The Revolt of 1857 led the British to reverse their policy towards the Indian States. Before 1857, they had availed themselves of every opportunity to annex princely states.
This policy was now abandoned. Most of the Indian princes had not only remained loyal to the British but had actively aided the latter in suppressing the Revolt.
As Lord Canning, the Viceroy, put it, they had acted as “breakwaters in the storm”. Their loyalty was now rewarded with the announcement that their right to adopt heirs would be respected and the integrity of their territories guaranteed against future annexation.
Moreover, the experience of the Revolt had convinced the British authorities that the princely states could serve as useful allies and supporters in case of popular opposition or revolt. Canning wrote in 1860:
It was long ago said by Sir John Malcolm that if we made All India into Zillahs (districts), it was not in the nature of things that our Empire should last 50 years: but that if we could keep up a number of Native States without political power, but as royal instruments, we should exist in India as long as our naval supremacy was maintained.
Of the substantial truth of this opinion I have no doubt; and the recent events have made it more deserving of our attention than ever.
It was, therefore, decided to use the princely states as firm props of British rule in India. As the British historian PE. Roberts remarked: “to preserve them as a bulwark of the empire has ever since been a principle of British policy.”
Their perpetuation was, however, only one aspect of the British policy towards the princely states. The other was their complete subordination to the British authorities.
While even before the Revolt of 1857 the British had in practice interfered in the internal affairs of these states, in theory they had been considered as subsidiary but sovereign powers.
This position was now entirely changed. As the price of their continued existence, the princes were made to acknowledge Britain as the paramount power.
In 1876, Queen Victoria assumed the title of the Empress of India to emphasis British sovereignty over the entire Indian subcontinent.
Lord Curzon later made it clear that the princes ruled their states merely as agents of the British Crown. The princes accepted this subordinate position and willingly became junior partners in the empire because they were assured of their continued existence as rulers of their states.
As the paramount power, the British claimed the right to supervise the internal government of the princely states. They not only interfered in the day-to-day administration through the Residents but insisted on appointing and dismissing ministers and other high officials.
Sometimes the rulers themselves were removed or deprived of their powers. One motive for such interference as provided by the British was their desire to give these states a modern administration so that their integration with British India would be complete.
This integration and the consequent interference were also encouraged by the development of all-India railways, postal and telegraph systems, currency, and a common economic life.
Another motive for interferon was provided by the growth of popular democratic and nationalist movements in many of the states.
On the one hand, the British authorities helped the rulers suppress these movements; on the other, they tried to eliminate the most serious of administrative abuses in these states.