‘Hyderabad Liberation Day’: The significance of Operation Polo for India

By Pankaj Sethi

Hyderabad: V P Menon, Secretary in the Ministry of States, was the man tasked by then Union Home Minister Sardar Patel (in 1947) to ensure that the Princely States with India merge with India smoothly. He later wrote a book on the history of how 500+ Princely States came to become part of the country. He titled this definitive account “The Story of the Integration of Indian States”.

Why did he call the process “integration”? His (and Sardar Patel’s reason) for using this term, was that they saw their task as the preservation of the “integrity” of India. A bit of context is necessary to understand this.

The ball for India’s independence was set rolling in the 1920s by the Congress under Mahatma Gandhi. By 1930 Congress was demanding self-rule. 

Under the movement’s pressure British conceded the demand for elected assemblies in the provinces of British India, but with separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims. By this, they hoped to appease the Muslim League. But by 1940 the Muslim League had passed a resolution demanding Pakistan. 

Quit India Movement and after

In 1942 Gandhiji launched the Quit India movement. 

By the end of the 2nd World War Britain was in a deep financial crisis. The Labour government under Clement Attlee which took power in 1946, sent a Cabinet Mission to India, to discuss with the Viceroy Lord Wavell and Indian leaders about India’s independence. 

Britain wanted to show the world that when it left India, its legacy would be a united India. Towards this, the Cabinet Mission came up with a complicated plan that it hoped would keep India united while accommodating Muslim League’s demand for power in Muslim-dominated areas. 

Its plan envisaged that India would have a Centre, groupings of provinces which were then part of British India, and princely states. The Centre would have power over Defence, Foreign Affairs, Currency and Communications. The provinces of then British India would be organised into three groups: 

-Provinces of Central and South India would form one group, with a Hindu majority.

-The provinces in the west and northwest would form another group, with a Muslim majority 

-Bengal and Assam would form a third group, also with a Muslim majority. 

These provincial groupings would have all powers not given to the Centre.  The Princely States would retain their powers but could opt for union with any grouping.

Britain’s plan for India and its exit

In Britain’s view, this plan would leave India united, and still allow the League to have a shot at power in the western group of provinces and the Assam/Bengal group. Pakistan’s eventual founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah was in favour of the plan, but Nehru objected, saying that a province must have the freedom to decide whether to join any of the three groups or not.

He also wanted to avoid any threats to unity, which, he felt, would harm India’s efforts to lift its population out of poverty. After this disagreement, the Muslim League also withdrew its approval of the Mission’s plan and launched Direct Action day. This led to further violent rioting, and it became clear that a Partition of India was looming. 

On 20 February 1947, Prime Minister Attlee made a declaration in the House of Commons. In this declaration, he announced that by June 1948 Britain would transfer power to a “responsible” Indian government, elected under a Constitution, which would be drafted by a Constituent Assembly.

What about the Princely States? So far, their relations with British India were governed by various treaties between the two, signed over a period of more than a century. A common factor was that all Princely States had accepted that the (British) Government of India would have “paramount” powers in their State.

So while States could have their own laws, succession rules for their rulers, and even their own armies and currencies, the Government of India had the power to intervene in the state through British “Residents” (or “Agents”) stationed in the state.

The “lapse” of paramountcy and not “transfer”

In his speech of February 1947, Atlee said that British paramountcy would not be “transferred” when they handed over power to a responsible government in India, but would “lapse”. 

Nehru felt that representatives of the Princely States should join the Constituent Assembly and participate in the making of the new Constitution. Jinnah, on the other hand, felt that after the lapse of paramountcy a State would be sovereign, and could decide to either join India’s or Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly or be independent.

In the middle of all this, on 3rd June 1947, Britain made another announcement. Power would in fact be transferred on 15 August 1947 itself – a mere two months later! Since a Constitution would not be ready in two months, this meant that Britain would be handing over power not to a government elected under an adopted constitution, but to the interim government running the country while the Constitution was being prepared.

All these rapid developments threw the rulers of Princely States into total confusion. What would happen to their states when the British left? Would they be compelled to join India or Pakistan? Could they proclaim their independence from both? What would happen to their State’s army, laws and police? What would happen to their own personal wealth, family and dynasty? Would they first have to deal with an interim government, and later, with a government elected under a new Constitution which was yet to be drafted and adopted?

What princely states like Hyderabad did

The many Princely States adopted hard positions. Travancore announced on June 11th, that it would be independent – the Dewan went to the extent of announcing his intention to appoint a Trade Agent in Pakistan. The next day Hyderabad followed suit. In Congress circles, there was a strong cry against what was widely perceived as this impending “Balkanisation” of the country.

It was at this time that the Government of India decided to set up a new “Department of States” under Sardar Patel to deal with the Princely States. Patel invited V P Menon to be Secretary of this Department. Menon had earlier been Constitutional Advisor to Lord Mountbatten and had met Patel only a few times. He was initially hesitant to take on the new role, but Patel convinced him to do so.

Patel felt that “hard-earned freedom might disappear through the States’ door” if something was not done quickly. Menon’s own primary concern was also to preserve the integrity of the country. He pointed out to Patel that the Cabinet Mission Plan had recommended that a Princely State could make their own arrangements with the Government of the Dominion with which their state was geographically contiguous. He felt that this suggested a way forward.

His plan was that the Princely States should be convinced to join the Constituent Assembly and participate in defining the relationship between India and the States. But in the interim, while the Constitution was being drafted, princely states should be persuaded to accede to India on at least three fundamental subjects – Defence, External Affairs and Communications. 

Menon was sure that if States contiguous with India acceded to India on these three counts, the basic unity of India would be achieved. He knew that Defence (in which he also included the right of the centre to maintain internal order in the Princely State) was something no state could anyway handle by itself. External Affairs was linked to Defence. And Communication was the lifeline of every State.

Patel and Nehru agreed with Menon’s plan. Menon then suggested that they should take the help of the new Viceroy Lord Mountbatten (who had succeeded Wavell after the failure of the Cabinet Mission) in getting the states to accede. Mountbatten had the stature and also knew many of the Princes personally. Patel agreed to this, and Mountbatten was also roped in.

V.P Menon describes his plan for integrating princely states into India (extracted from “Story of the Integration of Indian States” by V.P Menon).

How Menon and Patel succeeded

It is amazing that the Menon-Patel plan succeeded in bringing more than 500 princely states into India within a span of just over two months.

But some states held out. Travancore initially held out and acceded to India only later. Bhopal too. Kashmir wanted to be independent. Junagadh’s ruler wanted to join Pakistan, but a police action stopped that.

The Hyderabad state’s story

Hyderabad was the largest of the princely states. Menon and Patel initially took the same approach with Hyderabad, as with the other Princely States. But the entrenched bureaucratic elite in Hyderabad, mostly Muslim, wanted the Nizam to declare independence. In this, they were supported by the Razakars, a violent fringe led by Kasim Razvi, who let loose a reign of terror on those supporting union with India.

The brunt of Razakar atrocities in Hyderabad and Telangana (then part of the state) was faced by ordinary Hindus in the town and countryside, and by outspoken Muslims supporting accession to India. The Nizam vacillated. He wanted to retain the power, wealth and prestige which came with being the ruler of the largest of the princely states. Initially, he said Hyderabad would be independent.

Then he suggested a “standstill agreement” with India for some time while the final decision was taken. But he backed out at the last minute when Pakistan invaded Kashmir in October 1947. He sent feelers to Pakistan. He tried to take the matter to the UN. Menon and Patel pointed out to him that India could not have a foreign country at the core of its landmass.

He finally did sign a standstill agreement with India. But then the news came to Delhi that the Nizam government was trying to get arms and money from abroad. Rumour mills even had it that Hyderabad’s planes would bomb Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.  

Meanwhile, the countryside in Hyderabad was on fire, with a massive revolt by farmers. The Nizam directly owned about 10% of the total land in the state of Hyderabad – a state bigger than England. He owned another 30% indirectly – through paigahs, jagirdars and rajahs. Discontent had been simmering for 20 years against the oppression and atrocities of the jagirdars and rajas, who were appointed by the Nizam to collect taxes. Andhra Maha Sabha had initially led the farmers’ protest.

By the mid-1930s the organisation had been taken over by Communists. By the 1940s the protesters had sophisticated arms and ammunitions and an intelligence system better than the state’s police force. The Congress, under Ramanand Tirth, and the Arya Samaj were also strongly supporting the farmers’ movement, apart from popularising the demand for a merger with India.

In 1946 the simmering discontent burst into a full-fledged armed rebellion. Almost simultaneously, the Razakar atrocities started peaking. 

Telangana Armed Struggle, independence and after

It was in the midst of this scenario that India decided that talks with Nizam were not going anywhere and that the union of Hyderabad with India had to be ensured. The result was Operation Polo. On 14th September 1948 Indian army entered Hyderabad from multiple directions. By 17th September, Hyderabad’s army had surrendered. 

General Jayanto Nath Choudhury, who led the Indian Army into Hyderabad, was appointed military governor.

With this began Hyderabad’s political integration into India. This led to the establishment of a new bureaucratic elite, the appointment of a new government, the first ever elections, and, later, the division of the state into three parts based on language, and the merger of these parts with neighbouring states.

With this also began Hyderabad’s social liberation from oppressive feudalism. Archival documents show the critical role played by Patel, Menon and Gen Chowdhury in achieving what is probably the single biggest land reform in India’s history. A reform in which the Nizam agreed to give up all his lands to the state of Hyderabad. A reform which then allowed the new government of Hyderabad to calm the farmers’ rebellion by starting a policy of “land to the tiller”.

A reform which was an example to the rest of India, which later abolished zamindari. And a reform which became the first step in India’s journey from feudalism to a modern democracy.

After taking over as military governor, Gen Choudhuri had a series of meetings in Delhi, in which he impressed the importance of tackling the farmers’ unrest on a war footing. He suggested that this was not a mere law and order problem, but something whose root cause needed to be tackled. 

The meetings in Delhi decided that Chowdhuri should try and convince the Nizam to hand over his lands to the State of Hyderabad. 

The last Nizam’s wealth and handing over of Sarf-i-Khas

This was no ordinary task. The Nizam owned 40% of the State’s land. The States Department, in a remarkably short time of 2 months, prepared a detailed report on the feudal land revenue structure in place in the state. Over a period of 6 months after Operation Polo, General Choudhuri, under the guidance of the Ministry of States, had regular meetings with Nizam Osman Ali to discuss the problems and solutions, and to address Nizam’s concerns about his personal wealth, heirs and family. Modalities on privy purses and family expenses were worked out.

The Nizam’s personal wealth was catalogued. And the Nizam was prevailed upon to not only hand over his lands (sarf-e-Khas) to the Hyderabad government (Diwani) but also to advance money from his personal funds to the government as a ways and means of advance. 

This is an achievement for which Gen Chowdhury, the Union Government and the Nizam – all deserve credit. So this then is the significance of Operation Polo.  Its political integration with India gave a massive boost to India’s integrity

Its liberation from an oppressive feudal system brought relief to its residents, and a modern, egalitarian, constitutional democracy became its governing system.

The last Nizam’s Farman handed over Sarf-e-Khas to the Diwani. (Image: Pankaj Sethi)
The last Nizam’s Farman handed over Sarf-e-Khas to the Diwani. (Image: Pankaj Sethi)

(The views expressed are the author, who is a researcher from Hyderabad).