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Hyderabad 1948: Literature Tells Better Stories Than WhatsApp University

Justice has been done by Afsar Mohammed when collating different pieces of Urdu and Telugu writing that elaborates how Hyderabadis, specifically its Muslims, reimagined their place in a more democratic India.
Representative image. Photo: Basabaoina Tannusha/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Journalism is said to be the first draft of history. In present-day India, however, the cinema hall and WhatsApp groups are where different pasts are being manufactured regularly.

For instance, the upcoming Telugu movie Razakar takes place amidst the 1948 police action that lead to the violent yet necessary accession of the Asaf Jahi Nizam-ruled Hyderabad to India.

In portraying Muslims as tyrannical rulers who lorded over the Hindu majority population, the film evokes the Razakar militia that terrorised princely Hyderabad’s Hindus, especially those who sought a merger with India during the Nizam’s bid to keep his once-autonomous kingdom independent.

Though University of Pennsylvania professor Afsar Mohammed’s book, Remaking History: 1948 Police Action and the Muslims of Hyderabad, paints a picture of a time when Telangana’s litterateurs wielded their pens more deftly than historians and journalists about this landmark event.

Counter-narratives about the police action penned in both the state’s official languages – Telugu and Urdu – are out there. They just need to see the light of day.

Mohammed does a big service to potential Urdu-English/Telugu-English translators by collating and analysing prose and poetry originally written in those aforementioned regional languages.

Be it Jeelani Bano’s Aiwan-e-Ghazal, Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s poetic repertoire or Nelluru Keshavaswamy’s short stories, this whole corpus of literature (both fiction and non-fiction) outdid the press with respect to genuinely describing both the human and political tragedies that occurred during and after the police action.

Some better drafts of history

Telugu stories like Yugantham did show many pro-establishment Muslims becoming Razakars.

One such character, Dilawar, is a friend of a Telugu-Hyderabadi named Swamy. Despite never being harmed by Dilawar, readers get to see how the pluralistic ways of everyday city folk got ruptured because of the 1947 partition and subsequent police action down South.

When the Indian military merges Hyderabad into a newly independent Union, Swamy feels elated, unlike Dilawar.

Despite their differing political views, their friendship is one that represents the synthesis of linguistic and cultural traditions that coalesced under the pre-Asaf Jahi era Muslim regimes. Fearing the repercussions for his Razakar activity from the new Indian establishment, Dilawar migrates to Pakistan. But before doing so, he leaves money with Swamy so that his friend may give it to the people who he victimised as a Razakar.

The story Vimukti doesn’t box the Hyderabadi Muslim as a perpetrator or a victim of the 1948 massacres. Rather, he is a reformer who seeks to do away with regressive traditions of feudal debauchery.

Loath to the treatment meted out to domestic helpers within the noble household he is a part of, the protagonist Sultan even decides to marry one domestic worker whom his brother impregnates.

Such stories about scions of the nobility taking to egalitarian leftist ideals against the Nizam’s establishment find little to no mention in popular discourse about the circumstances in which Hyderabad acceded to India.

To stress how fiction writers were more adept at revealing what happened before, during and after that episode, Mohammed supplements his analysis with memories of older folks who lived through the police action. They include Vara Lakshmi, the wife of legendary Urdu-Telugu bilingual writer Kavi Raja Murthy, and a 75-year-old by the name of Razia Hussain.

But an interview with another elder, Imam Hussain, reveals that not all Muslims had it easy in a land ruled by their “own”. The UPenn professor quotes:

“What about ordinary and poor Muslims like me? We never had any jagir or any piece of land or even enough bread to survive the day. I know hundreds and thousands of Muslim families living in utter poverty. The ashraf and nawabi families – both from Muslims and Hindus as well – never cared for our daily basic needs of food, water, or housing.”

Jeelani Bano and Dasarathi Rangacharya also brought out the contradictions apparent throughout pre-1948 Hyderabad. Bano’s novel Aiwan-e-Ghazal features a set of Muslim women characters from various strata of Asaf Jahi Hyderabad navigating both the zenana of the patriarchal nobility and the forests that served as the battlefields against the princely state’s rural gentry.

Nizam-ruled Hyderabad was a dominion where the feudal oppression of women and the exploitation of lower castes were woven within its pluralistic fabric. Although the Nizam VII did herald in many infrastructural and educational advancements too.

“Ganga-Jamuna” or “Isa-Moosi”?

North India-centric literature, especially the work of Qurratulain Hyder, extols its Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb. Hyderabad too has something similar, yet distinct.

To ensure that its composite Isa-Moosi­ tehzeeb remained intact after 1948, left-leaning activists and litterateurs also did their part on the cultural front. This activism wasn’t just limited to Urdu wordsmiths, but Telugu ones too.

Whether those contradictory facets of Hyderabad were written about in what is today considered the more “Hindu” Telugu or the “Muslim” Urdu, these stories need to be (re)told. The former language has tales of Muslims who saw a lot of upheaval while coming to terms with a new setup where their predominant sources of subsistence, namely feudal landlordism and government services, were taken away from them.

Mohammed also mentions other writers like Dasarathi Rangacharya who represented the confluence of languages, traditions and religions that is the Deccan region.

In both his autobiography and Telugu translations of Mirza Ghalib’s Urdu poetry, Rangacharya was a bridge between his mother tongue Telugu and Urdu, which he grew to love from childhood. Without learning the latter language from Kayasth Hindus, a community that served as resourceful bureaucrats, learned academics and powerful ministers in a predominantly Muslim establishment, he wouldn’t have gone on to become a literary icon.

Missed opportunities

Justice has been done by Afsar Mohammed when collating different pieces of Urdu and Telugu writing that elaborates how Hyderabadis, specifically its Muslims, reimagined their place in a more democratic India. However, with those new Muslims aptly being represented as survivors rather than victims, the 1940s-1960s time frame the author analyses doesn’t encompass the period during which the real Muslim renaissance took place.

It was only in the 1970s – with the oil boom – did job opportunities become available to Hyderabadis, who as a result flocked to countries like Saudi Arabia. As they did in real life, Muslims economically also found their feet in fictional short stories by Sahitya Akademi-winning Urdu writer Baig Ehsas.

How that money from the Middle East gave way to new dilemmas forms one of the many themes prevalent throughout Ehsas’ repertoire.

In the vein of films that depict how the hard work of partition refugees settled in North India earned back a lot of wealth lost during the 1947 bloodshed, the short story Khaai also centres around a family that economically revives itself when one of its younger members migrates to the Gulf in the 1980s.

The story is reminiscent of the semi-autobiographical novel Delhi. In the second half, Khushwant Singh elicits how his family’s association with the British in the early 1900s enriched its financial standing.

“Sudden wealth creates its own problems. We were far too busy making money to be able to keep our eyes on how our sons spent it,” wrote Singh.

Similar realities of Hyderabadi youth being spoilt by an influx of Gulf money their parents earned weren’t lost upon Ehsas either. Aalam-Panaah by Rafia Manzurulamin is another Urdu novel which focused on a Muslim noble family that for the most part shed its feudal hangover and integrated itself into a gradually free-market tilting Indian business landscape of the 1980s.

Nonetheless, it is time that these short stories and novels written by many Urdu and Telugu authors be translated. If not that, they should at least inspire more art that shows how the Hindu Punjabi “Partition Refugee Family” isn’t too different from the Muslim “Police Action Family”.

That too, when contemporary cinema seems to be chiseling Muslims into even more stereotypical, bigoted caricatures. Other than the Doordarshan TV adaptation of Aalam-Panaa or the 1979 Telugu film Maa-Bhoomi (based on Krishan Chander’s novel, Jab Khet Jaage, set during the Telangana Peasant Uprising), there hasn’t been much cultural production pertaining to the Deccan region.

If those who produce content for streaming platforms and mainstream Bollywood need help telling more nuanced stories, they just might have a consultant in Afsar Mohammed.

Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer with a masters in South Asian Area Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His book Hyderabadis: From Police Action to Present-Day is due for publication by Harper Collins in September 2024.

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