On September 17, 1948, the state of Hyderabad became a part of independent India. The anniversary of the merger has become a contested occasion in recent years: while the Bharatiya Janata Party and like-minded parties celebrate it as Hyderabad Liberation Day, secular parties insist on calling it National Integration Day.

Lost in these wranglings is the history of the immediate aftermath of the merger, specifically allegations of the large scale killings of Muslims, the widespread rape and abduction of women and forced conversions, among other abuses.

Between 27,000 and 40,000 Muslims are thought to have died in the violence.

What is surprising is the complete silence on these claims of atrocities against civilians, which occurred a full year after the violence of Partition. Not many know about this atrocity, no textbooks talk about it and even historians of riots and massacres make no reference to this episode.

It is only recently that scholars have unearthed details of the mass violence against Muslims that accompanied the integration of Hyderabad.

In the years that followed, the Hyderabad atrocities became a template for the spate of anti-minority violence in India – in particular, the collusion of political and administrative elites with violent majoritarian groups. It also became a template for further erasures and silences to come.

A policeman stands guard in front of Charminar after an explosion at Hyderabad's Mecca Masjid in May 2007. Credit: Reuters.

The Police Action

The backdrop to the violence was the so-called Police Action in Hyderabad state – in reality, a full-fledged military invasion led by the Indian Army, with Air Force support. It was launched on September 13, 1948, and concluded on September 17 with the surrender of the Hyderabad state forces.

The Nizam of Hyderabad – the largest, most populous and wealthiest of all princely states in colonial India – had refused to accede to the Indian Union. Instead, he sought an Azad or free Hyderabad that would not be part of either India or Pakistan. This posed a problem for leaders of the fledgling Indian union. They feared this would eventually precipitate the balkanisation of the country.

While the rest of the close to 600 princely states joined India or Pakistan, Hyderabad was one of the three that resisted – the other two being Kashmir and Travanore. Politicians and the Indian nationalist press framed Hyderabad’s resistance as another sign of Muslim separatism and communalism. However, the Nizam’s bid for independence had the support not only of Hyderabad’s Muslims but also of its business, landed and administrative classes as well as the princely state’s two largest Dalit organisations – the Depressed Classes Association and the Independent Scheduled Caste Federation.

The negotiations to reach a settlement were doomed to fail from the start. A plebiscite to decide the future of the state was suggested. But Indian leaders were in no mood to delay the integration of this large territory in the heart of the newly independent nation.

The Nizam, oblivious to the changed realities, was unwilling to give up his claim to sovereignty. From early 1948, the Indian government imposed a blockade of Hyderabad. The talks eventually broke down in June 1948. On September 4, the Nizam sent a delegation to the United Nations, hoping to obtain international recognition. This precipitated the Police Action.

Most accounts of the Police Action claim it was a response to the depredations of the Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the principal Muslim party in Hyderabad, and its militant youth wing, the Razakars. With Hindu-Muslim violence increasing in India from 1946, large refugee flows of Muslims into Hyderabad and Hindus from it and growing uncertainty about the future of Hyderabad itself, the Razakars received great public support among Hyderabadi Muslims – a numerical minority in a largely Hindu state.

Thousands of Dalits are reported to have joined the organisation too.

From August 1947, under its new and militant leader, Qasim Razvi, quick to bluster and threaten violence, the Razakar organisation turned particularly vicious. There were frequent reports of attacks on Hindu civilians, of killings, women being abducted and raped, villages being looted and the Razakars levying its own fines on residents.

Under Razvi, who had a great hold over the Hyderabad administration, the services of the Razakars were placed at the aid of Nizam’s government and the primarily Hindu landed classes in the state’s Telangana region, where a peasant movement led by the Communist Party of India was underway.

What is less known, though, is that the Razakars and other irregulars were also deployed to deter border raids into Hyderabad from camps located in areas surrounding the state. These raids resulted in civilians being attacked, trains being blasted and banks being looted.

They were an attempt by Congress workers and armed Home Guards, together with cadres of the Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres, to “manufacture disorder” in order “to paralyse the administration, provoke a popular uprising and hasten the annexation of Hyderabad”, scholars say.

Eventually, the law and order situation arising from the Nizam government’s inability to deal with the Razakars and the communists were cited by the Indian government as the reason for the Police Action.

A razakars undergoing training. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

While media reports from the time were silent about the atrocities carried out after the surrender and the merger of Hyderabad, archival reports that have become available only recently provide the first hints of the violence that unfolded. The work of the scholars Omar Khalidi, Mohammad Hyder, AG Noorani and Sunil Purushotham has been ground-breaking. This article draws heavily on their research.

From October 1948, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru began receiving reports of large-scale killings and looting in the wake of the Police Action. On September 17, Nehru had turned down the offer of the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide relief and exchange lists of interned army personnel between the two sides, in addition to sending a Red Cross representative to the scene.

“Hostilities have ceased in Hyderabad, there is no need therefore to ask for the services of the Red Cross,” Nehru said. The next day, he declared on All India Radio that the merger was achieved without any bloodshed.

But by November 1948, more news had begun filtering through to Nehru, principally from Padmaja Naidu, freedom fighter, later to become the governor of West Bengal, of “the massacre of some thousands of Muslims by Hindus, as well as a great deal of looting”. This prompted Nehru to write to the Ministry of States, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, noting: “The information is contrary to what I had believed.”

He asked for the claims to be verified but there does not seem to have been any follow up. Attempts by Maulana Azad, the foremost Muslim leader of the Congress, to visit Hyderabad to observe the situation for himself were turned down by Patel.

With further reports reaching Nehru from Hyderabad, including of “the Army conniving in the looting” and his urgings to the Ministry of States to have “the exact facts placed before us” seemingly falling on deaf ears, the prime minister dispatched a “goodwill mission”. It was given the limited mandate “to restore better communal relations”.

The three-man delegation consisted of senior Congress members Pandit Sunderlal and Moulana Abdulla Misr and journalist Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, all trusted by Nehru.

During their mission from November 29 to December 21, 1948, they travelled through nine of the 16 districts of Hyderabad state. They visited 21 towns and 23 large villages, holding 31 public meetings and 27 private gatherings with people from both the Muslim and Hindu communities.

The Sunderlal Committee Report on the Massacre of Muslims (and the Confidential Notes attached to it), which came to light only in 1988, makes at once explosive and very grim reading.

Here is a summary of the findings of the Sunderlal Committee:

  • At a very conservative estimate, at least 27,000 to 40,000 Muslims lost their lives during and after the Police Action. The worst violence was in Osmanabad, Gulburga, Bidar and Nanded, with “not less, if not more than 18,000” people killed. In the other four affected districts – Aurangabad, Bir, Nalgunda and Medak – at least 5,000 lost their lives.
  • In Osmanabad district, perhaps the worst affected, the total number of Muslims killed was between 5,500 and 10,000. In Osmanabad town, 725 persons were murdered, another 190 were missing. In the business town of Latur in the same district, the killing continued for over 20 days. Out of a population of about 10,000 Muslims, barely 3,000 remained. Over 1,000 had been killed and the rest had fled, ruined financially.
  • Rapes and abductions of women (sometimes out of the state to Indian towns such as Solapur and Nagpur) were reported in every district that the delegation visited
  • Many instances of Arya Samajists kidnapping and detaining Muslims in temples and “then finish(ing) them off in the sacred precincts” were reported.
  • Mosques being desecrated and Hindu idols being installed in them was a common feature.
  • Forcible conversions were reported everywhere the delegation went. The trend mostly was that after men had been killed, women and children were made to convert. The delegation came across hundreds of Muslim women and children whose foreheads had been forcibly tattooed in a Hindu manner.
  • Loot, arson and seizures of houses and lands were widespread. “From what we have seen, we can say without exaggeration that in a greater part of the state, entire Muslim economic life has been smashed,” the report said.
  • A long list of people were dismissed, degraded, suspended or otherwise penalised in various government departments – a large number suffering for no fault of theirs. This also contributed to the economic difficulties of a very large number of Muslim families.
Mir Osman Ali Khan, the Nizam of the former princely state of Hyderabad, administering the oath of office to Chief Minister of Hyderabad State Burgula Ramakrishana Rao in March 1952. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Corroborating evidence

After this rigorous work, however, the delegation was given a cold reception back in Delhi. When they sought an interview with Vallabhbhai Patel to share their findings, he refused to meet them. On January 3, 1949, Kazi Ghaffar sent Patel a copy of the report.

In his reply, Patel challenged the very basis of the mission. “There could have been no question of Government of India sending a goodwill mission to Hyderabad state,” he said, and refuted the “roving enquiries which you have made during such a short period”.

Patel accused the delegation of “lacking balance and proportion” in their report.

The scholar Sunil Purushotham notes that this response came even as the government itself conceded that killings had taken place during and after the Police Action – although it underplayed the scale of the violence.

“Immediately after the military occupation…a large majority of Hindus in all districts of Hyderabad thought that Hindu Raj had come into being,” admitted JN Chaudhury, who had been appointed Hyderabad’s military governor after the operation. “As a result of this retaliatory action by Hindus, some Muslims in certain districts suffered”.

He concluded, “It is estimated that about 2,000 Muslims may have been massacred”.

The government’s own records attest to the scale of the violence. A 1949 publication by the Hyderabad government stated that the number of Muslim women widowed after the Police Action was “at least” 3,375. The government-appointed Rehabilitation Committee reported in 1951 that just in 47 villages in Osmanabad district, there were “approximately 2,500” widows and 6,000 orphans as a result of the violence after the Police Action.

The committee recommended that any government plan for rehabilitation should be based on the estimate of “approximately 10,000 widows and 25,000” orphans in Osmanabad district alone.

Fragments from other official sources provide more details. A confidential intelligence report from October 1948 noted, “Muslims who did not have much to do with the Razakar organisation have also been greatly victimised.” It added that Muslim houses and shops in Secunderabad were looted as late as October 2, 1948, and Indian troops did not intervene. In the capital city of Hyderabad, looting and the oppression of Muslims was indiscriminate, it said.

Another intelligence report noted that “instances of demolition of mosques, desecration of the holy Quran, forcing Muslim women to tattoo their foreheads and compelling Muslims to shave off their beard have been reported from Bidar, Nander and Gulbarga districts”.

MK Vellodi, General Chaudhuri’s successor and the first civilian chief minister of Hyderabad, characterised the “excesses” by militant Hindus in the Marathwada area as being “exceptionally savage” in nature.

Researchers of Hyderabad political history corroborate the accounts of the stunning scale of the violence and its impact. Margrit Pernau estimates that one-tenth to one-fifth of the male Muslim population of Hyderabad lost their lives, primarily in the countryside and provincial towns.

Lucien Benichou concluded that a statewide purge of the government and administration, accompanied the bloody attacks by Hindus in the districts, resulted in “total upheaval in the fortunes of the Muslims entailing not only a loss of livelihood and status but often of life, honour and property”.

The devastation was so severe that in October 1950, two years after the massacres, Maulana Hamiduddin, the head of Jamiat ul Ulema in Hyderabad, wrote to Patel about 50,000 uprooted people in Hyderabad leading a wretched existence; 100,000 persons turned out from government services; people still barred from selling or transferring their property; the largescale take-over of private business by government; and the abnormally large number of detenus.

The Nizam with Jawaharlal Nehru and General JN Chaudhari. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Principal actors

According to Nehru, “much of the trouble in Hyderabad on the part of Hindus was due to the Arya Samaj elements as well as certain RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] elements”. He also blamed Hindu Mahasabha, which functioned from Maharashtra.

Intelligence reports pointed to other actors too, including “unequivocally” the State Congress, the Hyderabad chapter of the Indian National Congress. “It is known that in several areas, immediately after ‘occupation’ these [State Congress] ‘volunteers’ themselves took part in pillage, loot and rape,” said one report.

These accusations are in line with findings of the Sunderlal Committee, which reported “definite indications” that “a number of armed and trained men belonging to a well-known Hindu communal organisation from Sholapur and other Indian towns, including Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha, participated in these riots and in some cases actually led the rioters”.

The delegation also found, in a large number of cases, “Congress people, soon after the Police Action, took the law into their own hands, almost as a parallel administration.”

The Sunderlal Committee also claimed “absolutely unimpeachable evidence” of instances in which men belonging to the Indian Army and also to the local police took part in looting and other crimes. The accusations are chilling, including that soldiers encouraged, persuaded and in a few cases even compelled Hindu mobs to loot Muslim shops and houses.

“At a number of places, members of the armed forces brought out Muslims adult males from villages and towns and massacred them in cold blood,” the committee said. “The Indian Army wherever it went, ordered the people to surrender all arms. The order applied to Hindus and Muslims alike. But in practice, while all arms were taken from Muslims, the Hindus were left in possession of their arms. In some cases, the arms were distributed to the Hindus by the IA [Indian Army]”.

‘Action and Reaction’

In cases where the government did publicly concede that violence occurred, it characterised it as retaliation against Razakar depredations. The Chief Civil Administrator in Hyderabad during and after the Police Action, KM Munshi, dismissed the violence as “a retaliation against the brother villagers for their misdeeds committed by them as Razakars”.

Nehru said, “The people, who had previously suffered from considerable repression from the Razakars, rose against them. They were joined by refugees who returned to Hyderabad. The result was that murder, arson and looting was committed.”

Patel contended that “a popular reaction and revulsion against the old order and the persons and authorities behind it, were inevitable”. He went on to wonder how “the retaliatory violence after the sharp change in the situation after the Police Action, was so little”.

Purushottam argues that this discourse of retaliation allowed political leaders and administrators alike to frame the violence as a social problem rather than a political phenomenon and so excuse themselves of any responsibility for political action.

The discourse also determined policy. In 1949, on Patel’s instructions, the Hyderabad government granted amnesty to all “Hindus involved in retaliatory action just after the Police Action”, with the military governor ordering that “no publicity should be given to it”.

The Charminar and the Mecca Masjid in the background in this photograph from 1887. Credit: Getty Museum Collection, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cover up – and the legacy

The Sunderlal Committee report, though it was commissioned by Prime Minister Nehru and is the only detailed record of the atrocities after the Police Action, was never published. No official explanation was given for suppressing it. It is astonishing that a massacre that was perhaps the bloodiest in the history of post-Independence India has remained concealed all these decades from the public eye – little studied, barely written about or discussed.

It is only because of the efforts of a handful of scholars on whose work this article draws that the committee report has, from 2013 been available to the public. If not, this deadly chapter in modern India’s history would have been completely erased from history.

The enormity of the crimes committed in Hyderabad are best described by the constitutional expert, AG Noorani, who in his encyclopedic The Destruction of Hyderabad, rues, “The deceptively titled ‘Police Action’ was much more than conquest of a rebel state. It was an annihilation of a certain way of life, the uprooting of a people, and the sweeping away of a culture, swiftly and almost completely. None of this was necessary in the interest of India’s security or national integrity.”

Purushottam places the Hyderabad massacres in wider context, noting that the destruction of Hyderabad signified an important milestone in the transformation of Indian Muslims as a national political community into a religious minority, marked by Muslims generally withdrawing from the political sphere.

Indian Muslim leaders maintained a studied silence about the Police Action, the silence borne not only out of fear, the author points out, but also an effort on behalf of India’s Muslims to enter into a relationship with the very state responsible, at once, for both their persecution and protection.

As India today is convulsed by worsening atrocities, it is time to undo those historical silences and undertake an honest reckoning with the past if we are to chart a fresh course.

Sajjad Hassan studies drivers and dynamics of conflicts, in the hope of finding solutions for justice, peace and diversity.