It is not a story that my grandfather likes to recall. But if you prod him a bit, he reluctantly remembers the incident, which took place on a September day in 1948. On his head was a Rumi topi — a maroon cap with tassels — which was largely associated with the then Nizam of Hyderabad.
My grandfather, Syed Rahim, was 17. The Indian Army had defeated the Nizam’s troops, and Hyderabad had been annexed in what was called Operation Polo. There was jubilation among state Congress workers, and large-scale violence was to follow.
“I was walking by the Charminar when I passed by a group of Congress volunteers. They pushed me around, knocked the Rumi topi off my head and played football with it,” he recalls.
Seventy years ago, almost to this week, Hyderabad became a part of independent India after six days of military action. For Hyderabad’s younger generation, ‘Operation Polo’ is perhaps nothing more than a watered-down chapter in history textbooks. But the September 13-18 action is one of India’s hidden secrets in the annals of history.
Although the linguistic division of the state was the final nail in the coffin of the Asaf Jahi legacy — the dynasty of the Nizams — it was this action that signalled the end of a dominion that once extended from parts of northern Karnataka and Maharashtra to present-day Telangana and Hyderabad.
The royal state of Hyderabad was established in 1724 by the then Nizam, Asaf Jah. The first state to agree to British protection in 1798 under the policy of Subsidiary Alliance, it opposed the idea of merging with India after independence. The seventh and last Nizam — Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII — was asked by the Indian government to join India. When he rejected the offer, opting for independence, the Indian troops moved in. A few hundred people were killed in the six days of war — often referred to as Police Action — but in the violence that followed, several thousand people were believed to have been killed.
My paternal grandfather, MA Ghaffar, was a doctor in the Nizam’s army and was stationed in Aurangabad when the military action began. On entering Aurangabad, the Nizam’s military forces were lined up to be shot at by the Indian troops, he had said. Bullets flew, and hit almost everybody around him. My grandfather pretended to be shot too, and lay down as if dead. Heaps of bodies were tossed into a truck. He stayed still for hours among the bodies in the truck, and then quietly moved away. After several days, he managed to return to Hyderabad.
Old-timers recall the Hyderabad of another time as the anniversary of Operation Polo draws close. They point out that this region of Hindus ruled by Sunni Muslims was known for communal amity. The first Nizam stressed on not just the importance of fiscal management, but also pluralism. He would ensure that Hyderabad’s Prime Minister was either a Hindu or a Shiite Muslim.
It was under the sixth Nizam — Mir Mehboob Ali Khan — that Hyderabad is said to have turned into a syncretic haven that amalgamated Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Parsi traditions. Folklore is replete with references to Muslim royals playing Holi with the common people, consulting Hindu pandits on ways to halt the floods that ravaged Hyderabad city, or ruling in favour of a temple rather than a mosque in the case of a land dispute. Among the numerous Hindu Prime Ministers was Maharaja Kishen Pershad, who served under the sixth Nizam and his son, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who was known for making generous donations to Hindu temples as well as educational institutions such as the Banaras Hindu University.
The Nizams’ legacies are the landmarks of the city today. Several leading institutions, such as Osmania University (OU) and Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, blossomed under the seventh Nizam. “I owe my medical career and capabilities to the institutions in Hyderabad City that emerged during Shah Osman’s time,” says retired doctor JN Kulkarni.
A guide points to a miniature model of the OU Arts and Commerce College at the Nizam’s Museum in the Old City. “This edifice is proof of Shah Osman’s secularism. The bottom arches on the left and right are those you will find in temples; the top ones are Islamic. The huge entrance blends Hindu and Sikh architectural styles. He wanted to impart education in Urdu to all his subjects,” he says.
But for all his foresight, the seventh Nizam did not foresee an Indian invasion. The Nizam did not want to go with either India or Pakistan. But he and his Prime Minister remained blissfully ignorant of the ground realities — that the state had a paltry 25,000-strong army, landlocked borders and no independent foreign policy. The majority of the population was Hindu, who would want to stay with India; and only a small minority were Muslims. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s deputy, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, was left to negotiate with Hyderabad. History tells us that while Nehru detested Hyderabad’s feudal system, he respected its composite culture. Author-lawyer AG Noorani quotes Sarojini Naidu’s daughter Padmaja in The Destruction of Hyderabad as saying that no matter how feudally regressive Hyderabad was, it was far ahead of India when it came to maintaining communal relations.
To hasten the accession, raids were launched targeting Muslims. The influential, once pro-Independence lobby Majlis-Ittehadul Muslimeen, in response, created a paramilitary force, the Razakars, which attacked Hindus. Kulkarni remembers one such incident when he was travelling from Aurangabad. “The Razakars entered our caravan and robbed us of some valuables,” he says.
During and after Operation Polo, there were several instances of state Congress workers and others, including some soldiers, attacking Muslims in districts outside Hyderabad city. An alarmed Nehru sent a committee to probe the incidents of violence. The Pandit Sunderlal Committee Report on the violence, submitted to the government but not made public, claimed that 27,000-40,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the annexation of Hyderabad.
History records how the state’s last Prime Minister, Laik Ali, and Razakar chief Qasim Razvi had bolstered Patel’s resolve for military action. According to some accounts, India sent 36,000 troops. In his memoirs October Coup , author Mohammed Hyder, who was a bureaucrat in Hyderabad, recalls how he urged Razvi to take part in the negotiations for annexation. Razvi scoffed, “I only negotiate and haggle when buying fruits.”
During the negotiation in August 1947 with the Indian government, the Nizam and Prime Minister Ali said Hyderabad would only give up defence and partial foreign policy autonomy to the Union. The state also preferred to remain “neutral” in the event of future India-Pakistan conflicts. Patel famously described an independent Hyderabad as “an ulcer in the heart of India which needed to be removed surgically”. And Hyderabad’s fate was sealed in September 1948.
After joining India, the Nizam served as Rajpramukh until the trifurcation of the state. But be it in Andhra Pradesh or the newly formed Telangana, Hyderabadi Muslims have spent little time mourning the loss of their relative monopolies over government jobs and overall power. Many minority educational institutions, a large section of the elite that did not leave for Pakistan, remittances from the diaspora and an entrepreneurial class of Muslims almost non-existent before 1948 have heralded a Muslim resurgence. Some cultural vestiges of the past have also been preserved, and even the Urdu language — for which Hyderabad was an epicentre — has not entirely vanished. Urdu, which Kulkarni says he enjoyed learning in school, is now Telangana’s second official language.
Hyderabad has little to do with the Hindu-Muslim violence that cast a dark shadow on the region 70 years ago, but communal strife is not uncommon either. In such times, a poem by Raja Narsingh, a Hindu samsthan (feudal lord) and a favourite of the sixth Nizam, is occasionally recalled as a testament to the city’s syncretic character.
Ahl-e-dunya bigad te jaate hain/
Hindu-Muslim ke gehre naate hain/
Sab baraadar hain, ghair aala kaun?/
Yeh buzurgon se sunte aaye hain
(People of the world degenerate only with time/ But the ties between Hindus and Muslims remain unchanged/ Who among them is not exalted?/This is what our elders have been telling us)
As for my maternal grandfather, they continued to live in the Hyderabad of their youth, till work took my nana away. My doctor grandfather and his family did try to migrate to Pakistan, but returned when the women in the family insisted on coming back home to Hyderabad. He opened a clinic in the present-day area of Abids.
My maternal grandfather became an architect. And my mother recalls that he never wore his Rumi topi again.
Daneesh Majid is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad