The Newsletter 87 Autumn 2020

Webinar 14 May 2020. Princely Airs: Aerial navigation and the question of sovereignty in colonial India

Joppan George

As the world began to be gripped by the pandemic, arresting everyday life to the confines of home, this webinar hosted by IIAS offered a measure of relief in reaching out to the world outside my window, thereby bringing together, albeit remotely, scholars and avid enthusiasts of the history of aviation and the princely states. Participants logged in from locations as far and apart as Kansas and Kochi, offering a rich variety of questions and comments, encouraging me to look into scarcely accessible work and prompting me to make connections with books in the making. This was the first in a series of webinars that helped rekindle our scholarly fellowship and expand the dialog more democratically under lockdown. While this thoughtful and timely initiative to maintaining a scholarly community under the duress of the global pandemic continues to keep alive the foundational directive of open exchange of ideas at IIAS, it also attests to the undiminished spirit of camaraderie around the world.

The webinar

In the long march of the history of India in the 20th century, from under the constraints of the colonial yoke to the postcolonial pastures it promised itself, the princely states managed a vanishing act. Variously called the Native States, Indian India, and the Indian States, the princely states formed about two-fifths of the area of the subcontinent and one-fifth of its population. Colored yellow in the colonial maps, in stark contrast to the pale pink of British India, the princely states under the personal rule of the princes were also under the suzerainty of the Crown. In the webinar Princely Airs: Aerial navigation and the question of sovereignty in colonial India, I traced the interest that the princes had in aviation since the start of its career in India circa 1910, their oft-forgotten initiative of the gift of airplanes for imperial defence during World War I, and their continued involvement in interwar aerial navigation in the British empire.

If the presentation of airplanes as machines of war served to highlight the fealty of the princes to the imperial cause, they did not shy away from exploiting the potential that aviation held in store. In representing India in international fora such as the Imperial War Conference and the Paris Peace Conference, the princes had found themselves adding luster to their prestige. The Government of India, tasked to forge aerial regulations in keeping with the provisions of the international aerial convention under the remit of the Paris Conference in 1919 and with an eye on the imperial commercial gains, found that the exercise of policy-making often exceeded the legal ambit of aviation. The government’s administrative and legislative vexations were not limited to drawing up the aerial routes but extended to the constitution of airspace, the law of the air, and the question of aerial rights. In the interwar years, as Britain began to develop its imperial skyways from London, via Cairo to Karachi, Bombay and Calcutta all the way to Darwin, the princes galvanized under the aegis of the Chamber of Princes to demand that their concerns be addressed or the government risk upstaging the imperial aviatic plans.

Most urgently, aerial navigation complicated the extant understandings of imperial sovereignty in the mosaic of colonial geography, where the territories of the princely states were often contiguous with those of British India. Aviation unsettled the traditional dimensionality of the concept of territorial sovereignty, which began to assume the characteristics of volumetric space extending into the air. For an airplane leaving England to arrive at its destination in Australia, the Government of India had to maintain both its expansive aerial routes as well as their relations with the princes. The need to accommodate the imperial arrangements of aerial navigation within the structure of the governmental provisions in British India without upsetting the princely order remained a contentious issue in the political deliberations. The question of empire-wide aerial mobility offered the princes a template to articulate their discontent of the treaties and engagements that bound them to anachronism and irrelevance. In the opinion of the architects of the resurgent princely order, the colonial Indian treaty map was in dire need of revision. The quest for this revision inflected the law of the air in India as the princes staked a claim to their aerial sovereignty. The webinar explored how the compromise between the Government of India and the princely states tilted the scale and scope of aerial navigation in the interwar years.

Joppan George, IIAS Fellow, historian of modern South Asia with a keen interest in exploring the transformations of colonial society under the impact of science and technology.