Hill States Under Colonial Power – Political and Administrative History

24th December 2019 By Sarla Publications


By the middle of the 19th century, the British government had established treaty relations with most of the Princely States in India. Under British Paramountcy, the internal administration of the States was left to the Princes. British residencies were established as channels for communication with the British government. In theory, the rulers had absolute power but in practice, they were subject to the dictates of the British Resident and dependent on the British government for internal and external protection. Succession policies in the States were also laid down by the Resident.

Conditions in Princely States

Most of the Princely States were autocratically ruled. The economic burden on the people was heavy with high taxation. Education, communication, health services and social services were negligible and civil rights were restricted. State revenues were expanded on the luxurious life-styles of the rulers and since the British provided immunity from domestic and external aggression, they felt free to ignore the interests of the people. The British government expected the States to support them in their imperialist policies, thereby acting against the development of nationalist sentiments.

The people under the British provinces were given some political rights and participation in the administration after the Acts of 1919 and 1935. The people under the Princely States did not have equal rights enjoyed by the British Provinces. Most of the Princes were hostile and suspicious towards the nationalist forces.

By and large the Indian states were survivors of the former dynasties and powers, which in one way or other continued to prolong their existence after the collapse of the Mughul Empire and the European power’s struggle for political supremacy in India ended in favour of British. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, British supremacy had been consolidated over the major portion of India and by 1818 there was no power except Sind and the empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Punjab which could claim independence.

British Dominance

With the extinction of the Sikh Kingdom after the Second Sikh War (1848-49) all state territory in India was under British rule. The forty years of British rule from 1818-1858 witnessed the growth and establishment of the imperial idea. The Indian states lost the character of independence , not through any epoch-making declaration of British Sovereignty, but by a gradual change in the policy of the British Government. Lord Reading, in his letter dated 27th March 1926, stressed that, “no ruler of an Indian state can justifiably claim to negotiate with the British Government on an equal footing."

This raised an alarm among the princes and there was a clamour for definition of the exact-relationship between the Crown and the states.The Indian States Committee was appointed and it clinched the issue of Paramountcy in 1929. The committee reported, that “Paramountcy must remain paramount, it must fulfill its obligation by defining and adapting itself according to the shifting necessities of the time and the progressive development of the States."

Nominal Powers of Princely States

The British Paramount Power always kept before the princes the mirage of independence, but actually they enjoyed only as much independence as was allowed to them by the British. There were about six hundred native states in India, spread over the length and breadth of the country. Most of the Simla Hill States were little more than small holdings and whose rulers were rulers only in name. The British Paramount Power treated them as feudatory or subordinate states. No state had either the power or the right to defy the paramount power. If at all the sovereignty of the prince had any meaning, it was in relation to his own subjects. He could not approach his counterpart, the ruling prince of another state, independently and directly. He could do so only through the ‘Super Prince’ the officer of the Political Department of the Government of India. Regarding accession to the gaddi or assumption of full powers, the Political Department had the final say. It was under the umbrella of British protection that all these small and big princes walked with all their grandeur and dignity.


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Umbrella Protection

The duty of the paramount power to protect the states against rebellion or insurrection was derived from the clauses of treaties and “Sanads”, from usage and from the promise of the King Emperor to maintain the privileges, rights and dignities of the princes. But it was not merely in discharge of moral duty of keeping the word of the Paramount Power or following the terms of the “Sanads” and treaties that these states were kept intact. The rulers of the native states were loyal to their connections. Their affection and loyalty were important assets for Britain in turbulent days. The states were like a vast network of friendly fortresses.

States were doing great service to the British Power. They were maintaining well-equipped armies ready for use by the Paramount Power, supplying recruits in times of war and saving vast areas of the country from radical political movements and seditious anti-British propaganda. The attachment of the princes to the throne and to the empire was indeed one of the most encouraging features for the rulers in the prevailing situation of India. In combination with their material resources and their political influence, this arrangement introduced a much-needed element of stability into the politics of the country.

Pampared and Protected

Princes were pampered and protected. Under British protection, the princes enjoyed security not only against warring chieftains but also against their own subjects. Over their subjects they were bestowed with unbridled power and authority. They had full control over their life and property. Life in the states was all luxury for the princees, his courtiers, foreign or Indian guests, but the lives of the subjects were miserable.

The life of the hill people under petty chieftains was worse. The rulers of the small principalities had neither the intentions nor the resources to do anything for development. All land belonged to the Raja and in exercise of this prerogative he kept the best land for himself. His family, relations and the feudal aristocracy got the next best choice. The ordinary folk had only the marginal land or no land.

Begar’ and ‘Beth’ System

The revenue system was harsh towards the tillers of land ‘Beth’ system of land tenure was prevalent. It worked to the disadvantage of ‘Bethu’ who cultivated the ‘Basa’ lands. As the income from the revenue was never considered sufficient to live the life of indulgence or to maintain the status and prestige of the “gaddi” (Throne), other means of money raising were devised. Such levies were imposed arbitrarily and collected ruthlessly. ‘Begar’, the practice or rendering services gratis of various types, existed. The burden of ‘Begar’ system fell mainly on low caste people. Brahamans and certain categories of Rajputs were exempted from ‘Begar’ and rich ‘Bania’ families secured commutation of ‘Begar’ into cash.

Not only the system of ‘Begar’ put the hillmen in the jaws of physical exploitation, the caste system also regulated their place in the society. It influenced their attitudes and beliefs. It aimed to engender in the men of low caste a feeling of awe, reverence for the higher caste men. It stamped their personality with inferiority. Caste system provided for the elaborate and complex system of division of labour on the basis of man’s birth and ancestral profession.


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Overall Backwardness

Poverty, educational backwardness, difficult means of communication and transport, authoritarian and traditional social structure not only delayed the growth of political consciousness amongst the hillmen, but also their common cultural and linguistic heritage which could bind them together in a larger and common identity. These factors, however, could not prevent the growth of such a feeling for ever. The winds of change blowing in other parts of India had their impact on the hill people of these areas and the breeze of social and political awakening began to fan the feelings of togetherness amongst them by the third decade of the twentieth century. They could not remain unaffected by the dynamic changes that were taking place in the political and constitutional life of British India. Whereas certain important changes came about in British India which ultimately led to the birth of a middle class soaked in western liberal tradition and having a keenly scientific outlook, the states remained socially and politically backward entities. But still they were bound to accept influences from British India. The growth of the freedom movement particularly affected them.

Urge for Freedom

The urge for freedom among the people of Himachal Pradesh and growth of political awareness among the intelligentia maybe attributed to a series of progressive steps taken by the British Government in the Indian Provinces, more particularly the Government of India Act, 1919 and Act, of 1935. Besides these steps the Praja Mandal Movement in the erstwhile states of Himachal Pradesh (1937-1948) and shift in the principalities from 1939 onwards did also contribute to the formation of Himachal Pradesh in 1948.

Slow Political Growth

The process of political growth in the erstwhile states of Himachal Pradesh was rather slow. This may be attributed to two factors: variation in the duration of the British rule and attitudinal behaviour of the feudal lords, the Rajas and Ranas. The erstwhile states of Himachal Pradesh came in contact with the British rulers in the nineteenth century as late as 1815. Again, the British Indian provinces were granted a measure of responsible government under the Government of India Act, 1919, it was not until 1937 that the modern ideas of liberty and political equality had touched a small number of intelligentsia in this Pradesh. The feudal lords, the Rajas and Ranas remained wedded to the age-old tradition of authoritarian dynastic rule and emphasised the preservation of traditional values and customs. However, the progressive changes in the formal structure of Government in the British Indian Provinces could not but produce their effect, even though mild, in the neighbouring states.

All India States People’s Conference

Political interest among the educated elite fanned the nationalist aspirations and gradually led to a substantial erosion of old values and institutions. The Indian National Congress took note of such developments by calling upon the princes, for the first time in 1920, to grant their people responsible government. The appointment of the Indian States Committee on December 16, 1927 spurred the leading workers in the cause of States’ people to form an All India Body to provide guidance to various Praja Mandals in the Native States and to coordinate their activities. The first All India States People’s Conference was convened on December 17, 1927 in Bombay, however, no delegate from the Hill States attended the session. The objectives of the All India States People’s Conference was to influence the States as a whole to initiate the necessary reforms in the administration by the force of collective opinion of the people of the States. It worked for the democratisation and liberalisation of the state’s administration.


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Change in Congress Attitude

The emergence of All India States People’s Conference and the Praja Mandal’s and development of freedom movement in the states resulted in the ever increasing identification of the Indian National Congress with the state’s people. The Congress which had hitherto watched rather passively political development in the native states modified its policy of “non-interference in the state administration” so as to permit the participation of the Congress by means of advice and guidance in the freedom struggle in the native states. There were movements for the integration of the Princely Hill States on the one hand, and also for the preservation of the separate identity of each hill state.

British Parliament passed the Government of India Act in 1935, the idea of “All India Federation” got prominence amongst the rulers of Punjab States Agency and Simla Hill States Agency. Viceroy Linlithgow wrote a letter to the rulers impressing upon them the need of joining Federation. It was pointed out that the highest interests of princely states is in accession to the Federation.

The Instrument of Accesion was as under:

1. Prevention of acquisition by any Federal authority of any property in the state without Ruler’s consent.

2. Federal officers acting within the state not to enjoy any special privilege or position, but to be subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the state.

3. The prevention of discrimination against the state in favour of any other unit of the Federation in the levying of any tax, duty or contribution, by any Federal Authority.

4. Maintenance by the Crown of the immunities, privileges, dignities and rights of the ruler.

5. The prevention of direct taxation in the state by the Federal authorities.

6. Non-enhancement of contributions at present being made by the state. 

7. Exclusion of the power of the Federal Legislature to make laws for the state except to the extent permitted by the instrument of Accession

Regarding Schedule Containing a list of Federal Subjects:

1. The retention by the State of the right to act upon agreements with any other State with respect to extradition or external affairs-in conformity with present practice.

2. The exclusion of places of public worship or places meant for the use of the ruler or his family from archaeological sites etc.

3. Preservation of the right of the state to make its own laws with respect to use, possession or import of arms and ammunition within the State.

4. Preservation of the rights of the state in respect of cultivation, manufacture and sale of opium, to regulate industrial and mineral development within the state and to levy duties of excise on tobacoo and other goods manufactured in the State.

5. The exclusion of the power of any Federal authority to levy corporation tax, income tax, taxes on the capital of companies or on the capital values of assets and duties on succession to property within the state.

6. Preservation of the powers of the state courts.

The Instrument of Accession between the Special Representative of the Viceroy and the “Rajas” and “Ranas” of Simla Hill States was held on the 25th January, 1937 at Simla. The Special Representative after the discussions wrote to the Political Secretary to the Government of India:

Almost all the Rulers expressed their opinion in favour of federation. The Britishers also encouraged the Rulers to join the federation through the Instrument of Accession.

Acceptance of Federal Scheme

The states secured a privileged position in the federal scheme and considerable weightage in the federal legislature, yet they demanded all sorts of additional concessions especially in the matter of paramountcy and the preservation of their internal sovereignty, which the British Government was not prepared to grant.

The requisite number of states had not given their consent to accede to the federation. All attempts made by the Viceroy to persuade them to enter the federation failed, and before further steps could be taken to bring them around, the Second World War broke out, which led to the suspension of the all-India federal scheme for the time being, but later on, in consequence of the war, the idea of an all-India Federation was abandoned.

Though the scheme of All India Federation failed, yet the fight for liberty, equality and restoration of responsible government continued in the hill states. Even, when the negotiations between the rulers of hill states and Special Representative of the Viceroy on the question of ceding to federation were in progress, the activists of Praja Mandals were engaged in the political awakening of the masses with fruitful results. The princes were not unaware of the dangers posed to the existence of their entire order by the development of political consciousness amongst their people.


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The need of Indian Federation

The need for toning up the administration and the “adoption by specific enactments of code of law, in British India" was stressed. The princes of the hill state did nothing in translating these ideals into reality, and the administrative set-up remained personal and autocratic. Thus, the area of civil-right remained narrow and restricted. There was a feeling that the awakening of state’s public might take a violent turn, and police arrangements in small states would be inadequate to cope with such an eventuality. Therefore political Department of the Government of India formulated “Co-operative Grouping and Attachment Schemes.” Another factor for forming of this scheme was that the Indian States were likely to join the ‘Indian Federation’. It would have been difficult to provide for the representation of the tiny states unless they were grouped together to form bigger units. “ Also the reluctance on the part of democratically elected governments, which had assumed control of the administration in British provinces in 1939, caused the British to render assistance to the princes in curbing the activities of politically awakened people in their states. The hope was that through “Cooperative Grouping Scheme” and the introduction of reforms in the administration of states might be facilitated, and the people of the states might get some satisfaction. A General Council of the rulers of Shimla was formed, and an Executive Committee constituted with Raja of Baghat (Solan) as its chairman.

Necessity of Political Organisation

The political development that were taking place in British India spurred the hill people to organise themselves into a single political organisation, to protect their rights and coordinate their activities for democratisation in their princely states. By 1945 a network of Praja Mandals had been set up in the Hill States of Himachal Pradesh. The All India State’s People Conference was set up.

At the Udaipur session of the All India State’s People Conference the Himalayan Hill States Regional Council was set up. Under its auspices, a conference was held at Mandi on March 10, 1946. The conference demanded the establishment of responsible government, guarantee of fundamental rights, abolition of “Begar” and unjust taxes, removal of restrictions on the functioning of political organisation in some hill state; unconditional release of political prisoners, restoration of confiscated properties, and end of their political exile to their states.

Reactionary Attitudes of Hill Rajas

These demands could hardly find favour with the rulers and rather they saw them as a revolt against their thrones. Protagonists and upholders of the movement were harassed, hounded, punished and victimised. Dynamic democratic ideas had percolated into the Shimla Hills and created a tremendous stir. In some of the states the resistance to the democratic movement was systematic and serious.

The Praja Mandalist were not permitted to thrive. They were thrown into prison or were forced to leave the state. They encountered strong resistance from reactionary rulers, who took stringent measures to crush the rising spirit of the masses. False cases, imprisonment, forfeiture of property, beating and humiliation were all that the workers were subjected to.

The reign of terror were used against the political workers. Organised raids were carried on the houses of innocent people and. All sorts of methods were applied to dissuade the masses from joining the Praja Mandal movement. After India got independence, it inspired the people of the erstwhile states of Himachal Pradesh to have similar freedom and democratisation of administration. This set in motion a process of conflict between Praja Mandal workers and the rulers. While the former organised agitations against the authoritarian rule in the states, the latter began to think to terms of confederation to meet their challenge. The democratic movement erupted in states bordering the neighbouring British Indian Provinces of the Punjab (viz. Arki, Bilaspur, Chamba, Dhami, Mandi, Mehlog, Suket and Sirmaur) which provided a base, a training ground and a refuge when the ruler reacted too strongly.

The bigger princely states were initially able to cope with the popular movement. The smaller states were handicapped to maintain law and order with limited resources. The freedom movement spread everywhere leaping across one state after another.