This is not a history but an attempt to understand what probably happened in those last years that led to the demise of Hyderabad as an independent country and its annexation by the newly independent India. It is speculation; perhaps informed speculation; I hope, intelligent speculation, but speculation nevertheless.
I am not speaking chronologically or relating incidents but attempting to understand why the Nizam of Hyderabad took the decisions he did, which led to the calamity called Police Action (Operation Polo of the Indian Army).
Calamity not because it was the end of the Asif Jahi Dynasty because all dynasties end. But calamity because, as is reported, thousands of innocent people died as a result of Police Action. They died in what we would today call, Collateral Damage; killed not by the Indian Army but by their opportunistic neighbors who used the period of transition to grab their land, by making them vanish.
Entire families were murdered, entire villages were depopulated in a massive ethnic cleansing before the term was invented. I know that the figures range from 15,000 to ten times that and more. The reality is that exact figures are impossible to get. And the death of even one innocent person is highly deplorable and tragic, so numbers mean nothing. Whether it was 15,000 or 150,000 is immaterial when the truth is that not a single one deserved to die.
I am saying this because I don’t want you to get mired in discussing incidents, numbers of dead, who killed whom but try to look at why all this happened and what if anything can be learnt from this to be applied today. What is clear is that we are a nation which seems to be cursed with internecine conflict, brother killing brother, with or without pretext.
I am saying to you that it is time this stopped. Stopped totally and completely. It is not difficult to find examples of how such things were stopped. Until 100 years ago, there was blood in the streets in Europe. Both World War I and II were essentially European wars, with Europeans killing each other. Yet out of that emerged a universal, silent, shared and solid pact, that European blood will not be shed by Europeans ever again.
One wishes that this could have been extended to non-Europeans also but be that as it may, the fact remains that today in Europe, even the thought of a mob lynching an individual or attacking a neighborhood in which a certain religious or ethnic group lives, is simply unthinkable. It is high time we in India changed our direction 180 degrees and walked the same path before we reach a point of no return on our present path. We like to talk about India’s potential.
The reality is that if we want that potential to be translated into actual development and economic growth, we must deal with social strife and lay it to rest. If we use religious and ethnic difference to constantly fan the flames of communalism and xenophobia and have our nation embark on periodic bloodletting sprees, then the result can only be one thing; civil war and total collapse. It is amazing how otherwise intelligent people seem to fail to read the writing on the wall.
- My assessment of the situation at that time leading to the demise of Hyderabad as an independent country was that India had just become independent paying a huge price in human life in the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. That resulted in India having a hostile neighbor on two sides, East and West Pakistan and Kashmir, still in a state of limbo in the North. It simply couldn’t afford another independent state in its center, ruled by a Muslim king, even though he was not hostile and even though the majority population of the state was Hindu. Hyderabad had to become a part of the Indian Union, come what may. Also since Hyderabad was the biggest, wealthiest and most influential of the Princely States, what happened to it would be salutary for the others. If Hyderabad retained independence and sovereignty, then it would open the doors for similar aspirations of many other ruling princes. If Hyderabad joined the Indian Union, then others would also fall in line.
- So, if Hyderabad didn’t join the Indian Union willingly, it would have to be made to do so, unwillingly. Attempts were made to persuade the Nizam to accede to the Indian Union but when these failed, covert attempts to subvert his government were undoubtedly made by encouraging communal elements to create unrest. Religion is a very easy way to gain mass support and in an atmosphere where the Hindu-Muslim equation was badly vitiated after the formation of Pakistan, this was easy to do. Flames were fanned and new fires were set and in time, they did what all fires do – burn everything they came into contact with. Three hundred years of common Hindu-Muslim history was reduced to ashes. No doubt it helped some people to come to power, but at the cost of a great many. But history is written by victors, while those who die, tell no tales and the world goes on.
The tendency when speaking about any monarchy is to speak in terms of its king alone. Usually this is a mistake because whatever the king may think of himself, he is a man and is influenced by his times and the people around him. Some of this influence is overt but a lot of it is hidden and covert. Included in this are his own feelings, aspirations, anxieties, insecurities.
At a time of transition which may result in a fall of the monarchy all these fears are hugely enhanced, because in most cases, a fall of the monarchy usually means death for the king or at least life in enormously reduced circumstances. To be able to still think with a cool head and take decisions that are morally and ethically right while being strategically wise, is no mean task. For this it is not only essential for the king to have the guidance of wise people around him, but even more importantly, for him to listen to them.
In the case of the Nizam of Hyderabad, Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, I believe we have a case where, to put it mildly, things went awry.
My understanding of the factors at the time, from my reasonably extensive reading of different books on this subject as well as having known some of those who were present at the time of Police Action, and were close to the Nizam, is as follows:
- The Nizam of Hyderabad was an absolute monarch. A very good one, who never took a single day’s vacation in his life and not given to the playboy lifestyle of his other counterparts in the Princely States of India, but still an absolute monarch. The hierarchy was feudal, which meant that, as in any other feudal system, the only way anyone aspiring to high position could get it was by birth into the right family or by special Royal Dispensation. This in turn would necessitate the attention of and promotion by one of the high Nobles so that one would get noticed. Needless to say, the number of positions at the top are very limited and usually taken.
- The ‘evils’ of a feudal system, even a very benign and benevolent one like the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad was, can’t be overemphasized. Its biggest evil being the death of aspiration of youth. This was one of the major reasons for the migration of the youth of Europe to America and the eventual break with Europe altogether. A new nation was born, not because people in the old country were being physically tortured or murdered, but because their hopes and dreams were stillborn in a system that didn’t permit them to live and grow by their ability. That is the problem with all feudal systems and the reason why democracy, with all its faults, is the best form of government that humankind has created for itself, to date.
- Any ordinary young person not born into a noble family but aspiring for high office in Hyderabad (the country), especially political power, had little chance of attaining it, except through exceptional circumstances and luck, irrespective of his qualifications. For such people, a time of turmoil and turbulence is a godsend. It shakes the foundations of the structures of society and briefly opens a window of opportunity to change the rules of the game. What added to this was the fact that the State was the biggest employer. Though there were businesses and industry, rather more than in other Princely States or British India, their influence and the opportunities they presented were still very limited, especially at the managerial level. Opportunities of realizing one’s aspirations outside the State’s influence were therefore very limited. This always leads to frustration for which a situation of turmoil which shakes the foundations of the State and official hierarchy is a great opportunity.
- To give the time its due, this was not due to any backwardness of Hyderabad but because that was the nature of the world at the time. The industrial boom of manufacture and later of IT was still about a century away. Opportunities for careers in the corporate world were limited because the corporate world as we know it, didn’t exist. There were traders, small manufacturers, almost all of them family owned, who followed in effect the same feudal rules of employment and career development. If you were born into the family or related to it in some way, you could never get into top management.
- With Indian Independence looming on the horizon and in effect inevitable, there was an atmosphere of change in the air. An atmosphere of high political aspirations, of ambitions of power and influence. Feudalism in India was dying, in its formal sense of hereditary rulers and nobles and leadership positions would fall vacant, ready to be occupied with those who had the vision to see the writing on the wall and the grit to work for it. Sad to see that seventy years after this time, feudalism in terms of attitudes, which really deserved to die, remains alive and well, with the new elected leaders having taken the place of hereditary rulers on the throne. But that is an aside. For our story, the world was changing and fast in which like in all times of change, you either change or die. Incumbency is the single biggest crime in a revolution as you become the logical target of attack. If you change your stripes and start running with the hounds, like the British monarchy did very successfully by converting the ruling family into Hollywood stars, then you survive and prosper. If you remain static, like the Nizam did, you become a statistic.
- The other factor that was in play in these times was the anxiety of the Nizam and his nobility about their own fate in the new world order which was dawning. In this context they had Jinnah’s divisive rhetoric on one hand and the assurance of the British Empire on the other guaranteeing the Nizam that the territorial integrity of his kingdom as well as his sovereignty as a monarch would be defended and maintained. In my opinion, the Nizam and his nobility’s biggest mistake was to believe both these narratives. It raised their anxiety to a level where their minds stopped working and had them grabbing at straws (promises of the British Empire) to save themselves from drowning. Ask anyone if a straw can save a drowning man and you know what happened to the Nizam and Hyderabad State was ine
- Qasim Rizvi and his Razakars. Qasim Rizvi was an opportunist who took advantage of a nebulous situation and tried to play ‘King Maker’. The fact that he ran away when things didn’t go as planned and left those who allowed him his time in the sun to face the music, is proof that he had no commitment either to Hyderabad or the Nizam. He was in it for himself and escaped when things fell apart. What he had going for him was demagoguery that capitalized on the anxieties of the ruling class as well as the Muslims in Hyderabad who were already affected by the demagoguery of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Add in a heady mixture of fantasy, distorted historical references and people’s own ignorance of history as well as their inability to critically analyze what was being presented to them by QR and you can see how and why his rhetoric was remarkably rabble rousing. Religion as they say is the last resort of the scoundrel, an analogy that fits QR like a glove.
- Finally, the demise of Hyderabad was also the most colossal collective failure of leadership that one can imagine. If you look at the nobles and notables around the Nizam, you have a list of luminaries that can hardly be bettered. Yet they failed as a group to guide their king and country in a direction leading to safety and progress. Instead they all seem to have collectively become victims of Qasim Rizvi’s crazy rhetoric either actively or passively to a point of no return. The fact that the Nizam was himself in QR’s thrall, would have, I suppose, stopped many from openly disagreeing. All these are the price of a feudal, autocratic system wherein dissent is dangerous and severely restricted. All autocratic systems fall prey to this and so did Hyderabad State.
What should the Nizam have done?
I think that is fairly clear and I don’t really need to write this but am doing so in the interest of closing the loop as it were. Here is what should have happened:
- The Nizam and his advisors should have realized the reality of Hyderabad and its future in the context of the Indian Union. For details please refer to Point No. 1 above i.e. my assessment of the situation at the time. They should have seen that remaining independent was out of the question and so should have bargained for the best deal and joined the Indian Union. That single action would have avoided all the bloodshed and turmoil.
- They should have realized that the British have a very famous history of telling lies to those they rule and work only with one interest in mind; their own. The history of the British in India was no secret to anyone with eyes to see. As it was, the British were leaving India in a great hurry and really didn’t care a hoot about what happened to India or Indians. What value can the assurance of such an ally have? Once again, that meant, the joining the Indian Union was the not just the best option but the only one.
- Qasim Rizvi should have been shown the door. His kind of rhetoric was so alien to the history of the Nizams of Hyderabad and their treatment of their subjects irrespective of religion that it is almost impossible to believe that not only did QR get a foothold but that to all intents and purposes, he became the defacto ruler. Furthermore, especially given the recent formation of Pakistan and the massacres that happened as a result, it was suicidal to allow the very same rhetoric to become dominant in Hyderabad. To allow Hyderabad’s long history of harmonious relationships between the two major communities of Hindus and Muslims to be destroyed was totally tragic and inexplicable. It was like an onset of momentary insanity from which a man awakens to witness the destruction that he had wrought while insane.
- Hyderabad (Nizam and nobility and the State) should have invested heavily in industry and invited the Tatas and Birlas to set up manufacturing plants. Both were in operation having started in the 1800’s. This would have had three beneficial effects.
a. It would have created massive employment opportunities for youth, the best way to deal with all kinds of social unrest, give them something to lose.
b. It would have increased the personal wealth of the Nizam and his nobility and made them free from dependence on Privy Purses and State charity.
c. It would have acted as a shield against any political adventurism, just as the presence of Trump business interest in Middle Eastern countries has kept them safe from his travel ban on Muslims. The travel ban as you know, applies only to countries where Trump has no business interests.
(Mirza Awar Baig is an author and columnist based in Hyderabad. The views are personal)
(Cover Photograph: India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the Nizam of Hyderabad.)