September, Sardar Patel & Operation Polo: Forces Behind Hyderabad’s India Union

Like East Pakistan that became Bangladesh, perhaps even an "independent” Hyderabad would eventually have collapsed.

6 min read
Hindi Female

(This is part two of a four-part 'September' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read Part one here.)

Imagine a scenario. It is 2023 and swathes of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh are not part of India. Without Operation Polo, that could well have become a reality.

A frenetic five days starting on 13 September 1948 and culminating in the evening of 17 September saw the princely state of Hyderabad finally joining the Indian Union. Like East Pakistan that eventually became a sovereign nation called Bangladesh, perhaps, even an "independent” Hyderabad or a Hyderabad as part of Pakistan would eventually have collapsed. But historical accounts make it clear that a bunch of powerful folks were determined to keep Hyderabad out of India.

It is a tribute to the Iron Man Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel that they failed. In hindsight, it is clear that an "independent” Hyderabad at the heart of India, landlocked and more than 1000 kilometres away from a friendly Islamic Pakistan would have proven to be unviable. But it could have caused incalculable damage to the nation before full “integration” with India became a reality.

Look at the troubles and trauma India has faced for 70-plus years struggling to integrate Jammu & Kashmir with the rest of the country.


How the State of Hyderabad Was Liberated

In a previous column in this series, the authors had reckoned how the violence seen on Direct Action Day in August 1946 had made partition inevitable. Perfidious and preachy till the end, the British passed a de facto edict for the 565 princely states that constituted India.

We don’t need to give details of how the intrepid Sardar Patel and his secretary VP Menon travelled tirelessly across India to forge the modern Republic of India; enough has been written by historians and scholars.

By the end of the nerve-wracking exercise in which Patel ruthlessly used carrot & stick, 562 of the princely states had agreed to sign the Instrument of Ascension to India. Only three held out.

One of them was the relatively small and inconsequential princely state of Junagadh that is now in modern-day Gujarat. The Muslim ruler of Junagadh did announce that his state would join Pakistan. But so overwhelmingly opposed were his "subjects” to the idea that he simply migrated to Pakistan.

The Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir Hari Singh wanted his state to become an independent nation. The authors will write about Kashmir separately. This one is about Hyderabad.


The Captivity of a State Steeped in History & Culture

Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, who vacillated between joining Pakistan and becoming an independent nation. It was arguably the largest and richest princely state of India. In terms of size, it was larger than England.

The Nizam was rumoured to be one of the wealthiest royals in the world. Anyone who has personally visited the magnificent Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad and the Gems of Hyderabad in Delhi would know the extent of the fabulous wealth, jewellery, artifacts, and more the Nizams had accumulated in the 150-plus years they lorded it over Hyderabad.

Historical accounts of the era describe Osman Ali Khan as an amiable ruler who loved the good things of life, including poetry and ghazals.

Most records indicate that he was not as obsessed with Islamism or the idea of Pakistan as the way many leaders of the Muslim League were. But the same historical accounts also tell another story: the real “power” resided with Qasim Rizvi who was by all accounts an Islamist fanatic.

Rizvi is more notorious as the founder of the Armed Muslim militia called 'Razakars'. An alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University, Rizvi played a key, albeit, destructive role that eventually resulted in Operation Polo: the “police action” of the Indian Army to capture Hyderabad as ordered by Sardar Patel.


The Rise of Sectarian Politics and the Birth of Telangana

Hyderabad remains unique even in contemporary India. And the reasons date back to 1926 when sectarianism was formally launched in the princely state.

In 1926, the Hyderabad princely state was demographically quite similar to contemporary India with a Muslim population of about 16% and people speaking Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Maharashtrian, Urdu, and Hindi. The same year, Mahmud Nawaz Khan launched the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) that was dedicated to promoting the supremacy of Islam in Hyderabad. Its activities over the years led to deepening polarisation in the state.

By the 1940s, it had become a politically powerful organisation and a power center in the state with Osman Ali merely looking on. This coincided with the rebellion by the communists in what is now known as 'Telangana'.

The response of Qasim Rizvi, who controlled the MIM by then was to create an armed and “independent” militia called the Razakars to take on the communists. There was brutal violence between the Razakars and the communists between 1945 and 1948. But the Razakars soon turned their attention to all non-Muslims.

The Nizam of Hyderabad did have an Army, but the "sword arm” was the Razakars militia (numbering anything between 50,000 and 200,000 according to historical records) which was hated by non-Muslim residents of the state.

Remnants of a Radical Past..

In most other provinces at that time, it was the Muslim League that espoused the cause of an Islamic State. It was politically powerful even in Hyderabad as it swept almost all seats reserved for Muslims in 1946. But in Hyderabad, street power and Islamism were controlled and dominated by the MIM and the Razakars.

The situation was so unique in Hyderabad that the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Congress, and the Communists became allies at the ground level against the MIM and the Razakars.

The MIM and the Razakars disappeared after 1948 when Hyderabad was incorporated into India. But a modern-day "democratic” version called AIMIM still exists though unlike the MIM, it pledges allegiance to the Indian Constitution. But its "Muslim” nature is not very different from what existed in the 1940s.

The president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Asaduddin Owaisi is acknowledged as one of the finest parliamentarians in India and has expanded his footprint to include Dalits and other awkward castes in a rainbow alliance which is still a dream. His younger brother Akbaruddin Owaisi, on the other hand, is a modern-day democratised version of Qasim Rizvi who frequently uses anti-Hindu dog whistles during political rallies and uses street power in Hyderabad.

Incidentally, the second Lok Sabha MP of AIMIM is Imtiaz Zameel who was elected from Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Parts of Aurangabad were once in the old Hyderabad state ruled by the Nizam. Incidentally, supporters of Akbaruddin Owaisi had attacked and assaulted exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen during an event in Hyderabad in 2007.

Ten years later in 2017, Imtiaz and his supporters did not allow Taslima to exit the Aurangabad airport to visit the city and boasted about it triumphantly. In the tumultuous days leading up to independence and partition, a liberal Muslim Journalist and Author Shoebullah Khan openly advocated a union with India and publicly condemned the Razakars for their savagery.

Supporters of Qasim Rizvi not only murdered Khan, but also chopped off his hands as a warning to other moderate Muslims who stood for India.

Fate of the Nizam Post Independence

When the British announced they were leaving India, both Pakistan and India became a reality. Despite his best efforts, Sardar Patel had no success with the Nizam. On 15 August 1947, when India became an independent country, Hyderabad emerged as an independent nation.

According to historical records, Qasim Rizvi and his associates did their best to persuade the Nizam to accede to Pakistan. The Muslim League and Mohammed Ali Jinnah were thrilled with the idea. But it was impractical. So the Nizam appointed ambassadors to European countries and a special team to Goa (then ruled by the Portuguese) to negotiate naval access.

He kept negotiating with Indian representatives and simultaneously sending aid to Pakistan. Many adventurers made fortunes trying to smuggle Second World War weapons into Hyderabad for Nizam’s army.

At the end of it all, Nizam agreed to a “standstill” with the new Government of India and refused to have Indian Army troops stationed in his "country”.

Even this was not acceptable to Qasim Rizvi and the Razakars who organised a massive demonstration in Hyderabad in October 1947. Like with the Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946, this too spilled out of control and spread across Hyderabad.

Many moderate Muslims who advocated a union with India were murdered; shutting off the voices of liberals. Ideologues still apportion blame for the bloodshed and mayhem between 1947 and 1948.

The authors would leave that to ideologues and just point out that unspeakable violence occurred; just as they have no intention of making it a Nehru versus Patel issue.

Sardar Patel finally had his way and ordered the Indian Army to launch Operation Polo on 13 September 1948. By the evening of 17 September, Hyderabad had fallen. The Nizam remained a very wealthy ex-royal. Qasim Rizvi was tried for sedition and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1948.

Rizvi was released from prison in 1957 and given 48 hours to leave India. He went to Pakistan and died there in 1970. The Nizam became the Rajpramukh of Hyderabad between 1948 and 1956 and continued staying in his palace in the city. He died in his palace in 1967. While Qasim Rizvi (barring Islamists) is a hated man in Hyderabad, there is much nostalgia and fondness for the Nizam.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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