On September 17, 1948, the invading Indian Army wrested control of the princely state of Hyderabad, which had refused to accede to the Union after the British left the subcontinent the previous year. The Bharatiya Janata Party has announced plans to mark the date as “Hyderabad Liberation Day” and said it would organise year-long celebrations to mark the event.

In response, All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi, sent letters to Union Home Minister Amit Shah of the BJP and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, suggesting that September 17 should instead be recognised as “National Integration Day”. He argued that the integration of princely states involved more than just liberation from autocratic rule.

In his letter, Owaisi brought up the name of Shoebullah Khan, an Urdu language journalist who forcefully advocated the political integration of Hyderabad and was brutally assassinated as a consequence in August 1948. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Congress and the BJP, not to mention the communist parties and other factions, also invoke Shoebullah Khan’s name periodically.

Amidst the political claims to the legacy of the murdered journalist, an important fact is often obscured: his killers got away. This underscores yet again, the dark history of the silencing of dissenting voices, the attacks on press freedom, and the chilling effects on society. The story of Shoebullah Khan, his murder, and the trial that ensued, offer important insights into the troubled early years of independent India and the dangers of authoritarian power.

On August 22, 1948, just past 1 am, the 28-year-old Shoebullah Khan and the 16-year-old student of Nizam College, Burgula Narsing Rao, ended their habitual chat on various matters in the office of Imroose, the Urdu daily that operated out of the teenager’s family home in the Kachiguda area.

The front page of Imroose. Courtesy Diwakar Natarajan.

As Narsing Rao recalled to this writer in 2014, he wished Shoebullah “khudhafiz” as the editor left, only to hear a commotion shortly after. He rushed out with the domestic helper Chandrayya to find Shoebullah and his brother-in-law lying in pools of blood on the street. They spotted four men running away.

Shoebullah had been shot from behind and his hand chopped off at the wrist. His brother-in-law Lallan, or Ismail Khan, had also been attacked with a sword and was bleeding profusely. Narsing Rao vividly recalls finding his friend’s severed hand close by and picking it up in his own.

The grievously injured Shoebullah bid farewell to his young friend saying, “Babu, mai ja raha hoon” (Friend, I am going). He died some hours later in Osmania General Hospital. Ismail Khan survived with an amputated arm and would later bear testimony as an eye-witness in court.

Burgula Narsing Rao. Credit: Gautam Pemmaraju.

Around eight days prior, the chief of the Ittehad (as the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, or MIM, was then known) Syed Kasim Razvi, who had infused the organisation’s volunteer Razakar militia with increased sectarian militancy, had publicly stated that the hands of those who wrote against them and opposed the independence of Hyderabad would be cut off. This appeared to be directed at Shoebullah, who was a fierce critic of the Nizam’s administration and Ittehad policies.

From the Bombay Chronicle Edition dated September 16, 1948. Via Gautam Pemmaraju.

In 1990, the late Urdu scholar and literary figure Mughni Tabassum, appearing in a rare and greatly insightful documentary film on the turbulent events of 1948 made by the filmmaker Divakar S Natarajan, said that few could counter Shoebullah’s dispassionate, factual journalism. He had begun his career with the weekly paper Tej, which was banned by the Nizam’s government.

He thereafter shifted to the daily Raiyyat, published by Mandumula Narsing Rao, a state Congress leader. When Raiyyat was also banned, Shoebullah started Imroose in November 1947, with the patronage of Burgula Ramakrishna Rao, a founding member of the Hyderabad State Congress and the uncle of Narsing Rao.

During that period, a group of seven prominent Muslim public officials and figures came together greatly concerned by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hyderabad, fraught as it was with deep communal fissures, escalating violence, and the grip that the Razakars had over the Nizam’s administration.

They issued an appeal to the Nizam in the progressive Urdu daily Payam on August 13, 1948, asking for a ban on the Razakars and integration of the state with India. The propagandist Urdu press declared the group traitors and the letter as a conspiracy. The editor of Parcham suggested they be shot dead. An atmosphere of hysteria and inflamed passions was whipped up through numerous publications.

The appeal published in Payam. Courtesy Diwakar Natarajan.

As Narsing Rao asserted, the assassination of Shoebullah is a critical inflection point in the context of a deep political and social crisis in Hyderabad with the escalating tensions between the Union of India and an intransigent Hyderabad.

Sustained anti-autocracy movements led primarily by the Andhra Mahasabha, communist leaders and Congress activists in various forms, as well as the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha with other political shades, were counteracted by an increasingly confrontational Ittehad and a misguided, equivocal princely ruler. Shoebullah’s murder signalled the extreme intolerance and bigotry promoted by the Razakars.

Referring to the brutal murder and the gruesome chopping of hands in an address to the Constituent Assembly on September 7, 1948, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said “Hyderabad is sinking into a state of barbarity” and this worsening situation was the reason for imminent military action, which was to unfold six days later.

Shoebullah’s murder was reported in the national press. Meanwhile, the Nizam’s government arrested two of the signatories of the Payam public appeal, and the pensions of others were suspended. More journalists received threats that they would meet the same fate as Shoebullah. The Payam editor Akhtar Hassan was spirited away to safety by a friend and not long after, his office was ransacked.

After a slow start, the police made several arrests in October 1948, and one accused received a pardon for turning an approver. On July 27, 1949, before a three-man Special Tribunal, the Advocate General of Hyderabad filed the chargesheet against five individuals, with Syed Kasim Razvi as the primary accused in the abetment of murder of Shoebullah Khan.

As alleged by the prosecution, Razvi had prevailed upon Syed Mohammed Kadir Mohinuddin Aseer, the approver, to recruit some daring young Razakar loyalists willing to kill Shoebullah Khan, and accordingly, two young men, Abdul Munim Khan and Mohsin Raza, were assigned the task.

Two of the accused absconded. As per the alleged conspiracy, Razvi had his aide de camp Sajjad Hussain hand over a pistol to Aseer more than a week before the crime.

BJP activists during a rally in Hyderabad on September 15. Credit: PTI.

Archival documents reveal speculations of a compromised police investigation, and a judicial process plagued with administrative issues. Interestingly, at the outset of the trial, the matter of the language of the court had to be resolved. The Special Tribunal had to make provisions for translations and the manner of recording evidence since the language of the Hyderabad judiciary was Urdu.

To facilitate proceedings in English, the government of Hyderabad amended the Special Tribunal regulations. Razvi had engaged the services of the London barrister GA Roberts, the Second Prosecutor for the United Kingdom in the Nuremberg trial, who along with his junior JE Leck filed for enrolment to the Hyderabad Bar. Their request was turned down as per the rules of the Hyderabad Legal Practitioners Act, which required lawyers to be Urdu literate.

As a consequence, in a complaint to the United Nations Security Council, the former finance minister of Hyderabad Moin Nawaz Jung, accused the government of blocking efforts for a fair defence to Razvi, but this was roundly criticised. Razvi had been allowed to choose his own defence counsel at the government’s expense.

On August 19, during the cross examination of the approver, the court proceedings were interrupted due to “howlers perpetrated by court translators”. The Chairman of the Special Tribunal JA Pinto, then “…invited the Press and public to help him in this work. Eventually, a police officer volunteered and the case was resumed.”

Amidst all this, a news report on September 27, 1948, said that Shoebullah’s father, who had been keeping guard at his son’s grave with a gun for fear of it being desecrated, surrendered his weapon after a call by the Military Governor to do so. Shoebullah’s mother told the press that she had shed no tears for her “Lal” (son) since she had another one – Jawaharlal.

On September 11, 1950, the Special Tribunal convicted all the three accused and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The accused appealed in the High Court of Hyderabad before a division bench led by the Chief Justice RS Naik.

From the Bombay Chronicle published on September 14, 1950.

In a scathing opinion, the court found laxity in the police investigation and the prosecution’s case, and even entertained the possibility of a retrial. Pointing to inconsistencies in Ismail Khan’s eyewitness account, the identification parades, delays in investigation and filing of charges, the inability to produce the pistol, doubts regarding the type of sword used by the assailants, retracted confessions of two accused, the absence of some key witnesses before the court, the Chief Justice also suspected collusion in that “the investigating officers were more loyal to…the Razakar Organisation than to the Government they were serving”.

Consequently, the court acquitted the three accused remarking that: “There can be no doubt that a heinous murder was committed by some Razakars and there is material that all the accused or at least some of them are responsible for it.”

The High Court judgment created an uproar. Fascinatingly, communications between the Ministry of States and the Hyderabad government reveal further complications. The acting Chief Minister MK Vellodi, in response to his civil service colleague NM Buch’s recommendation for an inquiry and action against police officials, averred that the Special Prosecutor VL Ethiraj had conducted the prosecution most ably and the overturning of the convictions by the High Court does not “imply that the case was conducted badly or inefficiently in the lower court”.

Further, an internal investigation by the Home Department of Hyderabad and a point-by-point rebuttal of the chief justice’s criticisms by the police establishment, contended that the judge had “started with a pre-judged opinion of the whole case…and a large volume of the criticism levelled by the Hon’ble Judges was only the result of personal knowledge or inferences not based on records”.

A close reading of the criticisms and Hyderabad’s rebuttals reveal additional layers of complexity to the matter, adding great ambiguity and intrigue. Further communications in August 1953 reveal that that case was deemed “infructuous to pursue” and closed.

From The Hindu published on Aug 13, 1949.

Burgula Narsing Rao, who went on to become a prominent student leader, political activist of the Telangana Struggle, President of All India Students Federation, and student delegate-organiser at the 1955 Bandung Conference, never missed a chance to speak about his friend Shoebullah Khan, who he revealed grew closer to MN Roy’s Radical Humanism thoughts in his final years.

Importantly, as Divakar S Natarajan’s aforementioned film reveals, Narsing Rao recognised one of the fleeing men on that fateful night of August 21, 1948. He was not called as a witness for the prosecution. It is not known if his statement was ever recorded. Burgula Narsing Rao passed away in January 2021.

Regardless of which political party benefits from the appropriation of Shoebullah Khan’s legacy and the integration of Hyderabad into the Indian Union on September 17, 1948, the fact remains that his murder has gone unpunished. His courage and fearless journalism however, remind us of democratic ideals, free speech, and the critical role of a free press. His murder reminds us of the dangers of speaking truth to power.

Gautam Pemmaraju is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker with a special interest in Indian anti-colonial activists of the early 20th century.