to be taken into account. We all deplore Congress's abstention from the Conference ; another important section of Indian opinion is inevitably unrepresented, that of the people of the States. They are, however, represented in Nationalist India. The Federation framework now being built will give the Princes a voice in all-India finance and tariffs and foreign policy ; it will concede the place of the railways in an all-India defence scheme. It is more difficult to reconcile the Princes' legitimate regard for their treaty' rights with their subjects' aspirations. Legal rights are in conflict with natural rights. The Princes have sympathized with the Nationalist feeling of British India ; their subjects in varying degrees have been caught in the ferment of democracy. With the doctrfue of paramountcy gone, how are the people of Native India to be safeguarded against misgovernment or persistence of autocracy whenever it has become obsolete ? Here is the value of Britain's presence at the Conference. We claim to be friends of the Princes and protectors of the people of India. Three weeks ago 'the Princes saved the situation by their attitude, of detachment from the larger dispute, which enabled them to come out for both the British Connexion and Dominion Status. We can 'save it now by a similar detachment and power of visualizing the future. The extreme Nationalist's dream of a unitary' government controlling all'India will ulti- mately go, no less than the paramountcy doctrine. But the devolution and variety that a federal scheme provides must permit also of.growth and prowess in the internal affairs of all the largely autonomous constituents of . Greater India. Or the settlement will prove no settlement..