Operation Polo: How India Invaded Hyderabad

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Hyderabad was invaded amidst communal clashes and the politics of region and religion. What can we learn from the past?

For 235 years, the Asaf Jah dynasty had reigned over Hyderabad. By 1948, its seventh Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur, was known to be the richest man in the world. And, of all the princely states, Hyderabad was the largest with a territory of 82,698 Sq miles (133089 kilometres) – more than that of England and Scotland put together.

With India gaining independence in 1947, the Nizam found himself surrounded by turmoil. The newly carved nations of India and Pakistan were swallowing up the princely states. Of the 562 princely states, Hyderabad was the only one yet to pick a side.

The Nizam was against India’s partition and had at one time banned Jinnah from entering Hyderabad. He wanted to retain Hyderabad as an independent state and refused to surrender his sovereignty, acceding to neither India nor Pakistan.

In an attempt to hold onto his state, he attempted to manoeuvre towards a deal where he could negotiate an alliance with India rather than an amalgamation into India. To avoid accession, he signed the Standstill Agreement with the Government of India – which promised that the terms provided to the Princely States under British rule would continue until an agreement was made.

But soon after, each side started accusing the other of violating the standstill.

The internal situation in Hyderabad was deteriorating. The complex political landscape was getting out of control – the communist uprising, the Nizam’s loyalists and the Congress volunteers disrupted the smooth functioning of the state. The Nizam sought help from the British, but was unsuccessful.

In a desperate attempt, he gave tacit support to the Razakars – a rabid private militia (a sort of volunteer corps), led by Qasim Razvi, known for their indiscipline. The Razakars were associated with Majlis-i-Ittehad-ul-Muslimein, a political party with considerable influence over the Nizam and dedicated to maintaining Muslim rule in Hyderabad.

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In the summer of 1948, the Razakars had become aggressive, unruly and started eliminating those who they felt were against the Nizam. The violence they perpetrated was horrific. Recounting the horrors of the past to The Hindu, ninety-year-old Mallaiah recounted the incident that took place in his village, Bhairanpally, on August 27, 1948:

They plundered everything. The armed men molested women, killed sheep and killed able-bodied men just for pleasure. They looted every village en route… to save bullets, they lined us up and shot. The bullet missed me and went through my left hand. Thinking that I was dead, they threw me on the heap of dead.

The Razakars targeted not only Hindus but also Muslims whose loyalty was in doubt. Their increasing influence, intimidation and unruly violence coupled with the Nizam’s refusal to amalgamate with India angered leaders in Delhi – Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister and Vallabhai Patel, the then Minister of States issued warnings. An invasion seemed imminent.

Fearing an Indian invasion, the Nizam informed the United Nations Security Council under Article 35 (2) via a cablegram on August 21, 1948 on the grounds that “a grave dispute had arisen between Hyderabad and India, which, unless settled in accordance with international law and justice, was likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security”.  The letter stated:

Hyderabad, a State not a Member of the United Nations, accepts for the purposes of the dispute the obligations of pacific settlement provided in the Charter of the United Nations.

Religious fault lines deepened. Violence along religious lines was propagated and exploited by all political parties to garner support for their organisations. Since 1941, the All India Hindu Mahasabha kept a record of what they called “tyrannous and political injustices and unfairness on the Hindus in all Provinces and particularly under Muslim administration and Muslim states”. Hindu Nationalists called on Muslims throughout India to ‘give proof of their loyalty to the Indian Union’, by opposing the Nizam’s rule.

All complexities were narrated through communal lines. Violence along religious lines preceded the army’s advance. It was not just political differences but also personal differences which triggered this. Vallabhai Patel was known for his personal hatred for the Nizam. He described the idea of an independent Hyderabad as “an ulcer in the heart of India which had to be removed surgically”.

On September 13, 1948, declaring a state of emergency, the Government of India sent its troops to Hyderabad under the guise of “police action”. It was called “Operation Polo”.

It was reportedly swift and brief. It took four days and 13 hours for the Hyderabad Army and the Razakars surrendered. Air strikes by Hawker Tempest bombers cleared the way for the first offensive, with the Nizam unable to reciprocate. On September 17, armoured cars had taken Hyderabad city.

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Upon surrender, the Nizam had a different tone. On September 23, the Nizam announced surrender on the radio:

In November last [1947], a small group which had organized a quasi-military organization surrounded the homes of my Prime Minister, the Nawab of Chhatari, in whose wisdom I had complete confidence, and of Sir Walter Monkton, my constitutional Adviser, by duress compelled the Nawab and other trusted ministers to resign and forced the Laik Ali Ministry on me. This group headed by Qasim Razvi has no stake in the country or any record of service behind it. By methods reminiscent of Hitlerite Germany it took possession of the State, spread terror … committed arson and looting on a large scale … and rendered me completely helpless. I was anxious to come to an honourable settlement with India but this group … got me to reject offers made by the Government of India from time to time. I am a Moslem and I am proud to be a Moslem. But I know that Hyderabad can not remain apart from India.

The very same day, the Nizam also withdrew his complaint against India, and the Hyderabad question was adjourned sine die on September 28, 1948.

The Massacre

The operation was conducted with a large deal of official secrecy. Accounts of the ‘police operation’ were hard to come by. But the carnage that followed the annexation saw Nehru determined to get to the bottom of it. Alarmed by the excesses, he commissioned a team led by Pandit Sunderlal to investigate and report. The report was left unreleased and unpublished, with no official explanation as to why.

It was only by 2001 that the public started getting answer. Sunil Purushottam, a Cambridge-based historian, accessed a copy, now available in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi. The report presents disturbing details:

We had absolutely unimpeachable evidence to the effect that there were instances in which men belonging to the Indian Army and also to the local police took part in looting and even other crimes … During our tour we gathered, at not a few places, that soldiers encouraged, persuaded and in a few cases even compelled the Hindu mob to loot Muslim shops and houses.

In some cases, the soldiers turned into butchers and took part in the carnage

At a number of places, members of the armed forces brought out Muslim adult males from villages and towns and massacred them in cold blood.

Confidential notes described horrific details of the attack

In many places, we were shown wells still full of corpses that were rotting. In one such we counted 11 bodies, which included that of a woman with a small child sticking to her breast … We saw remnants of corpses lying in ditches. At several places, the bodies had been burnt and we would see the charred bones and skulls still lying there.

The Sunderlal report estimated that over 27,000 to 40,000 people lost their lives. However other sources place the number higher. Describing the aftermath, Professor Wilfred Smith wrote:

Off the battlefield, however, the Muslim community fell before a massive and brutal blow, the devastation of which left those who did survive reeling in bewildered fear. Thousands upon thousands were slaughtered; many hundreds of thousands uprooted. The instrument of their disaster was, of course, vengeance. Particularly in the Marathwada section of the state, and to a less but still terrible extent in most other areas, the story of the days after ‘police action’ is grim. It is widely believed that the figure of Muslims massacred is 50,000. Other estimates …run as high as 200,000.

There were, however, some instances of communal harmony. As Sundarayya points out:

The ordinary Muslim people … were pounced upon and untold miseries were inflicted on them. The Hindu people … rescued such ordinary Muslims to the extent possible, gave shelter to them in their houses and rescued thousands of Muslim families fro the campaign of rape and murder indulged by the Union armies

Decades since this invasion, horrors cast by communal hatred are conveniently left in History’s dustbin – without learning any lessons. If there is anything we can learn from this invasion, hidden in the annals of history, it is this: Communally charged politics and hate mongering among for political gains wreak havoc on the lives of everyday citizens.

The idea of India is one of unity, secularism and plurality. Perhaps it’s time we point out to the blunders of the past and question those who spread hatred in the name of region and religion?

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