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The Destruction of Hyderabad by AG Noorani

Hyderabad in the Deccan was, at its founding in 1591, a Muslim foundation planted among a population whose vast majority was Hindu. Nearly a century later, when the Mughal Empire absorbed the area, it appointed Asif Jah I as Viceroy to rule the Deccan, giving him the title Nizam-ul-Mulk (Administrator of the Realm). Asif Jah established a dynasty that ruled what became, as Mughal power waned, a semi-independent state in the Deccan. From 1769, its capital was Hyderabad. 

The Destruction of Hyderabad by AG Noorani
The Destruction of Hyderabad, AG Noorani (Hurst, October 2014)

Though the rulers and most of the aristocracy of this state were Muslim, the population remained mostly Hindu, although the Nizams proved tolerant rulers and fostered good relations with their subjects of Hindu and other faiths. As a result, a culture grew up in Hyderabad that was a peaceful and largely harmonious mix of both religions, and the state became a focus for learning in the Urdu language.

Despite a steadily growing autonomy from the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, the Nizams were never formally independent, and in fact held power from the late 18th century as clients of the British East India Company. As British power supplanted Mughal, the East India Company signed treaties with all the remaining Indian princely states, and what became known as “paramountcy” replaced Mughal rule. In typical British fashion, the paramountcy of the British Crown was not established by any constitutional or legislative framework, but grew from the not-so-well-defined relationships stemming from raw power, treaties with individual states and good manners. In effect, the British took over sovereignty from the Mughals, handled defence and foreign relations for the Indian princes, but—mostly—left them alone to run their own internal affairs.

That this apparent sovereignty was an unfortunate charade was rarely made clear until the hasty departure of the British in 1947 made clarification imperative. In the lead up to that, the British confusingly stated that paramountcy would simply lapse and that the states would resume an independence that would allow them to accede of their own volition to the new Unions of India and Pakistan. When push came to shove, what the British actually intended was that all the princely states accede to one or the other new state, and before they handed over power, they had largely succeeded in forcing the princes down this road. This was not so, unfortunately, in the case of Hyderabad.


AG Noorani, an advocate at the Supreme Court of India, has now written an account of what happened then. His The Destruction of Hyderabad is both a detailed account of all aspects of the lingering demise of the state and a balanced indictment of the politicians and civil servants on all sides who were responsible for what became an unnecessary destruction of Hyderabad’s culture and the deaths of many thousands of its citizens. For when the Indian government finally took action in 1948 to absorb the state by force, a bloodbath ensued which is now largely forgotten.

No one comes out of this tale smelling of roses. Lord Louis Mountbatten’s foreshortening of the end of British rule, and failure to be blunt with the Nizam, left Hyderabad in limbo at India’s independence.

Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister and a Kashmiri by lineage, concentrated his focus upon Kashmir, where he unwisely refused to allow the plebiscite which would inevitably have joined that state to Pakistan, and so was unable to demand one in Hyderabad, whose largely Hindu population would have voted to join India. He left Hyderabad to his States Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who made no bones of his intention of ending Muslim rule there and who was inclined from the start to use force to do so.

The Nizam dreamed of the independence of a largely Muslim-controlled state under his own autocratic rule, plotted to buy Goa from the Portuguese, allowed Muslim irregular militia in the state to terrorise his Hindu population, and relied on the advice of foolish advisers. One of these was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Quaid-i-Azam and Governor General of the new Pakistan. He also failed to demand a plebiscite in Kashmir as he feared one in Hyderabad, which he, by some irrational reasoning believed could remain an independent Muslim state. He exerted pressure on the Nizam to make a bid for independence, giving him utterly unrealistic ideas of Pakistani support in any conflict with India that might arise as a result.


Noorani makes all this foolishness clear. As he does its results, which were catastrophic. Thousands of both religions died, the entire administration of the state was destroyed, Muslim populations fled and the unique syncretic culture of Hyderabad largely evaporated. 

The story is an ugly one. In its telling, Noorani adopts a lawyer’s approach, rather than that of a historian. His is a heavily documented account, and one that becomes disjointed at times. His book has need of greater biographical and geographical detail to give a background to an extraordinary history that is unfamiliar to most. However, the weight of documentary proof he adduces is telling. Noorani has carried out an effective piece of detective work that ensures that his sensible and objective conclusions are utterly convincing. 

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer and Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung.