When December’s elections for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation in Hyderabad were announced, the Bharatiya Janata Party seemed to treat it like a national poll. Hoping to make a dent in Telangana state, prominent national BJP leaders arrived in the city to campaign for the party’s candidates.

As it took on the regional Telangana Rashtra Samiti, which rules the state, and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the predominantly Muslim party that has its stronghold in Hyderabad, the BJP deployed history as a major part of its arsenal.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath claimed in a campaign speech that Hyderabad would be named “Bhagyanagar” if the BJP was voted to power and the election would create “Bhagya” (fortune) for the city. In doing so, Adityanath was invoking a popular but unproven legend that the city’s name had been changed to Hyderabad in the late 16th century under Qutub Shahi rule.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was also on the campaign trail, claimed that neither the AIMIM nor the Telangana Rashtra Samiti had developed any flood infrastructure but the BJP would convert Hyderabad to a modern city by getting rid of the “Nawabi-Nizami” culture.

This was a reference both to the “dynastic rule” supposedly perpetuated by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the AIMIM, as well as to the Asaf Jahi dynasty that ruled the princely state of Hyderabad from the early 18th century until 1948 when it was incorporated into the Indian Union after a military operation.

In the end, the BJP managed to secure 48 seats, a substantial increase from its earlier count of four seats. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti tally fell to 55 from 99 seats while the AIMIM remained at 44 seats.

The results are an indication that voters in Hyderabad city responded positively to the rhetoric of communal propaganda couched in the language of development that the BJP has perfected over the years.

The Hindutva history of Hyderabad-Deccan

The manner in which the BJP presented the state’s past is not new. Starting from the 1990s, the BJP has demanded that September 17, 1948 – when Hyderabad-Deccan acceded to India – be celebrated as a day of “liberation” of Hyderabad from Asaf Jahi rule.

During the agitation for a separate Telangana state carved out of Andhra Pradesh in the last two decades, the party also tried to present Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, as a man who oppressed the Telugu language. In the municipal elections, BJP leaders also presented the old quarters of the city as a Muslim enclave, against which they would conduct “surgical strikes” to weed out “anti-nationals”.

To insert itself into the history of Telangana, BJP has also been claiming the legacy of the peasants’ struggle against feudalism in the late 1940s. That is the context in which to understand Amit Shah’s visit to Gundrampalli of Nalgonda district in 2017, a key area during the peasant uprising.

The last Nizam of Hyderabad State, Asaf Jah VII, taking the oath of office as rajpramukh. Oath is being administered by MK Vellodi, Chief Minister of Hyderabad. Credit: Pubic domain via Wikimedia Commons

The origins of BJP’s claims

The BJP’s narrative can be traced back to the 1930s when the Hindu Mahasabha (with whom the BJP shares a common ideologue in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar), the Arya Samaj and the Hyderabad State Congress began to take a serious interest in Hyderabad-Deccan.

The Hindu Mahasabha and the Arya Samaj worked to create an image of an oppressive Muslim ruler lording over a subjugated Hindu populace.

The Hyderabad State Congress maintained a public stance of being non-communal even if its membership and activities belied this stance. The Indian National Congress leader and Hyderabad native, Padmaja Naidu in a letter to MK Gandhi in November 1938 described the Hyderabad State Congress as communal and reported that the “original founders” of the party were all men with open association with communal organisations.

The three organisations thus shared a common antipathy towards the Asaf Jahi dynasty and presented the state’s failings as the result of its supposed “communal” nature.

The 1938 Hyderabad Satyagraha – described in the archives of the Hindu Mahasabha as the “Bhaganagar struggle”– was an important moment when the three organisations came together ostensibly to demand religious and civil liberties for the state’s “oppressed” Hindus.

But even as plans for the Satyagraha were finalised, the Hyderabad State Congress publicly withdrew from the protest on instructions from Gandhi, who had been reliably informed that it had taken on communal overtones.

The Satyagraha, in which batches of “civil resisters” were sent into the state through cities such as Poona, Nagpur and Sholapur by the Hindu Mahasabha, won the approval of the Mahasabha’s president Savarkar. In an undated appreciative letter to his colleague MG Chitnavis, he wrote that the “Bhaganagar struggle” had created momentum for a “Hindu Sanghatan movement” in the country. Important to this effort by the Mahasabha was the characterisation of Hyderabad-Deccan as a Muslim state, in which Hindus needed to be “saved”.

Much critical scholarship on Hyderabad-Deccan has demonstrated the untruths of this characterisation and has provided evidence that the nature of the state was not theocratic. Rather, it was a princely state, subject to constraints imposed by colonial dominance. Hyderabad-Deccan has been rightly criticised for the feudal relations that characterised its agriculture. But even this agrarian feudalism was not communal in nature. Substantial evidence exists that large parts of the village economy were controlled by moneylenders and village officials, drawn mainly from dominant Hindu castes, including Marwari business classes.

However, through the period of the 1930s and 1940s, there was constant vilification of Hyderabad-Deccan as a Muslim communalist state. Organisations and individuals from across the ideological spectrum – Hindutva, nationalist and the Left – pointed to Urdu as the state’s official language, the establishment of Osmania University with Urdu as the instructional language, and the preponderance of Muslims in the state’s bureaucracy as evidence of Muslim hegemony. This propaganda was powerful enough to become a consensual outlook both within the state and in the Indian Union.

Decades later, this characterisation of the erstwhile state continues to be the dominant framework in popular writings and public discourse. In trying to make inroads into Telangana, the BJP’s polarising propaganda draws from this historical corpus established from the 1930s.

Regional actors and Asaf Jahi rule

These claims of a “communal” Asaf Jahi regime have been contested by several entities and individuals, particularly during the agitation for a separate Telangana state. In 2008, the Telangana Historical Society released a book titled 17 September 1948, Bhinna Drukkonalu (Different Perspectives) in which many scholars have argued against describing the state’s accession to the Indian Union as “liberation”.

In it, they asked: should the Asaf Jahi state’s long-standing commitment to communal harmony be cast aside simply because it wanted to maintain independence? Did the state’s accession to the Indian Union not take place when an agreement was in place between the two entities? Post-accession, did the Nizam not occupy the constitutional post of Rajpramukh (now called governor) in the state?

Until recently, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti had also categorically distanced itself from labelling the day as “liberation” and had even described such demands as being divisive. Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, or KCR as he is popularly known, had praised Osman Ali Khan as the harbinger of modernity in the city.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao. Photo credit: KCR/Facebook

During the movement for a separate Telangana state, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti also claimed to be heir to the Asaf Jahi legacy. Its electoral partnership with AIMIM was part of this claim-making.

However, the ascent of BJP and the shift in focus to Hindu voters have clearly impacted the position of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti on Asaf Jahi history. The party seems to have started distancing itself from the dynasty, with KCR making claims of being a “true Hindu”. His party also broke its pre-poll alliance with the AIMIM in the recent municipal elections.

In Hyderabad, the AIMIM has been claiming to be heir to the Asaf Jahi legacy while addressing its electorate. This is similar to the claims it made as the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in the 1940s when it highlighted the religion of the Nizam to argue for a Muslim dominance of the affairs of the state. The MIM had also opposed Hyderabad-Deccan’s accession to the Indian Union. It established the infamous, violent, private militia army, called the Razakars, to further its cause of an independent Hyderabad state.

However, the AIMIM’s pre-accession history is complex. Its actions were in response to the polarising activities of non-state actors such as the Hindu Mahasabha, Arya Samaj and Hyderabad State Congress within and outside the state. Although formed in the late 1920s, it began to demand Muslim dominance in the state only in the 1940s when the vilification of the state as “Islamic” became widespread.

The AIMIM’s history, therefore, is an uneven resistance to the communal view of Asaf Jahi legacy, one that often contributes to the polarising divisions that it seeks to battle.

Reducing the long and complex reign of the Asaf Jahi dynasty to a question of religion does a great disservice to the histories of Hyderabad city and Telangana state. It masks the contributions of both Hindus and Muslims to some of the modernist achievements inaugurated by the Hyderabad state in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It needs to be reiterated loudly that the history of the Asaf Jahi rule is the history of a region, not of any one community. Popular histories that refashion and represent the Asaf Jahi rule as a political, development-oriented and non-theocratic state are necessary to confront the oncoming waves of polarisation.

Swathi Shivanand and Yamini Krishna work on the histories of the Deccan.