Maharajas do battle to restore their honour: India's noblemen hope to regain some of the wealth and privilege stripped from them 20 years ago, writes Tim McGirk in Jodhpur

MORE than 20 years after Indira Gandhi stripped India's maharajas of their titles, their privy purses, their free first-class train tickets and their 13-gun salutes, a petition has been winding its way through the courts that may restore these noblemen's lost prestige and a fraction of their wealth.

While most of India's princely families reacted with numbed shock to Gandhi's decision in 1972 to abolish their privileges, the raja of Kurundwad, who rules a warrior clan in the rocky crags and deserts of Rajasthan, fought back. Claiming that the prime minister had violated constitutional guarantees to the princes, he filed a suit, challenging this. The raja, now 88, has waited a long time, but the Supreme Court is expected to deliver a verdict this month.

The Maharaja of Jodhpur, whose curled, long sideburns resemble those in Rajasthan miniatures of his ancestors shooting at tigers, said: 'Nobody thought this case would ever come through in the Kurundwad's lifetime, and it's taken the rulers quite by surprise. It isn't the compensation we want - that's chicken-feed - it's to redeem the wrong done to us by Indira Gandhi.'

Around half of modern India was patched together out of the 278 kingdoms ruled by a multitude of maharajas and nawabs under the British Raj. Some of the princely states were larger than France. Others were so tiny that a maharaja could throw a stone from his palace into the next kingdom. A few maharajas trace their lineages back 1,500 years, and they tend to look upon any dynasty less than 300 years old as frightfully nouveau riche.

A lawyer familiar with the Kurundwad case said: 'These rulers never would have gone along with Lord Mountbatten and joined India if they hadn't been given a guarantee that their rights would be respected.'

Gandhi won her first election in 1971 crusading against poverty, and the noble families were a ripe target. She also withdrew the princely privileges because she feared the vestiges of their old authority. After independence, many Indian noblemen had ventured into politics and were opposed to Indira Gandhi's mix of populism and socialism. After the British left in 1947, the maharajas' powers were gradually eroded. Their palaces, land and fabulous treasures were seized by the government or were tied up in lengthy disputes between the state and heirs.

Gandhi's move was the final blow for many of India's royalty. Not only did they lose their privy purses which, depending on the size of their old kingdoms, ranged from 1m rupees ( pounds 22,000) a month to 190 rupees; suddenly, they were also forced to pay taxes and they were no longer immune from the law.

After a lifetime of being slaved over in the best Oriental opulence, few Indian noblemen were braced for the jostling world outside their palaces. One maharani recalls how her 55-year-old husband gamely offered to queue up for cinema tickets. 'I'd given him my wallet. His Highness didn't know that rupee notes came in fives, 10s or 50s. He thought they were all the same value, and he got into a terrific argument with the ticket vendor. I don't think he'd like me telling this.'

Some rulers who had private armies drifted into the military. A few became ambassadors.

The Nawab of Pataudi, who captained the Indian cricket team in the 1960s, now models smart suits in magazine adverts. Asked about the Kurundwad court case, the nawab said: 'None of us wants to go back to the old days. We just believe that, morally, what they did to us was unfair and unconstitutional.'

One lawyer said that if compensation were paid, it would amount to only pounds 22m, doled out to 550 princes.

After so many centuries of rule, the ties between the Hindu and Muslim princes and their subjects were not so easily broken. Several aristocrats noted that in the aftermath of Partition, fewer communal riots occurred in those states that were not directly ruled by the British. In today's India, shaken by Muslim-Hindu conflicts and separatism, noblemen say they could again play a stabilising role.

The bond between the maharajas and their Indian subjects may be frayed in the cities but not in the countryside. In Jodhpur, every year more than 3,000 Rajasthani peasants pay their respects to the maharaja. Any object belonging to him is revered. The awed pilgrims even offer blessings to a black bear, shot by the maharaja when he was 16, even though the bear now stands, stuffed, holding a bottle of Campari, outside the Trophy Room bar.

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