India celebrated 75 years of independence from the British Raj on the 15th of August 2022, after more than 150 years of struggle. The liberation of India from the British was not without its price. The political hanky-panky during the final years of the Raj, the communal tensions, the partition of India, and the war in 1948 are testament to that. Some chapters on the history of India around this time are not discussed as often, like the integration of around 560 states in the Union of India, the political developments between 15th August 1947 and 26th January 1950, the negotiations for accession with states, etc. This points to something that we must remember while thinking about the modern history of India. On the 15th of August 1947, India was independent but almost in name only.
We were a Dominion of the British, and we still had a Governor-General overseeing the transfer of administrative power. 3 territories that were a part of British India were not a part of the Indian Dominion, namely Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Junagadh. Of these, the story of J&K is well known. Junagadh, now a part of Gujarat, saw a brief struggle before it was integrated into India after a plebiscite. The events leading to the accession of Hyderabad are the subject of this essay.
This essay will first try to describe the history of the Nizams and their rule in Hyderabad. Then, we will see the opportunist, ambitious, feudalistic, and despotic tendencies of the Nizams, especially the 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan. During his reign, India gained independence and he refused to accede to India. We will then try to establish the very real threat to peace both within Hyderabad and out of Hyderabad in India posed by the Nizam and his loyalists, which led to the police action (Operation Polo) and the subsequent accession of Hyderabad State to India in Sept 1948.
The Origin of Nizam-ul-Mulk
Before we dive into the accession of Hyderabad, let us go over its history. Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizams of the Asafiya dynasty from 1724 to 1948, over 7 generations. During the reign of Shah Jahan, the father of Aurangzeb, a man named Khwaja Abid Ali Khan came to India from the Samarkand-Bukhara region on his way to Mecca. Shah Jahan helped him in his pilgrimage. Later, he stayed in Delhi at the request of the emperor. He also called his son, Mir Shahabuddeen Siddiqui, from Bukhara and got him married to the daughter of Aurangzeb's vizier Sadullah Khan, thereby embedding himself into the politics of India.
As Shah Jahan's reign declined, there was a war of succession among his sons, as was the Mughal custom. During this time, the opportunistic Abid Ali sided with Aurangzeb. When Aurangzeb came to power, he made Shahabuddeen the Subhedar of Gujarat. After Shahabuddeen died in 1710, his son, Qamaruddeen, became the Subhedar of Gujarat in 1713. It was a period of political turmoil in Delhi, and the Mughal emperors changed with wind patterns. Qamaruddeen made the best of his situation and took advantage of the political instability to descend to the south and proclaim himself the ruler of the Deccan in 1724.
The Mughal emperor of the time, Farrukhsiyar, bestowed the titles Nizam-ul-Mulk, and Feroz Jung on him. The title Nizam means Governor, under the imperial authority of the Mughal rulers of Delhi. A successive Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah, gave him the title Asaf Jahan. This is the origin of the dynasty name, the Asafiya dynasty. Despite declaring autonomy, Asaf Jahan and all his successors continued to refer to themselves as the Nizams, the governors, and not emperors.
The Asafiya Dynasty
Asaf Jahan Qamaruddeen urf Chin Qilich Khan, the first Nizam, fought several battles and expanded his territory. He fought against the Marathas under Peshwa Bajirao several times and lost every single one of those battles. The most spectacular face-off was the battle of Palkhed (1728), near Nashik, Maharashtra, where the Peshwa outmaneuvered the artillery-heavy army of the Nizam by his superior use of cavalry tactics. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery referred to Bajirao's tactics and rapid cavalry movement as "a masterpiece of strategic mobility." The battle of Bhopal (1738) was a similar debacle for the Nizam, handed to him by Peshwa Bajirao.
Asaf Jahan I was the only Nizam who engaged in combat for territorial expansion. Over the 24 years of his reign (1724 to 1748), he managed to create a kingdom for himself in the Deccan peninsula. He had a reputation for being opportunistic. This trait was displayed by almost every subsequent Nizam, although none was as successful in administrating the Nizam territory as the first Asaf Jahan. Even though the kingdom of the Nizam of Hyderabad was autonomous, he was always identified as the Nizam and never as the emperor or the supreme power, even in his kingdom. He was subservient to the Mughal authority and later the British because he was never the most dominant military power in the Deccan.
The Nizams of the Asafiya dynasty, all 7 of them, were always dependent on the assistance of other powers for their territorial integrity, first, the Mughals, then the French, and later, the British. For all their claims of supremacy, they were periodically reminded that they were vassals and not paramount rulers. There is ample evidence for this. For example, when the 4th Asaf Jahan, Naseer-ud-Daula, was to ascend to the throne, he had to get the approval of the Mughal emperor, even though the Mughal empire was only a nominal power in the Subcontinent, for which he paid a Nazrana of 101 gold coins and a necklace of precious pearls to the Mughal emperor. Is it autonomy if the ruler is approved by another authority?
In 1763, Asaf Jahan II sought to take advantage of the political instability in the Maratha empire and raided Pune. Fearing a Maratha revenge campaign, the Nizam allied with the French, who had a growing influence in the south. When the British gained power in the south, the Nizam broke his alliance with the French and allied with the British instead. He did that to safeguard his kingdom from Marathas and Tipu Sultan. In 1778, the British stationed a Resident in Hyderabad as their representative. This was the beginning of the dependence of the Nizam on the British.
The Nizam was the protectorate of the British till 1947. The extent of his subservience can be gauged from the fact that the British had control over the appointment of the Nizam himself, his Prime Minister, his council of ministers, all their salaries, etc. During the last few decades, even trivial aspects of the Nizam's life were dictated by the British, including the pensions of the princes or where they went for their education, just to name a few things.
In 1899, the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, even imposed an upper limit on the pension of the Nizam to Rs 50 lakh per year and restricted the expenditure of the Nizam administration by appointing an officer for the same. Thus, all of the claims of autonomy of the Nizams were just that, claims. He was just as much of a vassal of the British as the other princely states in India. He was reminded of that status several times by the British themselves.
Faithful Ally: His Exalted Highness Mir Osman Ali Khan
Over 7 generations, the Nizams of Hyderabad were able to rule for 224 years over a more or less stable empire. The 6th Nizam, Mahboob Ali Khan, ruled for 42 years, although some of it was under the regency of the British. The 7th Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, was 26 years old when he ascended to the throne in August 1911. Like most of their predecessors, they did not have to fight many battles, and whatever few battles they did fight, they never had active parts in them.
During the reign of Mahboob Ali Khan, he aided the British by giving them financial support in a battle. At that time, he had written them a letter in which he boasted about helping them financially. He also said that the sword of the Nizam is forever unsheathed in the service of the British empire.
This could not be further from the truth since he had never fought any noteworthy battle in the 42 years of his reign. One could say that his sword was always sheathed. But that never kept him or his son from boasting about the greatness and valour of the Nizams. In a Firman issued by Osman Ali Khan, a few lines appear at the beginning where there is a poem to the effect that the Nizami sword is always ready to maintain the prestige and integrity of the British empire. One cannot think of a more direct way to express loyalty to the British than instances like this.
Osman Ali Khan was an extremely ambitious Nizam, as is seen from his insistence that he was on an equal footing with the British. He mentioned it several times in his letters to British officers in India, so much so that the British Resident in 1926, Lord Reading, in a letter addressed to him, repudiated this in the bluntest of terms and reminded the Nizam of his status as a vassal of the Paramount power.
"The Sovereignty of the British Crown is supreme in India, and therefore no ruler of an Indian State can justifiably claim to negotiate with the British Government on an equal footing. Its supremacy is not based only upon treaties and engagements, but exists independently of them and, quite apart from its prerogative in matters relating to foreign powers and policies, it is the right and duty of the British Government, while scrupulously respecting all treaties and engagements with the Indian States to preserve peace and good order throughout India. The consequences that follow are so well known, and so clearly apply no less to Your Exalted Highness than to other rulers, that it seems hardly necessary to point them out. But if illustrations are necessary, I would remind Your Exalted Highness that the ruler of Hyderabad along with other Rulers received in 1862 a Sanad declaratory of the British Government's desire for the perpetuation of his House and Government, subject to continued loyalty to the Crown: that no succession in the Masnad Hyderabad is valid unless it is recognised by His Majesty the King-Emperor: and that the British Government is the only arbiter in cases of a disputed succession."
- Lord Reading's letter to Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, dated 27th March 1926
But the British knew of his ambition from the start. In fact, in 1911, after the death of Mahboob Ali Khan, the British appointed Osman Ali Khan on "probation" for 2 years while periodically reminding him of his status vis-a-vis the British. In 1919, Lord Chelmsford rebuked him by telling him to behave himself and that the British retained the right to intervene if and when they deemed it necessary.
One of the first things Osman Ali Khan did after assuming the throne was to dismiss the Diwan, Maharaja Kishan Prashad, and install Salar Jung III in his place. Salar Jung III was a puppet Diwan. The Nizam was the Nizam and the Diwan. Right up to 1919, Osman Ali Khan enjoyed almost absolute authority. The British themselves put an end to this. The British were preoccupied with the First World War till then. The Nizam had sent some soldiers and large sums of money to the British during that time.
Ironically, the Nizam, who would proclaim Hyderabad State to be an Islamic State and immortalize the Asafiya dynasty, helped the British in their war against Turkey, the symbol of global Islam at the time. The Nizam envisioned an Islamic State in Hyderabad before Muhammad Ali Jinnah latched on to the idea of Pakistan. The Nizam even ordered the Masjids in the State to pray for the safety of the British pilots that were bombing Europe indiscriminately, without caring about the European Muslims affected by it.
King George V bestowed upon the Nizam the title of His Exalted Highness (while other nobles in India were called His/Her Highness) and called the Nizam a "Faithful Ally" of the British for his services during World War I. One could think that Nizam's loyalty to the British crown could not be put in clearer terms than these.
Nizam's Feudalism and Communalism
The Nizam rule in Hyderabad was set up as an Islamic State, as were all Muslim kingdoms and empires. Even as a Protectorate of the British, these political aspirations influenced by religious zeal are evident. During the reign of Osman Ali Khan, the popular movement for Independence of India and the establishment of a responsible govt in Hyderabad gained momentum. The rule of the Nizams was feudalistic and retrogressive.
Hyderabad State was divided into 3 parts. One-third was the personal property of the Nizam. It was referred to as the Sarf-i-Khas. Another third was allotted for the expenses incurred by the State, known as the Diwan's territory or the Paigah. The last third was divided into Jagirs and given to Zamindars, who could collect taxes from their subjects. This whole setup was feudalistic. The Nizam himself lived quite lavishly.
At one point during the 1930s, Osman Ali Khan was the richest person in the world, according to Time Magazine. He had 3 wives, dozens of concubines and more than 100 children. He had a vast network of spies, spread over all aspects of public life.
“Intrigue is in the air at Hyderabad—a vigorous survival from Moghul, and still earlier times. It is with some people almost a pastime. Often the methods are clumsy and easily seen through; on the other hand, there is frequently a delicacy of touch, a finesse worthy of the trained and cultured brain behind it, the whole constituting a drama very interesting to watch at when it unfolds.”
-The Princes of India, Sir William Barton, British Resident in Hyderabad 1925-1930
Simultaneously, in the kingdom out of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, absentee landlordship, rack-renting, serfdom, forced labour, and several such inhuman practices of a pre-industrial agrarian society were rampant. Beyond the major urban centres mentioned above, there was hardly any infrastructure, like roads or buildings. This led to growing feelings of resentment among the people in the State. The movement for independence and a responsible government meant that this system would have to be discarded in favour of a democratic and egalitarian system. This was called the main problem of Hyderabad State in the White Paper on Hyderabad, published by the Dominion of India.
Political Map of Hyderabad State in British India
Image source: The Companion