Subjectivity of Sovereignty: A Discourse Analysis of the Criteria for Granting Titles and Questioning the Role of the Nizam as a Sovereign

Hamsa Venkatraman, King’s College, London 

“Indirect rule does not, in law, give orders; it gives advice” [1]

This statement by Terrance Creagh Coen in his book, The Indian Political System: A Study in Indirect Rule implied that indirect rule protected the rights and liberty of the native rulers, but how much did the law do to differentiate between order and advice?

While the Nizam had the right to control and make laws for his state and people, he was above the law and could not be governed by it. This is what made him a sovereign; it is the same factor that made the British Crown a sovereign as well. [2] But, while the Nizam could not be governed by his own laws, he had to abide by the laws and rules that were established by the British Empire. 

Edwards Keen stated, “Within Europe, the leading purpose of international order was to promote peaceful co-existence in a multicultural world through the toleration of other political systems, cultures and ways of life.” “Beyond Europe, however, international order was dedicated to a quite different purpose; the purpose of civilisation.” [3] 

In a correspondence from 1940, the Nizam of Hyderabad wrote to the Government of India on behalf of all the princely states requesting for better representation in any legislation that took decisions regarding India that inadvertently affected the states as well.[4] The Nizam specifically mentioned the fact that princely states had predominantly been allies to the Empire and were yet fighting for basic representation. Claiming that at least the ones that had stood by the Empire must be accommodated and consulted in legislation matters and left the approach towards that consultation to the discretion of the Political Advisor of the Empire.[5] The request was responded by the Government of India by stating that due to “administrative and constitutional reasons” it would be impractical to make arrangements for the involvement of the states but assured the states that they would be updated with current events of importance.[6] This correspondence proves that princely states did try to get representation but were denied it on vague claims and reasons. 

As a sovereign, the Nizam was not a British subject, he enjoyed suzerainty that gave him right over his own state while recognising the Queen as the Empress and his ally. That being said, he was represented by the British Empire in all international matters. This factor was used time and again to strong-arm and intervene in matters of the state by the Empire. It created an unequal collaborative “alliance”, with the British Empire having the upper hand at all times. The article argues that although legal ties made, ensured that the Nizam had control and an individual standing as a political entity, he was invariably bound by a number of laws that curtailed his power. Showing the lack of clarity with which the British Empire operated, radically making the “sovereignty” of the Nizam subjective to their agendas. 

The granting of titles is symbolic not only for the person getting the title but also speaks of the power of the establishment that gives the titles. They were extremely important and prestigious grants that were given to show association and achievement. 

On the 12th May of 1874, a document addressed to the Resident at Hyderabad from the Secretary of the Government of India was sent stating that the Nizam had conferred a title on Mr. John Clerk who was the superintendent for his highnesses education and was working for the Nizam in his administration.[7] It continued to read, “No titles conferred upon British Subjects can be recognised without the sanction of the Queen.” [8] Furthermore, the other factor the document talks about is that Captain Clerk already had a title conferred on him by the Queen and cited that as a reason for him not being eligible for another title. Diplomacy was ultimately maintained by permitting the title to be recognised within the state of Hyderabad only, and not beyond. 

Based on these documents, a few things are evident. Firstly, in order for the Nizam to confer a title, the subject must be a citizen of the Hyderabad state. In other words, a citizen of the governing royal family. Secondly, employment to the establishment is not reason enough for the Nizam to confer a title that can be recognised. Keeping these factors in mind that the British Empire operated on the basis of, we can question the criteria on which the Nizam himself had the title of His Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad. Including members of his chief administrators, the prime minister, the treasurer and his own children. Did this make them British Subjects?[9]

These titles (e.g. The son of the Nizam known as “Prince of Berar”) represented a position that they held in the British hierarchy of power—virtually stating that they worked for the British Empire and not the Nizam. Alternatively, even the Nizam worked for the state of Hyderabad on behalf of the British Empire.  

It was only in 1906 that an order stating the use of the titles “Prince” and “His Excellency” with regards to the ministers of the Nizam be changed to “His Highness the Nizam’s Minister”.[10] As per the notion of indirect rule, the administrators working under the Nizam worked for him and the state of Hyderabad. 

While the administration belonged to the Nizam, conferring titles created a direct association between the chiefs and the Empire virtually excluding the Nizam, in fact questioning the validity of the Nizam’s identity. 

When we question if the Nizam was a British subject or not, the question extends to the citizens of Hyderabad as well. The Nizam at least in terms of law had complete control over his subjects, but what was not clear was the definition of a ‘subject’.  

What becomes evident while studying the immigration laws, naturalisation laws and other laws that were implemented in time are that these laws were made and implemented by the British Government of India in the Nizams territory, making his subjects accountable to the British Empire over the Nizam. At no point does the British Empire state that the Nizam does not have authority, but the documents and permits that allowed people to reside, work and become citizens were granted by the British Government of India. It does make one question, as to what extent did the law enable colonisation because the process of colonisation was more psychological that projected its Eurocentric biases onto the people as well. 

Sovereignty under the colonial European legal structure developed a dual meaning which while protected the Empire, allowed it to interfere and represent the minor states that were technically not under its jurisdiction while protecting European nations from any intrusion from other nation-states. 

Hamsa Venkatraman has a Masters in World History and Cultures from Kings College, London.

Photo Credits: George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 – 1925), Governor General of India from 1899 to 1905 pictured with his wife and His Highness the Nizam. (Hulton Archive)


[1] COEN, Terence Creagh, Sir The Indian political service: A study in indirect rule London : Chatto & Windus, 1971 pp14.

[2] PALMER, ‘Ali Ilhāmī Julian Sovereignty and paramountcy in India London : Stevens & Sons, 1930,pp27

[3] Keene, Edward Beyond the anarchical society : Grotius, colonialism and order in world politics / Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp98

[4] File 9(12)-P(S)/1940 request of H.E.H. the Nizam’s government that Indian states should be consulted on central legislation of an all India nature directly or indirectly affecting them, 1940.

[5] Letter from the Nizam’s Minister to the Political Secretary, Government of India, File 9(12)-P(S)/1940 request of H.E.H. the Nizam’s government that Indian states should be consulted on central legislation of an all India nature directly or indirectly affecting them, 1940, pp 2.

[6] Letter from Sd. Linlithgow, Political Secretary to the Government of India To the Lieutenant Col. His Highness, dated 6th Nov 1940, File 9(12)-P(S)/1940 request of H.E.H. the Nizam’s government that Indian states should be consulted on central legislation of an all India nature directly or indirectly affecting them, 1940, pp3. 

[7] File 1/75 grant of titles by H.H. the Nizam’s govt. to officials in the service of the state, who are British subjects, 1875

[8] Letter from The Secretary to the Government of India To the Resident at Hyderabad, File 1/75 grant of titles by H.H. the Nizam’s govt. to officials in the service of the state, who are British subjects, 1875, pp3.

[9] File 845/99-07 List of Leading Officials, Nobles and Personages of the Hyderabad State, 1899. 

[10] File 5/06 use of the titles “prime” and “his excellency” with the name of Nizam’s minister 1906.

[11] British Library Archives, India Office records, London (‘R’ series). 

[12] Datla, Kavita Saraswathi. ‘The origins of indirect rule in India: Hyderabad and the British imperial order’. Law and History Review 33 : 321-50, 2015. 

[13] Iyer, Lakshmi. ‘Direct versus indirect colonial rule in India’ Long-term consequences. 92 (4), 2010. 

[14] Sen, Sudipta’ Unfinished conquest: Residual sovereignty and the legal foundations of the British Empire in India. Law, Culture & the Humanities’ 9 (2): 227-42, 2013. 

[15] Anghie, Antony. Imperialism, sovereignty and the making of international law. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2007. 

[14] Fairclough, Norman, 1941 Analysing discourse : Textual analysis for social research /London : Routledge, 2003. 

[15] Fisher, Michael H. Indirect rule in India : Residents and the residency system, 1764-1858 / Delhi ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1991. 

[16] Lee-Warner, William Native states of India /. Ed. 2. rev ed. S.l.]: S.l.] : Macmillan, 1910. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s