The Forgotten Chamber of Princes
“Throughout 1920 the chief concern of Baker and his staff was with the design of the Legislative Assembly Building with its three chambers, the need for which had emerged from the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms,” wrote an assistant to Sir Herbert Baker, the architect who designed the Parliament House building in New Delhi. Today, along with the historic Central Hall, we readily recognize the Central Legislative Assembly (now Lok Sabha) and the Council of States (now Rajya Sabha) yet few remember that there was a third chamber – ‘The Chamber of Princes’ between 1921 and 1947.
Inaugurated in 1921, the same year that the Duke of Connaught laid the Foundation Stone of the Council House (Parliament House) in Delhi, just like its name suggested, this Chamber was an assembly of the Indian Princes. It was a unique chamber in the annals of world history, given the direct involvement of the Indian princes in the legislative process. It was supposed to discuss and deliberate on issues that would advance the common interests of Princely India and British India,and it was to be led by a Chancellor, necessarily a member-prince, under the watchful eyes of the Viceroy.
– The war of 1857 marked a tectonic shift in the British perspective towards the princes.
The British Indian Empire was not entirely governed by the British; it was divided into two prominent parts – British India under direct administrative control of the government, and Princely India,which covered about one-third of the British Empire in India and administered by princes and chiefs.
On the whole, the relationship between British India and Princely India was rather a complex one. The war of 1857 marked a tectonic shift in the British perspective towards the princes. The government concluded that the princely states could not be treated in isolation and must not be alienated.
The Viceroyalty of Lord Curzon and Lord Hardinge made significant steps to embrace the princes in a sympathetic way of governance. The Chamber of Princes was preceded by Princes’ Conference held every year since 1916. Among other things, the Conference deliberated on the important Chapter X of the report by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and Secretary of State Edwin Montague. The recommendation in the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms resulted in the creation of the Chamber of Princes.
– The Chamber had an advisory and consultative role with the ultimate power to take a decision vested in the Viceroy who acted as the Crown Representative. Represented only by 120 princes of about 565, it excluded many while certain powerful States like Hyderabad, Mysore, Baroda, and Travancore kept aloof from the working of the Chamber.
For all practical purposes, the Chancellor, elected by the member-princes, officiated as the head of the Chamber and decided the day’s agenda. The Standing Committee of the Chamber would deliberate on issues referred by the Crown Representative and submit their reports to the Chamber. Over the years, the rulers of Bikaner, Patiala, Nawanagar and Bhopal were chosen as Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes.
The sessions of the Chamber of Princes generally discussed issues relating to the rights and privileges of the princes. The powerful Standing Committee deliberated on the contentious subjects of post & telegraph, aviation, dams, civil unrest, extradition of criminals, purchase of property by the princes in British India, as well as internal disputes like boundaries between the States.
One of the annoying factors for the bigger States was that they had the same right of single vote as the smaller ones did. Many of the members felt comfortable making speeches in English cloaked in flowery language while some were not so articulate in putting forward their opinions in front of the British authorities.
The resolutions passed by the Chamber were not compulsorily implemented by the members themselves in their own States. Moreover, as they discussed issues common to the interests of both British India and Princely India, they did not have the mandate to discuss matters relating exclusively to British India.
On the positive side, since the British had abandoned the policy of isolation of the princes, Princely India witnessed greater assimilation in the legislative process. The Chamber could send their representative to meetings of the Imperial Conference and the League of Nations.
Above all, the Chamber gave the princes the privilege to mingle with one another and sort out some of the thornier issues during the sessions. This bonhomie led them to a better understanding of their power as a block in matters of negotiation with the government. They were also enriched by the administrative finesse and their constitutional obligation in the face of growing nationalism and India's aspirations of being a free nation.
The complexity of the status of the States and the role of British Paramountcy over the Indian States kept the princes worried to no end. The Chamber of Princes discussed various issues involving the relations of the States with the Crown as well as with the Paramount Power.
To address these alarming issues, the Viceroy constituted the Indian States Enquiry Committee led by Sir Harcourt Butler (hence, also known as Butler Committee) in 1927. The Committee, inter alia, examined the States’ rights over railways, coinage, mines and telegraph, and rejected most of them.
While expressly agreeing that the Indian States have a direct relationship with the Crown, the Committee reiterated that Paramountcy should remain as paramount. The grievances of the princes regarding Sanads issued by the Paramount Power and its supposed super-session of existing treaties between the State and the Crown, and personal and dynastic issues were not addressed to the satisfaction of the princes.
After the report was submitted in 1929, several meetings were held by the princes to discuss its outcome, till the Viceroy announced the commencement of a Round Table Conference in London, in which the members of the Chamber participated.
Talk of a united India in the form of a Federation including British India Provinces and the States emerged in 1930 and continued till 1943 and beyond. Representatives of the Chamber of Princes at the Round Table Conference in London spoke highly of an All-India Federation with the condition that the States would join of their free will and understanding that their rights would be secured.
The Federal Legislature would have two Houses, namely Upper House and Lower House, with a proposal to have half and one-third representation respectively from the Indian States. The Princes could have the advantage of having enough say in the Federal Legislatures and the Executive and could have played a bigger role in policy matters on all-India basis. Had all the States joined the Federation, it would have obviously spelt the cessation of the Chamber of Princes and would have ushered in a unified form of government, obliterating the differences between Princely India and British India.
Despite majority agreement, some Princes did not express their willingness to join the Federation. The nagging apprehension that the States’ relations with the Crown and the assurance of protection of age-old treaties would eventually be transferred to a new government and the lack of freedom of withdrawing led to the fall of the idea of a Federation. Yet the process of assimilation into a unified India remains a watershed moment in the history of the Chamber of Princes that could rewrite the legislative history of India before Independence.
Every year, by February or March, the Chamber of Princes met in the designated hall in the Council House (Parliament House), New Delhi. The princes, in traditional and military attire, drove to the Council House in specially commissioned carriages. It was an annual gala show in Delhi, where the myriad colours and the enviable wealth of the princely states was on display.
Princely India mingled liberally with the cream of British society. The hall where the princes met had seats arranged according to the status of the respective member. With the President’s chair on the top, the Chancellor sat below. The intricately designed jaalis had the symbols of the swastika, interlocked squares, flowers and creepers.
The hall, still bedecked with the heraldic escutcheons of the princely states, exudes princely charm. For some years, the Federal Court of India and, later, the Supreme Court of India, operated out of this chamber till its new building was constructed. The Supreme Court of India, therefore, was inaugurated in the hall earlier earmarked for the Chamber of Princes. It is now used as a reading room for Members of Parliament in Parliament House.
The merger of the States with the Dominion of India or Pakistan, the impending issue of Partition, the future of the Princely Order in India, and the future framework of the territories under the princes became major points of discussion in the Chamber of Princes while it faced its last days. When we discuss the pre-Independence constitutional process in India, we must not forget about the large portion of the country under the princes and their participation through the Chamber of Princes, which was dissolved in 1947.
All legislative processes may have fault lines and they are amended from time to time but the Chamber did not have the luxury of time – it lasted but 26 years. Moreover, the rising spirit of nationalism and the push for freedom from British rule had added to the complexity of relations between Princely India and British India.
The British authority tried its best to use Princely India as ‘breakwaters in the storm’ yet the popular struggle was far too strong a storm to be resisted. We would nonetheless continue to look at the formation, functioning, failure and achievements of this Chamber as a unique feature in the annals of Indian legislative history and as a phenomenon that is unique worldwide as well.
For reasons that may not be of any consequence to the present, the Chamber of Princes needs to be looked into more deeply to have an opinion of India’s past and its legislative process.
Sumanta K Bhowmick is the author of the book Princely Palaces in New Delhi published by Niyogi Books in 2016.