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Foreign News: The Raj Does Not Forget

3 minute read

Old men in caravansaries puffed at their hookahs and wagged a knowing finger. Richly garbed palace servants chattered in the courtyards. In Bombay’s Willingdon Club the smart set gushed about it over chotapeg. The talk even slid through the lacelike alabaster screens in the harems. In the midst of internal revolution, with a Japanese invasion threatened, His Highness the Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Sawai Shree Yeshwant Rao Holkar Bahadur (“Junior” to American friends) had abdicated.

One of the richest men in the world and one of the most progressive of India’s 562 princely rulers, the young (34) Maharaja (19 guns) flew from his province of Indore to Karachi en route to the U.S. He left to visit his sick wife and because of his own “grave reasons of health,” the British Raj contended. But Indians put two and two together:

There was no precedent for the appointment of a neighboring prince (15 guns) as ruler pro tempore. The Maharaja had tears in his eyes when he bid his subjects goodby. His relations with the British had been strained, particularly since he announced (TIME, Sept. 14) that “isolation of the Indian states is now a thing of the past, and I hope they will associate themselves more directly with national aspirations.”

A tip-off that a break was coming occurred in August: the Maharaja announced a new constitution that would abolish the burden of debt on his peasantry. He invited foreign friends to a durbar to celebrate. They found the Maharaja held virtually incommunicado by his ministers. Hundreds of village chieftains waited patiently for him. So did huge ceremonial elephants, with painted toenails and hats like those of Dumbo’s mother. When the Maharaja finally showed up, his Magna Charta looked greatly altered. His ministers looked smug.

One of Junior’s remote ancestors used to potshoot Brahmans to relieve an inferiority complex because he himself was born in a lower caste. His grandfather was a horse-racing hellion. His father was forced to abdicate after a scandal with the dancing girl Mumtaz Begum, but later settled down with his third wife, the sari-wearing Nancy Miller, Seattle sorority girl. Junior also married an American girl, the former Mrs. Margaret Lawler Branyen, after his first wife died. She is now ill in Santa Barbara. With his wives Junior carried on rural uplift work which gave the Untouchables in his province one of the few rays of hope they have seen in India. He banned child marriage, sponsored educational reform. His palace had air conditioning, western plumbing, a telephone exchange. His hunting parties were lavish and invariably successful (two crack native shots always fired at a tiger when a guest did). Ablest ruler of his line, Junior nevertheless forgot that ever since the British East India Co. set up the princely states * there has been an unwritten law that princes must be seen and not heard.

* Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once explained to his daughter: “[Sir Warren] Hastings started the policy of having puppet Indian princes under British control. So we have to thank him partly for the crowds of gilded and empty-headed maharajas and nawabs who strut about the Indian scene and make a nuisance of themselves.”

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