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Book Review: Destruction of Hyderabad

Noorani’s account questions the narratives put forth by the “court historians of Indian nationalism” who misleadingly called an army operation “police action”.

Published:January 18, 2014 12:49 pm

Book: Destruction of Hyderabad

Author: AG Noorani

Publication: Tulika Books

Pages: 388

Price: Rs 825

The recent public spat between the leadership of the BJP and the Congress about the political legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel has led to a debate on the ideological moorings of the first home minister of independent India. BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who plans to set up a 600-foot-high statue of Patel in Gujarat, designed an entire poll campaign around the memory of the Congress stalwart, even as PM Manmohan Singh countered that Patel was “in principle a secular man”.

Constitutional expert AG Noorani’s thoroughly researched Destruction of Hyderabad, a revisionist account of the “police action” led by the Indian army against the government of Nizam of Hyderabad in 1948, sheds new light on this debate. To do so, it cites a detailed record of letters, diaries, memoirs and diplomatic exchanges between various players — it also reproduces in full the Sunderlal committee report on the massacre of Hyderabad’s Muslim population.

A four-member goodwill mission led by Pandit Sunderlal had spent a month in Hyderabad at the request of Nehru in November 1948. The report filed at the end of it estimated that 27,000-40,000 people died in communal violence during and after the “police action”. It was never made public by the Indian government, as Patel repudiated the report, says Noorani.

Noorani’s account questions the narratives put forth by the “court historians of Indian nationalism” who misleadingly called an army operation “police action”. But it is the contrasting portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Patel which explain why the BJP is so eager to claim Patel’s legacy ahead of the crucial general elections this year. “Their (Nehru and Patel) differences were fundamental and stemmed from their different conceptions of what India should be. Nehru was not against the military option (to annex Hyderabad) in principle. He supported it only as a last resort. For Patel, it was the first resort. He had no patience with talks,’’ Noorani writes.

In Noorani’s telling, Nehru was contemptuous of the Nizam’s government but bore no malice towards him. He also held Hyderabad’s culture in high regard. In contrast, “Patel hated the Nizam personally and was ideologically opposed to Hyderabad’s composite culture. Nehru’s concern was to … [defeat] Hyderabad’s secessionist venture. Patel wanted to go further. He wanted to destroy Hyderabad and its culture completely. In Hyderabad, as in Kashmir, Nehru was an ardent Indian nationalist. On both states, Vallabhbhai Patel was a strident Hindu nationalist”, he writes. When Patel repeatedly described Hyderabad as an “ulcer in the heart of India”, the metaphor, says Noorani, revealed a vindictive mindset .

“Gandhi had noted that the massacre of Muslims in Jammu in 1947 was little known in India. Even less is known of the massacre of Muslims that followed the army action in Hyderabad in 1948. Patel’s communal outlook was fully reflected in his behavior… He repudiated the report of an independent inquiry into the massacre,’’ Noorani writes.

The Patel who emerges from Noorani’s account is a man who harboured a deep suspicion of Muslims, who opposed Maulana Azad’s induction in the first Cabinet of independent India, and who represented a hardline strain within the Congress party. He quotes S Gopal, Nehru’s biographer, who said, “Patel assumed that Muslim officials, even if they had opted for India, were bound to be disloyal and should be dismissed; and to him the Muslims in India were hostages to be held as security for the fair treatment of Hindus in Pakistan.” Noorani points out how there was, in truth, opposite strands of thought in the Congress. “Many a Congressman was a communalist under his national cloak,” Noorani quotes Nehru as saying.

Was Patel one of them? Noorani quotes Patel’s letters and public speeches to claim so. In a letter to Stafford Cripps on December 15, 1946, Patel warned that “the mild Hindu also, when driven to desperation, can retaliate as brutally as a fanatic Muslim”. Maulana Azad’s loyalty to India was publicly impugned in a speech Patel made in Lucknow on January 6, 1948.

When in March 1948, many Muslims who had fled to Pakistan to save their lives began returning to their homes in north India, Patel opposed their return. He also suggested that India evict Muslims from West Bengal and dispatch them to East Bengal. “On October 7, 1949, during Nehru’s absence, Patel was able to get the Congress Working Committee to open the Congress membership to RSS members” – a decision Nehru rescinded later. “It is a measure of Patel’s partisanship for the RSS that he should have gone so far,’’ Noorani says.

“It is this outlook which shaped Patel’s disdain for negotiations with Hyderabad, his impatience for an armed attack and his determined attempts to cover up the massacre of Muslims that followed,’’ Noorani writes.
Noorani dismisses the argument that the invasion of Hyderabad was the only solution to the Nizam’s refusal to accede either to India or Pakistan. “Alternative options were not even considered,’’ he says. Noorani is sceptical that a “state which fell in merely five days” could have posed a threat to India’s security or territorial integrity. “The Indian narrative of the events is content to rest the case with the Nizam’s intransigence. No questions are asked about the wisdom, let alone the morality, of the invasion’’.

Noorani also reveals the Congress to be divided on ideas of secularism. In 1937, a Muslim mass contact movement launched by the Congress at the instance of Nehru “was sabotaged by the right wing, which sensed a danger to their hold on the party if Muslims joined it in large numbers”.

The Babri Masjid demolition, Noorani argues, was an outcome of similar divisions within the Congress where the contradictory legacies of Nehru and Patel continued to inform the politics of several leaders.
One of them, Andhra Pradesh Congressman P V Narasimha Rao, says Noorani, “nursed old grudges” and “presided over the demolition of the Babri Masjid”.

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