In the recent media coverage on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, there was not one word about the greatest insult to his memory: the abolition of the Privy Purses, first by a Presidential Order and, later, by a constitutional amendment.
Article 1 of the Constitution states that India, that is, Bharat, shall be a Union of States. No person can claim greater credit for the creation of Bharat than Sardar Patel, ably assisted by V.P. Menon (Constitutional Adviser to Lord Mountbatten). In 1947, princely states numbering 555 covered 48 per cent of the area of pre-Independent India and constituted 28 per cent of its population. Legally, the princely states were not a part of British India and the people of these states were not treated as British subjects. But, in reality, they were completely subordinate to the British Crown.
The Indian Independence Act, 1947, provided for the lapse of paramountcy of the British Crown over the Indian states. Each ruler had the option to accede to the dominion of India or to Pakistan, or continue as an independent sovereign mini-state. The rulers were often seen, perhaps rightly, as lackeys and stooges of the British Empire. Even in the “mutiny” of 1857, many of them actively assisted the British. Lord Canning acknowledged their role as “breakwaters in the storm which would have swept over us in one great wave.” From the beginning, therefore, several members of the Congress were totally opposed to the payment of Privy Purses.
The tireless efforts of Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon resulted in the princes agreeing to the dissolution of their respective states. They surrendered several villages, thousands of acres of scattered jagir land, palaces, museums, buildings, aircraft, and cash balances and investments amounting to Rs.77 crore. In addition, there was the railway system of about 12,000 miles which the states surrendered to the Centre without receiving any compensation.
In consideration of their agreeing to integrate with India, the princes were to be paid a Privy Purse, which was approximately 8.5 per cent of the annual revenue of each princely state. The amounts varied from Rs.43 lakh a year to the Nizam of Hyderabad to just Rs.192 a year to the ruler of Katodia. Of the 555 rulers, 398 were to get less than Rs.50,000 a year. The total cost to the Indian exchequer in 1947 was Rs.6 crore, which was to be progressively reduced. At the time of abolition in 1970, the total amount payable to all the erstwhile princes was just Rs.4 crore a year.
On October 12, 1949, Sardar Patel persuaded the Constituent Assembly to include Articles 291 and 362 in the Constitution to guarantee the payment of Privy Purses and also preserve the personal rights, privileges and dignities of the rulers. His brilliant speech bears clear testimony to his statesmanship and deserves to be carefully read:
“The privy purse settlements are, therefore, in the nature of consideration for the surrender by the rulers of all their ruling powers and also for the dissolution of the States as separate units … Need we cavil then at the small — I purposely use the word small — price we have paid for the bloodless revolution which has affected the destinies of millions of our people? …
“The capacity for mischief and trouble on the part of the rulers if the settlement with them would not have been reached on a negotiated basis was far greater than could be imagined at this stage. Let us do justice to them; let us place ourselves in their position and then assess the value of their sacrifice. The rulers have now discharged their part of the obligations by transferring all ruling powers by agreeing to the integration of their States. The main part of our obligation under these agreements is to ensure that the guarantee given by us in respect of privy purses are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stabilisation of the new order.”
He also informed the Assembly that if the cash received from the rulers of Madhya Bharat alone were invested, the interest would cover the payment of Privy Purses to all the princes. Nobody but Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon could have negotiated such a settlement with them. After Patel’s death, there were repeated demands to abolish the Privy Purses, but Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru refused to do so. Appalled at these demands, Menon remarked: “As an honourable party to an agreement, we cannot take the stand that we shall accept only that part of the settlement which confers rights on us, and repudiate or whittle down that part which defines our obligations. As a nation aspiring to give a moral lead to the world, let it not be said of us that we know the ‘price of everything, and the value of nothing’.”
Privy Purses case
In the 1967 election, several rulers had joined the Swatantra Party headed by C. Rajagopalachari, and many of them defeated Congress candidates. Indira Gandhi was, therefore, determined to abolish the Privy Purses. On June 25, 1967, the All India Congress passed a resolution to abolish them. The Constitution (Twenty-fourth Amendment) Bill, 1970 was introduced and passed in the Lok Sabha by a majority of 332:154 votes, but it was defeated in the Rajya Sabha by 149:75. Having failed in Parliament, Indira Gandhi asked President V.V. Giri to derecognise all the rulers. This derecognition was successfully challenged by N.A. Palkhivala before the Supreme Court in the historic Privy Purses case. Indira Gandhi’s landslide victory in the 1971 election enabled her to amend the Constitution that abolished the Privy Purses and extinguished all rights and privileges of the rulers. In Parliament, Indira Gandhi stated that the concept of Privy Purses and special privileges were incompatible with an “egalitarian social order.”
Thus, just 20 years later, the Congress Party, of which Sardar Patel was a member, betrayed the solemn constitutional guarantee given to the rulers by the Constituent Assembly. It was primarily on the assurance of Sardar Patel that the rulers signed the Instruments of Accession that created a united India.
In the end, the abolition of Privy Purses will remain one of the most shameful events in our constitutional history. The nation saved Rs.4 crore annually but lost its honour. It is equally regrettable that neither the Janata Party in 1977 nor any subsequent non-Congress government did anything to redeem Patel’s pledge. What purpose will, then, be served by spending Rs.2,500 crore to build the tallest statue in his memory?
(Arvind P. Datar is a senior advocate of the Madras High Court.)