Every ‘news’ outlet these days seems insistent on flooding my timeline with various versions of how great and adorable Taimur Ali Khan Pataudi is, starting from his highly publicised birthday celebrations. Some carried an entire spread of the “Baby Nawab’s” birthday celebration at the Pataudi palace, while others spoke of the forest that he received as a birthday gift. The Khans were presented as the picture-perfect ‘modern day royal family’. And people everywhere lapped it up with joy.
Don’t get me wrong. The media anointed ‘little prince’ is adorable and all, but this charade of new-age royalty that publications (and we, the people) perpetuate is getting ridiculous. It’s been close to 50 years since Indira Gandhi stripped Indian princes of their titles, 13-gun-salutes and privy purses; so you know what that makes you a nawab of in our 21st century, democratic country where titles no longer exist? Nothing.
With the unfortunate passing of Mansoor Ali Khan AKA Tiger Pataudi in 2011, a ceremonial tying of the pagdi on his son Saif’s head was held, and this appointed him as the succeeding nawab of the region that was once the family’s fiefdom. Even if mere tradition, to the people that live in that area, it meant something – something that Saif no longer has a claim nor right to hold. The 26th Amendment to the Indian Constitution was passed in 1971, so this occurred during Tiger Pataudi’s lifetime, yet the legacy lingered even overtaking his incredible achievements on the cricket field. His title was legally dissolved, so it being inherited by his son and then even more hardened into our minds by the language that’s used to address these families’ feudal titles is detrimental to our own democracy.
I am by no means singling out the Khan family here – though please note how I call them Khans and not the Pataudis – I’m sure they are lovely individuals. They simply serve as the most popular example that we can all relate to. The truth is we still have many Princesses, Maharajas, Ranas and Yuvrajs strewn across the country. And the question on our minds is why do we keep perpetuating this kind of elitism and hierarchy through constant media-hyping?
India is a country that has diverse cultures and heritage, and the erstwhile royal families have an incredible legacy with rich traditions and customs (as well as some seriously eccentric behaviour). Maharani Gayatri Devi will always be one of the most elegant ladies I have ever seen and a fashion icon for countless young women across the country. Preserving traditions and keeping family histories alive and documented is very different from the arrogance and entitlement that many of their descendants insist on holding onto, commanding respect for their blue-blooded lineage; the respect for which they themselves haven’t earned, while their ancestors may have, through their work.
Let us take a quick trip down Indian history to see the legal status of our current ‘royal’ families. When India gained independence from colonial rule it wasn’t a single, unified front. The land or regions that were under British rule were given back to the Indian people as independent territories. These were regions that were directly under British governance, but there were also approximately 560 Princely States that comprised close to one-third of the Indian subcontinent. The size of these States ranged in size from large domains which generated quite a considerable amount of revenue, to smaller principalities. They were arranged hierarchically, with the number of gun salutes playing a determining factor. When the British prepared their departure from their ex-colony they left the rules of these Princely States with the choice to determine their own future.
While most signed instruments of accession with India, some became a part of Pakistan, but there were those like Travancore, Bhopal, Jodhpur and Junagarh that held their position and only after persuasion by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and VP Menon did they join the Indian Union. One of the things they were granted in return was ‘Privy Purses’ – a specific amount of money that was annually given to the rulers by the Indian Government. The individual amounts were determined by the revenue of the States, the gun salutes, among others, were tax-free and ranged anywhere from INR 5,000 to INR 26 lakhs, guaranteed by Article 291 of the Indian Constitution.
Things took a turn for our erstwhile majesties around the 1960s. The democratic system had set in its roots and strengthened over time creating an Indian republic. Pressure grew by members of parliament as well as Indian citizens to put an end to privy purses and related privileges. Not only was this system going against every citizen’s right to equality (Article 18 of the Indian Constitution that is the abolition of titles) but it also put quite a dent in our government’s finances at a time when we were still struggling to develop basic infrastructure for all Indians across the country.
Privy purses soon became a relic of the past and a move was made to do away with the system entirely as well as the official recognition of titles. Brought before the Parliament floor in 1969 it was passed successfully in 1971, with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arguing for the case, as the 26th Amendment to the Indian Constitution. The ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons appended to the Constitution’ can be read here.
Not everyone took well to the decision, some even fought it. The move was criticised as a breach of contract, a broken promise with no compensation. Not only did Ms Gandhi strip the families of their ‘royalness’, wealth, their private armies (those few that had them), privileges such as free first-class travel and their gun salutes, but she knocked them off their pedestals and these once-noble men and women would now be common folk in the eyes of the government and the law, which they were earlier immune to. No longer were they lords with their own kingdoms. Now they were simply citizens of India with ancestors that had been royalty.
Given this historical background, my irritation with the current scenario may have become slightly clearer. Today, it’s almost as if the rescinding by the Constitution of their titles and lives of privilege has made them (and us) even more aware of their lineage and royalist mentality. The vestige of it was erased with Article 18 and the 26th Amendment but the social constructs and mindsets continue to exist and are only further perpetuated by the media.
There are still many ‘nawabs’, ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ that go to great lengths to marry within their circle of royalty, and as soon as the media gets wind of it our newsfeeds are filled with announcements, pictures and even speculations of the royal babies to come. Reshmi R Dasgupta puts it aptly when she points out that around the world quite a few members of continuing monarchies are marrying pretty much whoever they want, yet here, “From Orissa to Gujarat, Punjab to Mysore, Rampur to Arcot, India’s aristocrats strive to keep it royal.”
“For example, the current ‘Maharaja’ of Gwalior, Jyotiraditya Scindia married the doe-eyed Priyadarshini Raje of Baroda, while his sister Chitrangada Raje wed Vikramaditya Singh, the Yuvraj of Kashmir. When Jaipur’s Diya Kumari decided to marry a ‘commoner’, there was a mini tempest in the cloistered world of royal Rajputana,” she wrote for the Economic Times.
Whether it’s people’s beliefs and lust over the opulent lifestyles, slave mentality or just respect for these families’ ancestors, notions of nobility have continued to seep through societal perceptions of the Scindias, Pataudis and Singhs of the country.
It’s not about painting them all as villains. The ‘nobles’ play as much a role in this as do other people of the country, and some of them are truly wonderful. I was in school with the ‘yuvraj’ of Kashmir’s kids; the son (I’m certain that he nicked my favourite fountain pen once) was my batchmate and the daughter, my senior. Both were good people. Seeing them now assert these royal portraits is strange, mostly because I can’t help but compare it to the people I knew them as in school. Though the son did add ‘kash’ to his email address then (we still mocked it) I can only assume that these new positions are grooming for their family responsibilities and expectations. Who knows for sure, it has been almost 8 years since we graduated.
Many descendants of royals are using their positions to do some good for the people their family once ruled over too, while others have integrated themselves into society to the point where you’d never even guess their lineage. Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, in Gujarat, is one of them. He took a major step forward for the LGBTQ community when he publicly came out as gay. Popularly known as the ‘gay Prince’, he has since worked to promote equal rights and the work he’s doing with his charitable trusts, Lakshya and Free Gay India as commendable. Kirit Pradyot Deb Barman, the head of Tripura’s erstwhile royal family, referred to as ‘the everyman’s Maharaja’, is pretty much an all-rounder for the North East. He observes multiple roles as hotelier, social worker, politician and journalist. He was the Working President of the Tripura Pradesh Congress and has facilitated progress in prime sectors like health care, rural development and education as an active advocate for the people of the Northeast of India.
The only royalty, so to speak, the Indian law now recognises is the one we elect ourselves to serve us in government and entertainment industry, but that’s a discussion for another day. We need to seriously reel in the levels of celebrity we so easily prescribe to people and let go of the mentality of aristocracy that has no foundation in the sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic of India. So the next time you read of a royal wedding coming up in the tabloids, remind yourself this – princely states were integrated, titles do not exist anymore and they are the princess or nawab of nothing.
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