The taming of Sir C.P. of Travancore (IANS Special)

New Delhi, Nov 10 : A rather divisive figure around the time of India’s independence was Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer, the Dewan of Travancore. Opinion is divided over whether he should only be seen as a wily strategist trying to position his state globally by leveraging its mineral resources — monazite sands in Travancore were said to be exceptionally rich in thorium and uranium. The other view was that he was manipulative, feisty and virtually ran the state and dominated the ruler.

The bottomline, though, was that he was sharp and prescient enough to realise that the rare earth material was a strategic resource that would give Travancore a leg up in directly dealing with western powers, bypassing the Indian state, at a time when they were trying to build their arsenal against the backdrop of the Cold War. Hence, in its efforts to stay independent, it was expected that the British would be benign towards him and Travancore because of the thorium deposits.

Veteran Editor Sandeep Bamzai reveals for the first time the full story of how Jawaharlal Nehru scuppered Ramaswami Aiyer’s plans for Travancore’s independence on the back this strategic power as the ambitious Dewan worked on a deal with Lord Wavell, the Viceroy.

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In “Princestan, how Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten made India”, Bamzai, who is CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Indo-Asian News Service, writes how this was done. Nehru was not unarmed as he went after Ramaswami Aiyer. He had with him the expose in the weekly Blitz by the author’s grandfather, K.N. Bamzai, that provided details of the deal between Dewan and Wavell. This was the pugilist’s left hook that shook him up. Not published in the weekly were details of the Tranvancore Dewan given directly to Nehru that were more damaging. Nehru also unveiled a steely side not generally associated with him — he threatened to use air power against Travancore if it failed to fall in line and accept that its mineral wealth was the property of the Indian state. The unfinished task, if any, was later completed by V.P. Menon.

Bamzai writes in his book: Sir C.P.’s own militant mindset underwent a change after Nehru stepped into the equation, though the Dewan tried his best to resist.

It did not take long for the Dewan to capitulate thereafter even though he tried to get support from other monarchists and won support from some unexpected sources.


Between 1946-47, Bombay-based popular news weekly Blitz ran a series of high-profile stories on the games afoot in the princely India states. These stories, carrying the byline of my grandfather, K.N. Bamzai, created a furore. One expose highlighted the secret deal to export thorium-uranium raw material in the shape of monazite sands from the rebellious Travancore to the UK. The supportive evidence came much later through the published documents, collected in the Transfer of Power series by Nicholas Mansergh and Penderel Moon. This information, incidentally, was passed on to Pandit Nehru to bring him up to speed with the conniving within the princes’ fraternity. Nehru used these information flows from Bamzai on the collusion between Dewan of Travancore Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer and the Viceroy Lord Wavell to scupper the deal.

Writes Itty Abraham in the essay ‘Rare Earths: The Cold War in the Annals of Travancore’ (published in the book Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technolopolitics in the Global Cold War):

C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar was not uninformed about this transformation of rare earth material from commercial mineral to strategic resource. Only days after Nagasaki, he wrote to the Maharaja, ‘If thorium can be utilised for the manufacture of atomic bombs (there is no reason why it should not be) — Travancore will enjoy position very high in the world.’ His official biographer reports: ‘C.P. who did a lot of soul searching about the atomic revolution wrote to the Maharaja that the atomic bomb would revolutionize all industry and power production. If the cost of breaking up the atom could be reduced by further research, all steam engines and power projects would become unnecessary and the launching of new power projects would stop across the world…That the manufacture of the atomic bomb was based on the disintegration of uranium, awakened Sir CP to the fact that Travancore with its uranium and thorium enjoyed a very special position in this field.’

In April 1946, the newly formed board for Atomic Energy Research of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced they would soon begin ‘intensive geological and phasic-chemical surveys of Travancore’s thorium deposits.’ This drew an immediate response from Sir C.P. — Travancore was the sole owner of the mineral sands and wasn’t willing to surrender control of thorium deposit to any outside agency, the British government included. In September 1946, Travancore on the sly concluded negotiations with monazite-extracting companies and re-established the state’s ownership of the mineral sands, thereby making the companies mere agents and contractors of the state of Travancore. The game of shadows was well and truly being played out. Half-truths and lies prevailed.

In response to queries in the Legislative Assembly on state policy on thorium, Sir C.P. falsely stated that no foreign company had contracts to extract the sands and that there was a ban on export of monazite. Further, all decisions would be made in consultation with the Government of India. In truth, the state was already in advanced secret negotiations with the British government to export monazite to the UK. As much as 9,000 tons over three years was to be sent to Britain, and this deal was concluded early in 1947 itself as Travancore flirted with the idea of independence, leveraging its monazite sands. In return, the British government promised to contribute their good offices to encourage Thorium Ltd to construct a processing plant in Travancore, announced only in May 1947.

Earlier, in January 1947, there was consternation at the Indian Science Congress after Pandit Nehru, armed with the Bamzai-Blitz expose, got a resolution passed that the state should own and control all these minerals — specially minerals required for production of atomic energy, pointing to the nefarious goings-on in Travancore. At an Indian Cabinet meeting in April 1947, Nehru spoke of using air power against Travancore if necessary to bring them to heel. Furious with Travancore and Sir C.P.’s shenanigans, he sent CSIR head Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar to Travancore to obtain first-hand information about the nature of the state’s arrangements with Britain. Angry that he had been blindsided despite the Blitz expose, Bhatnagar went there accompanied by top physicist Homi Bhabha in early June 1947. Surprisingly, Travancore and Sir C.P. capitulated without a fight, and the setting up of the Travancore-India Joint Commission on Atomic Energy was approved. Bhabha, on his return, convinced Nehru that rare earths should remain a state resource.

Sir C.P. gave up control over the minerals and the state so easily primarily because the expose was in two parts — one that appeared in print and the other — more damaging personally for Sir C.P. — which was handed over to Nehru. From proclaiming ownership of the sands and advocating independence, Sir C.P. meekly succumbed to India and Nehru’s pressure, communicated through Sir Shanti Swarup and Bhabha. The victory over Sir C.P. and the state of Travancore was decisive and it asserted New Delhi’s veto over Travancore’s desire to sell its mineral resources as a decisive step in the larger political battle of establishing territorial sovereignty over constituent parts of India. This struggle was an object lesson for all Princely States with visions of independence to take note of.

Sir C.P.’s own militant mindset underwent a change after Nehru stepped into the equation, though the Dewan tried his best to resist. On 2 June 1947, he wrote to Nehru:

The special history and background of Travancore have alone inducted the Government to keep out of a Union in which her special interests may not have full scope, e.g. decision of the Union Powers Committee and even the Fundamental Rights Committee.

His bluster was backed the same month (19 June 1947) by Veer Savarkar himself in a telegram to Sir C.P.:

The Nizam, Muslim Ruler of Hyderabad has already proclaimed his independence and other Muslim states are likely to do so. Hindu states bold enough to assert it have the same rights…I am supporting the maharaja and the far-sighted and courageous determination to declare independence of our Hindu state of Travancore.

Sir C.P.’s state of mind can be deciphered even in his 11 December 1946 missive to the Maharaja of Gwalior:

I am fundamentally and intensely interested in the preservation of the best features of the Monarchy that I feel it incumbent on me to tender these observations and suggestions. Trust I will not be misunderstood, even if I am, I feel I shall have done my duty to Indian Monarchy by writing this letter to one like Your Highness.

And then the most compelling argument to TRV Shastri (8 April 1947):

In the nature of things and quite apart from the historical past, the position of the maritime states with plenty of resources — agricultural, industrial — is different from landlocked state like Hyderabad and Mysore, however wealthy and powerful they may be.

Blitz and K.N. Bamzai followed up with yet another story that confirmed the Travancore’s plan for independence using the presence of thorium deposits in the state as leverage. The commercial deal which the Government of Travancore entered into with a British firm, Thorium Ltd, was for the processing of mineral sands containing uranium and monazite — monazite being one of the primary ingredients for thorium, having been found in the sands, an ore which was a reddish-brown phosphate mineral containing rare earth metals. It occurs usually in small isolated crystals. Monazite is radioactive due to the presence of thorium and, less commonly, uranium. The original intention of the British was to purchase the sands from the government of Travancore and ship them to England for processing and chemical analysis. The government of Travacore did not agree to this plan and it has ultimately decided that the British firm would set up a processing plant in the state. Under the agreement, the surplus monazite was to be shipped to England and would be the monopoly of the British government. The smaller part would be processed at the local plant and the larger surplus would go to Britain. Once Nehru and the Indian Science Congress grew aware of the nexus between Travancore and England, it quickly sank the plan by saying that natural resources of the country could not be transferred out.

In one last attempt, Sir C.P. went to see Lord Mountbatten in private to tell him of his ruler’s determination to proclaim his state’s independence after 15 August 1947. He sharply attacked Nehru as unstable and Patel as ruthless. The Viceroy, in turn, told him not to be a fool nor to precipitate. He then turned him over to V.P.Menon, who reminded the ambitious Dewan that Travancore was the strongest breeding ground for communism in India. What if the communists suddenly rose up in revolt against the ruler after 15 August? If Travancore remained independent, the Dominion of India would have to refuse to come to its aid. A thoughtful Dewan departed discomfited. Sir C.P. returned to Cochin and told his master that Mountbatten wanted them to sign the Instrument of Accession, and of Menon’s veiled threat.

The Maharaja tried, according to Leonard Mosley,

…to temporize by telegraphing Mountbatten to say that he would agree to the conditions but hoped that this would preclude him from signing them. The Viceroy telegraphed back that this was not enough. A signature was necessary. At the same time, the working committee of the State Congress Committee in Travancore, an underground organization, called for demonstrations against the Maharaja. There were clashes in the streets with the state police. Sir C.P. was stabbed and seriously wounded by an unknown assailant.

The Maharaja gave in, telegraphing Mountbatten to say that he was signing. Sardar Patel called off the State Congress agitation and, as Mosley wrote, ‘It was a clear demonstration of the Congress’s power to incite disaffection in the Princely State of Travancore and the determination of Patel and Menon to act ruthlessly against the fish who refused to swim into the net.’

When the harried Dewan tried to counter the Blitz expose, Blitz and Bamzai hit back by running the draft agreement between His Majesty’s Government and the Travancore government on 8 February 1947, which stunned Delhi and the British. The outline of the trade agreement between the Travancore government and Thorium Ltd of UK read like this:

1. The agreement covers two periods. The first period is of three years’ duration and the second of five years. This five-year agreement may be entered into before or at the expiry of the first period.

2. In the first period of three years, no processing will be undertaken, but during this period, the Travancore government expects that the processing plant will be installed and set working… In the meantime, at least 10,000 tons of mineral sand — monazite — will be supplied to HMG… The quantity of the monazite will be such as will yield at least 8 per cent of thorium nitrate.

3. In the second period, all thorium nitrate thus processed will be sold to HMG. There shall be no export of monazite of thorium nitrate during this second period to any place other than India or the UK.

4. The agreement will be made in England and it will be interpreted according to English law.

5. Formerly, the agreement was to take place between the Travancore government and Thorium Ltd. but subsequently, this was changed, as it was found unsuitable, and the agreement is now to be signed between the British government and the Travancore government; Thorium Ltd making itself responsible only for the installation of the processing plant.

6. Thorium Ltd will lease a plant for the manufacture of uranium from uranium sands. The surplus sands will be shifted to the UK by Thorium Ltd.

(Excerpts from ‘PRINCESTAN: How Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten Made India’, printed with permission from the publishers, Rupa Publications)

Disclaimer: This story is auto-generated from IANS service.

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