By the end of the 2nd World War, Britain was in a deep financial crisis. The Labour government under Clement Attlee that came to power in 1946, sent a Cabinet Mission to India, to discuss with the Viceroy Lord Wavell and Indian leaders about India’s independence. However, the Mission practically failed as no agreement could be reached among the political parties. As Britain’s withdrawal from subcontinent became imminent after the 2nd World War, British Prime Minister Sir Clement Attlee made a declaration in the House of Commons on 20th February 1947. He stated that by June 1948 Britain would transfer power to a “responsible” Indian government, elected under a constitution that would be drafted by a Constituent Assembly.
But the fate of Princely States remained uncertain. Their relations with British India were governed by various treaties signed over a century. A common factor was that all Princely States would accept that the (British) Government of India would have “paramount” powers in their State. Effectively, while the States could have their own laws, succession rules for their rulers, and even their own armies and currencies, the Government of India had the power to intervene in the state through British “Residents” (or “Agents”) of the state.
In the middle of all this, on 3rd June 1947, Britain unveiled the Mountbatten Plan, according to which, the princely states were provided with the choice of joining either India or Pakistan on the basis of geographical proximity and the choice of the people.
It was further declared that power would in fact be transferred on 15 August 1947– a mere two months later even though the British had time till June 1948. Since a constitution would not be ready in two months, this meant that Britain would be handing over power not to an elected government under an adopted constitution, but to an interim government while the Constitution was being prepared.
All these rapid developments threw the rulers of Princely States into total confusion. What would happen to their states when the British left? Would they be compelled to join India or Pakistan? Could they proclaim their independence from both? What would happen to their state’s army, laws, and police? What would happen to their own personal wealth, family, and dynasty? Would they first have to deal with an interim government, and later, with a government elected under a new Constitution which was yet to be drafted and adopted?
The Princely States that existed within the boundaries of India for centuries posed differing challenges when India became independent, and the protection offered to them by the British lapsed with the end of Paramountcy. They were required to choose between the two new dominions India and Pakistan, or technically opt for autonomy.