Debauchery, disloyalty, and other deficiencies: the impact of ideas of princely character upon indirect rule in central India, c.1886-1946

Fiona Elizabeth Groenhout

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines a series of episodes in the history of indirect rule that resulted in rulers being deposed or otherwise removed from power. It does so from the conviction that such episodes provide a valuable opportunity to explore the conceptions of princely character held and articulated by British officials, and to assess to what extent such conceptions informed British expectations of the princes, and thus shaped the daily and local practice of indirect rule in colonial India. The study is intended to contribute to the growing body of work on the history of the princely states, a subject that until recently was considered marginal to understanding colonial South Asia, but whose importance is increasingly being recognised. Its geographical focus – the states of the Central India Agency – attempts to redress the comparative neglect of this region to date; it also seeks to achieve a balance between the relative merits and shortcomings of single-state and 'all-India' studies, by allowing for intensive analysis of an interconnected group of rulers and officials, whilst maintaining a sufficiently diverse sample of situations and individuals to enable broader conclusions to be suggested. Moreover, the approach adopted firmly locates this thesis within the emerging study of the cultural history of empire: the rulers of the princely states occupied a position within the colonial hierarchies of class, race and gender that was uniquely liminal within India and rare elsewhere. They failed to fit neatly any of the pre-ordained categories of colonial society – and consequently had the potential to disrupt the conventions of deference, distance and difference on which such a society was based. Analysis of how the British attempted to characterise the princes, therefore, should complement existing analyses of the operation of such important concepts as race, masculinity, sexuality, sanity, class and tradition in colonial India. This study argues that British ideas and ideals of princely character were neither fixed nor hegemonic: conflict over the meaning and significance of a ruler's conduct regularly arose between the many levels of the imperial bureaucracy. There was not a single, consistent and explicitly defined normative discourse of princely conduct: officials' expectations of rulers shifted over time in response to the changing outlook and interests of the British in India, as well as varying across the significant differences of faith, race, region and status that they perceived to divide the princely order. Furthermore, rulers themselves – whether through negotiation, evasion or contestation – played a significant role in the constant redefinition of such ideas. However, British officials' conceptions and representations of princely character were not wholly constitutive of their power over the princes and their states. Although assessments of a ruler's character as inadequate, even incurably deviant, could be advanced as justification for intervening in a state, the impact of such ideas upon the actual practice of indirect rule was substantially qualified by an array of other considerations. Orientalist conceptions of princely character may have been highly influential in shaping the conduct of 'political relations', but they were often ignored or abandoned by officials when the dividends of a more pragmatic approach to the princes were thought to be higher.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2007


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