Freedom Issue 2016: Feature

The Lost Chapter of Gorata

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Did the mass killing of Hindus in a village under the Nizam’s rule help legitimise the integration of Hyderabad? History continues to haunt

THE DATE 15 AUGUST 1947 seems only vaguely relevant in Bidar, one of three districts in north-eastern Karnataka that had to wait a tumultuous year and a month longer to be integrated into Independent India. Along with Marathwada and Telangana, they were part of the erstwhile autocratic sprawl of the Hyderabad State, ‘liberated’ by the Indian armed forces from the seventh and the last Nizam, Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan, on 17 September 1948, amidst widespread communal tension and disharmony. What transpired in the interim months that led to ‘Operation Polo’, culminating in the Nizam’s surrender and the accession of Hyderabad, is a contentious matter that continues to polarise opinion. The forgotten village of Gorata, also known as Gorata B, in Basavakalyan taluk, about 60 km from Bidar, is an important signpost in the search for sustaining truths about the past of Hyderabad-Karnataka.

Everything in this village is covered in fine red dust—bushes of crape jasmine, tin roofing held in place by stones, streets where little girls chase down piglets, and a tragedy that befell this place over 68 years ago. There has been a death in the village today and the men, just back from the funeral, bathe in front of their aged homes, their beautiful carved doors ajar like books turned to a telltale chapter. Stories, real and conjectural, tumble out of these doors, reconstructing the incident that the BJP has opportunistically billed ‘the second Jallianwala Bagh’.

On the morning of 8 May 1948, as Gorata, a prosperous village of about 2,000, most of them trading and farming families, prepared for poornima (full moon day) with puris and festivities, hundreds of Razakars—literally, ‘volunteers’, who had enlisted in an Islamic militia that supported the Nizam’s idea of Azad Hyderabad—stormed in. They raided the 400-odd houses in the village, dragged the women out and raped at will, butchered children in front of the Lakshmi temple and shot anyone who put up resistance. It was, apparently, an act of retaliation, for the villagers had colluded in the murder of one Isamuddin, the local representative of the Razakars who is said to have been close to their self-styled commander, Kasim Razvi. Isamuddin had cautioned the village against hoisting the Indian flag and killed a villager and his family as an example. Over 200 villagers allegedly lost their lives at the hands of the rancorous mob over 8-9 May, even as hundreds hid in a fort-like house and others fled the region. The incident made a terrifying impression on KM Munshi, India’s Agent-General in the erstwhile state of Hyderabad, who surveyed the village soon after and wrote of the aftermath in his memoirs, The End of an Era: Hyderabad Memories (1957). ‘All around the village, the dead bodies of animals were seen lying in a decomposed state. Heaps of human skeletons and bones and half-burnt dead bodies were seen lying even at the time of our visit in different places in the whole village,’ Munshi wrote. ‘The village of Gorta is completely desolate, the houses and the localities have been entirely ruined… The loss is estimated at Rs 70 lakh.’

Curiously, not many outside Gorata have heard of the incident, despite its magnitude. Sunil Purushotham, a historian at Cambridge University who has studied the integration of Hyderabad, says he is “surprised not to have heard of this event sooner, especially because something of this scale would have certainly made it into nationalist papers like The Hindustan Times that regularly reported alleged Razakar atrocities from Hyderabad”. Purushotham did find a Times of India article from 19 May 1948 quoting a Hyderabad government communique that denied ‘a news agency report that armed Razakars, supported by the Hyderabad police, attacked two villages in the Bidar district, massacred about 200 villagers and looted their property’. Notwithstanding the lack of evidence besides Munshi’s account, and accounting for his nationalist bias, it still seems improbable that he fabricated the tragedy that he so vividly describes. The oral history of an entire village and its neighbourhood speak to the truth of a calamity that claimed many lives.

The people of present-day Gorata are simple and shy, and not given to eulogising the dead. They have a resilient air about them as they talk matter-of-factly about their past. Sharanappa Patil was nine years old when his parents arrived in a state of panic to pick him up from his school in Bidar. The Razakar mob had reached the village and they had to flee to Solapur in Maharashtra, returning six months later to confront great loss and ruin. “We lost three of the family to the Razakars: my father’s brothers Gurupadappa, Basappa and Aniruddhappa. They wore saris and hid as women but when the Razakars found out, they dragged them to the Lakshmi temple and killed them as my grandmother watched,” says Sharanappa, now an old man in a dhoti and topi. He sits on a charpoy in the courtyard as his sons and daughters-in-law fill in the details: how there were stones everywhere and all the doors were burnt down, and how the grass grew tall in the fields. They have heard the story dozens of times. “In Gorata, this is part of household conversation. It has even been enshrined in local folk songs. We cannot allow our children to forget what happened,” says Sharanappa.

The sordid history, however, lay buried in Gorata—like the memorial stone engraved with the names of 23 ‘martyrs’ that is all but hidden away behind a stairway of the Panchayat building—until the Bidar unit of the BJP decided to revive it a couple of years ago by mooting the idea of a memorial honouring Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. BJP National President Amit Shah inaugurated the project, on the outskirts of the village, in September 2014, promising that he would be back with Prime Minister Narendra Modi upon its completion. “Patel is a hero for the Hindus of Hyderabad-Karnataka, next only to Basavanna, the 12th-century Lingayat scholar who transformed the region with his philosophy. But while Basava is revered, not many people know of Patel’s contribution to the accession of Hyderabad,” says Babu Wali, a local journalist and BJP party functionary. The martyrs’ memorial project has been delayed, with only a couple of pedestals, a pillar and a flagpole now standing at the desolate site.

IN 1947, AS the country broke loose of British control, Hyderabad was a geopolitical thorn in the Indian national project and a large one at that. For BR Ambedkar, it presented “a new problem which may turn out to be worse than the Hindu-Muslim problem as it is sure to result in the further Balkanisation of India”. Unlike the 565- odd princely states that readily acceded to India, the Nizam, a little old man with big coffers and a bigger ego, had to be subjugated by way of Operation Polo or ‘Police Action’—for calling it military action would imply invading an independent state. Several efforts by Secretary of the States Department VP Menon and others to reach an agreement with the Nizam had failed to yield results. The ruler remained defiant and resorted to many ill-advised moves, including sending financial aid to Pakistan, working hand-in-glove with the Majlis-e-Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen headed by Kasim Razvi, and expressing willingness to host the British military in his territory even after independence. The so-called Police Action, however, was branded not as a political exercise but as a necessary intervention to address the law and order situation in Hyderabad. Reports of Razakar excess were often exaggerated in the media. Although a large number of Dalits and backward class Hindus had enlisted along with Muslim refugees who had just arrived in Hyderabad from other parts of India, the real strength of the Razakar force may have been under 50,000, while it was reported to be in excess of 200,000. They had free access to ammunition and trucks and constantly clashed with the Hindu majority, and these flare-ups made propaganda material for the Hyderabad State Congress, the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha. “The campaign of murder, arson and loot going on in Hyderabad rouses communal passion in India and jeopardises the peace of the dominion,” Patel warned. He tasked his faithful associates, Menon and Munshi, with handling the impasse, and after Mountbatten’s departure to Britain, urged Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to prepare to send troops into Hyderabad. There are several accounts of Nehru, who had been loath to interfere in Hyderabad fearing international repercussions, finally relenting after hearing of the Razakars’ violence against women. “There are many reasons why Patel and Nehru opted for Operation Polo. Their primary goal was to make sure Hyderabad became part of the Indian Union. It is my opinion that the immediate cause for a military solution to the standoff was Hyderabad’s appeal to the United Nations, and the UN agreeing to hear the Nizam’s case,” says Purushotham.

Karnataka Congress leader and former minister Bheemanna Khandre says the Gorata incident, news of which reached Patel and Nehru through extremist Congress leader Ramanand Tirtha and Munshi, was one of a handful of prominent developments that helped legitimise Operation Polo. “The situation in Hyderabad-Karnataka was one of lawlessness. Responsible government was the need of the hour. For instance, while I was in jail, 300 acres of my family’s land was usurped by the government and auctioned off. It was getting difficult to just be a Hindu. The only option, at least for young men, was to fight,” says the 92-year-old, who meets me in his office in Bhalki, a town near Gorata. “We took up arms against Razakars, but we were forced to abscond when our arms licences were revoked by the Nizam. So Congressmen and Arya Samajists went underground. My uncle’s shop in Bhalki served as the local Congress office and supplied guns to freedom fighters,” he says. Opposing the Nizam’s autocracy was, for many Hindus in Hyderabad, no different than India’s fight against its colonial oppressors. Dozens gave up their lives for the cause in direct combat with Razakar and police forces; hundreds of Arya Samaj workers who came by the busload to Gulbarga and Bidar courted arrest every day. “Gorata was a landmark incident even in those troubled times. Nowhere else had so many innocent Hindus been massacred en masse. And I believe that reports of this incident convinced Patel to push for military intervention,” says Khandre, whose mother was from Gorata. Bidar-based Professor of History Manshetty Belakeri, who has written a book in Kannada on Hyderabad- Karnataka, says there were several other incidents such as one in September 1948 in Jevargi taluk, Gulbarga, where 11 were killed, but none as brutal as the Gorata massacre. “The episode showed that the Nizam had long lost control over the Razakars, who took a hardline stance against anyone who did not stand for Azad Hyderabad,” he says.

Was military action, and the consequent violence against thousands of Muslims, justified? Operation Polo certainly became essential to the idea of India

Gorata is oblivious of any impact it may have had on the course of India’s history. A golden statue of Ambedkar and piles of neatly stacked twigs welcome you into the village, where there are few toilets and as many elegant old homes as there as tin-shed dwellings. On a hot afternoon, dogs laze under the neem tree facing the Lakshmi temple and faint strains of Hindi film music fill the air. It is like any other village, except there is not a single Muslim family here. The depredations of contemporary judgement continue to colour the relations between Hindus and Muslims in these parts.

“The differences mounted over a period of time,” says Yeswanthrao Saigaonkar, a ‘freedom fighter’ who took two bullets in combat with Razakars. “At first, Hindus in Hyderabad had a comfortable life. The Muslims controlled administration and we controlled commerce. It was a neat arrangement. But when our liberties were being infringed upon, some of us did not take it lying down. So much has happened since: five people were burned alive in this very village.” At 92, Saigaonkar is a spry man bent over a cluttered desk in his office in Saigaon, a picturesque village not far from Gorata. He is wrapping up a book on the history of Gorata. He also claims to have played a role in the events that led up to the violence of May 1948. “Isamuddin, a Kasim Razvi loyalist, had been threatening villagers who hoisted the Indian flag on a tree in Gorata. He killed an entire family—Bhaorao Patil and three others from his household—for acting against the Nizam. So we [Arya Samajists] had to retaliate,” Saigaonkar says, launching into a detailed account of how the Arya Samaj mobilised and trained an army of young Hindus, known as the Arya Vir Dal, to counter the Razakars. Isamuddin and some villagers had gone to Basavakalyan to buy provisions for a festival and were returning at night when a group of Arya Samajists including Saigaonkar ambushed him, killing him and his bodyguard.

He also claims advance knowledge of Operation Polo. Members of the Arya Vir Dal, he says, were called into a meeting on the night of 11 September and asked to guide Major General JN Chaudhari in Operation Polo. “We knew the lay of the land. On 13 September, we left in the early hours of the morning along with Indian troops and guided them through various entry points into Hyderabad,” he says. Saigaonkar says he was one of 40 students in the first batch of Arya Vir Dal trainees who received instruction at a camp in Vijayawada. “We were trained to make petrol bombs and to use hand grenades. Six people from our batch were eventually selected to attempt to assassinate the Nizam in 1947. My cousin, Narayan Rao Pawar, was among them. The group hurled a bomb at the Nizam, who escaped mostly unhurt. Pawar was sentenced to death, only to be saved in the nick of time by Operation Polo,” Saigaonkar says. He says the police watched them closely after the incident, forcing them to go underground. “Arya Samaj leaders told us to disperse and to continue fighting. I had 40 people under me and we were involved in over 15 fights,” he says. When his identity—and those of hundreds of others who were part of the agitation in Hyderabad—as a freedom fighter later came into question, Saigaonkar felt “hurt”. “I had spent my youth fighting for the dream of a unified India, and Indira Gandhi’s suggestion that the Arya Samaj was a religious organisation that went through a purely communal struggle was hurtful. PV Narasimha Rao, however, talked to her and ensured that we were recognised as freedom fighters and given a pension,” he says.

He does not regret dedicating his best years to a political cause, but says that in retrospect, the Gorata incident could have been averted. “But Isamuddin had become too reckless and violent, there was no telling when he would do something,” Saigaonkar says. “We wanted to save Hindu lives.” It was a grand old house that saved the most lives in Gorata on that ill- fated day. A narrow stone path leads up to the imposing walls of the village landmark that shielded over 500 people over two- to-three days. “This was a big, beautiful house, and people from the neighbouring villages often came to see it,” says Madhumati Domne, the daughter-in-law of Kamla Bai, who was a daughter of the house. Kamla was 14 and engaged to be married when the Razakars struck. “She was in Solapur with her father, Madhappa Domne, who built the house. For two days, over 500 people huddled in every corner of the house, safe from the bullets of the Razakars. The men took up positions on the terrace from where they could load their catapults with stones and take aim at the invaders. The granary was full and fed everyone for the days to come. In the end, the house was set on fire and was severely damaged. But the treasury and many rooms remained safe,” says Madhumati, over cups of chai in the courtyard.

The house hasn’t changed much since. Kitchens equipped with built-in stone churners and large brass and copper pots look untouched by time. The solid iron beams could hold up the ceilings for at least another century. A steep flight of stairs leads up to a mossy terrace with high walls that wraps around the house, offering several vantage points overlooking the village. Adjoining structures that must have been part of the house are in ruins. When Madhappa arrived to survey the damage to the house, he was so distraught that he took ill and died in a few months, Madhumati says.

Was the military action, and the consequent violence against thousands of Muslims, justified? Operation Polo certainly became essential to the idea of India. The communal tension in Hyderabad that had for the first time become apparent in the minor revolts starting from 1938 soon spiralled out of control, with Hindu and Muslim organisations actively engaged in conversion and shuddhi, and in acts of mutual sabotage. The Nizam was playing a dangerous balancing game. Forced to adopt constitutional reforms that afforded more participation in government to Hindus, he also made no attempt to rein in the Ittihad and its leader, Bahadur Yar Jung, who died in 1944. The Congress and the Arya Samaj meanwhile made several lukewarm attempts at satyagraha, but it was only around 1945 that the movement gathered steam and got the full approval of the Congress High Command. Curiously, despite the nationalist wave sweeping Hyderabad, it was up to external forces to direct the movement. The general apathy to the cause in Hyderabad evident from the fact that despite the 85 per cent Hindu majority, the Indian Government was not sure how the people of the state would vote in case of a plebiscite. For instance, upper-caste Hindus like Kayasths, who had managed to gain a footing in the administration, stood by the Nizam. The Nizam, too, could not have readily agreed to joining the Indian Union, for such a decision would have triggered a revolt by the Ittihad. Operation Polo was India’s ticket out of this sticky predicament. And it came at a huge cost of Muslim lives, several times the number that Gorata parted with. In August 1947, as a new era of freedom and belonging dawned on India, Hyderabad was yet to face its worst demons. It would be years before they were fully exorcised. Gorata is a grim reminder of that dark past, but also a symbol of human resilience. “The astonishing thing about Gorata is how its people came back to rebuild it within months of the tragedy,” says Saigaonkar, reclining in his chair, as though the events of his life were flashing before his eyes. “It makes you want to believe in the future of humanity.”