The expression “Ruling Chief” has not been defined in the Act and must therefore be understood as in common parlance. The meaning of the word “Ruler” as given in Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edn., vol. 2, p. 1867 is: “one who, or that which, exercises rule, especially of supreme or sovereign kind”. Normally the expression “Ruling Chief” connotes “a person who is endowed with the content of sovereignty and also has the attributes of a sovereign”. According to Blacks’ Legal Dictionary, 5th edn., p. 1252 the legal conception of “sovereignty” is stated thus:
“The supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power by which any independent state is governed; supreme political authority, paramount control of the constitution and frame of government and its administration; the self-sufficient source of political power from which all specific political powers are derived; the international independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign dictation; also a political society, or state, which is sovereign and independent.”
“Sovereignty” means “supremacy in respect of power, dominion or rank; supreme dominion authority or rule”. “Sovereignty” is the right to govern. The term “sovereignty” as applied to states implies “supreme, absolute, uncontrollable power by which any state is governed, and which resides within itself, whether residing in a single individual or a number of individuals, or in the whole body of the people.” Thus, sovereignty, according to its normal legal connotation, is the supreme power which governs the body politic, or society which constitutes the state, and this power is independent of the particular form of government, whether monarchial, autocratic or democratic.
According to Laski in “A Grammar of Politics”, 1957 Reprint Chap. II, p. 50 “The legal aspect of sovereignty is best examined by a statement of the form given to it by John Austin. In every legal analysis of the State, he argued, it is first of all necessary to discover in the given society that definite superior to which habitual obedience is rendered by the mass of men. That superior must not itself obey any higher authority. When we discover the authority which gives commands habitually obeyed, itself not receiving them, we have the sovereign power in the State. In an independent political community that sovereign is determinate and absolute. Its will is illimitable because, if it could not be constrained to act, it would cease to be supreme, since it would then be subject to the constraining power. Its will is indivisible because, if power over certain functions or persons is absolutely and irrevocably entrusted to a given body, the sovereign then ceases to enjoy universal supremacy and therefore ceases by definition to be sovereign.”
It is not necessary to enter into the concept of sovereignty, one of the most controversial ideas in political science and international law, which is closely related to the difficult concepts of State and Government, of independence and democracy, except to touch upon the juristic character of the Indian State to discern the necessary attributes of sovereignty. The Indian States were neither independent nor sovereign but subject to the paramountcy of the British Crown. Sir William Lee Warner, the acknowledged authority on Indian States, in his work “The Native States of India; 1910” characterizes them as “semi-sovereign”. There is no question that there was a paramount power in the British Crown, but perhaps it is better understood and not explained. The indivisibility of the sovereignty on which Austin insists, did not belong to the Indian system of sovereign states.
The degree of sovereignty exercised by the different rulers varied greatly as the areas under their dominion. The greater princes administered the internal affairs of their states with almost complete independence, having revenues and armies of their own, and the power of life and death over their subjects. At the other end of the scale were petty chiefs with a jurisdiction hardly higher than that of an ordinary magistrate and between these extremes lay much gradation. The authority of each ruler was determined by treaties or engagements with the British Government or by practice that had grown up in the course of their relations with British India.
The paramount power was with the British Crown and it had never parted with any of its prerogatives. As Sir Henry Maine said:
“There may be found in India every shade and variety of sovereignty, but there is only one independent sovereign, the British Government. …The mode or degree in which sovereignty is distributed between the British Government and any Native State is always a question of fact which has to be separately decided in each case, and to which no general rules apply.” [Sardar Govindrao & Ors vs State Of Madhya Pradesh & Ors Equivalent citations: 1982 AIR 1201, 1982 SCR (3) 729]