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, and add nuance to the mainstream narrative of Hyderabad’s integration as ‘liberation’, a narrative currently used to further divisive politics.
In 1978, the Maharashtra state assembly passed a resolution to rename the Marathwada University at Aurangabad after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, triggering widespread violence across Marathwada against Dalits by those who opposed the renaming. The magnitude and severity of the violence that erupted during the Namantar (name change) movement brought back memories of violence against Muslims during the Police Action of 1948. These memories resurfaced in the narratives of the Dalit victims of the Namantar riots. At the same time, the freedom fighters (those who fought against Nizams for integration) and the caste Hindu groups who led the charge against the renaming of the university, invoked the figure of the ‘Dalit Razakars’.
They justified the violence meted out against Dalits by asserting that Dalits were against the integration of the Hyderabad Princely State. Additionally, the propaganda material that was in circulation at the time also falsely alleged that Ambedkar backed the demand for an Azad Hyderabad. This was far from the truth, although the fight for Azad Hyderabad was endorsed by charismatic Dalit leaders like Shyam Sundar.
Why was it endorsed, what were the alliances across minority groups that were attempted and how did they perceive the imminent threat of Hindu majoritarianism forged in the Hyderabad state? To understand this, we need to revisit Dalit politics in the decades before Police Action and the ways in which it sought to articulate its own stand.
In the 1920s, the cause of social reform in Hyderabad was largely led by the Arya Samaj. The newly educated Dalit youth were deeply dissatisfied with the pace and nature of these reforms. Their attention was drawn to the debates over political representation during the Poona Pact and Ambedkar’s robust assertions. Ambedkar had also started expanding his presence beyond the Bombay province. In 1936, Ambedkar invited young Dalit activists to an 'Untouchable Youth Conference' in Poona. BS Venkatrao, PR Venkatrao, Arigye Ramswami, and several others attended the conference, which had a deep impact on them and soon after their return to Hyderabad, they founded the Youth League of Ambedkarites to support Dr Ambedkar in his mission.
In 1938, Hyderabad witnessed heightened political activity as Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha, and State Congress organised satyagraha movements. Recognising the need for political mobilisation, Dalit activists transformed the Youth League of Ambedkarites into the Depressed Classes Association (DCA). DCA actively engaged in politics and emerged as a significant political force closely following the footsteps of Babasaheb Ambedkar. In an important development, Ambedkar and Jinnah joined forces to celebrate the resignation of Congress provincial governments as 'Deliverance Day' in 1939. In Hyderabad, Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) and DCA collaborated to organize a public meeting to celebrate Deliverance Day marking the beginning of DCA's engagement with Muslim politics.
One of the core principles that guided Ambedkar's political stance was his resistance to the assimilationist approach of Gandhi and Congress (predominantly the caste Hindu position) and building an autonomous identity and politics for the Dalits. Even as he received support from the Non-Brahmin movement and the colonial government, Ambedkar faced grave challenges in maintaining his position, especially in the context of partition, and the transfer of power. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay referred to this challenge as the 'crisis in Dalit politics', which was further compounded by the Scheduled Caste Federation's debacle in the 1946 election. Ambedkar resorted to agitation to respond to this crisis, he condemned the Poona Pact and returned to his demand for separate electorates along with the demand for separate settlements. Concurrently, he sought to internationalise the Dalit question by reaching out to Churchill and WEB Du Bois, although he was later forced to enter into a compromise with Congress. All of Ambedkar's efforts were geared towards securing political safeguards for the Dalits.
Shyam Sundar and activists of DCA were keenly observing the political developments in British India and sought connections for their own contexts in Hyderabad. The absence of non-Brahmin political assertion was an important peculiarity of Hyderabad state politics, that helped caste Hindus to present themselves as a seemingly homogeneous and united bloc. Both Muslims and Dalits were fearful of this Hindu majority. On the other hand, DCA activists felt that caste Hindus were not serious in their efforts towards the upliftment of depressed classes, and were merely paying lip service on the issue of removal of untouchability, while Dalits were demanding more political and economic rights. In 1947, Hyderabad State Congress started talking about the temple entry movement, which the DCA found difficult to relate to.
Sopanrao Dhanve, a DCA leader, recalled an incident from 1942, a day before the DCA conference in Parbhani, presided over by Shyam Sundar. During a visit to a Muslim-owned tea shop, the shop owner recognised one of the activists as a Dalit and not only charged them for the tea but also requested separate cups, deeming the Dalit cup ‘impure.’ Dhanve recounted this incident during his conference speech the next day, highlighting that both Muslims and Hindus practiced untouchability. In response to Dhanve’s speech, MIM activists vandalised the Muslim-owned hotel. This incident was prominently covered in MIM’s newspaper (Gaikwad, 1990), contributing further to the perception that Muslims supported the Dalit struggle for emancipation.
Shyam Sundar, BS Venkatrao, and DCA activists felt that the integration of Hyderabad Princely state signaled the onset of Hindu rule. They perceived greater opportunities for the welfare of Dalits in an independent Hyderabad state than in the Indian union. Shyam Sundar clarifies his support for Azad Hyderabad in his speech, saying, "We are cooperating with Muslims for political purposes. It does not mean that we are accepting Islam. Religious conversion will not change the social condition of the untouchable…We are trying to create resources for Dalits "(Gaikwad, 1990). The Razakars and MIM also supported the DCA's demand for separate electorates.
The Nizam readily responded to DCA’s welfare demands, passing a series of laws to gain the confidence of depressed classes, like the Bhagela Act to legally abolish the bondage and enslavement of untouchables, the removal of Social Disability Act, the Temple Entry Authorisation Act. In 1944, Gairaan (wasteland) was distributed among landless Dalits, and special schools and hostels were also established. Due to the efforts of Shyam Sundar and BS Venkatrao, in April 1947, the Nizam created a one crore rupee fund for the welfare of the Depressed Classes.
However, differences arose between Ambedkar and the DCA regarding the future of the Princely State. While the DCA was inclined toward independence or autonomy of the Hyderabad State, Ambedkar realised the impossibility of such a future. He gave multiple statements against Azad Hyderabad, which the state Congress widely circulated as propaganda.
Ambedkar’s ardent followers formed a new organisation, the Hyderabad State Scheduled Castes Federation (HSSCF), to cooperate with the state Congress and oppose Azad Hyderabad. On the other hand, DCA leader BS Venkatrao became a minister in the Hyderabad government, and Shyam Sundar was a member of a delegation that the Nizam sent to the United Nations against integration. After military action along with Muslims, Dalits were also punished for their participation in the Azad Hyderabad mobilisation. The Razakar became a foul word, and people associated with them were condemned and vilified. Both the leaders, Shyam Sundar and BS Venkatrao were arrested. PR. Venkatswamy, in his autobiographical book, 'Our Struggle for Emancipation', describes the sufferings endured by Dalits and Muslims, he writes, "The political bungling of the power-intoxicated Razakar leaders resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Muslims and Depressed Classes. The districts of Parbhani, Nanded, Aurangabad, and Bidar were the worst affected where much innocent blood was shed." (p. 518)
Several complaints reached Ambedkar regarding violence against Dalits during the Police Action, following which Ambedkar addressed a letter to the military administrator JN Choudhary and clarified that not all Dalits were Razakars. The members of the Scheduled Caste Federation were his followers and he must ensure that they would not be punished. (Narwade, 2011. p.74).
Both Ambedkar and Shyam Sunder feared the ‘tyranny of the Hindu majority’ and tried to negotiate it in different ways. Ambedkar tried hard to build autonomous politics for Dalits, with separate electorates and settlements as strategies to achieve this autonomy. Subsequent post-Ambedkarite Dalit politics tended to exploit caste divisions but rarely attempted to forge alliances with other minority groups.
Even after integration, Shyam Sundar persisted with his earlier politics against the domination of caste Hindus and tried to build a federation of the minorities. He understood that the partition of India had altered the position of Muslims in Indian politics. Despite this shift, he continued to seek alliances with different minority groups. His address given to Muslims in 1970 reflects this stance clearly
“The Muslims in India today are no better than the untouchables of yesterday. If I am bold enough to utter a bitter truth, I can say without any fear of contradiction, ‘if I belong to the untouchables of yesterday, you are heading to become the untouchable of tomorrow.’ You must bear this political reality in mind, notwithstanding any professions and wishful thinking to the contrary” (Bathula, 2006).
There was a profound understanding in Shyam Sundar’s articulation that ‘Hindu rule’ is going to be fatal for all minorities. He proposed multiple ways to evade the dominance of caste Hindus such as the formation of the federation of Minorities, demanding proportional representation based on multi-member constituencies and cumulative voting, or asking for the redrawing of state boundaries in a manner that would ensure the significance of the minorities. His slogan “Aqliyatoun ka Nara Hindustan Hamara” captures this political sentiment.
The label of ‘Razakar’ never left Shyam Sundar and eventually contributed to his ‘convenient’ marginalisation and forgetting. Given the absence of a comprehensive account of his politics and life, we are compelled to piece together the impact of Shyam Sundar’s politics in sporadic references.
A follower of Shyam Sundar, whom I met in Bidar, emphatically stated in a meeting, “The world may forget him but the Dalits of erstwhile Hyderabad won't. We wear Ambedkar’s coat but never forget to keep the photo of Shyam Sundar in our pocket, the one that is close to our hearts.” Shyam Sundar died in 1975, leaving no possessions or property behind except for a Sherwani and some books. The Sherwani was the dress code of Osmania University and an embodiment of the modernity that it sought to offer.
Pramod Mandade is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in sociology from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay.
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.