Friday, Dec 09, 2022

The horses that led Operation Polo

Of the 562 princely states that existed at the end of the British raj,all but three had acceded to the Indian Union,despite many a ruler’s dream of independence,by August 15,1947.

Of the 562 princely states that existed at the end of the British raj,all but three had acceded to the Indian Union,despite many a ruler’s dream of independence,by August 15,1947. The credit for this goes primarily to Sardar Patel,deputy prime minister and minister for home as well as states. Yet,he would have been the first to acknowledge that in integrating the princely states with India,Lord Louis Mountbatten,the last Viceroy and Independent India’s first governor-general,had played a major and stellar role. The three princely states that chose to stay out included the two largest,Hyderabad and Kashmir. The third,Junagarh,was a mere dot on the Kathiawar coast of Gujarat.

The unending story of Kashmir is much too well known. But few remember anything about Hyderabad that had become a tougher nut to crack because of the mulish insistence of its ruler,the Nizam,to retain his “sovereignty” over his state and other complexities. Even during the British days,Hyderabad had its own army,railways,postage and so on. The traditional presence of the Indian troops had been thinned down. It was a state right in India’s middle,with a more than 80 per cent Hindu majority and a Muslim ruler where the Muslim minority overwhelmingly dominated the civilian and military establishment. To make matters worse,Kasim Razvi,a rabid fanatic,had organised a shock brigade called Razakars that staged militarist demonstrations in support of Hyderbad’s independence,stopped trains that passed through the state to attack non-Muslim passengers,and raided Indian areas adjacent to Hyderabad.

The Razakars were not the only force in Hyderabad,however. There was the state Congress agitating,against heavy odds,for a popular government in place of the Nizam’s autocracy. More importantly,in the Telangana area there was the Communist party that had declared war on both the Nizam’s rule and Independent India and “liberated” a large number of villages. An astute assessment at that time was: “The Razakars rule the state during the day and Communists at night”.

Nehru was supportive of Mountbatten’s counsel that the Hyderabad issue must be settled through peaceful negotiations. Both were also optimistic that with patience,an agreement leading eventually to Hyderabad’s accession would be reached. Patel did not share this view. He considered Hyderabad at that point of time a “cancer in India’s belly” that could not be tolerated. Also,he had a better understanding of two other grim elements in the situation. First,Pakistan was constantly advising and guiding the Nizam,and had indeed promoted an agreement between him and Portugal for the use of Goa when needed in return for building a harbour there. Secondly,unlike other rulers,the Nizam never negotiated with even Mountbatten directly. He left this task to a delegation of which the most important member was his constitutional adviser,Sir Walter Monckton,a personal friend of Mountbatten’s. He was also highly influential with the British Conservative party that not only sympathised with the Nizam’s ambition but also had the temerity to compare Hyderabad to Poland and the Indian government to the Nazis!

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No wonder therefore that when Mountbatten suggested that Hyderabad should at least join the Constituent Assembly,Monckton shot back that if India pressed too hard,his client would “seriously consider the alternative of acceding to Pakistan”. Attlee’s government,however,rejected the Nizam’s request for membership of the Commonwealth. Yet airplanes registered in Britain were violating Indian air space to supply arms to the Nizam. A notorious gunrunner was an Australian adventurer named Sydney Cotton. The Union home secretary of the time,R. N. Banerjee,banned these flights without knowing how to enforce the ban.

Kashmir had at least signed separate standstill agreements with both India and Pakistan on the eve of Independence,though Pakistan never observed it. A standstill agreement between Hyderabad and India could be concluded only in November 1947 in which many concessions were made to the state’s ruler. Within 24 hours the Nizam went back on it. He wanted several wholly unacceptable “heads of agreement” to be incorporated in a “collateral letter”. Negotiations were painfully slow,acrimonious and unproductive. The patience of the Indian people,especially of Sardar Patel,was nearing its end. But before leaving India on June 21,1948,Mounbatten wanted to make a last-ditch effort to settle the Hyderabad question. It failed resoundingly. Meanwhile,the Sardar had sent a back channel offer to Pakistan to swap Hyderabad for Kashmir. Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan,a Pakistani politician who carried the message,later recorded that rulers in Karachi told him not to worry about the “rocks that would come to Pakistan anyhow”. Hyderabad,deep inside India,inhabited by 20 million people and of the size of France,they added,was the “real prize”.

The clear connection between Kashmir and Hyderabad should thus be obvious,but sadly most Indians ignore it. Equally evident is the reason for the deep caution with which India formulated its Hyderabad policy. For,Pakistan had started the first Kashmir War barely 10 weeks after Independence. It was no coincidence therefore that the Union government decided on precipitate action in Hyderabad only after both sides had accepted the August 13,1948 resolution of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP),paving the way for a cease-fire in J& K. What was a pure coincidence,however,was that Jinnah died on September 11,two days before the date fixed for military action against the Nizam,euphemistically called “police action”. The Nizam’s forces surrendered within 72 hours,while he acceded to India and withdrew the Hyderabad case from the UN. The codename of the military action,Operation Polo,was delightfully appropriate.


As the Indian army entered Hyderabad,Liaqat Ali Khan,Pakistan’s enraged prime minister,summoned his defence council,and asked if any aerial action could be taken in Hyderabad. Group Captain Elworthy (later Air Chief Marshal and Britain’s first Chief of the Defence Staff) laconically answered: “No”. “Can we at least bomb Delhi?” asked Liaqat. That,said Elworthy,was possible. But Pakistan had only four bombers of which only two were operational. “One of them could possibly reach Delhi and perhaps drop a bomb. But none will come back”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

First published on: 31-05-2010 at 11:44:13 am
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