Obscured through history, the ‘eccentric’ political leanings of Junagadh

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A continuing identity of enduring royalty courtesy its erstwhile legacy, of a history that is unique and complicated, of influences residing in an individuality of their own, making an unheralded marker of the Indian state of Gujarat command unparalleled curiosity in its permeating layers of intriguing existence is the region of Junagadh. One of the best tourist destinations of one of the most popular Indian tourist regions of Gujarat, there however exists a facet or two of revelations about Junagadh that lends another dimension of interest to its expanse characterised otherwise by some of the most unique specimens of architecture as well as some equally exotic explorations of wildlife. Once a princely state under British India, the history of Junagadh has indeed been wayward, if not wholesomely unique, something that spells consequences for its political identity even in the present times.

Distinguished in being one of the 200 states of then Saurashtra that never came directly under the British colonial rule, Junagadh had been in existence since ancient times, with times extending as far as the 4th century BC when it was ruled by the Mauryan dynasty under Chandragupta Maurya. Over the course of the subsequent centuries, Junagadh came to be under the royal influence of numerous such powers, up until the time the Babi Dynasty founded the state of Junagadh and ruled over it for more than 200 years till its eventual integration with the independent land of India.

Beginning with Mohammad Sher Khan Babi who led to the foundation of the Junagadh state in 1730, the Babi Nawabs continued to assert their stronghold over the state, even while being a tributary to the Maratha Empire until it came under British suzerainty in 1807 under Mohammad Hamid Khanji I. But perhaps none of these Babi Nawabs came to be as known as the last de factor ruler of Junagadh Muhammad Mahabat Khan III, ruling over the state from 1911 to 1948, when he ultimately enacted a surprising but historic decision of pledging allegiance of his state to the newly formed Pakistan over the territory of India.

What drove this unforeseen desire of the Nawab to accede to Pakistan continues to be mired in numerous theories, but the consequence it had on the status of Junagarh as regards its polity sure is a matter of great intrigue. In what had been a decision mainly influenced by his dewan Shah Nawaz Bhutto and other Muslim League politicians from Sindh who joined Junagadh’s executive council, the state though was well on its way to be merged with the newly created nation of Pakistan if not for the displeasure of its overwhelming Hindu majority population and also the concerned efforts of the then Home Minister of India Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who incidentally hailed also from Gujarat. Specifically for a state that was separated from Pakistan by some 500 kilometers of Indian territory, the accession of Junagadh outside of India was therefore a political aberration and a physical anomaly all at once, the latter of which was attempted to tide over by the Nawab by arguing that the annexation happen over sea.

Even more interestingly, Junagadh’s desire to be a part of Pakistan was not met with the same enthusiasm by the latter, at least in evidence, as the newly formed nation accepted the Nawab’s Instrument of Accession on 16 September, exactly a month after the request had been made after India’s emergence as a free nation on 15th August, 1947. The reason behind this politically driven consent to accession also had its roots in another much contended area of interest between Indian and Pakistan. A Hindu majority state with a Muslim ruler, Junagadh was intended to be used as a counter by the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was awaiting a chance to respond with a similar but alternate claim over Kashmir, a Muslim majority state with a Hindu ruler at that time. Even then though, Jinnah’s decision could be regarded as contradiction of his own view that Muslims and Hindus could not live as one nation, perhaps one major factor that led to the creation of Pakistan as an independent nation.

The mandate that followed Jinnah’s acceptance of the proposal however went a long way in ensuring that Junagadh remained indeed within India, as much politically as it had been physically. Firstly, the announcement of the decision that was not pro India meant that the Indian government curtailed all trade relations with the state, leaving it reeling under a shortage of food and other essential commodities which led to the prevalence of a general situation of unrest. The decision was also met with rebellion by the people of Junagadh, leading to a group of Junagadhis under Samaldas Gandhi forming a government-in-exile, the Aarzi Hukumat (“temporary government”) with headquarters in Rajkot. With tensions simmering in the region and even outside in Bombay following the announcement, some twenty five to thirty thousand people gathered there in order to liberate Junagadh, firstly from the Nawab’s regime and thereafter from the accession to Pakistan. Such was the intensity of the opposition to the Nawab’s view that he was forced to flee to Karachi with his family and his Prime Minister Bhutto as well as 12 of the 2,000 pedigree dogs he owned as an obsessive canine lover, taking also reportedly the entire cash balance of the state and all the shares and securities in the Treasury along with him. Once in Karachi, the Nawab established a provisional government there even as Bhutto wrote to Aaarzi Hukumat leader Gandhi to take over Junagadh.

Even prior to the acceptance of the desire to accede, the proclamation of the decision by the Nawab itself triggered unrest as the principality of Babariawad and Sheikh of Mangrol reacted by claiming independence from Junagadh and accession to India, following which the nawab’s forces militarily occupied the two states. Even the then rulers of other neighbouring states reacted by sending their troops to the Junagadh frontier, and appealed to the government of India for assistance. However, it was another protectorate Bantva Manavadar, that had announced its accession to Pakistan along the same time as Junagadh, that had complicated matters for the Indian administration. Eventually, as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel ordered the forcible annexation of Junagadh’s three principalities fearing the alleviation of communal tensions owing to its submission to Pakistan, the state government was left with no option but to invite the Government of India to take control, in the face of a looming financial collapse as well as an inability to counter the Indian forces. Finally in February the year after India attained independence, the country annexed Junagadh in conformity with a referendum of the people, an overwhelming 99.95% of which chose not to go with Pakistan, or an appalling 91 individuals in favour of going with the newly formed nation against the resounding 1,90,870 majority for India. In thus being a part of India despite initial efforts to the contrary, though not in conformity with the popular mandate, Junagadh managed to throw up to a newly independent India one of her numerous trysts with the clash of the polities, the other most notable linkings being the still contended region of Kashmir and Hyderabad. But what renders this erstwhile princely state more unique a task in eventual annexation into the Indian territory is the means by which it came to be integrated into the mainstream Indian existence, through crises and contemplations that had always carried the Indian sentiment at the heart of it.


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