When they think about 1947, most people naturally think about the tragedy of Partition, which left millions of people dead and displaced. Partition resulted in the creation of two states, but what is left out of this story is an alternative history where instead of two new nations, independence might have seen the formation of three, or five, or five hundred independent nations.
For there were more than five hundred Princely States in existence in 1947. Each of these had its own ruler and court, and many had the trappings of fully independent states (such as railroads, currency, and stamps). All the same, they had to pay significant taxes to the British crown, and none were allowed to maintain their own armies. The Princely States were also, one might add, the most backward in India when it came to the situation of ordinary people. While British India had begun to build schools and universities, and develop the foundations of republican governance, the various Maharajahs were perfectly comfortable keeping their subjects in total, feudal subjection.
Very quickly, between the fall of 1946 and the summer of 1947, the vast majority of Princely States signed "Instruments of Accession," whereby they agreed to hand over their sovereignty to India. The chief architects of this development were Vallabhbhai Patel and his agent, V.P. Menon. While Patel and Mountbatten did much of the formal negotiation from Delhi, it was Menon who went to hundreds of different Maharajahs all over India, and worked out agreements. According to Guha, because of his indefatigability and his remarkable competence, Menon is one of the unsung heroes of this story.
After Kashmir (which we'll talk about next week), the state that gave the most difficulty in agreeing to Accession was Hyderabad, which was governed by a Muslim Nizam, but with a Hindu majority.
At 80,000 square miles, Hyderabad was a huge state, bigger geographically than Great Britain. The Nizam of Hyderabad was one of the wealthiest men in the world, and it's not hard to see why he resisted turning over his position of power and eminence to what would surely be a diminished role in a united India. Faced with the request that he integrate Hyderabad with India, he preferred independence, but at various points he suggested he might throw in his lot with Pakistan.
There were pro-Congress/Democracy groups in the state under the Nizam, as well as a significant Communist movement. But the most important group was the Nizam's own Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen, a kind of proto-Islamist movement, led by a radical (fanatic?) named Kasim Razvi (sometimes spelled Qasim Razvi). With the Nizam's support Kasim Razvi organized thousands of armed "Razakars" to protect the Nizam's interests and harrass his opponents.
This Kasim Razvi turns out to be quite an interesting character. Guha describes him as follows:
In April 1948, a correspondent of The Times of London visited Hyderabad. He interviewd Kasim Razvi and found him to be a 'fanatical demagogue with great gifts of organization. As a 'rabble-rouser' he is formidable, and even in a tete-a-tete he is compelling.' Razvi saw himself as a prospective leader of a Muslim state, a sort of Jinnah for the Hyderabadis, albeit a more militant one. He had a portrait of the Pakistani leader prominently displayed in his room. Razvi told an Indian journalist that he greatly admired Jinnah, adding that 'whenever I am in doubt I go to him for counsel which he never grudges giving me.'
Pictures of Razvi show him with a luxuriant beard. He looked 'rather like an oriental Mephistopheles.' His most striking feature was his flashing eyes, 'from which the fire of fanaticism exudes.' He had contempt for the Congress, saying, 'we do not want Brahmin or Bania rule here.' Asked which side the Razakars would take if Pakistan and India clashed, Razvi answered that Pakistan could take care of itself, but added: 'Wherever Muslim interests are affected, our interest and sympathy will go out. This applies of course to Palestine as well. Even if Muslim interests are affected in hell, our heart will go out in sympathy.' (68-69)
I quote this passage about Kasim Razvi because I think it hints at how much worse things could have gone in Hyderabad. By 1948, Razvi's Razakars were known to be harrassing Hindus in some of Hyderabad's larger cities (Aurangabad, Bidar, and the city of Hyderabad); some Hindus were beginning to flee to surrounding regions, causing refugee problems in neighboring Madras. There were also rumors that arms were being smuggled into Hyderabad from Pakistan as well as eastern Europe, which was just recovering from the mother of all wars. While the Nizam resisted acceding to India out of self-interest, Kasim Razvi and his Razakars were resisting out of ideology, and they had the numbers -- and would eventually have the arms -- to pose a threat to a new Indian government with lots of other problems to deal with.
After Mountbatten's departure in June 1948, the Indian union's patience with Hyderabad ran out, and in September 1948, a military force moved in. Within a few days the Razakars were out of business, and the Nizam publicly agreed to accede to India.
Today, I think, few people could seriously imagine a different outcome. But if the Indian government had been less focused on its objective, or if it had decided that military force wasn't necessary, or even if it had delayed further in using force, I think it's a distinct possibility that Hyderabad might have remained free for at least a few years longer, and the story of accession could have been much bloodier.
As to whether Hyderabad could have remained independent forever, it seems like a rather remote possibility -- though it is interesting to contemplate. (Perhaps someone should write a fictional, "bizarro world" version of modern South Asian history, with a massive, independent Hyderabad smack in the middle of the Deccan peninsula...)
[Cross posted at Sepia Mutiny]