But the Indian Supreme Court on Thursday closed the history books on the country's 545 princely families. The court rebuffed a challenge to the constitution by a feisty, 88-year-old nobleman from Rajasthan, the former Prince Kurundwad. The erstwhile maharaja fought a long legal battle to abolish an amendment in 1971 by the late Indira Gandhi, which stripped the aristocracy of their privy purses and privileges.
Speaking for the bench, the Chief Justice, L M Sharma, said: 'The distinction between the erstwhile rulers and the citizenry of India has to be ended so as to have a common brotherhood.' He added: 'In a country like ours, with so many disruptive forces of regionalism and communalism, it is necessary to emphasise that the unity and integrity of India can
be preserved only by a spirit of brotherhood.'
Many government officials were relieved by the verdict. At a time when India is shaken by religious violence, restoring the authority, even symbolically, of the old Hindu and Muslim rulers would undoubtedly increase the unrest, officials said.
Many members of Indian royalty complain that all their anni since the late Mrs Gandhi seized their purses have been horribiles. Lawyers representing the Indian princes had been demanding compensation of pounds 22m. An elderly princess said: 'Many of the princes died of shock after 1971. They had no business training, and whoever thought they would be dispossessed?' Now this maharani lives at an ashram, meditating on the illusory nature of life.
A menagerie of maharajas and nawabs ruled nearly half of India before independence in 1947. They turned over their kingdoms, some as large as France, others a few paltry acres, with guarantees from Lord Mountbatten that they could keep their wealth and privileges. But over the years their status and treasures were chiselled away. As prime minister, Mrs Gandhi envied the power that the princes had over their subjects. A socialist, she wagered that in a country with so many poor it would be a popular move to humble the royals. She was correct.
Privately, few Indian noblemen thought that the Supreme Court would reverse Mrs Gandhi's amendment. The Nawab of Pataudi, who captained the Indian cricket team in the 1960s and who now models clothes for mature men, said: 'None of us want to go back to the old days. But what Mrs Gandhi did to us was extremely unfair. It could've been carried out with a bit more finesse.'
The fortunes of the princes vary wildly. Some, such as Madhavrao Scindia, whose father was the maharaja of Gwalior, are among the world's richest men. Other princes have retreated into the armed services or politics. Some princely politicians, even left- wingers such as the former prime minister, V P Singh, seldom correct anyone who calls them by their old title, even though Mrs Gandhi banned their use.