Afsar Mohammad’s book Remaking History explores the lost world of Hyderabad’s Muslims

The core thrust of ‘Remaking History: 1948 Police Action and the Muslims of Hyderabad’, is that a cohesive and uniquely Hyderabadi imaginary existed alongside Indian nationalism and Telugu nationalism which eventually shaped the region in significantly more concrete ways.
Afsar Mohammad’s book Remaking History explores the lost world of Hyderabad’s Muslims
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When the Indian Army marched into the princely state of Hyderabad in September 1948, it was the beginning of an end. KM Munshi, the famed proto-Hindutva leader who was also the agent-general of Hyderabad during the ‘standstill agreement’, named the memoir of his time in Hyderabad The End of An Era. Whereas for Munshi, police action signified the culmination of the Nizam’s tyranny and alleged religious oppression of Hindus, Afsar Mohammad’s Remaking History: 1948 Police Action and the Muslims of Hyderabad paints a vastly different picture.  

Going beyond recognition of the 1948 police action and the brutal massacre of Muslims that followed as a point of rupture that was to define the experience of Indian Muslims thereafter, Afsar provokes a profound dialogue about what was lost — culturally, socially, economically, linguistically, aesthetically, and even ethically. 

The core thrust of the book is that a cohesive and uniquely Hyderabadi imaginary existed alongside Indian nationalism and Telugu nationalism which eventually shaped the region in significantly more concrete ways. Remaking History is a map of the every day as well as intellectual imaginations of pre-1948 Hyderabad, buried under decades of statist and nationalist histories.  Writing at a time that mirrors the trauma and persecution of the subject matter, Remaking History shatters not merely the ungrounded narratives that have plagued the history of princely Hyderabad, but threaten to eclipse the public psyche of the nation itself. 

Many of the premises expatiated in Afsar’s book have been known within the historical discipline for decades. For example, the charge of communalism on the Nizam has been met with suspicion since the 1970s in the works of Dick Kooiman, Karen Leonard, and Ian Copland. In the last decade, historians have attempted to theoretically ground either the nature of Hyderabad’s integration into a wider purview of nation-making such as Sunil Purushotham’s From Raj to Republic, or the violence that occurred as part of a process of ‘minoritisation’ of Indian Muslims in Taylor C Sherman’s Muslim Belonging in Secular India. This renewed interest is often attributed to the declassification of the infamous Sunderlal Report in 2013, although both writers, especially Sherman, engage with a wealth of other state archives. Afsar’s book forms an organic addition to this growing literature, and while it does not contradict previous works in any significant way, what sets this book apart is a daring engagement with non-archival sources, ethnography, and literary traditions to which there is little precedent for this particular historical period. 

Eric Beverley’s 2015 book, Hyderabad, British India and the World, and Kavita Datla’s 2013 book The Language of Secular Islam were also concerned with language and literary imaginations, but Afsar veers sharply away from studying the state and its actors. Although not a subaltern history, his is an attempt to recover the world of the ‘common man’. Indeed, given the abundance of popular literature and media which has overwhelmed the memory of police action — as necessary, rightful or emancipatory — Afsar’s task, of not only recontextualising vernacular literature but also conversing with the last generation of scholars and even lay individuals who experienced police action, appears as nothing short of an excavation into voices and perspectives that were on the verge of extinction. 

Afsar’s background as a language expert equips him to convene together three linguistic realms in both their political and literary capacities in a way that historians have previously not. Datla detailed the rise of Urdu as the Nizam’s official language and the epiphenomenon of the Urdu-educated elite class which served as the selection pool for state bureaucrats but also formed the civil society of Hyderabad. Moving along this grain, Afsar demonstrates how the Hyderabadi elite embodied the state but also subverted it. The painstaking reforms that Urdu was put through by the vehicle of the ‘modern’ state that the Nizami administration was attempting to forge also made it the language of political discourse and political transgression. 

Afsar’s last chapter, ‘For the Love of Urdu’, is perhaps the most compelling one in how it undermines the false binaries of Hindus and Muslims created by nationalist rhetoric through a short biography of progressive Urdu and Telugu writing. The chapter comes as an appropriate successor to the first chapter which tackles the elephant in the room — Razakars — and shows how a fragmented Muslim community was seen as a monolithic opposition to an even more fragmented community, ‘Hindus’. Chapter 3 intends to dissipate another of these binaries — between Urdu as a foreign, ‘Muslim’ language and Telugu as the indigenous, ‘Hindu’ language. It is fascinating to discover how many Muslim writers were writing in Telugu, or how many Hindu writers were writing Urdu not as part of a conscious effort to be transgressive but to take part in various discourses spontaneously. 

Afsar also writes of how political prisoners who were denied pen and paper would resort to composing ghazals — a distinctly Urdu tradition. Indeed, without studying Urdu literature, any history of Hyderabad’s political sphere would be incomplete. Urdu was imagined not as an imposition, but as integral to intellectual and political awakening. As one of the figures Afsar documents, Rangacharya writes: “If I have any knowledge about cultural history, geography, or poetry, that was because of my Urdu teachers, who were actually not Muslims.” 

One of the most delightful aspects of this book is the plethora of interesting and unlikely — at least in today’s imagination — individuals Afsar chronicles, exemplified in Chapter 3, titled ‘“I am Going to Fight…”: Muslim Women’s Politics and Gender Activism’. This section takes us through the writings of Jeelani Bano, especially her eccentric female leads. Her novel Aiwan-e-Ghazal, which follows four women in an ashraf (elite) family, portrays the range of progressive politics that encapsulated elite Muslim women of her time — from liberalism to radical revolution. Indeed, two of these women joined the armed peasants who had launched a revolution in Telangana’s countryside. To take fiction for reality would surely be erroneous, although Afsar is not unaware. He quotes Bano stating that her characters were mostly if not wholly real (168), but even so, fiction is distinct from ‘reality’ in many ways. Fiction is a symbolic, stylised, and narrativised telling of something. Nevertheless, in the absence of other historical sources, fiction has long been the most powerful mode of discerning the ‘private’ world to which women belonged. In this regard, Afsar falls short of bringing out the enormous significance of his work to women’s history as he does not engage extensively with feminist scholarship on the history and literature of the period. 

That said, Remaking India is an incredibly valuable and remarkable development to the existing literature as well as the conversation on Hyderabad’s history. Afsar’s work has wrestled with a matter most multi-layered and challenging. It is not simply writings that had to be translated into a different language, but a whole world that has to be articulated and contextualised to a contemporary audience that has never seen it, partly because of a language gap, and because that world does not perhaps exist anymore. 

In a dominant historical tradition that is so teleological, Afsar Mohammad convincingly shows how Hyderabad represents all the potential historical contingencies that have been lost, and for this, his book is a welcome addition. 

Tanvi is a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz (starting Fall '24) and graduated from Ashoka University with a Bachelor's in History where she worked on a dissertation on India's annexation of princely Hyderabad.

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