A Tale of Two Countries—An Alternate History of Hyderabad

 

History tends to conceal itself through monuments, diary entries, letters, and relics. If it wasn’t as we know it today, would our lives be the same? 

As it freed itself from the shackles of British Rule, India lost the territories of what is now known as Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Nizam of Hyderabad at the time, Asaf Jah VII, demanded independence for Hyderabad. New Delhi, however, was not ready to let the Nizam have his way. Giving the city full autonomy would mean monarchy and complete exclusion from the rest of India—ideas that didn’t sit well with the concept of a free, continuous Indian union. 

On September 13, 1948, the Indian Army carried out Operation Polo to capture Hyderabad and have the Nizams surrender. The following story explores the possibility of a failed Operation Polo. Hyderabad would remain a sovereign state—a hollow in the southern heart of India. 

During a surge in communal riots, displacement from families, and rebuilding of livelihoods after wars, the demand for an independent state would come with its implications. India would not give away its dominance with ease. The Nizams would have to put in a significant number of resources to sustain their rule.

As the dust and the rubble from after the siege of Hyderabad settled down, life slowly limped back to normalcy. India and Hyderabad had become adversaries—borders were closed, and trade came to a halt. The city’s people trudged along as well, with those stranded from their families driven by hope—the hope of being able to meet them someday. This is the story of one such individual. Syed was an accountant with the Nizams, who had been separated from his family during the aftermath of Operation Polo. 

Dear Zain,

March 16, 1950

 I can’t begin to tell you how taken aback I was on receiving your letter this morning. It is relieving to know that most of you are in Bidar and are doing alright. I recollect the night our families were looking out for some security during the chaos. Ammi told you to take your family to the other side of the city. Still, as we started to move towards the area, the large troops were held back alongside the barricades.

The massacre of September sends shivers up my spine. 

The brutality of the Razakars and the police riots around the time of Operation Polo have left Hyderabad in a state of utter pandemonium. Almost 40,000 civilians fled the city to seek security. These refugees have begun to retaliate against the Razakars through frequent raids to reclaim their land in the province’s bordering areas.

I’ve taken up Abbu’s work at the Chowmahalla Palace. To keep Hyderabad away from New Delhi’s eyes, the Nizam wanted someone trustworthy for their internal affairs. They have been very wary of outsiders. Within the city, those displaying disagreement with their rule are belittled. The current emperor, Mir Osman Ali Khan, has a widely structured plan for Hyderabad. 

Zain, Hyderabad’s future looks to be in turmoil. Its distinct separation from India has a ripple effect on its people. Hyderabad is self-sufficient, but how would it survive amidst an expanding India? Its isolation has started to look problematic in terms of resources and trade. Furthermore, the animosity with the Indian Union can be fatal.

India is still growing through its shackles—citizens coping with the aftermath of the partitions, common men looking for new jobs, and different cultures coming together to tackle the present-day issues. It just makes sense for India to try and annex Hyderabad.

Apart from the constant fear of being attacked, there isn’t much to complain about, thankfully. The Nizams have administered the city well, and my only hope is that they continue to do so. 

The unbending norms around the city make it onerous to hear from you. I hope you find work and a satisfactory livelihood. Please give my regards to everyone and let them know about our well-being. Godspeed

Yours,

Syed

The two countries grew further apart. India faced countless attacks on its borders from rather hostile neighbours, while Hyderabad was relatively well insulated. There was still, however, animosity between the Union of India and the State of Hyderabad. Syed and Zain had grown as well; they had responsibilities to tend to now. Difficult as it was to communicate, they found a way to do so.

Dear Zain,

December 20, 1970

I know it has been a while since I wrote to you. Twenty years flew by on this side of the border. I hope your family is doing well. It’s been long, and the kids have grown up. I wish they could run around and play here, in the gardens of the palace. Chotto has gone on to study at Osmania University, and it brings me immense pride to see him get an education that we never did. Do you remember how carefree our youth was? You were a champion kite-flyer, and I was your biggest fan! I have no regrets, however, for that was a different world altogether.

A lot of us here have started realizing the brutality of the Nizams. They, however, are insensitive to this resentment. They seem to think that the city and its inhabitants are the personal property of theirs. Yet, the city is breathing, the marketplaces are prospering, and children bring life to newly constructed gardens. 

Working with the Nizams has made me understand the game they are playing. Rumours suggest a complete dominance; freedom may soon become a memory. Import has become difficult; and travel, impossible. Food and other basic requirements are increasingly difficult to come by. It is only a matter of time before the common folk get vocal about this.

I hear whispers about subduing any invasions from the Indian Army. You tell me of a churn in the Indian administration. The Nizams, however, seem to be confident in their rule. I have always believed that Hyderabad would benefit a lot more with cooperation from India.

We find ourselves in a funny situation, Zain Miya. In the early days, we saw hospitals, roads, and parks being built by the Nizam. Now, the coffers are emptying. People are being pushed onto the streets. The city has started to see a surge in protests by the younger generation. College students and clerks have created organizations to list down their problems while highlighting a spike in taxes.

The only saving grace in all of this has been the family. The Begum has aged gracefully as ever, and Chotto’s childhood flew by. I hope I can meet you and tell you all of his antics. I plan to come once the conditions here are better again. My hopes and wishes are with you and your family, take care, and I am looking forward to your next letter.

Yours,

Syed

The age of information was ushered in rather slowly for the citizens of Hyderabad. They grew aware of how their neighbours have grown economically, despite two wars and an emergency. The standards of living in both countries were starkly different, and this was enough to spark a widespread revolt. As the flames of revolution engulfed the cities, our protagonists were spending life in retirement. 

Dear Zain,

June 10, 1990

I hear from you after so long; I’m glad to know you and the family are doing well. God-willing I will be able to meet you all one last time soon. Retirement is finally treating me with its little perks; I am sitting here enjoying the sunset with the radio playing ghazals, the day ends well. The revolts have become violent these past few days. I hope this letter reaches you soon, for it seems as if they will impose another curfew. 

The summer has brought with it the musty smell of revolution and uncertainty in the air. Do you remember summers at Bidar? We’d have nothing to do all day! We’d wake up at the crack of dawn and get dressed, only to play cricket the whole afternoon. Tired from the day’s play, we’d come home to Ammi’s delicious cooking. What wouldn’t I do to live those days again! 

Many youngsters have joined hands to make a difference; it’s good to see progress. After the death of the Nizam, there has been unrest. People have moved on towards development faster than I thought. I still remember the day we decided to stay in Hyderabad. The horror never left my memory. Instead, it’s being replaced by the events that have come to light recently.

The revolution is burning the city. Many have moved on to violence; it’s saddening to see development resulting from anger. It seems like just yesterday we saw the roads we grew up on covered in red. These days in between the ghazals, I hear about the unrest. They declared a curfew last month. The news does not say much, but the country feels unsafe and quiet. The Nizams control any information that comes on the radio, so we barely know what is happening. 

Chotto tells me about the outside world—my age restricts me to this house’s four walls—and he takes excellent care of me. He got caught in the protests when he ran some essential errands; his hand broke, and his jaw dislocated. He is fine now, by the grace of God. The Army has blocked the main roads. The Purana Pul has been taken over, blocking any travel outside. They show no misery—’lathi-charge anyone who raises their voice’, are the standing orders. 

It’s been 41 years since we chose to be independent. India has grown and developed over the years, democracy has given people rights, and these computers you tell me about seem like harbingers of prosperity. If I had a computer during my career, I’d have been a minister of the Nizams! Hyderabad has been growing steadily; rumours say Delhi is still playing its cards to get back Hyderabad. 

The inefficiency of our country cannot be hidden by control anymore. I wonder if I will get to see Hyderabad join India again. It would make it easier to send you these letters, I miss everyone, and even as these bones get weaker by the day, they wish to be together with the family and be safe. We have waited so long, and this churn seems like the only option.

As the weather becomes a little brighter, I hear of external help from Delhi for these protests to be successful. Many have been arrested and beaten up, and their sacrifices won’t be forgotten. The spirits are high, and even though violence abounds; I see freedom waiting at the border. Many have run away to India, and I hear they are better now. Soon this will get over, and I will know for sure what is going on; maybe we will be completely free this time. 

I hope this letter reaches you soon enough; the borders are closing again. I hope everyone has good health and memories. Until next time, Khuda hafiz, I hope we will meet soon, without fear.

Yours,

Syed

As the revolts sparked on, the Nizam was forced to abdicate the throne. The Indian troops along the border swooped in quickly and established a provisional governorate over Hyderabad. The governorate gave way to President’s rule, which in turn led to eventual statehood for the once-sovereign country. Abdul Khalid, or Chotto, now a barrister-at-law, rose up the ranks of the High Court of Hyderabad (the erstwhile Supreme Court of the Nizam’s Hyderabad) swiftly and retired thirty years later in 2020 after an illustrious tenure at the Supreme Court of India. As for Syed and Zain, their families reunited in the year of 1991, and lived together in Bidar. Syed passed away at the age of 75 in 2005, and Zain at the age of 78 in 2006. They died a peaceful death, each in the company of their family.

Written by Snehal Srivastava and Suhani Kabra for MTTN

Edited by Avaneesh Jai Damaraju for MTTN

Featured Image by Arvin Das for MTTN

 

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