“An independent Hyderabad constituted a ‘cancer in the belly of India.’” Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is famously noted to have said this about what was perhaps the most complicated challenge among the princely states of India. When India rose to its independence on the midnight of August 15, 1947, it was still struggling with a much larger complication of knitting together the 500 odd princely states that dotted across its newly formed geography. While Patel along with V P Menon had been actively engaged in cajoling and convincing the princely states to accede to the Indian union from the early 1940s itself, and most had in fact agreed by the hour of Independence, there were still a few who either dreamt of an autonomous government or were inclining toward Pakistan.
Among the princely states that had not acceded to the Indian union by August 1947, the case of Hyderabad was perhaps of the most complex, mainly by virtue of its location. As historian Reginald Coupland once noted about the case of Hyderabad, “India could live if its Moslem limbs in the north-west and north-east were amputated, but could it live without a midriff?” As late as August 1948, the Nizam Mir Usman Ali had refused to sign the Instrument of Accession. On September 13, Patel took a decisive step when he sent across a contingent of Indian troops to Hyderabad and in a matter of four days, they had full control of the state.
But when the Congress was struggling to devise ways and means of bringing Hyderabad under its fold, a parallel movement was taking place there, one that strove to attain freedom from the Nizam. The Hyderabad state that came into being on September 17, 1948, was not just a product of the freedom struggle against the British, but also against the Nizam.
The feudal and communal Nizam rule
Seated along the Deccan plateau occupying close to 80,000 square miles and consisting of the population belonging to three linguistic zones- Telugu, Kannada and, Marathi- Hyderabad’s location in the Indian territory was not just strategic but also conducive to a self-sufficient sustenance. While the majority of its population was Hindu, they were governed by a Muslim ruler. Seated in power during the 1940s was Nizam Mir Usman Ali, who had ascended to the throne in 1911. Under the Nizam, an exploitative and communal agricultural structure had come to be established.
“Forty per cent of the land was either directly owned by the Nizam or given by the Nizam to the elites in the form of jagirs (special tenures),” writes journalist Rohan D. Mathews in his article ‘The Telangana movement: Peasant protests in India, 1946-51’. He goes on to explain that the remaining 60 per cent was under the government’s land revenue system that gave immense power to the landlords, and left those cultivating the land vulnerable to forced labour, forceful evictions, illegal exaction of taxes from peasants and also forms of economic as well as sexual exploitation.
By the 1920s, a movement of resistance was taking shape among the peasants against the Nizam and his policies, and it would reach its zenith by 1946.
The freedom movement against the Nizam
In the 1920s, the agitation against the Nizam was more at a cultural rather than political level. It emerged as a linguistic struggle for Telugu, in the form of a group called the Andhra Jan Sangham. By the mid-1930s, the nature and objective of the struggle had changed remarkably and was now demanding for reduced land revenue rates, the abolition of forced labour as well as the introduction of Telugu in local courts.
By the 1940s, the Andhra Jan Sangham had transformed into the Andhra Mahasabha (AMS) and was soon space where the Communists started exerting their influence. The AMS and the CPI came together to mobilise a strong peasant movement against the Nizam and soon found a strong holding among the poor tenants and small landholders.
On July 6, 1946, a powerful peasant movement erupted in response to a case of a forceful land acquisition on the part of a hereditary tax collector named Visnur Ramachandra Reddy. In the course of the next couple of months, it spread across 3000-4000 villages and took a violent turn. In October 1946, the Nizam banned the AMS and a spurt of arrests and military raids were made.
At the time when discussions around independence and accession to the Indian union were underway, the Nizam along with the nobility had resolutely backed the idea of a free Hyderabad. However, majority of its population, that consisted of its peasant agitators and the Communists were against the idea and inclined towards the Indian union. At this point, the state Congress also grew more strident in their efforts to bring Hyderabad within the Indian fold.
On the other hand though, the Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen, an Islamic fundamentalist organisation within the state, had undergone a newfound radicalisation under its new leader Kasim Razvi, an Aligarh-based lawyer and a passionate believer in the idea of ‘Muslim pride’. “Under Razvi the Ittihad had promoted a paramilitary body called the ‘Razakars’ whose members marched up and down the roads of Hyderabad, carrying swords and guns,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his book, ‘India after Gandhi’. The Razakars were instrumental in carrying out the Nizam’s efforts to suppress the peasant movement by raiding and plundering villages and killing anyone who appeared as a potential agitator.
It was in this atmosphere of violence being carried out by the Razakars and the CPI along with the peasants retaliating with armed offensives, that the Indian army drove in. In less than a week the Nizam and the razakar squads had surrendered and a military administration was established under General J N Chaudhuri. Soon after, the military came down heavily upon the peasant agitators as well, bringing to an end a long drawn out agitation against the Nizam.