Many of us often take a lot of our heritage for granted, especially if they are live buildings and ensembles like those in Lutyen’s Delhi – the tiered wedding-cake like Parliament house being no exception. However, stories and events, trivia and little known factoids about this extraordinary heritage architectural ensemble bang in the middle of New Delhi abound and are legion. In this article, Vikramjit Singh Rooprai acquaints us with yet another little known facet of the building that houses the Indian Parliament …
Almost all of us are indeed aware that our Parliament is bi-cameral and comprises of two houses, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The design of the heritage building that is home to these two houses of our Parliament, though, shows the existence of four halls instead of two – there are three halls on the sides with a fourth one positioned right at the centre of the circular building, the central hall, which today is used for joint sessions of both the upper and lower houses. Digging deep into this, we find that originally, the Indian Parliament – or Council House as it was then termed as, had not 2 but 3 houses – the State Council, the Central Legislative Assembly, and … the Chamber of Princes.
The States Council originally had 60 members when it was set up in 1919. The Viceroy or the Governor General of India was its Ex Officio President. In 1937, the size was increased to 260 members and in 1947, it was dissolved to be later taken over by Constituent Assemblies of India and Pakistan respectively. Today, this upper house is known as the Rajya Sabha.
The Central Legislative Assembly, or the lower house, originally had 145 members representing different provinces of India. Out of these, 103 were elected and the rest nominated by the upper house. Out of these 103, 51 came from general constituencies (30 by Muslims, 2 by Sikhs, 9 by Europeans, 7 by Landlords and the rest by businessmen). This Assembly was abolished on the 15th of August 1947 and until 1952, as India was on its path to becoming a Republic, the Legislative Assembly was renamed as the ‘Lok Sabha’ to become functional under the new Constitution of India. Its members are sometimes still known as MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly).
Then came this third house, the one that was also abolished in 1947. While the Council of States and the Legislative Assembly merged into the Constituent Assembly and later re-merged as the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha respectively, this one house had no representation left in the new independent system of the Republic of India. Therefore, on the 15th of August 1947, even as India was divided and partitioned into the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan – this one powerful house was abolished and history seems to have forgotten it as well. This house was the ‘Chamber of Princes,’ or the ‘Narendra Mandal’. It was established in 1920 by royal fiat – a proclamation by King Emperor George V, so that the princely states of India can have their say in the administration of the dominion and be able top voice their needs to the British crown. This abolition was one of the most important decisions taken, as it did away with the British policy of isolating Indian princely states from each other.
When initially this House first met on the 8th of February 1921, it had all of 120 members. 108 of these represented major states, and hence members in their own right. The remaining 12 were elected to represent 127 smaller states, which left 327 minor states with no representation. Also, major states like Baroda, Gwalior and Holkar refused to join in. They met only once a year, with an appointed standing committee meeting more often. The house had a Chancellor as head of the house. The first chancellor was Major General HH Sir Ganga Singh – Maharaja of Bikaner – who presided over the house from 1921-1926. His successors were Adhiraj Major General HH Sir Bhupinder Singh – Maharaja of Patiala (1926-1931), Colonel HH Sir K. S. Ranjitsinhji – Maharaja of Nawanagar (1931-1933), Colonel HH Sir K. S. Digvijaysinhji – Maharaja of Nawanagar (1933-1944), Hajji Major General HH Sir Hamidullah Khan – Nawab of Bhopal (1944-1947).
In 1940, as discussion and debates on Indian Independence was gathering heat and gaining momentum, the Chamber of Princes, feeling this scorching heat, convened in the month of March. On 12th of the month, they resolved that:
“The Chamber of Princes, while welcoming the attainment by India of its due place among the Dominions of the British Commonwealth under the British Crown, records its emphatic and firm view that, in any future constitution for India, the essential guarantees and safeguards for the preservation of the sovereignty and autonomy of the States and for the protection of their rights and interests arising from treaties, and engagements and sanads or otherwise, should be effectively provided and that any unit should not be placed in a position to dominate the others or to interfere with the rights and safeguards guaranteed to them, and that all parties must be ensured their due share and fair play; And that, in any negotiations for formulating a constitution for India, whether independently of the Government of India Act 1935, or by revision of that Act, representatives of the States and of this Chamber should have a voice proportionate to their importance and historical position.”
Despite this resolution, the chamber was dissolved and never revoked. Instead, the princely states were annexed into the Dominion of India and Dominion of Pakistan one after another, and the hall dedicated for the Chamber of Princes was later converted into the Parliament Library. A Privy Purse was established, as a compensation. The Privy Purse was a payment made to the royal families of erstwhile princely states after they agreed to merge their states/kingdoms with India, losing all rights to rule. In 1947, the states were required to sign the instrument of accession with India and cede defence, communication and foreign relations to India. Later, in 1949, most of these states were completely merged. The amount of the privy purse was determined by several factors, including the revenue of state, gun salute enjoyed during British Raj and antiquity of dynasty etc. While the smaller states were given a privy purse allowance as low as Rupees 5,000 per annum, states like Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Baroda, Jaipur and Patiala received a privy purse above Rupees 10,00,000. 102 privy purses were between 1-2 lakh rupees. The Government of India kept reducing the privy purses with every succession in the families.
When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi abolished the Privy Purse in 1971, rulers of erstwhile states decided to contest elections, hoping that their subjects would elect them into parliament where they can voice their needs properly. However, most of them were left red faced after shameful defeats with huge margins. Popular rulers like Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi could earn only 5% of total votes in 2-way contests. Finally, the Privy Purses came to an end. Many a nawabs or Kings did become more active in politics, while others went on to start their businesses.