ON 1 SEPTEMBER 1948, Nizam Osman Ali’s state cavalry leads a langar procession through the streets of Hyderabad, two weeks before the princely state was invaded by the Indian armed forces.
The langar procession was an annual pageant instituted in the seventeenth century by Hyat Bakshi Begum. It was held on the fifth day of Muharram—the traditional period of mourning for the battle of Karbala would begin only after a festive parade of elephants, camels and horses ridden by officials and soldiers, followed by a feast.
At the time, Osman Ali was the richest man in the world and the most powerful Indian prince. He refused to sign the instrument of accession that would make Hyderabad part of India, preferring to retain his autonomy. However, a series of peasant uprisings against the exploitative land and labour regime in the state, which were repressed brutally by the Razakars—a militia loyal to the Nizam—provided the nascent Indian state a casus belli to invade.
Between 13 and 18 September 1948, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government launched Operation Polo, a full-scale invasion it misleadingly termed a “police action.” Although initial reports stated that there had not been any significant civilian casualties, a three-member government delegation under Pandit Sundarlal estimated that between 27,000 and 40,000 people lost their lives during the invasion, which included mass looting, rape and arson.
The Sundarlal report also noted that anti-Muslim sentiments underpinned the invasion. The violence against civilians was not restricted to the Razakars, it stated. In many areas, soldiers of the Indian army instigated and participated in violence against Muslims that was carried out by Hindu communal organisations following in its wake.