How caste politics in Hyderabad-Deccan unsettles the Hindu-Muslim binary

One entity responsible for the creation and circulation of the narrative of an ‘oppressed’ monolithic Hindu community both within and outside Hyderabad-Deccan was the Arya Samaj.
A collection of photos of important leaders on the wall of Vidhyadhar Guruji’s house in Gulbarga, 2017
A collection of photos of important leaders on the wall of Vidhyadhar Guruji’s house in Gulbarga, 2017Swathi Shivanand
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Continuing our Deccan Series in collaboration with the Khidki Collective, this set of six articles presents alternative perspectives on the 1948 Police Action in Hyderabad. These perspectives challenge, modify, add nuance to the mainstream narrative of Hyderabad’s integration as ‘liberation’, a narrative currently used to further divisive politics.

The Hindu-Muslim binary has haunted India’s politics for over at least a century. In this saturated field, it is the introduction of caste as a way of seeing that has thrown the field wide open to understanding history and politics beyond the framework of religion. 

In a similar vein, the history of the erstwhile Hyderabad-Deccan state, for long trapped within the narrative of ‘feudal, Islamic state where Hindus were oppressed’, can also be unsettled by talking about caste, or more specifically, caste reforms undertaken by the Arya Samaj. Given that a new wave of communalising the society is underway – accusing politicians of being Razakars (paramilitary volunteer force) or collaborating with Razakars and terming September 17 as ‘Hyderabad Liberation Day’ – this effort to unsettle the idea of the Hindu-Muslim binary acquires greater urgency. 

A brief history of the Arya Samaj

Popular narratives about Hyderabad’s, or indeed even of India’s, past often presume that Hindus and Muslims have been distinct and timeless categories, as monolithic blocks of people, undifferentiated by caste, class, region, etc. Both lived experience and critical social sciences scholarship have challenged this perception, although not to much avail. Nevertheless, let’s look at how the narrative of an ‘oppressed’ monolithic Hindu community in Hyderabad-Deccan came to circulate so widely.

One entity responsible for the creation and circulation of this narrative both within and outside Hyderabad-Deccan was the Arya Samaj. Its work received appreciation from leading Congressmen such as MS Aney who stated that the organisation was “an effective antidote against Tabligh and other conversion propaganda carried on by the Mohmedens through open or secret agencies”. The organisation’s initial set of activities revolved around instituting caste reforms, particularly among lower castes in the state. But to understand the organisation’s larger worldview, which also influenced how it made sense of society and politics in Hyderabad-Deccan, we need to look at its history outside the state.  

In his work on the Arya Samaj in Gujarat, historian David Hardiman showed that the shuddhi (purification) rituals undertaken by the organisation began partly as a result of the decennial census that started in 1872. Over the years, it became part of an evolving ‘Hindu common sense’ that their religion was under threat because of conversions out of Hinduism. Although a large part of its activities focussed on countering Christian proselytisation, the fear of the ‘aggressive Muslim’ figure was also an important element in its worldview. According to historian Kenneth W Jones, many of Arya Samaj’s reconversions in the Punjab were from Islam. This worked to turn the Arya Samajis against Muslims, thereby reinforcing existing communal divisions. One strand of Arya Samaj’s political discourse, headed by Pandit Lekh Ram, was virulently anti-Islamic and claimed that the religion’s rise in India had been “a bloody tale of slaughter and destruction”.

While the work of Arya Samaj was supported and funded by Brahmin and Baniya castes, its sphere of activity was also among lower and untouchable castes, whom they ‘purified’ through shuddhi rituals. In Hyderabad-Deccan, these reforms led to an increasing number of lower castes identifying themselves as belonging to the Hindu fold. One such individual whose life was dramatically transformed after his encounter with the Arya Samaj was Vidhyadhar Guruji.

The story of an Arya Samaji

In Hyderabad, Karnataka, Vidhyadhar Guruji was well-respected as a freedom fighter and has been one of the most cited figures in local and regional histories of ‘freedom struggle’ in Hyderabad, Karnataka. At the time of my interview with him in 2017, he was 104 years old and his hearing was failing. Yet his recollections of the early years of his life and his participation in the ‘freedom struggle’ were sharp and full of details.

The late Vidhyadhar Guruji at his home in Gulbarga in 2017
The late Vidhyadhar Guruji at his home in Gulbarga in 2017 Swathi Shivanand

Originally named Bhikshappa, Guruji’s initiation into Arya Samaj began when a friend introduced him to an itinerant Arya Samajist. Until then, Guruji had not felt any interest in religion and was even sceptical of the saffron clad swamis. “My friend introduced me to Swami Ramji saying I was a good student and I was from the dhobi samaj. The swami told my friend don’t say dhobi, he is the son of vashisht kula. Yeh kapde nahin dhoega. Yeh Aadmiyon ko dhoyega. (He will not wash clothes. He will wash people.) That changed me completely…I began to learn all mantras and havan (fire ritual). I would gather all the young people in my mohalla and teach them these mantras. I taught people to read and write,” he said. 

A large part of the attraction of the Arya Samaj for young men from lower castes was the possibility of a new and better status that they could access with their initiation. The incorporation of anti-Brahmanical traditions attracted the Jats to the Arya Samaj in the Punjab and many began to claim Kshatriya status, noted historian Nonica Datta. For Guruji too, it was his being incorporated into and elevated in the caste order (vashishta kula) that propelled his immersion in the Samaj’s activities. Guruji went on to receive the Arya Samaj deeksha, began wearing janeu, and underwent a naming ceremony to change his name from Bhikshappa to Vidhyadhar. This act of changing names was another important means of achieving respectability. Guruji himself began to initiate name changes for many that he encountered in his travels as an Arya Samaj minister. 

In his initial travels, Guruji spoke of eradicating untouchability and the need for temple entry and interdining programmes. But, by the 1930s, the Arya Samaj had introduced the idea of forced conversions in Hyderabad-Deccan as well, as it had in other regions in the north. Guruji also followed suit, resisting these ‘conversions’. His tours in villages began to include making people aware of how the Muslim state was promoting forced conversions. “We would focus on the innocent Hindus and make them aware and protect them from becoming Muslims. We would teach them Gayatri Mantra. Wherever they would convert Hindus to Muslims, we would reconvert them,” he said.

The closeness between the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, led by Bahadur Yar Jung, and the Dalit leader B Shyamsundar was a point of concern for the Arya Samaj. Guruji alleged that they threatened, coerced, and bribed people, particularly from lowered castes, to convert to Islam. “These harijans used to be petty criminals before but now that they had turned Muslim, they had the protection of the state. If they committed any crime, the police would not do anything. They had managed to get quite some money out of these crimes,” he alleged.

Another point of concern was the growing popularity of a sect headed by Deendar Chennabaseshwar Siddiqui who claimed affinity between Lingayats and Muslims. “This man had a trishul tattooed on his chest and declared himself an avatar of Lord Chennabasaveshwara. His disciples would recite Basaveshwara’s vachanas. All the Lingayats, their innocent women, would view them with devotion, and began to consider them their gurus. But this was a conspiracy to convert the upper-caste Lingayats to Islam. It was easy for them to convert people who were at the lower end of the caste system. But this was their way of converting even the upper-castes,” Guruji stated. 

The Deendar sect was also threatening in another way — it claimed that the two distinct religions of Hinduism and Islam could exist as one faith. The central premise of purity that informed the Arya Samaj was thus unsettled. 

The Police Action

What started off as a way to achieve respectability within a Brahaminical caste order had by the 1940s turned individuals like Guruji into soldiers defending the Hindu order against a Muslim state. In the early 1940s, Guruji had to leave Hyderabad to escape arrest since a warrant had been issued against him. At Sholapur in Bombay Presidency, which lay just outside the borders of Hyderabad-Deccan, he became part of an unofficial army that attacked properties of the Nizam state. In this, they were supported by the local Collector and well-off traders who offered them protection, shelter, and food. These attacks and counter-attacks had the effect of creating a narrative of collapse of law and order, a rationale offered by the Indian Union to annex Hyderabad under the cover of Police Action.

The Arya Samaj was one among several organisations that worked together to create the image of a communal Muslim state that ‘oppressed’ Hindus in Hyderabad-Deccan in the period between the 1930s and 1940s. Close relations existed between the Samaj, Hyderabad State Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha who shared a common antipathy against the Asaf Jahi state. But focussing only on the politics of these organisations does not give us a sense of how they were able to undertake social mobilisation. Guruji may have started off with the Arya Samaj where he was attracted to the possibilities of higher social status and took to it zealously. But, like many others, he transitioned to the Indian National Congress after Hyderabad-Deccan’s annexation, revealing how closely the Hindu Right and local Congress worked in the princely state. 

The politics of forgetting

If the narrative of Muslim oppression of Hindus in Hyderabad-Deccan continues to hold salience even now, it is because of this shared consensus among political actors. But oral histories have a way of upturning dominant complicities. When I asked Guruji about the violence faced by Muslims of the region during and after the Police Action, he did not hesitate to admit that it indeed took place. “Hindus wanted to take revenge for what had happened to them. I did not think this was right. After Military action, I stayed back for six months (in Sholapur). Whenever some leader from outside would come, there would be some juloos (procession) with a lot of celebration. At that time, all these goondas would loot Muslims. That is why I didn’t come back quickly. I did not want this bad reputation attached to me,” he said.

Why then has this not become part of the historical common sense? A perusal of state and district gazetteers also reveal no mention of the post Police Action violence. Instead, the Arya Samaj and its leaders are considered as freedom fighters. In this politics of forgetting, it is not only the violence against Muslims that is erased, but also how the Hindu as a monolithic bloc was deliberately created to dislodge a princely regime.

Swathi Shivanand teaches at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. She is also a founding member of the Khidki Collective.

The Khidki Collective is a network of scholars committed to building public dialogue on history, politics, and culture.

This series has been curated by Yamini Krishna, Swathi Shivanand, and Pramod Mandade of the collective.

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