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The Fall of Hyderabad

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On the 62nd anniversary of this princely state’s surrender to the Indian Union, a look back at the trail of events that led up to it.

On 18 September 1948, Major General Syed Ahmed El Edroos, Commander-in-Chief of the Hyderabad State Forces, surrendered his army to Major General JN Choudhuri, who had led Indian troops in Operation Polo, a military invasion against a defiant Hyderabad State that had refused to accede to the Dominion of India. In an archival news clip, El Edroos, a career soldier commissioned in 1919 who had seen action in both World Wars as part of the 1st Hyderabad Lancers, stoically addresses the camera: “The men under my command were called to perform a superhuman task… there was no alternative for me left but to surrender.” 

An understatement if anything. The odds against the resistance were inexorable, not just for the regular army but the irregular militia—of Razakars—organised under the incendiary leader Qasim Razvi, president of the Majlis-i-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), the political party then known as the Ittehad. The ‘Police Action’, as the military invasion is commonly known (thereby giving it a civil character) was quick, efficient and according to a subsequent independent report sponsored by the Government of India, and repudiated by Sardar Patel, brutal in the reprisals against the Muslim community in its wake.

The year leading up to this dramatic denouement in Independent India’s youthful political history was no less dramatic. It was, by all accounts, an intricate labyrinth of political intrigues, spy games, secret gun-running, economic and social embargoes, backdoor negotiations, collusions with the ‘enemy’, murders most foul, and of course, the odd honey trap. Worthy of a first-rate thriller, the smoke and mirrors leading up to the fall of the princely state has been documented by a few. Three partisan, first-person accounts provide fascinating insights into the beguiling drama: The End of an Era by KM Munshi, India’s Agent General in Hyderabad who fell out of favour with his political overlords in Delhi; The Tragedy of Hyderabad by Mir Laik Ali, the last Dewan or Prime Minister of Hyderabad State who defied the Indian leaders to the very end and secretly escaped to Pakistan in 1950; and Hyderabad of the Seven Loaves by Major General El Edroos, the ‘dashing’ soldier of Arab ancestry, who met a melancholic end.

The core dispute was of territorial sovereignty. Once the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was passed, Mir Osman Ali Khan, the ruler of Hyderabad, decided not to accede to either of the new dominions, but to remain independent. This was conveyed to Lord Mountbatten on 9 July 1947. India, of course, did not see things in the same light—Hyderabad, landlocked and bang in the centre, was a critical part of the Union, and had, at no time, any legitimate claim to independence. British suzerainty over Indian states had lapsed, and it was then, as assumed initially, up to the two dominions and princely states to forge alliances. Lord Mountbatten’s mandate was to cajole the princely states to accede to India, and he set himself to the task with great ceremony. Subsequently, negotiations began between India and Hyderabad, whose delegation included constitutional advisor Sir Walter Monckton (he had also drafted the abdication papers of King Edward VIII). Munshi, devoted to Sardar Patel, dismissed the Nizam as ‘an inveterate lover of autocratic power and Islamic domination’ while claiming, incredibly, that Osmania University was set up ‘to bring up a race of young educated Muslims indoctrinated with the Muslim Conquistador [sic] spirit’. He informs us of the final signing of the draft ‘Standstill Agreement’ on 29 November 1947. This had been a major hurdle in an already difficult process, both Munshi and Laik Ali admit, particularly due to the Ittehad which had prevented the Hyderabad Delegation from leaving for Delhi in late October. Consequently, the Nizam was bullied into dissolving the delegation and reconstituting it with a member of the Ittehad on it. 

The Ittehad, formed in 1927, gained prominence under the stewardship of Nawab Bahadur Yar Jung from 1939 on. Their doctrine of An-al-Malik (I am the Ruler), developed further during his leadership, asserted that the Nizam was merely a figurehead for Muslims of the Deccan. His untimely death in June 1944, rumoured to have been by poisoning, left the party bereft of strong leadership. Thereafter, the infamous Qasim Razvi took over as president, and the Ittehad became associated (and synonymous) with militancy. Popular movements against the autocracy, by the Congress and Communists, in Telangana had also gathered steam in the post-war years. For Munshi, anyone not a nationalist was necessarily aligned with the Ittehad, which ‘ran a school of espionage and propaganda. Some of the trainees, in the guise of Brahman priests, would encourage the Hindus of a village to inflict injury on a local mosque’. The Nizam too, as was popularly rumoured and reported by Indian newspapers then, was secretly arming them. Both El Edroos and Laik Ali rubbish this claim.

The allegation of arming Razakars, writes Laik Ali, was part of the propaganda of the Indian Government to discredit the Nizam and build a case for annexation. El Edroos throws some light here by revealing that there were hardly any arms to speak of. Three-quarters of Hyderabad’s troops went abroad during WW II, he says, and on their return relinquished their weapons and ammunition, which the Government of India was to replace at its cost in due course. The matter was raised by Hyderabad with Mountbatten and the Military Adviser-in-Chief of Indian Forces, General Moore, who in turn told El Edroos that Sardar Baldev Singh, Defence Minister of the Interim Government, was blocking the request. All attempts to re-arm Hyderabad State Forces were rebuffed by Delhi. El Edroos was then sent to Europe to explore procurement and import of arms and ammunition into Hyderabad but the mission proved unsuccessful—it was impossible to do so since Hyderabad was not recognised as an independent country. Travelling as a civilian, he bumped into Mountbatten at the Dorchester Hotel, London, and on the latter’s inquiry, said that he was there for ‘eye treatment’. Mountbatten responded with a wink. The Agent General of Hyderabad in London, Mir Nawaz Jung, had during this time engaged the services of an Australian man, an ‘adventurer’, Sidney Cotton, who brought in supplies and guns to Hyderabad surreptitiously through a fleet of planes he owned. 

All three accounts use the arms embargo issue to point to disagreement over the terms of the ‘Standstill Agreement’, which became the cause of further deterioration of talks. While the Indian unionists saw this as a breach, so did Hyderabad. The Government of India also charged Hyderabad with breaching the agreement by transferring securities worth20 crore to Pakistan, prohibiting Indian currency as legal tender in Hyderabad, and allowing the United Press of America to set up a wireless receiving station there.

The presence of foreign correspondents (seen to be sympathetic to Hyderabad) was also of concern to India. Munshi rails against the Hyderabad government’s propaganda machine, while claiming ‘authentic reports’ of the atrocities perpetrated by Razakars and Communists provided to him regularly by intrepid workers and brave journalists. These he would pass on to Delhi. 

Munshi opines that a section of ‘influential persons in Delhi’ discredited him and accused him of supplying unsubstantiated reports. Which was also what Hyderabad had accused him of. Munshi writes conspiratorially of a ‘young lady of Hyderabad’ residing in Colaba cultivating ‘our Army officers’, who on his advice was sent back to Hyderabad. When her mother later confronted Munshi, he recalls advising her it was ‘wicked’ and ‘dangerous’ that a young lady should remain ‘untethered to a husband, to live away from her parents’. This young lady, Munshi claims, used to entertain foreign correspondents in Hyderabad. Contradictory reports from Munshi and a foreign correspondent regarding an alleged inflammatory speech by Qasim Razvi during a rally for ‘Hyderabad Arms Week’ only gave Munshi’s Delhi detractors more fodder, he reveals, although his report hit its mark.

Munshi’s arrival in Hyderabad on 5 January 1948 itself was a dramatic event. While he was met by government officials and given a guard of honour, Laik Ali informs us pointedly, there was no reciprocal reception for Hyderabad’s Agent General in Delhi, Zain Yar Jung. The Indian Government had wanted Munshi to occupy the erstwhile British Residency, symbolic of British suzerainty. Hyderabad, seeing this desire as a hint of India’s intentions, declined. Frenzied communication between Delhi and Hyderabad ensued, and in the dead of night, Laik Ali reports, two Indian officers occupied an ‘anti-room [sic] of the main Residency building’, and on discovery the next day, refused to budge. Eventually, Munshi moved to Deccan House in the cantonment of Bolarum and promptly renamed it Dakshina Sadan. This too irked Hyderabad.

Before Mountbatten’s departure—Munshi says he wished to ‘leave in a blaze of glory’ and in Laik Ali’s estimation had no real power since it was Nehru, Patel and Menon who were dictating terms—a personal emissary was sent by him to Hyderabad, his press attaché Campbell-Johnson, on ‘a mission of unknown dimensions and opportunity’. During this period of rapidly deteriorating relations, while Laik Ali was in Delhi meeting Mountbatten and Indian leaders, a rumour circulated that the Nizam had purchased several atom bombs that were to be used on Indian cities in the event of Indian aggression. After Mountbatten’s departure on 21 June 1948, tensions escalated and talks failed. India sent Hyderabad an ultimatum, and both Nehru and Patel talked tough—accession or war.

While Hyderabad had been alleging border raids, false propaganda and an economic blockade by India, the Indian Government had declared Hyderabad’s intentions as mala fide and a threat to tranquillity in the Dominion. There was no way out of the impasse. In the meantime, after an unsuccessful secret trip by Laik Ali to Quetta to seek Jinnah’s advice (he was on his deathbed), Hyderabad prepared a delegation to present its case to the UN Security Council, hoping that before it fell, a cease-fire resolution would be passed—attracting world attention. 

No timely UN intervention (a familiar theme) was to be had and intelligence reports estimated 20 September as the date of the looming Indian invasion. The Nizam passed a mobilisation order. Laik Ali writes of El Edroos’ claim of engaging the Indian Army for two to three months, while El Edroos informs us, amazingly, that he had ‘passed on secret instructions to various Army sector commanders they were not to offer any resistance to the Indian Army but gradually fall back or surrender’. In the meantime, having been sidelined by Delhi, Munshi reports of how he was forlorn and looked like ‘Sita in Ashok Vana in a beautiful garden by myself’. 

In the early hours of 13 September 1948—Jinnah died the previous day, while Laik Ali, the Nizam, and Munshi alike were destroying important documents—reports of the advancing Indian forces came in. But for a few stray pockets of resistance and minimum casualties for them, they marched safely on to the capital. Just six days later, on the 17th, the Nizam went on air, followed by Munshi, to report the dismissal of the government, the withdrawal of the UN appeal, and the city’s capitulation. Azad Hyderabad had fallen.

Laik Ali ends his account cryptically with ‘a providential escape’ from house arrest; El Edroos tells the story of the ex-prime minister being whisked away in the boot of a car, for which he was falsely accused and later incarcerated; Munshi writes of his deep hurt over the way he was treated by Delhi. And in this manner, three distinct and colourful accounts of the fall of Hyderabad come to a close, the composite of which, remains a complex and curious political saga.