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Not Their Land: A Lesson In Raj Chicanery

In this excerpt from his new book, Manu S. Pillai recounts how the British, through deceit and ill will, tried to unseat the ruler of Baroda. When their plot was picked apart by the maharaja’s British lawyer, they fell back on outright racism to have their way.

Not Their Land: A Lesson In Raj Chicanery
The Adversaries

On the morning of November 9, 1874, an Englishman called Robert Phayre suddenly felt an attack of nausea in princely Baroda. The middle-aged Colonel Phayre was British Resident at the Maratha court here and had been somewhat under the weather for several days prior. That morning, though, was different. He had, as usual, returned from his walk and taken a few sips of the pummelo sherbet his servants always kept ready. Sitting down to write a letter, however, a ‘sudden squeamishness’ possessed him. Deciding it was the juice, he threw out the rest, only to notice something odd. ‘As I was replacing the tumbler on the washhand stand,’ Phayre recalled, ‘I saw a dark sediment collected at the bottom.’ Holding it closer to the eye, ‘the thought occurred at once to my mind that it was poison’. He sent off the substance for analysis, and telegrammed his superiors: ‘Bold attempt to poison me this day has been providentially frustrated.’ Interestin­gly, despite the gravity of the claim, when the local maharajah came to see him hours later, the Resident kept mum; it was days before the incident was broached, news having reached the palace through other channels. In his official commiseration, the ruler expressed horror at this plot by ‘some bad man’ to liquidate the Resident. ‘If it becomes necessary for you to obtain my assistance in proving the criminal’s guilt,’ the maharajah offered, ‘the same will be given.’

Unfortunately for Malhar Rao Gaekwad of Baroda (1831–82), in Phayre’s mind the ‘criminal’ was none other than the maharajah himself. Ever since his arrival in the principality, the colonel had found himself unable to get along with its ruler. Neither was, to be fair, a particularly placatory type. Described as an ‘overbearing, irascible British official . . . dreaded and detested by all Indians’, Phayre had left his last posting in a muddle. The maharajah, meanwhile, was textbook dubious. A little over a decade ago, when his brother sat on the throne, he was locked up for conspiring to murder him. His sibling’s death, however, res­tored Malhar Rao to liberty, and succeeding to power, he showed ‘a most sweeping and vindictive character’. The minister who had investigated the murder conspiracy, for example, was left to rot in prison, where he died mysteriously. So, too, Malhar Rao developed a habit of seizing women he liked and forcing them into palace service: as The Hitechhu reported, girls were ‘taken like pigeons’ and subjected to ‘filthy violations’. Then there was the matter of his newest wife, ‘Luxmeebaee’, who was first the ruler’s mistress, marrying him while alre­ady pregnant; when the maharajah expressed a desire to proclaim his son by her as heir, Phayre demurred. Furious, Malhar Rao apparently issued orders that anybody who did not refer to his wife as the ‘Chotee Rani’ (junior queen) was liable for a fine of fifteen rupees. Baroda was a case study in what the British deemed misgovernment. Residents ventured the occasional menacing ‘advice’ but wrote much of this off as typical oriental conduct.

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